Motorcycle Helmet Guide 101
So you got yourself a motorcycle! Congrats! Now you need to buy some gear and you’ve decided to start with a helmet. Most people start here because they are either a) smart, or b) their state requires a DOT certified brain bucket. But, wait! There are so many to choose from!
How could you possibly decide, and what do all these things like EPS-liners, Venturi effects, Pinlock lenses, or fibreglass/composite shells even mean? Let’s boil it down to a process and hopefully by the end you won’t have a headache from thinking about it... or from wearing the wrong kind of helmet. If you begin by asking yourself the right questions, you will soon have the right answers. It just so happens that one of the best sources for right answers happens to be near by! If you already know what you are looking for, check out our massive library of Motorcycle Helmet Video Reviews on our RevZilla TV YouTube channel.
If you are short on time, don't worry, I'll give you the conclusion up front! However, if that is as far as you go, be warned that you just missed out on some awesome knowledge. Motorcycle Helmets can be a major investment, so its a good idea to know what you are spending your money on, or aren't.
Focus on these basic questions to assist you in narrowing down a helmet choice:
If you know the answers and implications to these questions, then most of your shopping process is done! After that, just click the appropriate filters on the site, watch a few video reviews, and add a helmet to your shopping cart. If you don't know the answers to these questions, or are struggling with how they relate to your decision to buy a helmet, keep reading!
What kind of bike do you ride?
I know, it’s ridiculously cool, it’s got two wheels, and it goes faster than Superman on a sunny day, but you still need a helmet before you go ripping up your local s-curves! Seriously though, why don’t we hone in on a few specifics: Does your bike have a windscreen? What is your riding posture on the bike? What kind of riding terrain is the bike made for?
Does your bike have a windscreen?
A faired bike with a windscreen offers several perks to the helmet buying process. Depending on the height, it already provides you with a quieter riding environment and dramatically reduces the amount of buffeting that will knock a helmet back and forth in the wind. A ‘naked’ bike (no need to avert your eyes, ‘naked’ just means no fairing or windshield) dumps all the air right in your face and will toss a less aerodynamic lid around causing fatigue and focus issues. Better aerodynamics translates to an easier (less bumpy) ride for your head
What is your riding posture on the bike?
Knowing your riding posture can influence your choices more than you might think. Generally speaking, there are 3 main categories, however, most motorcycle helmets will work without issue in all three. The advantages surface in the smaller details, when venting or aerodynamics are designed for a specific riding position.
Upright means that you don’t lean forward at all (or perhaps lean back slightly). Upright riders are usually shielded from the wind a bit since they sit back from the front of their bike. Cruisers, Adventure bikes and Touring bikes tend to invoke this position. Aerodynamics don't play as big of a role here and these types of bikes tend to come with windshields anyway, unless you have something more vintage in style. Upright riders fair best with Touring helmets due to their stability. Touring helmets are usually quiet, comfortable and can be on the heavier side, though they are well-balanced and don't bobble in the wind as much. The focus here is comfort, by putting a buffer bewtween you and the elements, especially when dealing with extended distances.
Three-Quarters posture means that you are leaned slightly forward and are likely riding a sport-tourer, street-fighter, or a modern ‘naked’ bike. These positions are quite varied due the integral relationship between fairing, windscreen, and helmet. Check out your favorite forum to find what people have experienced with their bike. Some may have ‘clean air’ (unobstructed airflow) hitting their helmet, while others may experience a different stream as it flips up off the front fairing and then back down onto the rider. Your height also plays a big role in the three-quarters position since the vertical adjustment of your head may put you over or under the air-stream. Three-Quarters riders have the most flexibility of choice, landing anywhere from Touring to Sport, or Dual-Sport helmets.
Full Tuck is the most aggressive rider stance. Sport, super-sport, and track bikes usually force the rider more forward on the bike, to where the natural position of your helmet sits immediately behind the fairing/windscreen. Aerodynamics are most important here since you will be getting a constant, steady stream of air around and overtop of your helmet. Full Tuck riders benefit most from Sport helmets, which focus on being lightweight and aerodynamic. Sport helmets are usually a bit more noisy for a few reasons. First, the shell is lighter and thinner, and second, racers usually wear earplugs due to their loud exhausts. Also, keep in mind that Sport/Race helmets may employ the use of a spoiler.
What kind of purpose is your bike made for?
Are you set up for the track, street riding, dual-sport (half and half), dirt? Each category has its own set of demands on the rider and their gear. Track riding requires the best in aerodynamics. Helmets in this category are designed to be super-lightweight. The venting on more sport-oriented helmets is also positioned for the full tuck or 3/4 riding position. Using a track helmet on the street will simply result in a loud helmet, since the shell design strips away all unneeded material for weight savings. Dual-sport bikes put their rider between the dirt and the tarmac, requiring a mix of ventilation and aerodynamics. Dirt helmets are designed for use with goggles and usually have a ‘peak’ that shield you from the sun and any incoming roost.
- If you are well shielded by your fairing and windscreen, you won’t benefit as much from aerodynamics or venting features since there isn’t a lot of air passing around your helmet.
- Your riding position will determine the best vent setup on your helmet. While this won't exclude your choices, you will see a slight increase in performance if you match the helmet to your riding position. The vents need to be where the air is and the more aggressive your stance, the more you should invest in aerodynamics.
- Use the right tool for the job. The type of riding you do will narrow the selection of helmets designed for that purpose.
What kind of riding do you do?
“Dude, my motorcycle is my freedom! I can go anywhere, anytime, all the time - booyah!” Well, sure, if you really wanted to you could probably get your chopper over the curb and out to the pine barrens. Or, you could probably push your ADV/touring bike to do 120 miles an hour. Motorcycles are able-bodied and flexible creatures, but let's be practical. What kind of roads do you plan to ride? How long are your rides? How many months a year do you ride?
What kind of roads do you plan to ride?
If you bought your bike to commute, your helmet should be full of adjustable features. A weekender, or canyon carver, is often concerned with ventilation and awesome graphics. A long-distance tourer will respond best to comfort and quiet. Off-roading obviously brings a new perspective, needing solutions for dusty conditions and extra protection from debris. If you plan to go off-roading for any portion of your ride, you might want to look at Dual-Sport helmets more closely. All of these helmets have the 'Peak' that is carried over from the Dirt riding world. The peak helps to block the sun a bit better, as well as deflecting roost, branches or other off-road obstacles. In addition, Dual-Sport helmets allow for use with goggles, giving you even more eye protection and another layer between you and the dust, mud, and grime. One downside to mention: Dual-Sport helmets can be worse with higher speed aerodynamics and are often noisier since their prime focus is on the slower speed offroad trails.
How long are your rides?
Generally, the more time you plan to spend in your lid, the more you should invest. If you plan to commute every day and your trek is 45 minutes or longer, you are going to be intimately acquainted with the inside of your helmet. It should have a removable/washable liner, comfortable cheekpads, and an easy solution to dusk/dawn lighting conditions. Harsh lighting can be combated by a drop-down sunvisor or a photochromatic shield. Additionally, if you leave when it is dark and come home during sunlight hours, an easy shield change system, or again, photochromatic option is a huge plus.
How many months a year do you ride?
Dealing with cold weather and hot weather are separate challenges with separate solutions. A cold-weather rider will need a fog-resistant faceshield or the option to install a Pinlock system for best results. A quickly learned secret to the trade: “Anti-fog” coatings wear off over time, Pinlock is forever! These two-part systems use a Pinlock-ready shield along with a Pinlock insert to provide an additional layer on the inside of your faceshield that absorbs moisture and prevents it from collecting as fog. A warm weather rider may benefit from an increased number of vents or the convenience of a flip-face, getting some much needed air while sitting at a stoplight. Durability is another consideration if you plan to be a year-rounder. Investing in a more reliable brand will pay off in the long run if you plan to use your helmet to its death and expect to get 5 years out of it.
- Try to predict the conditions your tarmac or dirt will throw at you. This should give you a clear idea of what features you will be most important for you.
- The occasional joyrider or short-distance hopper won’t spend enough time in his helmet to really appreciate the advanced features. On the other hand, cross-country riding or longer daily commutes will quickly show you the shortcomings of a helmet with inferior features.
- Your climate and season will highlight a few areas where your helmet needs to perform. If heat and sunlight, choose venting and tinting, if cold and rain, choose anti-fog and a beefy chin-curtain.
How should it fit?
"I bought a motorcycle to look totally badass, not look like a chipmunk! Also, when you say 'round-oval' is that just a smooth way of telling me I have a fat head?" Several key attributes make up an ideal fit, including headshape, headsize, and for some helmets, an adjustable interior. Knowing what to expect will make it easier to get it right the first time and learning what kind of noggin you have will also narrow down the choices that will suit you most comfortably.
What is my headshape?
Everybody's head is a bit different, however, we are all generally egg shaped, falling somewhere between round and oval. The three main categories are Round-Oval, Intermediate-Oval, and Long-Oval. Modular (flip-face) helmets are mostly round-oval, due to the hinge mechanism, though newer technologies are now allowing them to fit more intermediately. Your headshape can be determined by getting a mirror, or a friend, to look down on your head from the top. Extreme shapes should be readily apparent, but if you are not sure, you likely fall into the intermediate-oval category (this is the most common). Keep in mind that the length or shape of your face, or the pudginess of your cheeks doesn't affect headshape. A helmet that is the wrong shape will cause pressure point on your forehead (too round) or the sides of your head (too oval). We recommend taking 30-45 minutes of wearing your helmet inside to check for this effect. Watch a TV show, or play a game and make sure these hot-spots don't develop over time. Remember, if it goes out on the road its yours, so make sure to double check fit before wearing it on your bike. The most important aspect here is the crown of your head. Cheekpads are often replaceable and do not determine shape or size.
What is my headsize?
We've got a great resource for taking your head measurement here. Basically, take a cloth tape measure around your head from just above your eyebrows to the thickest point in the back. This circumfrence, usually listed in inches, can be cross-referenced with the size chart on any helmet. Some brands have a tendency to run slightly big or small, so check out the customer reviews, Video detail breakdowns, or any comments from RevZilla to assist your choice. A helmet that is the wrong size will either be too loose and move around on your head too much, or will be to tight and not sit down completely on your head, causing a high fit or simply pressure all around the crown. A correctly sized helmet will move slightly, but will pull the skin on your scalp and face with it, preventing rotation or large movements.
How can I adjust the fit?
Many helmets have replaceable cheekpads and liners that will allow for adjustment of the interior shape and fit of the helmet. Arai, makes most of their helmets with a 5mm layer in the cheekpad and/or head liner that can be removed for a bit more room. Scorpion has their air pump system that allows for custom inflation of the cheekpads. Beyond switching out these items or using these features, any alteration to the inside of the helmet will likely result in loss of warranty and risks compromising the integrity of the helmet. Your helmet should feel equally snug around the crown and a good bit tight in the cheeks. Head liners typically only break in about 5%, while cheekpads often give about 15%-20%. A snug fit is good unless you are developing a point or area of pain. Remember, you can always exchange for a different size, if you return your helmet in new condition. Or, give us a call to confirm you've selected the right one.
- Learn your headshape and use reviews or other customer comments to choose a helmet that best reflects your unique skull.
- Take your head measurement several times, or better yet, have a friend take it for you. Use the average and compare the measurement to the size chart for best results. If you need some pointers, watch our video on How To Fit A Motorcycle Helmet.
- Look for the features that your helmet offers in adjusting the fit. If you've already tried these and it is still uncomfortable then you probably need to revisit the shape or size questions.
But, what if I crash?
“Ok, I’m starting to get the picture, but what happens when I bite the dust? What good do all these shenanigans do when it counts?” There are several safety ratings that circle through the motorcycle world, some are specific to a local regulation, while others are managed by a third-party company. You could get lost in hours of research on this subject, and I suggest you do! Crashing is a ‘when’, not an ‘if’ and it pays to know what kind of rating you trust, in more ways than one. For the sake of arguement, lets assume you don't have hours to do research -- here are the basics:
What kind of safety ratings are there?
There are two main types of safety ratings, those required by law in a specific city, state, or country, and those submitted for testing to a third-party organization. The former, like DOT in the US, ECE 22.05 in Europe, or AUS 1698-2006 in Australia, are largely voluntary standards. This means that while a certain level of protection is required, no testing is needed in order to produce a helmet. DOT will eventually get around to testing every helmet that is on the market, but until that happens, you are trusting the reputation of the manufacturer. The latter group is filled by those like SNELL or SHARP. A manufacturer will submit a helmet to these companies for approval in order to receive this certification. The helmet then goes through a robust testing process for a random sample of each shell size, from several batches of helmets. If they all pass, the manufacturer must then pay to carry the SNELL or SHARP certification sticker on their helmet for each model produced. This acts like a badge of honor and you can rest assured that several clones of your helmet have already been subjected to cruel treatment and come out unscathed. Obviously, your exact helmet wasn’t tested.
Which safety rating is the best?
There are two schools of thought on safety standards. The first relies heavily on puncture protection, while the second focuses more on energy absorption. DOT and SNELL fall into the first camp, testing motorcycle helmets by dropping pointed weight on the sides, top and chin of a helmet to test for penetration. Other than a small chip or crack at the point of impact, these shells tend to look virtually unharmed after testing. The second, like SHARP and ECE, concentrate more on transmitting the energy administered upon impact throughout the entire helmet. These helmets tend to look more maimed after testing, but that is the point. The helmet absorbs the energy, breaking down and spreading the force across the entire shell. These tests also introduce a few more oblique impact results to the equation.
How many times can I crash in my helmet?
Even the smallest impact can have a dramatic effect on the integrity of a helmet shell. Most structural damage to a helmet is not visible to the naked eye, but instead is contained inside the EPS liner in the form or hairline cracks or stress fractures. The EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) liner is the layer in-between the interior padding and the exterior shell and does the most work in preventing the energy of an impact from reaching your head. Once this interior EPS liner breaks down, it is no longer able to disperse the energy from a collision effectively. If you crash in your helmet, you should replace it. End of story.
- Spend some time, do some research! Many people come to different conclusions on what safety ratings they trust, or the saftey standard that says the most about their riding style.
- Tell me how you are going to crash, and I’ll tell you which safety rating you should invest in.
- Didn’t you read this the first time? End of story, replace your helmet if you’ve crashed in it.
What? Did you expect me to provide you a link to the Holy Grail of motorcycle helmets? Ya know, the one that costs $100, will protect you from asteroids, has a built in A/C system, and a coffee stash with an internal sip-straw? News flash: It doesn’t exist! Now get back out there and keep researching! A helmet is an important and personal choice, especially since you’ll spend hours trapped inside sweating in one. Remember, there is a ton of research and development that goes into helmets and other technical equipment these days. The more educated a purchase you make, the happier you will be in the end.
Besides, if you run into an impasse, that is what we are here for! Just give our Gear Geeks a call at 877-792-9455.