Have you ever walked into a local bike shop on a mission to buy a new helmet and gotten overwhelmed by the seemingly endless options available? Seriously, some bike shops in North Texas have entire walls dedicated to displaying dozens of different helmets, all of which promise to offer superior protection for your melon. How in the world do you decide which one is best for you?
First of all, let’s establish one basic fact. All helmets sold in the United States must pass the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s certification test and bear a CPSC label. This means that even the cheapest helmet you buy at Walmart will meet CPSC’s minimum standards. Practically, this means that an inexpensive helmet might be good enough for an absolute beginner who is going to mainly ride greenbelts and very tame beginner-level trails. The CPSC standard uses a drop test of 2 meters onto a flat surface, and 1.2 meters onto a hemispheric, curbstone surface.
As you can imagine, CPSC’s minimum standard will not hold up to any sort of impact during more aggressive riding. Just picture a cheapo helmet that just clears the above minimum standard surviving an impact by a rider who goes over the bars in the middle of a rock descent at high speed. In addition, with the advent of e-bikes, the jury is still out on whether a helmet that meets minimum standards is good enough. Bicycle helmets do not meet the DOT standard, which means they should never be used for motorized riding of any kind.
So, how do you pick the best helmet for you? Here’s what you need to know.
The obvious first step is to determine your budget. How much can you spend? How much are you willing to spend? If you’ve spent any time at all looking at helmet options, you know that good helmets start around $45 (without MIPS) to $60 (with MIPS) and can range from there up to several hundred dollars. Our advice is to figure out how much you’re willing to spend. This will naturally limit your options to an extent.
Next is to determine what type of cyclist you are. We’re assuming that most of you reading this are mountain bikers, so it stands to reason that you should be looking for a mountain bike helmet. Road bike helmets don’t offer as much coverage and therefore less protection than a mountain bike helmet. A typical half shell style MTB helmet extends lower on the sides and back of the head. For most mountain bikers, a half shell helmet is all you’ll ever need. However, if you sometimes visit downhill parks, or ride trails with some seriously gnarly downhill sections, you’ll want to consider a full face downhill helmet. Also, if you’re a very aggressive rider, you may also want to consider a full face helmet.
We mentioned MIPS above, but what is it? MIPS is short for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. MIPS helmets are designed with a slip-plane liner integrated between the impact foam and pads within a helmet. The science behind MIPS says that the liner shifts upon impact which reduces rotational forces on the brain which reduces the chances of concussion or brain trauma. The jury is still out whether or not MIPS-equipped helmets truly prevent more serious injuries, and only time will tell if it’s worth the money or not. Our take? If you’ve got the money in the budget for a MIPS-equipped helmet, why not spend the extra? Any added layer of protection for your melon is a good thing. Click here to learn more about MIPS technology.
If you’re going to spend a significant amount of money on a helmet that’s mean to help prevent serious brain injury, then make sure you spend the time to find one that fits properly. The truth is that an improperly sized helmet can be just as dangerous (if not more dangerous) than riding without a helmet at all. Here’s what to look for in a helmet fit:
- The interior of the helmet should contact your entire head.
- The helmet should sit level on your head.
- The helmet should not interfere with your vision.
- The helmet should fit snugly without feeling too tight.
- The straps should be tight enough that it does not move more than an inch when fastened. (You can test this by attempting to fit your index and second finger under the straps beneath your chin.)
Most modern helmets not only have adjustable-length straps, but also a dial available at the back of the helmet to tighten or loosen against your head. More expensive helmets may also offer additional adjustments. The main point here is to find a helmet that is not only comfortable and fits well, but one that can also be snugged up against your cranium properly. Try a helmet on by getting it level where it sits just above your brow, strap it on, and then reach back and turn the dial to ratchet it down. It should feel snug without causing pain or discomfort.
In our hot, Texas summers, getting a helmet with as much ventilation as possible seems like a no-brainer. However, more vents are not always better. Why? Because the more numerous the air vents, or the larger the vents, the less your helmet can protect your head in a crash. Some manufacturers offer more vents by trading off the thickness of the foam—more vents means a thicker helmet, and thicker helmets tend to hold more heat. In addition, thicker foam or helmet reinforcements can actually transmit greater g-forces to your head on impact.
Do you wear glasses or goggles while you ride? Take them with you when you try on helmets at the store. A helmet might feel great until you put on your riding glasses. Same thing goes if you wear a sweat band of some sort. If your head is in between helmet sizes, that thin little strip of fabric can make a huge difference in comfort and fit. Also, do you want a helmet that allows for mounting a light or a POV camera? Some helmets come mount-ready, but most don’t. If you want to ride with some tech atop your melon, make sure your helmet can accommodate it somehow. Finally, pretty much all helmets come with a visor. Check it out and see if it’s durable and replaceable.
Last of all, does the helmet look good? Some MTBers simply don’t care about how they look on the trail, they just want to shred. Others want something that matches their kit, or their socks, or their frame, or their pedals, or their….you get the idea. The sky is the limit for style and colors nowadays, just don’t get caught up spending too much money in your attempt to match your grips to your helmet.
Have fun, ride smart, and keep shredding!