If your mountain biking gear budget has been stretched thin and you’re tempted to skimp on the helmet, don’t. Skip that extra bit of carbon instead. It’s true, mountain bike helmet prices are creeping up, but we find little reason to complain. For hurtling over rocks and dodging trees, spending a little extra on a good lid is a sound investment. Fit and retention systems continue to improve, and safety advances like the Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) aim to reduce the chances of a serious injury. For a breakdown of these important considerations, check out our comparison table and buying advice. Below are our top mountain bike helmets of 2018.
Weight: 13.1 oz.
What we like: Safety, comfort, and performance at a great price.
What we don’t: Small step down in ventilation and liner quality.
Giro’s Chronicle nabs our top spot for 2018 by proving you don’t have to spend a ton to get a safe, comfortable, and lightweight mountain biking helmet. Drawing heavily from the Montaro MIPS below, the Chronicle nearly matches that helmet’s performance but at a significant $50 discount. You get fantastic coverage for all-mountain riding, a MIPS liner, and plenty of padding and decent ventilation for long days over variable terrain. More, the helmet has features typically found on more expensive models: the visor is large enough to shield the sun but also adjusts to accommodate goggles, and the fit system is secure and easy to use even with gloves on (don’t let its small diameter fool you). Overall, the Chronicle delivers what the majority of riders need at a good price.
The Chronicle’s value is what makes it so appealing, but there are a few small design compromises. For one, the padding on the interior feels a bit plasticky compared to a premium option like the Troy Lee Designs A2 below, and in theory is a little less absorbent (in use, we’ve found it stacks up well to the A2 and others). You also get smaller vents and fewer of them than some of the high-end models on this list. But wearing the Chronicle back-to-back with helmets that cost nearly twice as much doesn’t reveal any significant differences. The impressive all-around performance at a discount is what makes the Chronicle our favorite mountain biking helmet.
See the Giro Chronicle MIPS See the Women's Giro Cartelle MIPS
Weight: 13.3 oz.
What we like: Premium build and a very comfortable fit.
What we don’t: Pricey and limited visor adjustability.
Building on the successful and popular A1, the Troy Lee Designs A2 retains that helmet’s high levels of comfort with a few notable upgrades. To start, ventilation is improved with wide channels at the front and expansive openings at the back. Also, the A2’s safety suite has been modernized, making it a great match for aggressive bikers. The helmet uses an innovative design with 2 types of foam: EPS, which is found in most bike helmets for absorbing impacts at high speed, and tough EPP for low speed crashes. Along with a MIPS liner and breakaway hardware on the visor, the A2 is built for techy climbs and rowdy descents.
In terms of fit, we found that the A2 has a deep, wide, and very adjustable interior that was a favorite among our group of testers. Comfort is near the top of the pack with a minimalist but smart design with thick padding around the forehead. One issue we ran into was that the lack of padding along the top of the helmet resulted in sweat collecting along the MIPS liner and occasionally running down the front of our heads. This was only a problem on extended climbs in the heat, however, and likely won’t affect most riders. And the visor doesn’t slide high enough to fit a goggle, an unfortunate downside at this steep price. But for serious trail and enduro riders, it may be worth the extra cash.
See the Troy Lee Designs A2
Weight: 14.5 oz.
What we like: Impressive combination of comfort and performance.
What we don’t: A little heavier than the competition.
For 2018, Bell has replaced its popular Super 3 helmet with the Sixer MIPS. And although we’re surprised they changed the name after three successful generations, we fully expect that the new helmet will quickly gain a similar following. Bell got all the details right with Sixer: the helmet has a modern, low-profile shape that doesn’t look or feel bulky, the padding along the interior is high quality, and a total of 26 well-designed vents keep air flowing around your head. And at $150, the Sixer actually is $5 cheaper than last year’s Super 3 MIPS.
For aggressive riders that get out a lot and want a feature-rich design, the Sixer has a lot of appeal. But it’s heavier than the A2 above and includes extras like an action camera mount that many people don’t need. We think the Giro Chronicle is the better all-around deal at $50 less, but stepping up to the Sixer does get you the latest version of MIPS technology, better ventilation, and nice touches like a rubberized material at the back to keep goggle straps in place. All told, it’s an excellent all-mountain lid.
See the Bell Sixer MIPS See the Women's Bell Sixer MIPS
Weight: 12.5 oz.
What we like: Innovative safety technology in a great all-around design.
What we don’t: Very, very expensive.
Still a young brand, POC is at the forefront of helmet safety. Late last year, they released their new slip plane technology called SPIN, and have since added it to a range of models including their popular Tectal Race. Like MIPS, SPIN is intended to improve rotational forces on the brain in an angled impact, but the key difference is that POC’s design simply uses the pads on the helmet’s interior. We love the elegant solution, which integrates seamlessly, and that alone makes the Tectal Race one of the best helmets on the market.
What pushes the Tectal down our list is its huge price tag. At more than double the cost of the Chronicle above and $70 more than the Sixer MIPS, it’s among the most expensive all-mountain options. The good news is that the Tectal is well rounded with high-end comfort, ventilation, and POC’s signature clean styling and attractive colorways. We just wish it were a little more affordable.
See the POC Tectal Race SPIN
Weight: 12.7 oz.
What we like: Great protection at a budget-friendly price.
What we don’t: Annoying two-piece fit system.
Kali doesn’t get the publicity of brands like Giro, Troy Lee Designs, or Smith, but they’ve put together an impressive line-up of mountain bike helmets. Our favorite is their mid-range Maya, which is a comfy lid at a competitive $100 price. The Maya has excellent coverage along the sides and back of the head, and its advanced composite foam construction is designed to absorb both low and high-speed impacts. We would prefer more vents for rides in warm weather, but that’s a fairly common issue at this price. For those that ride in cool areas like the forests of the Pacific Northwest or keep your helmet on your pack on extended climbs, the Maya is a great match.
Where the Kali Maya falls a little short is its fit system. Breaking from the single twist dial that is nearly synonymous with the premium helmet market—and for a reason—the Maya requires two hands to pinch and adjust at the back. The adjusters do their job and are reasonably good at holding everything in place, but it’s annoying to have to stop and think through the process just to fine-tune the fit. Kali’s focus on protection makes it a good value, even without a MIPS liner, and it’s just the finicky closure system that’s keeping it at #5.
See the Kali Protectives Maya
Weight: 12.7 oz.
What we like: Another well-made all-mountain helmet.
What we don’t: Unproven long-term durability.
South Africa-based Leatt has earned accolades for their lines of full-face helmets and neck braces, but they’ve jumped into the trail-riding world with the DBX 3.0. Offered in either a standard half shell or convertible full face/half shell like the Bell Super 3R below, the new design incorporates Leatt’s proprietary 360° Turbine Technology. Another alternative to MIPS, these 10 small and flexible turbines are distributed throughout the liner. Their aim is to both absorb impact to reduce the risk of concussion and help with rotational energy around the brain. This does make the DBX 3.0 a little bulkier than many MIPS or SPIN helmets, but the difference is minor.
Aside from safety, the rest of the Leatt DBX 3.0 gets high marks. You get a large and adjustable visor, a smart ventilation system that even draws air around the brow, and all-day comfort from the deep, cushy interior. The main question is long-term performance: this new model just doesn’t have the track record that you get with an option like the Kali Maya or POC Tectal above. But all signs are positive, and the DBX could easily make its way higher up this list in a future update.
See the Leatt DBX 3.0 All-Mountain
Weight: 11.9 oz.
What we like: Solid mix of performance and price.
What we don’t: Not as comfortable as the Chronicle above.
Another new release from Bell for 2018, the 4Forty is a detuned version of the Sixer above. You don’t get the action camera mount and the ventilation is simplified, but Bell retained the solid coverage for aggressive riding, adjustable visor, MIPS liner, and clean looks. And we love the price, which is $5 less than the popular Kali Maya and Giro Chronicle above. If you don’t want or need the extra features that come with a $150 helmet, the 4Forty has serious appeal.
How does the new 4Forty MIPS stack up against our top-rated Chronicle? The Bell lid is the better performer in hot weather with larger vents and a lower profile MIPS system. Further, its padding overlaps slightly under the brim to keep sweat from dripping in your eyes or glasses. But the Chronicle has a more accommodating interior that’s better cushioned and works well with a wider range of head shapes. We give the slight edge to the Giro in the end, but the new 4Forty is a great alternative. And Bell also has released a standard 4Forty helmet for $75 that doesn’t include MIPS.
See the Bell 4Forty MIPS See the Women's Bell Hela MIPS
Weight: 13.1 oz.
What we like: Smith quality and a lightweight feel.
What we don’t: Fit isn’t as universal as other helmets on this list; non-adjustable visor.
Smith’s unique Forefront helmet created a stir in the market with its distinctive look, but the price of over $200 limited its appeal. For last year, Smith has released the more reasonable Rover helmet with an eye towards the core XC and trail riding market. We wore the Rover alongside the Chronicle and A2 above and found that it offers competitive levels of comfort and easy adjustability with the large dial, but less protection at the back of your head. More, the helmet feels very light and its 13.1-ounce weight (medium size) is great for full-day rides. The exhaust-like ventilation design at the back of the helmet is pretty wild looking, and we’re not sure it’s completely necessary, but it was good enough for our springtime adventures when temperatures were in the low 70s.
What are the downsides of the Smith Rover? Based on our experience, the fit is less universally friendly than the Giro and Troy Lee Designs helmets above. The helmet didn’t have the same wide and deep fit and sat a little higher on our heads as a result (of course, this can be a positive for certain head shapes). In addition, the visor isn’t adjustable for times when you don’t need the protection, which is a notable omission at a popular price point for all-mountain riders. If the Rover were priced closer to $100, we’d consider it a great XC option, but instead it ends up with a mid-pack finish.
See the Smith Rover MIPS
Weight: 12.6 oz.
What we like: Now comes with MIPS; very comfortable.
What we don’t: Ventilation falls short of the new A2.
While the A2 above has overtaken the A1 on our list, the original Troy Lee Designs is still one of the best mountain biking helmets on the market. The biggest reason this helmet has been widely lauded is its excellent fit. It’s the kind of helmet that has that just right feel the moment you slip it on, and the large opening and secure closure system is accommodating for most head shapes. It’s less like an appendage and more an extension of you, which is a real boon for long days on the trail. More, the feature set of the A1, particularly the very soft padding, is on par with far more expensive helmet offerings.
The reason there is a Troy Lee Designs A2, however, is that there was some room for improvement with the A1. The primary complaint was its lack of ventilation, and this is still its Achilles heel. And the addition of a MIPS liner in 2017 (this was not available in prior years) only increased the issues with pushing hot air out. But the A1 saves you $30 compared with the new model with no compromise in comfort.
See the Troy Lee Designs A1
Weight: 27.7 oz.
What we like: Fantastic 2-in-1 full-face and half shell design.
What we don’t: Heavy and not downhill certified.
Bringing together the full-face design of a downhill helmet with a lightweight and ventilated half shell that’s trail-ready is the truly innovative Bell Super 3R MIPS. It’s undoubtedly a pricey piece of kit, and protection still falls short of a traditional full-face helmet, but we commend Bell for the creative and functional design. The 2-in-1 convertible style is great for enduro riders that need the extra protection for races but also want a standard helmet for training rides.
One issue with the Super 3R is that it doesn’t have a downhill safety certification, which puts it awkwardly in between the enduro and downhill worlds. But Bell has changed that with the release of the Super DH for 2018. The new helmet retains the 3R’s removable chinbar, but gets the all-important ASTM 1952 DH stamp of approval. This does come with a $70 jump in price to $300, making it a significant investment. As a result, the Super DH’s appeal is limited to those who want the added piece of mind for hitting big features in places like Whistler or while pushing their limits in race formats.
See the Bell Super 3R See the Women's Bell Super 3R
Weight: 13.8 oz.
What we like: A long overdue revamp to this popular model.
What we don’t: Polarizing looks and small visor.
Twelve years after its launch, Fox has released a new version of their iconic Flux helmet. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any similarities to the original, but the new design reflects the current market landscape. There are huge vent ports for good breathability (enough so to be chilly in cold weather), protection is excellent along the sides and back of the head, and the magnetic chinstrap buckle can be operated easily with one hand. Importantly, the second generation Flux gets high marks in comfort, which has been a hallmark of the line.
What are the downsides of the 2018 Flux? Looks can be subjective, but we don’t think Fox nailed the styling. The old model had a few quirky details, but the new one is even more polarizing. The open slats at the front certainly move a lot of air, but aren’t nearly as sleek looking as the Bell Sixer, Giro Chronicle, Kali Maya, and others above. Further, the squared-off back looks bulky and awkward. And from a practical standpoint, we’d prefer a larger visor for all-mountain riding. Fox has released the Flux in two versions: the $150 MIPS and a non-MIPS helmet, which is $50 cheaper and doesn’t include the magnetic buckle and premium liner.
See the Fox Flux MIPS
12. Giro Hex ($80)
Weight: 10.6 oz.
What we like: Superlight feel, great price.
What we don’t: Dated design = less coverage.
As evidence of how quickly mountain biking helmets have progressed, the Hex not long ago was a class leader in the all-mountain category but now it’s fallen mid-pack. Why the downgrade? It’s an old design, plain and simple. The Hex is from a time (all of 5 years ago) when mountain biking helmets weren’t that differentiated from road helmets. Unless you were planning on heading off to Whistler or racing downhill, lightweight XC helmets were the go-to choice, and the Hex’s large vents, budget-friendly price, and decent coverage was all you would need.
But as modern full-suspension bikes have made it easier for riders to tackle seriously technical terrain, the helmet market is shifting to react. And while we still enjoy our Hex for longer XC rides when weight and ventilation win out over absolute coverage (it remains a top choice for these uses), if you’ll be tackling rough trails, the helmets above offer better protection with a minimal weight penalty. For another budget option from Giro with a more modern design, check out the Fixture MIPS.
See the Giro Hex
Weight: 12 oz.
What we like: Very lightweight, comfortable fit.
What we don’t: Ventilation is surprisingly subpar.
A power player in the snowsports industry for over a decade, Smith made the push into cycling a few years ago with the high-end, mountain bike-specific Forefront. What Smith brought to the table was a new foam technology called Aerocore, which combines layers of EPS foam and Koroyd—a unique material that looks like a bunch of plastic straws glued together. They claim it’s 30 percent better at absorbing low-speed impacts and it makes the Forefront among the lightest mountain bike-specific helmet on the market—as well as on this list.
Unfortunately, all of the small holes around the head do little for ventilation and the Forefront is among the warmest options. Even with the updated second generation, it can't compete with premium options like the Bell Sixer or Leatt DBX 3.0 above. If you ride consistently in cool weather, this shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but even in the Pacific Northwest it’s important to have good ventilation for long climbs. The rest of the design is commendable, albeit very pricey. Even the non-MIPS model will cost you $200.
See the Smith Forefront 2
Weight: 13 oz.
What we like: Plenty of coverage, MIPS tech, and well ventilated.
What we don’t: Not as good a value as the Chronicle above.
Among Giro’s extensive mountain bike offerings, the Montaro sits in between the $100 XC and trail riding Chronicle MIPS and the $250 downhill and enduro Switchblade MIPS. A favorite of ours since its release last year, the Montaro has a high quality feel in your hands—and most importantly, on your head. Everything from the super absorbent plush padding and secure Roc Loc retention system is high-end. More, the low-profile design has excellent coverage along the back of the head and top of the neck for aggressive riding, and the protection is complimented by an integrated action camera mount and well-designed ventilation system. Air is routed in through a series of large vents at the front and out the back like exhaust, and even the retention system is optimized to encourage airflow.
As with the Fox Flux above, price is what pushes the Montaro down our list. The Giro Chronicle above proves that you don’t have to spend a ton to get a safe, comfortable, and secure helmet. There have also been a number of reports that the Montaro's nice-feeling padding doesn't hold up over the long term, although that hasn't been our experience. All in all, this Giro lid offers a boost in comfort and larger vents for riders that spend a lot of time in the saddle.
See the Giro Montaro MIPS See the Women's Giro Montara MIPS
Weight: 8.8 oz.
What we like: Lightweight and a great price.
What we don’t: A step down in head coverage and build quality.
Bern Unlimited is best known for their skate and snowsports helmets, but they’ve put together a solid budget mountain bike lid in the FL-1 Trail. Most impressive is the $70 price, which gets you good head protection for cross-country riding at a feathery weight of less than 9 ounces. This isn’t a feature-packed design and you don’t have the option for additional safety tech, but the FL-1 Trail gets the job done on flowy singletrack and looks good to boot.
What do you sacrifice at the FL-1’s budget price? First off, the helmet offers less coverage than the designs above—it’s sufficient for XC use but not as good as an all-mountain model. Additionally, the retention system doesn’t provide as much adjustability to customize the fit, and the visor is fixed in place (you can pop it out if needed). But we like the ultralight feel and minimal cost, which earns it a spot on our list for 2018.
See the Bern Unlimited FL-1 Trail
Weight: 14.1 oz.
What we like: Good coverage and comfy fit.
What we don’t: Polarizing looks; low on features for the price.
Fox is a strong player in the bike suspension market, but the company has had a surprisingly small line-up of helmet offerings. For over a decade, their Flux helmet has been a big seller, but we expect the Metah to join suite. This helmet packs modern features like a substantial visor, extended protection along the back of the head, and massive vent openings. More, the Metah has a nice fit with a wide and accommodating shell, a simple ratcheting adjustment system, and soft padding along the inside.
The primary reason that the Metah drops towards the bottom of our list is the strong competition at this price point. Helmets running $150 typically are lighter, include a MIPS liner, and an adjustable visor for holding goggles. More, the styling is a bit polarizing compared with the clean look of the helmets above and it looks pretty big on your head. The Metah still is a nice helmet, but we think there are better options in the crowded all-mountain field.
See the Fox Metah Helmet
Weight: 11 oz.
What we like: Great casual budget option.
What we don’t: Bulky and ungainly for serious riding.
For casual riding or if you’re new to mountain biking, the Bell Traverse is an excellent budget option. It has all the basics you need for the occasional spin at the local park: an adjustable fit, visor, absorbent padding, and reasonable head coverage. Ventilation isn’t half-bad either with large cutouts in the in-mold shell.
But it’s clear there wasn’t a whole lot of R&D that went into the design. The fit is the most mushroom-like on this list—a consequence of the one-size-fits-all design—and it can feel ungainly on your head despite an 11-ounce weight. That said, you can almost purchase 2 Traverses for the price of next cheapest helmet on this list. More, Bell added a Traverse with MIPS last year, and at $65 it’s one of the most affordable ways to get that safety feature.
See the Bell Traverse
|Giro Chronicle MIPS||$100||All-mountain/XC||13.1 oz.||14||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Troy Lee Designs A2||$175||All-mountain/XC||13.3 oz.||13||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Bell Sixer MIPS||$150||All-mountain||14.5 oz.||26||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|POC Tectal Race SPIN||$220||All-mountain/XC||12.5 oz.||15||Yes (SPIN)||Adjustable|
|Kali Protectives Maya||$100||All-mountain||12.7 oz.||12||No||Adjustable|
|Leatt DBX 3.0 All-Mountain||$170||All-mountain||12.7 oz.||18||Yes (Turbine)||Adjustable|
|Bell 4Forty MIPS||$95||XC/all-mountain||11.9 oz.||15||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Smith Rover MIPS||$150||XC||13.1 oz.||18||Yes (MIPS)||Fixed|
|Troy Lee Designs A1||$139||All-mountain||12.6 oz.||16||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Bell Super 3R||$230||Downhill/all-mountain||27.7 oz.||33||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Fox Flux MIPS||$150||All-mountain||13.8 oz.||14||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Giro Hex||$80||XC||10.6 oz.||21||No||Adjustable|
|Smith Forefront 2 MIPS||$230||All-mountain/XC||12 oz.||20||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Giro Montaro MIPS||$150||All-mountain/XC||13 oz.||16||Yes (MIPS)||Adjustable|
|Bern Unlimited FL-1 Trail||$70||XC||8.8 oz.||18||No||Fixed|
|Fox Metah||$150||XC/all-mountain||14.1 oz.||10||No||Fixed|
|Bell Traverse||$45||XC||11 oz.||25||No||Fixed|
- Helmet Categories: XC, All-Mountain, and Downhill
- Helmet Weight
- Helmet Fit
- Women’s-Specific Helmets
- Padding and Comfort
- In-Mold Helmet Construction
- Helmet Safety: MIPS, SPIN, Turbines, and More
- Mountain Bike Helmet Features
- When to Replace Your Helmet
One of the most significant shifts in mountain bike helmet design is the amount of head coverage real estate. Only a few years ago, reducing weight was the ultimate goal for most riders (and the big focus of manufacturers), so thin and open XC designs were the rage. Still today, when you’re covering a lot of ground and aren’t tackling anything too sketchy, airflow and a feathery feel wins out over absolute protection. That’s when a helmet like the Giro Hex is an excellent choice. It’s light, airy, affordable, and still provides enough protection for less extreme riders.
Most all-mountain riders need more protection: with enough coverage around the temples, sides, and back of the head but with plenty of openings to move all that hot air. The POC Tectal Race SPIN is a great example of reaching nearly XC helmet levels of lightness but with extra protection. This category is quickly growing in popularity, and most of the top designs on the market land here, including the Troy Lee Designs A2, Bell Sixer, and Giro Chronicle.
If you’ll be seeing a lot of aggressive downhill time, we highly recommend upping the coverage. At the extreme end are full-face helmets, which are great for enduro, downhill, and racing but turn into an absolute sauna if you have to do pretty much any pedaling. The Bell Super 3R with its removable chin guard is a nice hybrid option, but still falls short in terms of ventilation with most other trail riding helmets. Fox's Proframe is another design that puts a big emphasis on breathability even with the chinbar connected.
A lightweight helmet that you hardly notice on a long ride is a beautiful thing, but you do pay more for the barely-there feeling. It’s unfair to simply compare helmets by weight—old XC styles will win out just about every time—but when they offer similar protection, it’s a useful spec. And in general, the more you pay the lighter the helmet will be. For example, the 14-ounce Bell Sixer MIPS is noticeably heavier than the 9-ounce Bern FL-1 Trail. The core all-mountain market is full of options in the 13-ounce range, which is a great match for most riders. More, how heavy the helmet actually feels on your head can be another thing altogether. In the case of the very light Bern FL-1, both the listed weight and feel are the same, but the similarly lightweight Bell Traverse can feel ungainly and far heavier.
Nearly all forms of mountain biking require good ventilation. Even at lift-assisted parks you can work up a good sweat on a pump track or pedaling on the flats (not to mention holding on for dear life on the downhill). Ventilation isn’t as simple as looking at the number of vents—although it’s a good place to start. A quality design will work as a system, moving air from the front to back. And this system should include the retention system and padding inside the helmet, both of which have the potential to interrupt the flow. Helmets like the very open Smith Rover are top performers, and among the all-mountain helmets, the POC Trabec Race does remarkably well for having less surface area dedicated to venting.
Fit is the single most important factor in a helmet purchase. When standing on your pedals and grinding up a hill, you don’t want the helmet to be constrictive and give you a headache at the end of the day. You also don’t want it to be so loose that it’s flopping around when trail roots and rocks make for a rough ride. Fortunately, helmets and their respective fit systems have made great gains. A single turn of the adjuster at the back of most helmets progressively cinches the fit around the head. Giro’s current Roc Loc is a standout in terms of ease of use, with a small but glove-friendly dial, as well as security. The goal is to click it in place and leave it alone until you wrap up your ride.
Another factor is shell size: upgraded models come in a variety of sizes to better match the overall shape of the helmet to a person’s head. Base styles will be one-size-fits-all, at least theoretically, which typically means the fit is good enough for casual use but not great for those who need serious performance. Those with larger heads are okay with these one-size helmets because the shell has to be large to fit everyone, and the Bell Traverse is a good case-in-point. But if you’ll be on your bike a lot or plan to push your limits, we recommend spending the $60+ that it costs to get a helmet that comes in multiple sizes.
Most of the helmets we have listed above are considered unisex and are intended for both men and women. There are, however, some women’s-specific designs that are differentiated by smaller diameter sizes, unique colorways, and sometimes a different name. Importantly, the safety technology, pricing, and basic shape of the shell do not change. Fit is what matters most in getting a helmet, so start by measuring your head circumference and then make your decision between unisex or women’s-specific after. When available, we have included a link to the women’s version of the helmet in the product specifications.
Getting a helmet with a proper fit is most important, but the padding along the interior plays a big role in overall comfort. And we’ve found the quality of the cushioning correlates closely with price. Cheap helmets like the Bell Traverse lack the plush feel and can lead to occasional skin irritation over time. On the other hand, a soft interior like Troy Lee Designs’ A1 has fantastic cushioning that isolates the fit adjustment system, allowing you to forget about the helmet altogether while riding. Another benefit of premium padding is sweat absorption—more expensive pads do a better job taking in sweat while on the trail. Finally, one feature shared across price points is that you can remove your liner for occasional cleaning. While some brands claim that you can machine wash them, we recommend gently hand washing to reduce the chance of breakdown of the material.
In-mold technology is found on nearly all mountain biking helmets. It combines a thin shell (often polycarbonate) with an EPS foam liner right from the start, and they’re molded together. What you get is an integrated piece that reduces weight, allows for cutouts for ventilation, and lets the helmet work as a single unit to absorb impacts. Some manufacturers, including POC, further beef up the in-mold helmet by inserting a grid of Armamid fibers into the core. The benefit of the synthetic material is extra durability and protection in a crash. There are a couple of completely new construction techniques, including Smith’s Aerocore that adds a layer of honeycomb-like Koroyd under the shell, but as of now nothing can compare with in-mold construction’s great combination of impact absorption and venting capabilities.
You’ll find MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) listed on many helmet models like the Giro Chronicle, along with a price hike of about $20 to $30. What are you getting for the extra cash? Extra noggin protection for angled hits is the claim. MIPS technology works by creating a low friction layer between the helmet’s shell and soft liner. We’ve removed our MIPS liners and it’s impressively simple: there’s one thin plastic layer that connects to the helmet with a few small tabs. When hit at an angle, the MIPS layer in theory lets the shell move just enough to help relieve the rotational forces on the head and brain.
MIPS put slip plane technology on the map, but a growing number of alternatives have emerged over the past couple years. From the list above, POC’s latest Tectal Race helmet features SPIN. This system is beautifully simple, using the pads on the interior to reduce rotational forces on the brain. Leatt’s DBX 3.0 has 360° Turbine Technology, which inserts circular flexible pads into the liner that both absorb energy and help with angled impacts. As with MIPS, it’s tough to say that one design is safer than the other—or even to definitely prove that the technology is worth it. But the science is continuing to mature, and we’re happy to see more companies investing in this important safety research.
As mentioned above, current safety standards just tell us whether or not a helmet passes their tests (every helmet on our list does), but don’t go beyond that. And the topic of MIPS is hotly contested among industry experts. How often MIPS technology is a safety benefit is difficult to quantify and we haven’t found any solid evidence-based research, but indications point to it being an extra safety measure to protect your head (how much that’s worth is up to you). For more information on MIPS, we’ve found this article by the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute to be an unbiased and helpful resource.
Mountain bike helmets are differentiated from road biking models by their greater head coverage and the addition of a visor. Regarding the latter, a large visor is great for keeping the sun out of your eyes and offers extra protection from rain and even low hanging branches. There are differences in the shapes—Troy Lee Designs’ A2 visor is wide and relatively short while Giro’s Chronicle and Smith’s Rover are narrow and long—but large moto-inspired bills that stick out nearly as far as a baseball cap are becoming the norm.
The second feature with a visor is adjustability. The benefit of this style of visor is that you can push it out of the way if you want completely unobstructed views of the trail or need to store your goggles on the helmet when not in use. This is a common feature on all-mountain helmets, but less so on XC-focused designs (including the Bern FL-1 Trail, Giro Hex, and Smith Rover). It’s important to note that not all helmets with an adjustable visor have the same amount of adjustability—Troy Lee Designs’ A2 slides up and down but doesn’t leave enough space for goggles. Whether or not this is an important feature is a personal decision, but the differences are worth considering when choosing your next helmet.
Standard glasses are the most common type of eyewear for mountain bikers, but the increased coverage and protection you get with goggles are popular with enduro and downhill racers. To start, you don’t necessarily need a bunch of features to ride with goggles—if they fit under the bill of the helmet and the shape of the shell does a good job keeping the straps in place, you can wear them just fine. Smith’s Rover is a great example of a helmet that isn’t technically optimized for goggles but still works well.
There are a couple helmet features, however, that can make it easier to accommodate goggles. To start, a highly adjustable visor makes it simple to place your goggles at forehead height when not in use (such as on a long climb). More, some all-mountain and downhill helmets include a retainer strap or system at the rear of the helmet to keep the goggle straps in place. Note: it’s best not to assume an all-mountain helmet will have these features as some popular models like the Troy Lee Designs A2 doesn’t have a very adjustable visor. One helmet that puts it all together is Bell's Sixer MIPS: the visor can be quickly moved out of the way and there is a rubberized piece on the back of the helmet to keep the straps in place.
Action Camera Mounts
Mountain biking is closely linked to the rise in the action camera market, and a helmet mount offers a fun, first-person perspective. Most action cameras like the various GoPro models and Garmin’s VIRB include a sticky mount that can attach directly onto helmets with a smooth space at the front. Heavily ventilated helmets may need a little modification to work, but GoPro, Garmin, Sony, and others sell strap systems that slot through the vent openings to hold everything in place.
Taking this a step further, some high-end helmets have a built-in action camera mount. This takes some of the guesswork out of getting the ideal camera angle and saves you from having to use one of your sticky mounts. The systems on Bell’s Super 3R and Giro’s Montaro MIPS are stable and designed to break away in a crash. We certainly wouldn’t make our helmet choice just based on this feature—keep in mind that you can attach an action cam to your handlebars or use a chest mount—but they are an unobtrusive and smart solution for those willing to pay a little extra.
The decision to replace an old helmet isn’t always a clear one—and there are still debates to this day about when’s the perfect time. To start, helmets do have a shelf life, so it’s never a good idea to grab your old lid that’s been collecting dust for the past decade without at least taking a good look at it. It’s a good idea to start with the following: can you see any cracks in the foam? Are there any signs of deterioration on the outer shell or inner lining? If anything looks questionable, we recommend erring on the side of caution and replacing it.
For the nitty-gritty answer, there have been a number of tests done to pin down the ideal lifespan. And while there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, most manufacturers stick to 3 to 8 years. If you ride a lot, there’s a good chance you’ll be replacing it towards the earlier end. For the helmet that’s been sitting for a while, considering the changes in fit and safety technology, buying a new helmet will surely be an upgrade even if your old one still is technically functional.
The rule for replacing a helmet after a crash is far simpler. If you crashed and the impact is significant, the foam inside will be compromised, which diminishes its performance for future crashes. So replace it. In all seriousness, it’s not worth making excuses to avoid replacing a helmet. If it’s old or has been knocked around, get a new one.
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