How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet (Types & Options)

Wearing a bicycle helmet for safety is always good but there are a lot more other factors and aspects to consider when choosing a bicycle helmet.

A bike helmet on the ground next to a mountain bike.

Everyone knows wearing a bicycle helmet is a smart decision when it comes to protecting your head from injury. In fact, helmets have become such a necessity that wearing one is actually required by law in some areas of the country.

Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of thousands of options out there for bike helmets, which can make choosing which one to go with difficult. While all helmets sold in the United States are required to meet the same impact protection standards, they all have distinct differences when it comes to other features. To make your decision easier, we’ve put together this guide:

How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet: Factors You Should Consider

1. Function

Helmets can serve a variety of purposes and each rider will need a different one. Think about how you ride and the best type of helmet.

Do you just ride your bike down the street or compete in hundreds of miles of road races? Don’t go to a gunfight with a spatula.

Road Helmets

XinerTer Adult Bike Helmet Road Bike Helmet + Detachable Magnetic Goggles + Cycling face mask Replacement Lining Mountain Bicycle Helmets for Men and Women, Adjustable Size 22-24.2 in (Black+mask)
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Road helmets will be more compact and light than a mountain bike helmet. They also are better at keeping you cool and can be more aerodynamic. Road helmets can also be more expensive though because there was more engineering involved. If your road helmet comes with a visor, take it off.

Mountain Bike Helmets

Mountain bike helmets have more coverage and less venting. Visors are preferred when mountain biking to account for areas from light to shade and shade to light. Most mountain bikers don’t wear sunglasses.

Time Trial and Triathlon Helmets

Cairbull Victor 2019 Road Cycling Track Triathlon time Trial Cycling TT Helmet (Gray)
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These helmets are built solely for being as aerodynamic as possible. They are very easy to tell apart from other bike helmets. The front is rounded and has a long pointy back. They are great for helping you bike faster but can be very expensive. Also, pro tip, don’t wear it backward.

Urban/Commuter Helmets

BASE CAMP Adult Bike Helmet with Rear Light for Urban Commuter Adjustable M Size
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Technically any helmet will protect your head but commuter helmets have better coverage for things like rain. They are often more stylish and bright. The reflective helmets will make you more visible in roadways.

Urban lids, worn by BMX riders are attractive but feature little ventilation. They are really great for showing off tricks but far too hot for a long bike ride.

2. Bike Helmet Fit and Comfort

Fit is of the utmost importance when buying a bike helmet. One that does not fit will appropriately protect your head. You also want it to be comfortable.

In order to find the correct size measure the circumference of your head with a cloth tape measure (or use a string). Measure the largest part of your head, usually one inch above the eyebrows. Bike helmet sizing works like this:

  • Extra small: below 20″ (51cm)
  • Small: 20″–21.75″ (51cm–55cm)
  • Medium: 21.75″–23.25″ (55cm–59cm)
  • Large: 23.25″–24.75″ (59cm–63cm)
  • Extra large: above 24.75″ (63cm)
  • One size fits all: has a highly adjustable fit system

How to Adjust a Bike Helmet

You will want to take a couple of steps when properly adjusting your bike helmet. First, adjust the overall tightness. There is usually a wheel in the back you can spin until its snug. If there is no wheel there might be various pads you can use.

The next step is the chin strap. They should form a V and rest under each ear (adjust until they do). Now test the fit by opening your mouth wide and the helmet should press against the top of your head. If not, tighten the strap and repeat (just don’t make it uncomfortably tight).

3. Cost

If you own an expensive bike you should place the same kind of value on protecting your head. While you don’t have to spend a fortune you should invest as much as your budget will allow. Make sure it is comfortable and safety certified.

Over time as you become more invested as a biker you can continue to invest more into a quality helmet. The most expensive helmet on the market may not be protecting your head any better than the $30 helmet but why take a chance if you don’t have to.

4. Safety

Helmets have come a long way since they were mostly just padded strips of leather. They offered little protection for bikers when they first arrived but new technology has changed that. Helmets are now well-engineered and more attractive. As the industry progresses they will get cooler, lighter, and more aerodynamic.

Over time a lot of the “improvements” made have actually cost us safety. The elongated helmets of the 1990s actually caused whiplash for some riders. Now studies show that in a crash the best is a smooth, rounded shape.

A man on a bike wearing a bike helmet.

Additional Bike Helmet Fit Tips

Brand sizing varies

As with anything the sizes listed above will vary from brand to brand to always check their sizing charts. If possible try on the helmet before buying. If you are in-between sizes go with the smaller option or try a different style or model that might fight better.

Some adults that have smaller heads can comfortably wear helmets sized for kids. A helmet should fit snug but not so tight it is uncomfortable. It should be level with the front an inch or less above your eyebrows. This will protect your forehead. Move the helmet from side to side to make sure it doesn’t shift too much and if it does adjust it.

Choices in Helmet Protection

Bike helmets are designed to protect us from a head injury in the event of a crash or fall. Companies put their helmets through rigorous testing to make sure they are effective. Helmets protect us in two ways, the outer plastic shell, and the inner foam liner.

The outer shell allows the helmet to slide on impact and provides protection from punctures. The inner liner aims to slow down your head and spread out the impact forces so you don’t get it all in one area.

Helmet makers have added new technologies to minimize rotational forces on the head which we know can cause brain injury. It is up to you to decide if having the newest technologies (listed below) is a priority or if you want to buy a more budget-friendly option.

MIPS

The Multi-directional Impact Protection System is featured in a variety of helmets. It allows the impact-absorbing liner to rotate because it has a low-friction layer that redirects the rotational forces.

WaveCel

WaveCel is a honeycombed liner that creates a crumple zone. This helps to absorb different types of forces as well as rotational energy that occurs in an impact.

SPIN

SPIN stands for “shearing pads inside” and is found on POC helmets. This technology features pads that move within the shell to redirect rotational forces upon impact.

A blue bike helmet on a grass lawn.

Choices in Bike Helmet Features

Visor

Visors are common on mountain bike helmets since they are less likely to wear sunglasses. They help to shield the sun.

Full face protection

For extreme mountain biking, some helmets have a wraparound chin bar. This is for added face protection when racing downhill at fast speeds.

Mount compatibility

GoPro HERO7 White - E-Commerce Packaging - Waterproof Digital Action Camera with Touch Screen 4K HD Video 10MP Photos Live Streaming Stabilization
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With the advent of things like Go Pro cameras many helmets now come with an option to mount a camera or light.

Mongoose Capture Adult Bike Helmet with Go Pro Camera Mount, Black
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Bike Helmet Care

Don’t share your helmet with anyone. You want to be able to account for every ride of its life.

Only clean your helmet with mild soap and water and a soft cloth. Any removable pads might be able to be washed. Check with the manufacturer.

Don’t store your helmet anywhere it can be damaged by heat (such as an attic or trunk of a car). This can cause bubbles and will ruin the integrity of the helmet.

When to Replace a Helmet

Any time a helmet is involved in an impact it should be replaced, even if it looks fine. There could be damage you can’t see and helmets are only designed to absorb a single impact.

If your helmet never experiences any impact it should be replaced after five years. Between the weather and UV light, key pieces can become weak over time.

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