Even for an experienced equipment tester helmets are an inherently difficult thing to review. Despite their many and varied design features helmets are really there for one obvious reason, to protect your head from the type of serious impact you ideally want to avoid. So their is always a certain guilt associated with commenting on the features of a product whose primary purpose I haven’t personally tested (yet anyway!).
Conveniently in Europe all helmets must comply with a plethora of safety standards before they can be sold for climbing or skiing. So given this, one can quite reasonably assume that appropriately certified helmets are up to the task they are intended for in terms of safety. Fortunately, this largely negates the need to put ones own head in the line of fire for testing purposes, with I personally appreciate! So given that, how do you differentiate between the numerous competing helmet designs on the market?
Lets take a look at some key criterion and see how the Black Diamond Vapour helmet stacks up.
In Alpine Climbing weight is more often than not the most important feature of any piece of equipment. Occasionally, slightly heavier gear offers a more than proportional increase in performance and so this is not the case and the extra weight can be justified. But where a piece of equipment is binary, in the sense that it either does what it needs to or it doesn’t, the best choice is almost always the one that does the job for the least weight.
Weighing in at 186g for the S/M size and 199g for the M/L, the Black Diamond Vapour sits comfortably at the lightweight end of the climbing helmet spectrum. Unlike some other brands with offerings at this extreme end of the lightweight helmet market, the BD Vapour has a polycarbonate shell in addition to its EPS moulded foam core. I quite like this feature but how much extra protection or durability this really offers is debatable and requires a look at the bigger picture of light weight helmet durability.
First you need to appreciate that all of the ultra light weight moulded EPS foam helmets on the market are exactly that, ultralight products. They meet the helmet safety standards and so it’s therefore reasonable to assume that the helmet will perform as intended. As with any light weight product though, you must manage your expectations of its all around durability. In a climbing helmet context ‘perform as intended’ roughly equates to being able to withstand the impact of a falling object from above, to the top of the head.
While there is clearly some pretty impressive engineering that allows these featherweight foam helmets to meet such rigorous standards, it does not mean they are indestructible. If you put the helmet in your rucksack and sit on it for example, it’s unlikely to survive. Similarly, it is key to understand that like a bicycle helmet these types of helmets should be considered ‘one hit wonders’. The ability of light weight EPS foam to absorb the force of a significant impact is extremely impressive but realistically comes at the cost of withstanding multiple impacts in a row.
In the event of a hard hit, the foam is usually destroyed in the process of absorbing all that energy from such an impact. This is a good thing and ultimately is what saves your skull, but after a significant strike the helmet will certainly need to be replaced. In situations where another rock might be coming your way soon, this can mean that retreating out of the line of fire is the only sensible option, as you effectively have no helmet left. Ultimately this is part of the price you pay for weight savings and it’s not such a bad thing. It’s simply something you have to understand and accept when using these high performance light weight products.
Despite these complexities of nuances of lightweight helmet durability, I do still like the polycarbonate shell on the Vapour. My instinct is that it will be a little bit more durable in the long run with this feature, but only time will tell. Moving away from the grey area of durability, the polycarbonate shell has the benefit of making life much easier for those looking to attach a camera mount to the helmet. For me this reason alone makes it worth the extra few grams of weight, so any added durability beyond this would be a bonus.
Comfort & Fit
Comfort of a helmet is clearly one of the most important points to consider after safety. First of all if a helmet is uncomfortable it can drive you crazy, as you waste time faffing around to try and make it fit better. Beyond that if a helmet is not comfortable you’ll be less likely to wear it, so ultimately comfort also has a role to play in the overall safety benefit one gains from having a helmet in the first place.
As I see it the comfort of a helmet comes from a combination of its shape and the adjustable system of straps and buckles that keeps it in the correct position on your head. The shape of a helmet can be a difficult thing to ascertain empirically and thus can only be determined anecdotally, or by actually trying it on for yourself. I find most helmets can be loosely described as suiting people with more oval or round shaped heads. This is far from a perfect science and the best and only way, to really know if a helmet fits you well, is to try it on and feel it for yourself. For the benefit of those who might not have access to a BD Vapour but are considering ordering one, I would say it seems to favour those with more of an oval shaped head. That is just my opinion though, so check the exchange policy and try it for yourself!
When it comes to the straps and adjustment system I was pleasantly surprised by the Vapour. Often the comfort and functionality of these components ends up getting sacrificed out of necessity to reduce the weight of the helmet. After all you can only remove so much of the critical EPS foam that makes up the helmets structure, if you are to retain any hope of passing the strict certification tests.
Though visibly minimalist, the straps and circumference adjustment feature are surprisingly comfortable and functional. Simply pull the tabs to increase the size, pop it on your head and squeeze until comfortably tight. Clip and adjust the chin strap and you’re ready to go. It’s a good system that works, is comfortable and is very light weight so there is not much more to say other than that.
Yet another big contributor to the overall comfort of a good helmet is ventilation. On a hot summer day the benefits of this need little explanation. But it is perhaps under appreciated that good helmet airflow is really essential at any time of year. Even in the depths of winter, high levels of activity produce quite a lot of heat. Allowing heat to escape through your head is in practice a much more convenient way to regulate temperature that constantly changing clothing layers. This is especially true if you are wearing a climbing harness.
Take a quick look at the Vapour and right away it’s clear that BD have intentionally engineered as much airflow into this helmet as possible. When you get the helmet on your head you don’t even feel like it’s there. In testing I honestly can’t remember a time when I felt like my head was too hot due to lack of airflow, or too cold for the opposite reason. Overall it’s a pretty impressive design with so much ventilation that it does kind of make you wonder how the Vapour is able to pass the certification tests. Impressive stuff.
Like most modern climbing helmets the Vapour comes equipped with small clips to allow you to attach a head torch. For early Alpine starts, late Alpine finishes and the occasional epic which results in you becoming benighted, this feature is essential. Essential thought it may be, head torch clips are not exactly a new innovation and feature on the vast majority of climbing helmets on the market.
What is new and rather interesting with the Vapour is that these clips are removable, which is quite an interesting concept. BD suggest the idea behind this feature is removing the clips to avoid catching on slings and clothing. I think this is quite a good, idea that many people might really like.
For me personally I probably won’t remove them very often, as there is usually a reasonable chance I might need to use a headtorch at some point. But regardless of that there is still a great benefit to be had from a helmet with removable headtorch clips. The clips are available as spare parts, meaning that if you break or lose one, it will be cheap and easy to source and fit a replacement. As a person who tends to destroy a lot of gear I think this is a great feature and a really good reason to go for the Vapour over other helmets out there.
When it comes to safety equipment like a helmet, the eternal dilemma designers face is that it’s protective functionality is something you need to have, but ultimately hope to never use. So making the perfect helmet is really about mastering the delicate balancing act between weight and functionality. As for the Vapour I would hesitate to say anything is perfect, but it certainly can’t be far off. For what it weighs it’s extremely functional, comfortable and user friendly. I’m certainly not looking forward to the next major impact to my cranium, but when the inevitable does come i’ll be happy to be wearing a Black Diamond Vapour.