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Crash Helmets and Cave Diving

Photo: Natalie Gibb

By Natalie Gibb

Cave divers are not the most fashionable bunch. By the time we’ve put on masks, shoved fins over our thick booties, and layered our arms with gauges, we look more like Michelin Men than elite athletes. What is perhaps the most controversial piece of cave diving gear is also the ugliest: the cave diving helmet. Pop a few lights on a kayak helmet, shove that sucker on over everything else, and boom – insta-dweeb. No one looks good in a helmet. Yet an increasing number of cave divers wear them, for a good reason.

No, cave diving helmets are not crash helmets! Unless being used for scooter diving in side mount, (when the smallest miscalculation could result in scalping oneself) cave diving helmets are not meant to protect a diver’s head – the caves would be in pretty poor condition if we swam around bonking our heads haphazardly into the ceiling. In modern cave diving, helmets are meant to hold lights when using a side mount equipment configuration.

I will be the first to admit that helmets are not necessary in side mount cave diving. They are completely superfluous in back mount configuration, in which all problems may be solved with one hand. However, when executing two-handed tasks such as removing a side mount tank or replacing a tank bungee, many side mount divers find it useful to have a temporary location to stow their primary light. Placing the light briefly on the helmet while solving a problem allows the diver to keep his workspace lit and to maintain clear visual contact with the line while attending to the task. When stowed properly on the helmet during two-handed tasks, the light doesn’t flash around, blind buddies, or create confusing light signals, as it might if held in the hand. Task loading is reduced by completely freeing up both hands. Even a goodman handle or glove-mounted light will hinder movement to some degree.

Cave diving helmets also help to streamline equipment configuration in side mount diving. In back mount, a diver’s back up lights are most commonly carried on the harness chest straps or in a thigh pockets. In side mount, a truly streamlined, tightly fit system will not allow for this placement. Lights stowed in thigh pockets will slightly offset the streamlining of the tanks and will be difficult to access when the tanks are tightly in trim. Back-up lights carried on the chest become a significant entanglement hazard in extremely small caves. And of course, stowing a back up light on the helmet means that a diver can immediately light his workspace in the event of a primary light failure with a simple push of a button or twist of the light head.

The ability to light one’s workspace while performing two-handed tasks is additionally helpful when engaging in advanced cave diving activities such as photography, survey, and cartography. Again, it’s absolutely possible to succeed at any of these activities without a helmet, but it’s so much easier to temporarily pop the primary light onto the helmet and record your data or review camera settings.

So helmets are fantastic, right? Well, sort of. Cave diving with a helmet does require some practice and technique. Like any other tool in cave diving, there’s a lot more to helmet use than is immediately apparent. It’s extremely easy to be an obnoxious helmet user or to use the helmet as a crutch to make up for poor dive skills. I certainly blinded more than my fair share of buddies before I learned to use the helmet correctly.

The first and most annoying of terrible helmet behaviours is putting the light on the helmet and looking directly at your dive buddies, instantly blinding them. I disagree with permanently attaching a primary light to the helmet in the first place, but even in this case, it’s simple enough to avoid blinding your buddies by shielding the light with one hand while facing them.

Even better, use a helmet mount that allows for the light to be quickly removed from the helmet. Mounts include the traditional c-clamp style sold with Light Monkey lights, as well as newer styles such as Dive Rite’s clever locking latch system, or Razor’s fabulous twist on/off method. I love these options because I believe that a helmet should be used only to temporarily stow the primary light while engaging in two handed tasks.

Leaving the light on the helmet for the entire dive means that the diver cannot properly signal with his light (at least not without head-banging), and reduces the diver’s ability to see far into the cave due to backscatter of particulate in the water. Any tiny movement of the diver’s head as he looks around the cave results in a dancing light beam more reminiscent of a 70’s disco than proper cave diving communication, and exhaled bubbles often pass through a helmet mounted light’s beam, making flickering light patterns that may be confused with a failing light or emergency light signals.

I prefer that my helmet-mounted back-up lights also be removable, for the same reasons that I like the primary light to be removable: to avoid blinding my buddies and for proper light management. It’s simple to drill a few holes in the helmet, run a bungee through them and stow the back-up lights in the bungee loop. I use bolt snaps to clip my back-up lights to an additional bungee loop on the back of my helmet so that they cannot be knocked off. To remove them, I turn the light on, unclip it and then pull it off from the back of the helmet. It’s quick, easy to remove and simple to stow. There are also commercially available brackets back-up lights to be removed from the helmet simply.

Light cable routing also requires some consideration. When a canister light’s head is stowed temporarily on the helmet, the light cable prevents the diver from passing his long hose over the helmet in an air-sharing scenario. The light must be removed from the helmet with the left hand during an air share, both in order for the long hose to pass cleanly over the donator’s head, and to avoid blinding an already stressed out-of-air buddy. It’s an extra (but simple) step to remove the light with the left hand while simultaneously passing the long hose over the head with the right hand, but the step must be practiced with the air share (s-drill) until it is second nature, and the light must be mounted on the left side of the helmet so that it may be accessed with the left hand.

Helmets also complicate otherwise simple dive tasks, such as switching to a back-up mask. The extra step of removing and holding the helmet while replacing the mask requires some thought and planning. My personal preference is to remove the helmet, clip the chinstrap, and hang the helmet from my left hand, while performing my mask swap with my right. The tricky part comes when replacing the helmet after the swap, as a diver must take care to avoid trapping his regulator hoses or bungee necklace underneath the chinstrap.

If you do decide to invest in a helmet, realize that not all helmets are created equally. There are quite a few characteristics to consider. The first is fit – the helmet needs to fit over your hood and mask strap. Neoprene mask straps add a considerable amount of bulk, as do hoods, so be sure to try on different sized helmets with your hood and mask in place. While it’s absolutely possible to create your own helmet, Light Monkey, Razor, and Dive Rite (among others) manufacturer helmets that work well for cave diving. If you are making your own helmet, be sure that it is relatively neutral in the water, and does not have foam or other buoyant material inside (like a bicycle helmet). You want the helmet to fit as closely to your head as is comfortable, and to be relatively neutrally buoyant.

I love my dorky, ugly helmet! I think that helmets are great tools for side mount cave diving, but I don’t use one when I dive in backmount for several reasons. I don’t need two hands to solve problems, and the helmet further restricts my ability to look forward as I am small and my head already hits the tanks in manifolded doubles. However, for survey, photography, and sidemount, my helmet makes my life easier. Any why make things more complicated than I have to?

Natalie Gibb Is a full cave instructor, explorer, and researcher based in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. She is a published author, international speaker, and cave conservationist. For more visit: Under The Jungle

3 Comments Leave A Reply

3 Responses to “Crash Helmets and Cave Diving”

  1. Frank A

    Thanks for the article, Natalie. Are there no commercially manufactured cave diving helmets that also protect against impact?


    • Mark Walter

      An older “dry” caving helmet, such as the Petzl Ecrin Roc will work great for this purpose. These helmets have a headband suspension system with no floaty foam like the newer helmets, but were designed for the impact protection necessary in rock climbing and vertical caving (e.g. a rock falling on your head from some height). I use my Ecrin Roc for sump diving, since it’s what’s already on my head for the trek through the cave to get to the sump. I just remove the Zebralight from the front and pop my backup dive lights into bungees on the side as one would with a cave diving bump helmet and I’m ready for underwater. The bad news is Petzl has not made this model since about 2008, so they are not that easy to source anymore. There are a few still available on eBay, etc. and I have a few new in box (new old stock) units I picked up from the estate of a former Petzl dealer who had passed away with lots of inventory in his garage.
      You can also try using a regular OSHA compliant hard hat, by just adding your own chin strap and maybe turning the headband backwards so the brim is in the back and not blocking your vision when in dive trim. These will also be impact rated.

  2. Igor Beades

    Natalie, creo que no tiene sentido afirmar que en sidemount necesitas usar dos manos pero no en dorsal. Uso ambas configuraciones y en general hago las mismas cosas con ambas manos (incluyendo cambios en buceo multimezcla o en estaciones), SPVs y vídeo; todo a la vez. Si necesito ambas manos (por ejemplo para escribir en la libreta) y no quiero usar el Goodman handle para no deslumbrar o llevo guantes gruesos al estilo europeo para poder coger la libreta y el cable a la vez (estilo campana), clipo la linterna en una D del pecho o simplemente paso el cable tras la nuca y la dejo colgando (esto suele ser más práctico con brazos cortos y linterna con test tube, como es mi caso) y mientras sujeto la libreta con la mano izquierda, escribo con la derecha. Y también uso ambas manos para re-estivar las botellas de deco: aparto el scooter con la mano derecha, mientras paso adelante la botella de etapa y cambio al bottom gas con ambas manos si no lo he hecho antes, luego doblo y meto la manguera bajo la goma y cuando está lista la paso al lado izquierdo y la cambio por el nuevo tanque… Todo ello con la linterna en mi mano izquierda y con un poco de práctica se logra no deslumbrar al compañero/s en absoluto y estar listo para señalizar cualquier incidencia o pedirles confirmación del cambio de mezcla…


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