I’ll just come out and say it: I hate helmets. I hate wearing them, I hate carrying them. The straps always irritate my skin and I end up with weird tan lines and a rash. I have helmets for everything: for climbing, for biking, for riding horses, for riding motorcycles, for riding snowmobiles…it’s exhausting, and takes up a lot of space on my gear shelf. I admit it: there are times in which I just can’t take it anymore and don’t wear my helmet. Those times are limited to particular instances in which I judge the risk of a helmetless head to be acceptable, and this unfortunately isn’t all that common so I’m usually stuck wearing a helmet.

My climbing helmet has irritated me to no end since the day I bought it. It’s got the worst possible size adjustment system; a huge VELCRO STRAP across the back. Velcro. Velcro on a helmet, which is meant to go on your head, which is where your hair is. Ugh! That led to many ponytail emergencies, and lots of cussing.

Dealing with that stupid helmet has been the bane of my climbing life. That manufacturer (not Petzl) isn’t making that helmet anymore in that style so I won’t out them on the site – they saw the problem, they fixed it, I guess there’s something to be said for that, but I guarantee they didn’t have any women on their design team or they never would have gone the velcro route at all. Still, I didn’t see anything out there that was a whole lot better besides having a different size adjustment system, so I kept my helmet and silently hated it, for years.

Then along came Petzl with the ELIA, their offering to the women’s helmet market. What women’s helmet market? That’s right, this is the only women’s-specific climbing helmet on the market as far as I know. I’m pretty amazed at that but now that I’m thinking about it, all my other helmets are really just smaller versions of men’s helmets, with different color schemes. This could be why I hate my helmets so, so much. I didn’t think there was a gear category with more limited selection than women’s technical mountaineering footwear, but helmets have that section beat now. And Petzl has set the bar high (thankfully).

I took the ELIA along with me to Ouray last week for a few days on the ice. Immediately I could feel the difference. I got kitted up at my car and hiked down to the canyon, when I thought “oh no, forgot my helmet!” while reflexively tapping myself on the head to check (sounds stupid, but you’d do it too, so there). To my surprise the helmet was indeed on my head. I just couldn’t feel it (it’s super lightweight) nor could I see it (it’s low profile so doesn’t impede your vision) and there was no uncomfortable harness nearly strangling me every time I turned my head. Unbelievable! I was even wearing two hats (it was extremely cold) and the ELIA fit just fine. It never shifted or rubbed, and was an absolute pleasure after dealing with my original helmet all those years. I was never in a hurry to take the ELIA off at the end of the day because it was so comfortable I couldn’t even tell it was there. It’s properly sized to my head and padded nicely, something I thought couldn’t be done with climbing helmets (an assumption made because all other climbing helmets I tried were padded like crap). I had no trouble looking around while climbing and the helmet didn’t impede me at all, unlike others which were so big that I’d end up with my head jammed against the ice or rock, trying to look around.

I really appreciate that the ELIA comes in cool colors like grey and white. I ended up with grey and you all know how much I like grey. All I need is grey pants now and I’ll be able to go head-to-toe neutral while standing next to my grey car. Grey’s always my default, who knows why. There’s a girly little detail in the venting, which is designed to look like a leafy vine but isn’t that noticeable so even haters of all girly things can live with that, I’d think. One feature lauded by other reviewers is the design of the harness, which curves up in the back to make space for a ponytail. I’m currently growing out my hair from an ill-advised chop-off experiment, so I wasn’t able to give the ponytail part a try, but I see the advantages. At first I thought I wouldn’t like that, because I like to jam my ponytail through my helmet harnesses to hold them in place, but the ELIA doesn’t need that extra bit of wedging – a testament to the women’s-specific design. I always wondered how guys with short hair kept their helmets in place and now I know; it’s because their helmets are actually made to the shape of their heads. Imagine that.

I’ll go ahead and predict that we’re going to see the ELIA on the heads of many female climbers in seasons to come, if only because right now there are no other options if you want a female-specific helmet. Petzl did such a nice job on this one that it will be tough for other helmets to come close, so I’ll also predict that few other manufacturers will bother making a women’s helmet, figuring that the women’s helmet market is covered. It’s aggravating, because that seems to happen with most technical products. There are maybe one or two options for women and then no one else bothers to try to compete. Listen up, manufacturers; this means that all the women out there are wearing your competitors’ boots (and now, helmets) because you don’t make them for us. So for those brands that have bothered to try – thank you, and thanks to Petzl because now I don’t hate my helmet when I go climbing. I highly recommend the ELIA and if you’re a dude, you might want to check out the ELIOS which is the dude version and is probably pretty good too.