Choosing a motorcycle helmet isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
The market is flush with all types of helmet made with a collection of different materials. Some come loaded with extra features while others are rather Spartan.
Helmets have just one purpose, though, and that is to protect your head in the event of an accident. Therefore, a motorcycle helmet is the most important bit of kit you will purchase for your motorcycle.
Fortunately, we’ve put together this guide to help streamline the process and get you riding in style and safety.
Size and Shape
A helmet that fits properly is absolutely key to it performing properly when needed. Not only is getting the right fit key from a safety perspective, but it’s essential to ensuring rider comfort too.
Measuring Your Head
Helmet manufacturers have size guides to help you figure out what size helmet you need. All you need to do is measure your head, compare it to the size guide, and, in theory, you’re good to go (although it isn’t always that simple).
Here’s how to do it:
- Take a soft measuring tape or a piece of string and wrap it around the crown of your head (around 1” above your eyebrows). Use a mirror to help make sure you are measuring the right area or ask someone to help.
- Read the measurement on the tape or measure the string length.
- Compare your measurement to the size guide.
This initial measurement is a great start to figuring out whether a helmet is a good fit or not, but it’s not the only consideration, as you’ll soon see.
Normally, if your head measurement comes up in between sizes, it’s better to go a size down for a snug fit, but occasionally this will mean the helmet structure is too tight around the crown, in which case you will need to size up.
Remember that manufacturers’ size guides differ. Since they’re not all the same, you might be a small in a Shoei helmet but a medium in HJC.
Knowing Your Head Shape
Fitting a helmet is more complicated than it seems because everybody has a different head shape, and different manufacturers or helmet models often cater to certain head shapes.
There are three main head shapes that helmet manufacturers cater to:
There are several combinations and variations between these main shapes, but knowing roughly where you fit in will steer you toward certain brands over others.
For example, Arai helmets are known for producing round oval helmets, whereas AGV helmets lean towards a more long oval head shape.
If you keep trying on helmets in Arai’s range and find there are gaps at the side of your head, maybe you need to try an AGV, which might suit your long oval head shape better.
Trying On a Helmet
Over the years, the helmet opening has gradually become smaller. This reduces wind noise as well as increases the fit and protection of the helmet. So be prepared to use the chin straps to stretch the helmet open a little bit as you get the largest part of your head in.
Pull the helmet over the crown of your head as opposed to your forehead. Once on, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you feel the helmet’s lining all the way around your head?
- Are the cheek pads pushing in your cheeks and pushing them slightly upwards?
- Is the top of the helmet resting on your forehead?
- Can you feel any gaps?
- Are there any pressure points?
- Is the helmet uncomfortable?
- Can you move the helmet around easily, either up and down or side to side?
You should wear the helmet for a good 10–15 minutes, whether you are in a store or trying it on at home. This will give you a good indication of whether any pressure points develop or if the helmet loosens up too much.
Be patient and be sure to try on a few different styles.
Testing the Fit
A motorcycle helmet should feel snug all the way around your head with no gaps or pressure points.
Your cheeks should be pushed up so that you are not able to chew gum while wearing your helmet. You should also have full visibility out of the eye-port, with the top of the helmet sitting midway down your forehead, not obstructing your view.
It should cover the base of your skull and around to below your jawbone and chin to offer the maximum protection possible, but the chin bar and face shield should not be touching your face.
Make sure your helmet is not too tight or too loose.
A motorcycle helmet needs to be tight on your head and have no movement. A loose helmet is completely useless as a protective item. The helmet, rather than your head, should absorb the energy and full impact of an accident. There are a couple of things that could happen if your helmet isn’t tight enough:
- Your head may be subjected to several smaller impacts inside the helmet as it rattles around loose inside.
- The helmet could swivel around, leaving the back of your skull or side of your head to take the brunt of an impact.
- If a helmet can twist, it can cause serious injury to your neck.
- The helmet could come off altogether, leaving you completely unprotected.
You can tell if the helmet is too loose in a few different ways. If the helmet moves independently of your head, then it is too loose. Equally, if you can get your finger up between the helmet and forehead, it is too loose.
When you twist the helmet, your skin should move with it and you shouldn’t be able to lift it off your head with the chin strap done up.
If a helmet is too tight, though, it can be very painful. If a helmet causes you pressure points, these won’t go away since the structure of the helmet doesn’t loosen up with time. These sore spots can make riding uncomfortable, causing a potentially serious distraction when out on the road.
Make sure you achieve the perfect balance between tight and loose.
Lastly, a helmet might fit really well around your head but be too tight or loose on your cheeks. This is often the case with riders who fall in between sizes.
Manufacturers such as Shoei and Arai offer a custom fit where you can swap out the cheek pads and headlining to gain or lose a few millimeters of padding to optimize your comfort.
Some helmets even come with peel off pads for this purpose and Scorpion helmets have cheek pads that can be pumped up with air.
Once you know what size you are and how to find a helmet that fits properly, you can begin to look at what makes a helmet safe.
The best starting point is to look for safety certifications and ratings. These can give you peace of mind that your helmet has been tested to at least the minimum required level of safety.
In the US, there are two specific certifications and ratings to look out for: DOT and Snell. It is also useful to have a brief knowledge of ECE and SHARP, which are the two organizations that manufacturers are regulated by internationally.
All helmets legally sold in the US need to have DOT (Department of Transportation) certification.
A DOT-approved motorcycle helmet means that the helmet you are wearing legally meets the National Highways Traffic Safety Administration set of standards created to ensure helmets provide a reasonable level of protection.
The purpose of these standards is to reduce deaths and injuries to motorcyclists and their passengers.
DOT standards test how effective the helmet is at absorbing an impact, how well it deters an object from penetrating the helmet, and how secure the safety strap is to keep the helmet in place. The last thing the DOT tests is how much peripheral vision the visor port provides.
A DOT-approved helmet ensures that your helmet meets the minimum safety standards required. All illegal helmets sold without DOT approval have not been tested and therefore you cannot guarantee their effectiveness.
The Snell Memorial Foundation is an independent authority that, through rigorous testing, aims to improve the standard of protection of crash helmets.
Snell approval comes from manufacturers voluntarily paying to put their DOT-approved helmets through Snell testing procedures. Snell testing is far superior and more rigorous than DOT regulation testing.
There are six stages to the Snell testing that a helmet needs to pass in order to display a Snell-approved sticker:
- Impact test
- Fit test
- Retention strap performance
- Chin bar test
- Penetration test
- Face-shield penetration test
The big differences in the testing procedures of DOT and Snell come from the extra tests, such as the face-shield penetration test.
The helmets are also tested under more rigorous conditions than the DOT tests apply, using heavier weights and a wider range of surfaces. The energy the helmet actually absorbs is also measured.
According to Snell, there is a big difference between helmets that pass DOT certification just for legal requirements and actual high-performance helmets. All motorcycle helmets used in professional racing are Snell-approved. A Snell-approved sports helmet is guaranteed to be one of the safest options on the market.
While international regulations and certifications don’t apply to US helmets, US riders can use them to navigate how safe a helmet is.
Economic Commission for Europe regulations are applicable in 47 countries and an ECE-certified helmet is one that passes the ECE’s No. 22 Regulation, which lays out the standards manufacturers must meet when producing motorcycle helmets.
It’s quite common to see helmets with both DOT and ECE approval because manufacturers often supply markets internationally.
The latest ECE regulations, ECE 22.06, take over in January 2024 from ECE 22.05.
Apparently, the ECE 22.06 testing procedures are some of the toughest to meet, definitely tougher than DOT procedures.
If a helmet has DOT and ECE 22.06 approval, you know that it’s been more rigorously tested than if it was just DOT-approved. The Biltwell Gringo SV is an example of a helmet with both DOT and ECE 22.06 approval.
Just remember that a helmet has to be DOT-approved in the US. Even if it is ECE 22.06 certified, if it doesn’t have DOT approval it isn’t legal. On rare occasions, helmet manufacturers will produce a helmet to meet one or the other regulations and not both, so this can be confusing.
Read more: In-depth guide to motorcycle helmet standards.
Materials and Construction
New materials and technology have influenced the production of motorcycle helmets over the last 20 years. Instead of plain old fiberglass or thermo-injected plastic shells, it’s now common to see mixed-composite shells consisting of fibers like Kevlar and Carbon.
The introduction of these materials has led to motorcycle helmets being lighter while also performing to a much higher standard.
Outer Shell Materials
The outer shell of a helmet spreads the impact across the entire shell rather than isolating the impact absorption to one spot. Here are the common main materials used for the outer shell of motorcycle helmets today:
- Fiberglass: Cheap, strong, and flexible
- Mixed composite: Mixed fibers weaved and layered together for strength, offer good performance
- Carbon fiber: Expensive, super lightweight, high performance
- Plastic: Dense, strong plastic heated and molded into a shell shape, cheap but heavy
Plastic and fiberglass helmets sit at the lower end of the price range because they are cheaper to produce.
Mixed-composite helmets start from the midrange and are seen all the way to the top of the most expensive helmets. These helmets are considered to be some of the best-performing helmets on the market and are widely used by professional racers.
Like mixed-composite helmets, carbon-fiber helmets tend to be more expensive but are also considered to be high-performance lids.
If you’re spending lots of time at high speeds or doing track days, then a mixed-composite helmet would be the best way to go. However, if you stick to around town and weekend backroad rides at a more leisurely pace, then a plastic-shell helmet could do the job.
Remember, fiberglass and plastic lids were once all riders had to choose from and plenty of riders’ heads have been saved by such helmets. Still, technology has allowed manufacturers to improve design and construction to produce better results.
EPS Liner Material
The next layer of a helmet is the inner crush foam or EPS (expanded polystyrene) liner, which also absorbs as much of the impact as possible, protecting your head. While all manufacturers tend to use polystyrene for this layer, the difference comes from the density of the foam used as well as the quality.
Some helmets have multi-density EPS liners that manufacturers claim offer a higher level of impact absorption as a result. The Arai Regent-X is an example of a helmet with a multi-density liner.
Helmets have different types of chin straps with two main options.
The first is a double-D-ring closure, which is the oldest and arguably the safest closure system. The other is a buckle type micrometric closure. This is a simpler option that is easy to operate, even with gloves. It comes in either a plastic or metal option.
The problem with the micrometric closure is that they just aren’t as strong as the double-D-ring and can break in high speed and pressure impacts.
All race helmets only operate with a double-D-ring closure, so if you’re riding at high speeds or just want the safest option, that’s the way to go.
Type of Helmet
Once you have done your due diligence from a fit and safety standpoint, you can get on to slightly more fun things like the type of helmet you’re looking for.
At one time, you could get either a black open-face helmet or a black full-face helmet, with nothing in between. Today the market is flooded with all sorts of weird, wonderful, colorful helmets that can fill every rider’s needs and dreams.
There are three main types of helmet:
- Full face: Offers the most protection, good for high-speed riding
- Open face: Super lightweight, excellent ventilation, little to no face protection
- Modular: The convenience of an open-face helmet with the protection of a full face, tends to be the heaviest option
Within these three types of helmet, there are a host of other categories to choose from defined by riding style:
No matter what you ride, you’ll be able to find a helmet to match.
Sports helmets often have features like racing visors, rear spoilers, and race-derived ventilation systems, whereas touring helmets will focus on loads of useful features like internal sun visors or built-in speaker pockets.
Once you’ve figured out whether you want a full-face, open-face, or modular helmet, you can narrow down your search by thinking about your riding style and what features you want/need out of a helmet.
There are some features of motorcycle helmets that take priority when comparing lids, such as weight and ventilation. However, manufacturers today are producing helmets with more and more additional features that are completely changing the way we view helmets.
Some riders love that you can drop in a comms kit and hook up a camera, while others still prefer things stripped back and simple. Whatever category you fit in, a helmet’s features can make a huge difference.
One feature of a helmet that gets brought up a lot is the weight of a helmet. As lighter and more advanced materials become commonplace, there are more lightweight helmets to choose from.
A lighter helmet reduces rider fatigue and strain on the neck, so you can keep riding for longer. Generally, mixed composite/carbon fiber helmets are the lightest full-face options and open-face helmets are the lightest choice overall.
Ventilation for motorcycle riders is essential. Having a helmet with good intake vents and exhaust vents is a game changer, especially when you’re out on the track or on a long ride.
The key to good ventilation is that the helmet has exhaust vents at the back to let out the hot air. Otherwise, all the air that gets taken in from the helmet stays there and gets warmer — this can be very uncomfortable.
Vents that you can adjust, open, and close are also another big bonus.
Some helmets are louder than others. How noisy a helmet is and how it affects the rider is a completely subjective matter, however, so it’s difficult to 100% define a helmet as a quiet lid.
Obviously, a quieter lid is favored by most riders because the bike’s engine and exhaust, paired with the road and wind noise, can be loud and distracting.
Schuberth puts volume levels of its helmets above anything else and makes some of the quietest motorcycle helmets on the market, so it would be the manufacturer to look at for a genuinely quiet helmet.
Other Notable Features
Helmets can come super stripped back or fully loaded with additional features. Take a look at this list and identify any features you might want in your helmet:
- Anti-fog visors
- Pinlock visors and inserts
- Breath deflectors
- Chin curtains
- Cushioned neck roll
- Speaker pockets
- Internal sun visors
- Tinted visors
- Built-in comms kit pockets
Whether you want your helmet all singing and dancing is a completely personal thing, but by being aware that helmets have these options, you can make an informed decision based on your needs and preferences.
There is a helmet on the market to meet every budget, and you can get good protective lids for under $100 easily. Helmets on the cheaper side of things are usually plastic shells lacking the extra features of more expensive lids.
In terms of features, you can find things like internal sun visors and speaker pockets on less-expensive helmets, but the difference from a more expensive helmet will be in the quality of the components.
There are plenty of mid-range mixed-composite helmets, and these go right through to the top or end of the range. Generally, carbon-fiber helmets are always the most expensive option.
Another big difference between cheap helmets and expensive ones is the number of shell sizes a manufacturer produces. You’ll find that cheaper helmets tend to be produced in just two or three shell sizes to cover a whole size range, from XS–XL.
The problem is that the manufacturer then relies on padding to make the difference up in size, whether they use more padding or take some away. This can mean a rider with an extra small head can be wearing a medium-sized shell. The EPS liner is the same thickness in both, so the rider isn’t getting quite the same protection, just more comfort padding.
Higher priced helmets are often produced in more shell sizes to accommodate a wider range of sizes and to provide better fitment.
Check out our motorcycle helmet cost post for more information on what to budget for your helmet.
There you have it, a comprehensive guide to choosing the right motorcycle helmet.
Prioritize the way a helmet fits, followed by its protective abilities. Pick a style that you like and narrow your search down by features. Make sure you try on a bunch of styles and different brands, so you get to know and feel the differences between them for yourself.