One word came to mind when I heard that Petzl had designed a helmet for women to pop a ponytail out of the back: Finally!
I have a LOT of hair. And I have messed with helmets of all sizes for all purposes, always ending the day with a half-unwoven braid, a clump of hair in my mouth and an even bigger clump caught in my jacket zipper. I considered helmet designs with little bulges in the back to protect a ponytail. For a few seasons I submitted to looking like Pippi Longstocking with braided pigtails. I even thought about using my helmet woes as an excuse to shave my head. Luckily it didn’t have to come to that.
Petzl’s Elia helmet is truly a piece of equipment designed specifically for women. I have bought “women’s” gear before, only to put it on and wonder, did a woman ever even try this on before it made it to the shelf? This helmet offers women-specific features that suggest it may have even been designed by a real she-climber (or at least a man on good terms with his feminine side).
Besides just the brilliant and long-overdue breakthrough of the ponytail adaptation, the Elia has a women’s noggin circumference, a lightweight design with even weight distribution and slim webbing straps to fit around smaller faces. It’s light enough and sleek enough that I don’t feel like a bobble-head doll with it on, but–being CE- and UIAA-certified–it had ample protection in every test I put it to: ice fall while belaying below a free-hanging ice column; pebbles (and even golf balls) from above in Boulder Canyon; a raging downpour rappelling into a Moab slot canyon through a massive waterfall. In each one of these scenarios, I felt more than confident in Elia’s ability to protect my dome.
I had no problems seamlessly transitioning this helmet from winter to summer climbing. The Elia is set up so you can adjust the headband every time you put it on and take it off, with one button on each side of the helmet that is easy to navigate with gloves or wet hands. This is a huge step up from turning a hard-to-reach dial at the back of the helmet or having to clip and un-clip little plastic tabs, and makes it super easy to swap your beanie for your baseball cap and refit the helmet within seconds. However, Petzl only offers this helmet in one size, so if you have an especially large dome (>58cm in diameter), you should chop off your ponytail or find a different helmet.
Reviewer Claire Hay and her hand-painted Elia in Ouray. [Photo] Brandon Koch
Padding is wisely limited to the forehead and a few pads protecting the top of your head, which leads to fewer pressure points and very little water retention in a downpour, plus the pads are removable and washable. The headlamp clips are low-profile and attractive, but can be so tight that you might need a buddy to help you liberate your light source at the end of the day (though, I’d rather that than a migrating headlamp). Unfortunately the Elia is not compatible with Petzl’s Vizion face shield, which is a bummer, but it does sit high enough that I was able to wear both ski goggles and safety glasses without having them bumped or knocked around.
Several sleek-looking vents keep you from getting too sweaty, and give the helmet a feminine vibe without resorting to any of those shiny swirls that seem to be ubiquitous among women’s outdoor gear. In fact, the vents are so sleek-looking, I used them as inspiration to transform my helmet into a work of art. At least I’ll know it’s mine once all my friends start showing up with this helmet on, which is bound to happen thanks to its adjustability, durability, comfort and, of course, the ponytail hole.
Pros: Very adjustable; well-ventilated; accommodates ponytails; lightweight; slim webbing straps.
Cons: Not face shield-compatible; tight headlamp clips; only available in one-size-fits-most.
[Photo] Claire Hay