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Motorcycle Helmet Guides

CK Zilla - ZLAmbassador

PUBLISHED: APR 20, 2013

The right helmet can save your life during the most terrifying 30 seconds you've ever experienced. The wrong helmet can make you miserable on an uneventful 10-minute ride. Our step-by-step guide and videos will help you choose the right helmet for you.

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 fiberglass/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.

Motorcycle Helmet Buying Guide 2014

If you already know what you are looking for, you can skip past 101 and check out our massive library of motorcycle helmet video reviews on our RevZilla TV YouTube channel. But if you're just getting started (or you want to further your education), there's a lot to learn, so let's break it down into three easy steps:

Getting the right fit
Choosing a helmet configuration
Considering safety ratings

Getting the right fit

"I came here to look for some smokin' hot graphics, not talk about expanded polystyrene! Also, when you say 'round oval' is that just a smooth way of telling me I have a fat head?"

We're talking about fit first because, honestly, it's the most important factor, both for your safety and your overall happiness with your helmet several thousand miles down the road. When a teen texting "OMG!" while driving punts you down the road, a cheap helmet that fits you right will provide better protection than a $600 racer replica that's rattling around loose on your head. And even if you never put your helmet to the crash test, you'll be a happier rider if your helmet fits right. Pressure points or excessive noise are an annoyance on a short ride but can be a literal, huge headache that saps the fun out of riding on a long day in the saddle.

Getting the ideal fit means considering head shape, as well as head size. Some helmets make it easier by offering easily replaceable interior pads of different sizes to fine-tune the fit. Figuring out what kind of noggin you have will help you narrow down the choices and find a helmet that's comfortable on your own unique head.

What is my head shape?

Everybody's head is a bit different, but we are all generally egg shaped, falling somewhere between round and oval. For convenience, we divide this range into three main categories: 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 intermediate shapes better. Your head shape can be determined by using a mirror or having a friend 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 points on your forehead (too round) or the sides of your head (too oval). When you buy a new helmet, we recommend wearing it for 30 to 45 minutes before using it on a ride to check for pressure points. These hot spots may not be immediately apparent but can grow into painful problems over time. Remember, if it goes out on the road it's 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 head size?

Measure your head with a cloth tape measure around your head from just above your eyebrows to the thickest point in the back. This circumference, 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 too 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. Generally, a new helmet out of the box should fit snugly because it will become a little looser after months of use. Head liners typically only break in about 5 percent, while cheekpads often compress about 15 percent to 20 percent over time. A snug fit is good unless you are developing a point or area of pain. Remember, RevZilla makes it easy to exchange your helmet for a different size if you return it in new condition. Or, give us a call and a Gear Geek will help you confirm you've selected the right size.

For more on getting the right fit, see our video guide.

How to fit a motorcycle helmet

Choosing a helmet configuration

Now that we've addressed the critical issue of fit, it's time to decide what kind of helmet to buy. Let's start at the beginning (this is Moto 101, after all) by talking about the different categories of helmets. Then we'll consider how those different kinds of helmets work for different kinds of riders, riding and motorcycles.

The video guides below talk about general categories of helmets: touring, modular, dual-sport, hi-viz and racing helmets.

Touring motorcycle helmet buying guide

Touring motorcycle helmets

It's an absolute must that a worthy long-distance touring helmet do a handful of things extremely well. Balance, ergonomics and low sound levels are of utmost importance, since the rides will generally be longer and any discomfort only becomes magnified after hours in the saddle. Ventilation is critical in hot weather and the upright riding position of most touring bikes works better with some venting configurations than others. The vents should be at the top of the head, most effectively flowing air when the rider is straight up. You will no doubt see upgraded safety certifications, optimal creature comforts and futuristic materials in shell construction. We picked several of our favorite long-distance touring helmets and detailed the features and benefits of each in this video in an effort to remove some of the cloudiness that inherently exists when so many options are available.

Modular motorcycle helmet buying guide

Modular motorcycle helmets

Modular motorcycle helmets have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years as a growing number of riders seek more versatility from their lids. Designed to be worn in the full-face configuration, with the face shield and chin bar in place, or as an open-face helmet, with the chin bar lifted up, modular helmets are extremely popular with the ADV and sport-touring crowds. At the base level, all modular helmets have a chin bar that can be flipped up. At the next level, helmets like the Shark Evoline 3 ST completely flip up and around to the back of the head for full-on aerodynamic open-face riding. Others, like the Scorpion EXO-900 and the Nolan N44, can be reconfigured from a full-face helmet to a comfortable open-face helmet in a matter of seconds with removable parts. Both of these helmets have removable visors and chin bars and can be configured multiple ways. It's important to consider the level of versatility you desire when buying a modular helmet, as the chin bar systems, face shields, and occasional sun visors vary from helmet to helmet.

Dual-sport helmet buying guide

Dual-sport motorcycle helmets

The popularity of adventure-touring, dual-sport and hyper-motard riding has led to innovation from the helmet makers. Essentially a cross between a street and a dirt helmet, dual-sport helmets incorporate off-road features but in a more aerodynamic package to suit the higher speeds of street riding. Dual-sport helmets are now ubiquitous and offer the versatility of multiple configurations to match changing conditions, on the road or off: visor on, face shield off; visor on, face shield on; and visor off, face shield off. Dual sport helmets generally have oversized face shields for extra-wide peripheral vision and allow for the use of goggles in place of the face shield for off-road riding. Prices range widely from the basic lids at $100 all the way up to the most technical and extreme helmets that approach the $700 mark. This guide will help to break down the nuts and bolts of dual-sport helmets and provide insight into what exact upgrades you'll be paying for as the price tag grows.

Hi-viz neon helmet buying guide

Hi-viz motorcycle helmets

High-visibility gear is a growing trend in the motorcycle gear universe. Hi-viz yellow and orange are two of the most attention-grabbing colors in the visual spectrum. Hi-viz motorcycle gear gives the safety-conscious rider the best chance of being seen by other motorists. There are twice as many motorists on the road as there were 20 years ago and staying safe on two wheels continues to increase in importance to many riders. Basic hi-viz helmets can start at the entry level at $100 and go all the way up to super-premium and technical helmets that may exceed the $700 mark. This guide will help you navigate the lines and features. Bright in the name of safety! Hi-Viz Brian would be proud.

Motorcycle race helmet buying guide

Motorcycle race helmets

Every racer knows that when you're on the track you have to be completely dialed in to your riding techniques and can't have any distractions in terms of discomfort with your lid. So a race helmet should be lightweight, comfortable, aerodynamic and strong, and the ventilation must be optimal. We sorted out our top six picks for race helmets and detailed the weights, features and benefits of each one. We also touch on the racers who are wearing each of the helmets featured. Consider this the first step in your process of sorting out the many race helmet options available.

Half Helmets and Open Face Helmets

It should be noted that half helmets and three-quarters or open-face helmets are inherently less protective, due to the lack of coverage in the face and the jaw. However, these helmet categories offer their own advantages, such as better visibility, more airflow, less weight and a more intimate connection with rain, hail, bugs, dirt, and the smell of freedom! All jokes aside, you are the only person who can set your priorities when it comes to riding gear. Make sure you understand the plusses and minuses involved, keeping safety and riding experience in mind, and we'll help you make an educated decision from there.

Now that we've looked at different categories of helmets, let's take a step-by-step process to determine which one is right for you.

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 let's home in on some specifics.

What's your posture on the bike? An upright riding position, like you find with many touring bikes, means that you don’t lean forward at all (or perhaps lean back slightly, in the case of cruisers). A touring helmet usually works best with this riding position.

Sport-touring bikes and some standards put the rider in the three-quarters posture, meaning you are leaned slightly forward. The range of variation here is wide, because some bikes have windscreens while others are naked. These riders have the most flexibility of choice and may be happiest with anything from a touring helmet to a dual-sport or race helmet.

Sport bikes put the rider in an aggressive full tuck position. Aerodynamics become more important, especially at the higher speeds on the track. Sport or race helmets are designed to vent best in the full tuck riding position. Some use a spoiler for aerodynamic reasons, too.

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?

Year-round commuters should look at helmets with adjustable features such as easy-change faceshields, a drop-down sun visor or a photochromatic shield. A weekender canyon carver may be more concerned with ventilation and awesome graphics. A long-distance tourer will need maximum comfort and quiet. For off-road riding, dual-sport helmets give you the option of using goggles or a faceshield, depending on conditions.

Generally speaking, 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 become intimately acquainted with the inside of your helmet. It should have a removable and washable liner, comfortable cheekpads, and an easy solution to changing lighting conditions. We've already said it, but it bears repeating: long-distance touring riders need comfort, because a minor annoyance after 50 miles becomes a huge pain after 500 miles.

Are you a year-round rider? Consider how your helmet will deal with changing weather conditions. In cold weather, a fog-resistant faceshield or the option to install a Pinlock system is handy. A quickly learned secret to the trade: “anti-fog” coatings wear off over time, but 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 prevents fogging. In warm weather, better venting or the convenience of a modular helmet may be more important.

The more you plan to ride, the more it makes sense to buy a quality helmet that will stand up to daily use and give you a full five years of service.

The occasional, short-distance rider may be served quite well with an inexpensive lid. It's all about matching what and how you ride with what you put on your head.

Considering safety ratings

Now let's talk about the downside of motorcycle helmets: literally, what happens when you go down? You may love your helmet for its cool graphics, but you need to know it will do its job when it counts. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about safety standards for helments, so let's look at 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 United States, 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 to meet the standard.

The second group is filled by those like SNELL or SHARP. A manufacturer will submit a helmet to these third-party testers 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 helmets 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 passed the test. Obviously, your exact helmet wasn’t tested.

Which safety rating is the best?

Different standards focus on different kinds of impacts. Some focus on puncture protection while others focus 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 into the equation.

Which is "better?" That's been the subject of fierce debate. Here's the rub: Tell me what kind of crash you're going to have and I'll tell you which safety rating is better. Since none of us know in advance how we're going to crash or what our head is going to hit when we go down, it's a complicated decision. People come to different conclusions on which safety rating they trust. That's why in the beginning we focused on fit first, and safety ratings last. The one thing that's certain is that a helmet won't work right if it doesn't fit properly, no matter what sticker is on it.

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 (expanded polystyrene) liner in the form or hairline cracks or stress fractures. The EPS liner is the layer in between the interior padding and the exterior shell and does most of the 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.

So that's 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 air conditioning 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 it, sweating. 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.