The most fundamental item of motorcycle gear is also, frequently, the most misunderstood. Let’s clear up the conventional wisdom and marketing obfuscation, then put the best, safest helmet possible on your head.
What’s The Best/Safest Helmet I Can Buy?
The best/safest helmet you can buy is the one that fits you best. Period. Fit is the single most important factor when choosing a helmet; so much so that it outweighs pretty much every other merit or feature a helmet can have.
To determine if a helmet fits you properly, visit a large brick and mortar motorcycle dealer or motorcycle apparel retail store and try a bunch on. Like everything in the store. A helmet should fit evenly around your entire skull with firm, but not overly tight pressure. Avoid any with obvious contact gaps anywhere but over your ears and especially any with any pressure points. To determine if a helmet is tight enough, use your hands to try to twist it around your head while resisting that movement with your head. The helmet shouldn’t rotate beyond just the deformation of the comfort liner. Next, sit on the motorcycle you intend to use the helmet with, move through various riding positions and examine the visibility. Can you see ahead without straining your neck? If so, then you’ve found the right helmet for you.
Next, determine if the store you’re in has a sign out front reading “Pro Italia,” “MotoCorsa,” “RevZilla,” “D-Store,” or “Transportation Revolution.” If not, then that store exists for the sole purpose of screwing you. Place the helmet back on the shelf, walk out and order it online. Do so from a reputable retailer, not an Amazon reseller, not from eBay, not from your friend Dave and not from a forum. A helmet should be brand new, unworn, wearing all its stickers and in its original packaging.
Everyone has their own unique head shape, hence the need to jump through these hurdles. These are generalized into four or five categories, but even within those, fit varies by brand and model. Never purchase a helmet without trying it on first.
Arai is the only manufacturer to make helmets in all categories of shape, but even then, another manufacturer may offers something that fits you uniquely well.
Helmet Components And What They Do
Let’s work from the outside in. The helmet’s shell is made from a strong, but deformable material like plastic or carbon fiber. Its job is to both act as a chassis, holding all the other parts together, while also spreading impact forces across a wide area, shearing them off to the sides and deforming to absorb some of those forces. Safety wise, one material isn’t better than another. Well executed plastic is better than cheap carbon.
The visor — sometimes called a “shield” because America is weird — is the clear part you look through. These things have to be optically clear while resisting impacts and penetration, which is why they’re expensive. You’ll want a clear one for low light and a dark one for day time riding.
The visor mechanism is what the visor pivots on and what attaches it to the helmet. Every manufacturer has their own take on this and all are surprisingly fragile. Learn how to use them, then do so carefully. On some helmets, you can tweak the way the visor fits against the seal with an adjustment screw.
Mounted to the outside of some helmets may be wings, vents, peaks or other ephemera. These are designed to control airflow, either through vent holes or around the helmet. These must break off in an accident so they don’t catch stuff and twist your neck around, so tend to be necessarily fragile.
Vent holes come in either 10 or 20mm varieties, the latter obviously flowing more air. Ones in the back draw air through the helmet from ones in the front, providing a cooling and/or de-fogging effect. All holes should feature switchable covers. Even/especially the ones in the back since they create the draw. More/larger holes don’t necessarily ventilate better if actual research is put into the location of them. Read the marketing material, the reviews and make a smart choice about your ventilation needs. Brow vents really help in hot weather. Are those 10 or 20mm in diameter and how many of them are there? Can they be fully sealed-off when it gets cold?
The helmet’s liner is made from styrofoam. Yes, the exact same material you get Chinese takeout in and which wraps stuff you order from Amazon. No one’s invented a better energy absorber that’s cost-effective yet. In your helmet, its densities are precisely varied to slow the deceleration of your head to a survivable level.
The comfort liner is the foam and fabric that touches your head providing, wait for it, comfort. A helmet that fits your skull precisely needs very little padding; beware heavily padded helmets. Look for nice, soft, long-lasting fabrics that will spoil your scalp and face; you’ll be spending days at a time pressed against this stuff. Bonus points for wicking and antimicrobial properties. Some helmets include press-on adjustment pads that allow you tweak the fit a little bit. These work, but only in very small amounts; a long oval helmet can’t be made to fit a spherical skull using press-on pads. Think of them as a final 1% bit of tailoring.
The chin strap is the only thing holding your helmet on. They’re bolted through the styrofoam to the shell. Buckles can be ratchets, seatbelts or D-Rings. The first two might sound more convenient, but in the real world they’re a hassle. D-rings adjust perfectly and quickly every time without any fuss.
I Don’t Have A Cheap Head, Should I Buy A Cheap Helmet?
There is no correlation between helmet price and safety. That’s probably because there’s been virtually no technical safety innovation in helmets since about 1968. Since that first Bell Star, they’ve all been some styrofoam stuck in a shell with a hole cut in the front so you can see. Helmets have gotten much safer over time, but they still follow that same formula, so it’s not hard to do the safety thing right. Buy a brand new helmet from a reputable manufacturer being sold by a reputable retailer made to Snell M2015 or ECE 22.05 and you’ll be getting as much safety as anyone dropping $900 on an Arai.
Here, a Schuberth S2 (black line) is shown reducing nearly twice the force required by the ECE standard (dashed line). Schuberth is the only manufacturer that will ever show you actual test results like these. I wonder why?
Standards exist to define safety, to test helmets and to assure consumers that helmets meeting them work. All helmets must meet some standard, but which one is the last differentiator in determining outright efficacy. The only helmet maker to release the results of its safety tests and demonstrate the degree to which they exceed their standard (ECE 22.05) is Schuberth, and therefore we can assume they’re the only manufacturer which makes helmets that exceed that standard.
DOT is simply the minimum legal standard to which a helmet must adhere to be legally sold in the US. That means a helmet which meets DOT isn’t very safe, something made worse by DOT’s self compliance; the helmet makers test compliance themselves, supposedly. On top of DOT, two voluntary (in the US) standards give you much more assurance that you’ll live through a motorcycle crash.
ECE 22.05 is the European Union’s heavily regulated, highly studied and extremely safe standard. The Euros love them some red tape and that pays off when it comes to your safety because they really do really test a large sample of helmets, require re-certification regularly throughout a helmet’s production life to make sure tool wear or cheating doesn’t impact safety and because it was created with realistic, real world motorcycle crashes in mind. The best helmets available are made to ECE 22.05; it’s the standard worn by every single professional motorcycle racer at the World Championship level, without exception.
At some point along its way from honoring a dead racer to its current form, the American Snell standard got a little perverted by greed. Certain importers of luxury helmet brands (cough, Arai, cough, Shoei) decided they needed their own, high-cost standard to achieve a marketing benefit over rivals and so created their own, half-baked take on the whole thing that was more about obfuscation than it was your safety. Or, more specifically, that of your child or wife.
They developed a test that involves two drops - one from higher than the DOT test followed by a second at the same height of the DOT test. The idea was to entice buyers with claims that their helmets could withstand a bigger crash and, therefore, was safer. The issue is that the extra density adds weight and is more prone to giving concussions on lesser, more common crashes. Think of a crash, do you hit something twice, with the same, catastrophic force or once with a big force, then again and again and again with smaller forces? This comparison test, posted by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, is a little outdated and doesn’t include the latest Snell standards, but is a helpful guide.
A guy named Dexter Ford blew the lid off this scandal, then got fired by Motorcyclist for telling the truth in the New York Times. They’ve since revised their standard in line with his suggestions, haven’t credited him or gotten him his job back, and Snell helmet are now as close to being as safe as ECE lids for it not to matter. But they’re still a little heavier; a make and model of helmet sold in Europe and made to ECE will still be marginally lighter than the same make an model of helmet sold to Americans and certified by Snell. “M2010” was the standard in which they decided to stop killing people with small heads and “M2015” is exactly the same, but they changed the sticker for reasons I can’t be bothered to remember or repeat here. Isn’t the American motorcycle industry fun?
In the UK, there’s an organization called SHARP that independently tests helmets. They don’t so so inline with either of the above standards and their methodology is a bit questionable. I don’t include it as a reference when determining a helmet purchase.
Why Is Weight Important?
Hold a helmet in your hand. Now put that helmet on a three-foot long pole; a rough distance between your head and center of gravity. Which is easier to move and then stop? Well, that’s your head in relation to the rest of your body. Ride for a full-day — eight hours — and extrapolate the effort required by every bump and every direction change, etc, etc etc and you can understand why lighter helmets are better for your neck.
Do Helmets Obscure Peripheral Vision?
We humans are able to see 90 degrees to either side. The minimum peripheral vision allowed by a full-face helmet is 105 degrees to either side. No, helmets do not obscure your peripheral vision.
Treat your helmet as if it was a human child belonging to someone else who’d be really pissed off if you damaged it. Perhaps a wife or the wife of your boss. Not only does your life depend on your helmet, but your head has to go in it for long periods of time. Never let it out of your sight. Never put it on the floor. Never allow it to fall to the ground. Never allow anyone else to handle it. Never store it anywhere in which it may be exposed to noxious fumes, extreme heat or where it could be damaged or touched by someone else.
A helmet works like the crumple zone of a car; it destroys itself to absorb the energy of a crash. A drop from hand-height to the floor probably won’t damage it (it may break off fragile vents and similar), but any more force honestly could. And that damage could be hidden from view, waiting to not protect you when you actually need it. Baby these damn things better than you would your own children.
As soon as you’ve taken a helmet off, fasten its chin strap and use that as a carry handle. Gripping the chin bar may compress the rubber seals around the visor port or tear a chin curtain or something. If you must set it down, first lay out your gloves to provide a stable, clean surface, then gently place the helmet on it, head hole down, and do all that in a secure place where it won’t be knocked into.
When your visor gets covered in dried bugs, wet a towel (paper or cloth) and lay it on them for five or ten minutes. This rehydrates their carcasses and allows them to slide off without scratching the fragile visors or helmet paint.
When it’s time to clean the helmet’s comfort liner (do so regularly, it fills up with sweat and pollution) remove it if possible, and wash it with Johnson’s baby shampoo or Dr. Bronners. If you can’t remove it, just take the helmet into the shower and use the baby shampoo or hippie not-a-soap there. That stuff is non-irritating and, again, your head has to be in contact with your helmet for extended periods of time.
Visors need to be swapped for new ones once a year or so. They get scratched and lose their clarity.
Clean your helmet with lukewarm water here and there. Same for your visor. Don’t use Windex or other alcohol-based cleaners.
A helmet has a shelf life of 5 years from its date of manufacturer (which you can find on a sticker somewhere). Beyond that date, the glues bonding the layers of styrofoam together and to the shell begin to degrade, reducing safety.
Know that little bottle of silicone lube that you lost as soon as you took your helmet out of its box? Find it and lubricate you visor seals with it once a year or so.
What About 3/4, Open-Face And Skid Lids?
I’ll keep this short and simple. A researcher named Dietmar Otte found that 45.3% of all impacts to helmets occurred in the face area. I don’t know about you, but I’m too darn pretty to have my face torn off in a motorcycle crash.
Also worth considering: bugs, rain, hail, road debris, rocks, wind, cold, being seen talking to yourself, sea gulls.
Flip-front or “modular” helmets, so long as they meet ECE 22.05, protect your face as well as a full-face. Not all are created equal, double check for that standard sticker if you’re unsure and don’t buy anything without “ECE 22.05” printed on it, it won’t protect you.
Sun Glasses, Flip-Down Shades And Visors
It gets bright outside, so you’ll want to protect your eyes. Hands down the best way to do this is by swapping your clear visor for a tinted one. This completely encloses your face and encompasses your vision; everything you look through and all light reaching your eyes is at the same level of brightness. Carry a spare in an old sock and swap between clear and dark at dawn and dusk.
Some guys prefer sunglasses. I don’t understand this. Looking through two layers of plastic (glasses and visor) is never going to be as clear as looking through one, glasses allow your face to get burned and don’t totally protect your eyes. Same thing goes for flip-down sun visors, which also impair a helmet’s safety in a crash. Swapping your visor takes 5 seconds and you can easily tuck your spare in a jacket, suit or bag. I wear mine around one of my kidneys inside a race suit when I’m traveling fast and light.
Different Helmets For Different Disciplines
Nice, round, normal helmets do everything pretty well. If you’re not sure what kind of helmet you want or need, start here.
Sport helmets tend to include more ventilation and cant the horizon up a bit, to facilitate vision when tucked in or hanging off. They may also prioritize stability at higher speeds. They tend to be very loud.
Adventure helmets add a dirt-style peak for added pose-appeal. You don’t need one. Some allow you to wear goggles, but none work better with them.
Dual-Sport helmets are dirt bike helmets that are road legal. Look for ECE or Snell certification, DOT should never be considered enough. These are miserable at highway speeds. Peaks exist to deflect “roost” kicked up by the rear tire of bikes in front of you.
Motocross helmets are crazy light and extremely well ventilated. They may not be road legal.
Novelty helmets allow road pirates to look like they’re abiding by the letter of the law, without being all unmanly and actually providing any safety, comfort or weather protection. Potato, potato!
Retro helmets don’t work as well as normal helmets and are primarily for looking neat on Instagram.
Aerodynamics, Inside And Out
A helmet’s job is to slip through the air with as much stability as possible, in directions other than straight ahead too. This facilitates comfort obviously, but also makes things like looking over your shoulder every time you change lane or speed that much easier and quicker and a nicely re-attached airflow is also a quieter airflow. Smooth, round shapes do all this best. Or smaller helmets with boat tails. The fewer protruding bits and seams and whatnot there are, the more stable and quieter a helmet will be.
Things get a little more complicated because there’s a number of small holes drilled in the helmet to draw air through it and also a great big one in the bottom through which you stick your head.
Conventional wisdom states that the better ventilated a helmet is, the noisier it is too. In reality, this needn’t be the case. You see, the only helmet maker which actually has its own wind tunnel is Schuberth, so traditionally figuring out the complicated aerodynamics of vents has been more a case of poking more holes rather than coming up with smarter designs. As Computer Aided Design has gotten better at modeling air flow and wind tunnel time has gotten less expensive, manufacturers like Arai and Shoei have caught up and now manage to combine ventilation with noise levels only equivalent to those of a jet engine.
Look for vent channels built into the styrofoam liner. These should travel from large rear vents to the front vents, enabling air to be pulled through the helmet. Without these channels, your head just blocks things up and this through flow can’t occur. Schuberth again sets the standard here. If you ever get the chance, pull the lining and neck roll out of one of their helmets to see how it’s made and use that as a reference you can apply to other helmets that probably fit you better.
But by far the biggest contributor to noise levels is that whopping great hole in the bottom through which you insert your head. And you’re making the problem worse. Because many motorcycle riders don’t know anything about riding motorcycles, you’ve been asking helmet makers to make helmets easier to get into. Which means wider openings, which mean more noise. Stop it. A tighter-fitting helmet with a smaller head hole is a more comfortable, quieter, better fitting helmet. One of the things that makes Schuberths so quiet is their very large, all-encompassing neck rolls and generous chin curtains which totally seal the hole around your neck. This seal also allows you full control of the helmet’s interior environment via its switchable vents and keeps dust and other debris out of your eyes. The modern Bell Star is unacceptably loud (and unstable) specifically because its head hole is far too large.
As the highest point on your body, visible from all directions, your helmet is the front line of your battle against criminally incompetent car drivers. A single bright color, like white, is most visible. Fussy designs, no matter how bright they are, can blend into busy urban backgrounds or otherwise befuddle a car driver’s limited brain cells.
Just don’t trust your safety to them paying attention. They don’t and you should ride accordingly.
You can seal any helmet tightly around your neck using a Quiet Rider or other head hole gasket (my wording, probably wouldn’t Google that phrase). Most helmets ship with a chin curtain. Fit it.
You’ll also want earplugs. All helmets are loud enough at highway speeds to cause hearing damage via wind noise. Earplugs block this persistent noise, allowing you to hear stuff like car horns and sirens better. I swear by Howard Leight Max Lite disposable plugs.
I buy them by the 200-pair box, then stuff packets in all the pockets of my riding gear and luggage, grabbing a new pair any time they get dirty. Earplugs markedly reduce fatigue on long rides.
As stated above, a tinted visor will be more effective at protecting your eyes in bright sunlight than a pair of sunglasses. Always carry a clear spare; just use an old sock to protect it.
A nice, padded helmet bag is crucial if you plan to travel with your helmet.
Communicators bring music, your phone and radio contact with fellow riders into your motorcycle helmet. They actually work really well and aren’t distracting, but I stopped using them when Sean discovered that he could use one to conduct long, meaningful monologues about his feelings while we rode together. Sean’s feelings mostly revolve around tacos, in case you were wondering.
A thin silk balaclava will be the most effective and comfortable way to insulate your head, inside your helmet, on cold rides. Sometimes, it also helps to mask vents with duct tape if they’re leaking any cold air. Just figure out if its easier to find a flush surface to do so inside or out.
Oh, and don’t forget your Pinlock. Visor inserts prevent fogging by separating the surface closest to your stinky breathe from the surface next to the cold air while also making that surface smooth down to the microscopic level, so that water droplets can’t bead on it. Just take very good care of that insert, they scratch easily. You’ll need one purpose designed for your specific helmet and you’ll want one in any and every visor you use.
The Tricky Topic Of Concussions
In order to keep people like Marc Marquez alive in 209mph head-on crashes with the ground, helmets have to be able to dissipate a huge amount of energy. But, in being able to do so, they lose the ability to attenuate smaller impacts, the kind that can result in concussions.
This is probably the next big shift for the helmet market and it’s already taking place at California startup 6D, which uses isomeric dampers to reduce the force of small shocks, in addition to the traditional styrofoam to absorb larger ones. Old stalwart Bell has recently added similar low-speed deformation to its helmets with its new Moto-9 Flex all-round dirt lid. If you’re worried about no-speed topples making you go all retired NFL player, look at those two helmets.
So What Helmet Should I Buy?
If they fit you, whichever Schuberth looks snazziest will be the safest (again, only maker to share test results), highest quality, quietest helmet you can buy. But their head shape is incredibly specific and doesn’t work for the vast majority of riders.
Arai, as much shit as I give them for having an evil American importer, makes a great motorcycle helmet and is the only company to make one for every head shape. The XD4 is my go to urban and ADV helmet.
Like Arai, Shoei languished for years without innovation but, also like Arai, has recently corrected that with some great new models. The RF-1200 has probably the smallest shell to helmet size ratio of any helmet out there, an enormous aerodynamic boon.
AGV makes the sexiest sport helmets right now and, like Schuberth, all its lids are ECE and therefore exceptionally light.
Bell’s Moto-9 Flex incorporates anti-concussion technology, has a Snell certification and works as well on a motocross track as it does on the road.
But you can’t beat Icon’s quality-to-price. Yes, you sacrifice some luxury over a $900 Schuberth or Arai, but starting at $150, Icon’s helmets are just as safe, just as light, just as aerodynamic, often better ventilated, don’t fog and can be very comfortable. More often than not, that’s what I’ve got on my head.
(Editor’s Note: Wes was too lazy to find more photos to fill out the article, so I’ve added pics of a bunch of the helmets we’ve come to love. Got a question about one of them? Either Wes or I have worn them so ask away.
In order as posted in line: Bell RS-1, Arai Defiant, AGV AX-8, Shoei Hornet X2, NEXX XR2, ICON Airframe Pro, ICON Alliance Dark, Bell Moto 9 Flex, Shoei Neotec, Scorpion EXO-R2000, Scorpion EXO-R710, Schuberth SR1 Stealth, Schuberth C3 Pro, HJC RPHA 10)
Wes Siler is a reformed motorcycle journalist who now writes about going camping with his dog. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.