Motorcycle Helmet Buyer’s Guide
When you buy a new motorcycle helmet, whether it cost a hundred or eight-hundred dollars, you should be confident that you chose the best helmet for your head within your budget, and not just for the rest of the day–for the rest of your helmet’s life.
Motorcycle Helmet Buyer’s Guide
It’s easy for first-time buyers and even fifth-time buyers to make mistakes when selecting a helmet, and when that happens, they are shopping again in six months. If you want to do less shopping and more happy riding, the first step to helmet buying is DON’T BUY A HELMET ONLINE. The second step is to learn to a few things about what makes a helmet right for you, so you’ll be in the driver’s seat when you shop. And of course, our experienced and knowledgeable gear experts are always right here at Road Rider to help you find the right fit, and to guide you through all the different helmet styles and features.
Above all else, keep in mind these three keys to helmet buying:
- It takes time to select the right helmet.
The best thing you can do to help ensure you’ll be happy with your choice further down the road is to try on a few different brands and styles, and spend some time wearing each one to get a sense of where it feels tight and where it feels loose.
Don’t rely on a measuring tape to find your helmet size. Head circumference is not the same as head shape, and your unique head might be wider, flatter, or narrower in one dimension and less so in another. We can help you identify good fits and bad ones, but with some experience trying on different helmets, you’ll be able to feel the difference yourself and be confident about your choice when you do select that most essential piece of safety gear.
- Focus in on the features and style that you want.
Once you get started trying on helmets, we’ll help you understand all the functions, features, and different helmet styles (see the “Styles” section at the bottom of this page). It may be really important to you that your helmet has excellent venting, channels in the cheek pads for your glasses, or has a drop-down sun shield. Maybe you want to try a modular helmet this time around. Whatever you’re looking for, identifying features will help you narrow down your choices.
- Make fit your #1 criterion.
Once you’ve decided what features you want in your helmet, it comes down to how your head feels inside the helmet. You’re going to wear it for hours at a time, so it has got to be comfortable. The importance of fit doesn’t stop there, though. A correct fit is a safe fit, so if it’s the wrong size or the wrong shape for your head, you’re wasting your money.
Want to know more? Read on to learn what a correct fit feels like, what those safety stickers on the back of the helmet mean, the different elements of a helmet that determine its price, and how to care for your helmet.
Keys To Finding the Right Fit
The materials and construction of a motorcycle helmet determine its maximum protective potential. But if a helmet doesn’t fit you correctly, even if it’s the most expensive helmet in the world, it’s not going to give you the protection you need when it counts.
The vast majority of first-time buyers are inclined to buy a helmet that is too big. Those that do regret it because they find that the helmet wobbles around and shifts as they are riding. More than just annoying, this kind of fitment is very distracting and dangerous. A helmet that is too small or whose internal shape doesn’t match well with your head can give you headaches, pain, and be uncomfortable – especially over a prolonged period of time. Here are some things to look for when you’re trying on helmets:
A helmet should feel very snug.
- Ask someone to hold the chin area of the helmet while you try to shift your head from side to side. If your head moves easily, the helmet is too big.
- Push the back of the helmet up and forward. If it moves easily down your forehead, it’s too big.
- Push the chin bar up and back. If the helmet pushes up easily, it’s too big.
- Feel for any areas where the helmet isn’t making even contact with your head. If the helmet is extremely tight in some areas but loose in others, try on some helmets with a different internal shape. These days, most helmets are identified as fitting ‘intermediate oval’ head shapes, but we can point a few helmets that offer ‘long oval’ or ’round’ fits, and some other ‘intermediate’ helmets with a fit that may be more suited to your unique head shape.
- The soft padding inside the helmet will naturally break in after a few months or weeks of wear, making the helmet feel approximately half a helmet size bigger than when it was brand new.
- Before you commit, wear the helmet in the store for at least five or ten minutes to make sure it isn’t too tight. A helmet that is too tight will give you headaches, hot spots, and may leave indentations on your forehead or cheeks.
The Language of Safety
We know that a helmet that fits properly will protect you better than a helmet that doesn’t. But it’s also important to understand the safety ratings that are identified on the back of every helmet. At minimum, every motorcycle helmet that is legal in the State of California must have a DOT certification and a DOT sticker on the back. (Some half helmets don’t have DOT certification. They aren’t legal, they aren’t safe, and you may be ticketed for wearing one.)
A Snell M2015* rating is an internationally recognized, independent safety certification administered by the non-profit Snell Memorial Foundation. Helmets awarded a Snell rating and sticker have passed a rigorous set of safety tests. You may think that Snell helmets have to cost a lot of money, but that’s no longer the case (click here to learn more about the best-value HJC CL-17). At present, Snell only applies to full-face street and dirt helmets, and not half, three-quarter, or modular helmets.
ECE 22-05 is Europe’s minimum required safety rating for their street helmets, like DOT is in the US. A helmet is subjected to many different impact simulations during Snell and ECE tests, and it is currently not possible to make one helmet that meets both Snell and ECE requirements at the same time. If you’d like to learn more about the differences between ECE and Snell ratings, you can read all about it in an excellent in-depth discussion on webBikeWorld.com here.
World Standard refers to a helmet that has been approved by multiple national or regional safety standards as a street legal helmet. A World Standard helmet may be legally worn in the United States (DOT), in Europe (ECE 22-05), in Japan (PSC), and in Australia (SAI AS1698:2006). A World Standard helmet is not Snell rated.
Understand What You’re Paying For
We all want the lightest, most comfortable, safest, coolest, most aerodynamic and technically advanced, quietest helmet possible, but for those of us who can’t justify paying the cost of a small car for our helmet, that will remain in our dreams. Here’s where we tell you what’s jacking up the cost of the different helmets you’re looking at, so you can shop smart and get as close as possible to that dream helmet, without selling the farm.
Materials and Construction
Material makeup is a big part of what dictates the cost of your helmet, because it also determines how it’s made–how long it takes, how much skill and precision are needed, and how quality is enforced.
Multi-density vs. Single-Density EPS Liner: EPS stands for expanded polystyrene, and it’s the part of the helmet between the removable, soft inner lining and the hard exterior shell that does the brunt of the impact absorption work. An EPS liner is actually made of millions of little balls of polystyrene, and those little balls can be made denser or softer during the expansion process, which is what puffs them up so they can absorb impact.
A single-density EPS liner has one kind of EPS throughout, but a multi-density liner is made with EPS of various densities strategically arranged in various impact zones in the helmet to deliver targeted protection.
Composite vs. Polycarbonate Shell: Polycarbonate is a thermoplastic that is heated and poured into a mold to create a helmet shell. Composite shells are made from layers of fiber materials; usually a blend of carbon fiber, fiberglass, and an aramid fiber like Kevlar or Dyneema. While a polycarbonate shell is molded, formed, and cut in an automated machine, many man-hours and significant expertise are necessary to build up layers of fiber for a composite shell.
Helmets made with polycarbonate shells are generally less expensive and typically heavier than composite ones, though this isn’t always true. Composite helmets are stiffer, more resistant to piercing, and stronger overall. When struck by an impact, the layers of fiber crush, like your car’s crumple zones, reducing the impact the EPS must absorb. Polycarbonate shells are elastic and this springiness also helps to reduce G forces passed through to the EPS during an impact.
Development and Other Non-Production Costs
All of the top helmet brands in the world have been around for at least a few decades, and they know that to stay on the leading edge of a very competitive market they need to continually innovate, advance, and improve the safety, performance, and comfort of their helmets. You aren’t just paying for the name or logo when you buy a popular brand, you’re paying for wind tunnels, track days, field tests, and rooms full of engineers tasked with impressing you and I and the gear critics of the world. You’re paying to have confidence in the commitment of the people who made the thing that protects your head.
Helmet Care and Replacement
The generally accepted life of a helmet is between five and seven years. The helmet’s impact-absorbing EPS lining naturally breaks down over time, diminishing its protective potential. This breakdown is accelerated by frequent wear. But this five to seven year guideline only applies if the helmet has not been dropped, involved in an accident, or otherwise damaged. Helmets are not designed to sustain multiple impacts – once a force is applied, the outer shell is weakened, the EPS compresses, and the helmet should be replaced.
You can clean the removable lining and cheekpads of your helmet with water and a mild soap. There are also many helmet cleaning agents available specifically designed for helmet interiors, such as Motorex Helmet Care. You can polish the outside of your helmet with a multi-surface cleaner, such as Plexus or Pig Spit. Do not use any chemical agents on your visor unless specifically designed or listed for use on helmet shields, as they may cause distortion and break down the anti-fog coating.
There are six main helmet styles, and a full-face helmet provides the most protection from impact, wind, debris, and noise.
Many riders love that wind-in-your-face feeling, so they opt for something a little more basic. If you’re thinking of choosing an open-faced half or three-quarter helmet, just be aware that the chin area is the most commonly impacted area of the head in an accident.
If you enjoy riding with an open-faced helmet but want something more protective, try a modular helmet. Modular helmets provide nearly all the same benefits of full-face helmets, but have a flip-up chin bar that can be worn in an open position.
Dual sport helmets combine key elements of full-face and dirt helmets. A dirt bike helmet‘s elongated chin bar acts as a crumple zone in the common offroad face-plant and provides more room around the nose and mouth to ease labored breathing on the trail. The sun peak on a dual sport helmet is usually smaller and the overall shell shape more similar to a street helmet’s for improved aerodynamics on the road. Dual sport helmets also have a pivoting face shield that is designed to accommodate goggles.
*As of mid-2014, Snell M2010 standards are being phased out and replaced by updated M2015 testing standards. All Snell motorcycle helmets manufactured after March 2015 will have a Snell M2015 sticker.