The Ultimate Guide to Motorcycle Protective Gear
They are the first line of defence against serious injury in the event of a crash.
Helmets even make the riding experience better. Visors prevent pollutants and irritants from getting into your eyes and enclosed helmets reduce excess noise from the outside.
But which of these helmet styles is best for your particular use case? How do you know if a helmet is actually safe? And how do you find a helmet that actually fits?!
We’ve been testing and reviewing motorcycle gear for over a decade, so we know all the ins and outs of motorcycle helmets.
Keep reading and we’ll give you all the tools and info you need to find the perfect helmet for yourself!
Why Motorcycle Helmets Are just so Important
The human head is a thing of beauty. It is the perfect cocoon of safety for one of the most important parts of your body: your brain. The skull covers the most vulnerable parts of your brain and shields them from damage.
Even our hair helps protect the brain by providing an extra layer of crash protection that is surprisingly effective!
But when you’re riding a machine that might be capable of going 200 mph, you need some extra protection for your noggin.
In a car, you have the benefit of crumple zones, strong structural support from pillars, and more high-tech safety features such as airbags, autonomous driving features, and the like.
But when riding a motorcycle, you are completely exposed to the elements. That means you need to wear special riding gear that keeps you safe in the event of a crash. And that’s where helmets come in.
A helmet is usually made of a hard outer shell that can withstand heavy impacts against the road surface, other vehicles, and any other object that could damage your skull.
The inside of a helmet comprises different layers of a material like foam which can absorb some of the impact and prevent it from transferring to your head.
Motorcycle helmets help prevent cuts and bruises, trauma to the head, injuries to the upper and mid facial areas, and more serious injuries like skull fractures.
In fact, one study shows that wearing a motorcycle helmet reduces the chances of head injury by as much as 70%.
The Different Types Of Motorcycle Helmets
Helmets come in all different shapes and sizes. Which one you choose will depend on the type of riding you do, any specific features you’re looking for, and maybe even where you live in the world.
Here are the main types of helmets that you can get.
Full Face Helmets
A full face helmet is the most common type of helmet used by motorcyclists. This helmet covers your entire head and face. It is one of the safest helmets you can buy, since it goes all the way around your head and uses the most impact absorption material of any helmet.
Full face motorcycle helmets are popular with every type of rider and riding style. Whether you ride a sportbike, a cruiser, a streetfighter, or any other type of bike, a full face will fit right in.
These helmets come with full visors that enhance protection for your eyes and the front of your face. The enhanced coverage also means you get lower noise levels inside the helmet.
The drawback is that these helmets don’t have the best ventilation. They usually come with vents at the top and the rear but these don’t make for the most noticeable difference.
Another common complaint is the heft, which is only really mitigated by very expensive, lightweight materials.
- Best for safety
- Most impact absorption foam of any helmet
- Extends all around your head and face
- Best eye-protection
- Lower noise levels inside the helmet
- Ventilation and airflow aren’t the best
- Heavier than other helmet types
Open Face Helmets
An open face helmet is larger and has more impact absorption foam than a skull cap. These helmets extend around over your ears and even cover the side of your face to an extent.
However, the front is left completely exposed, which allows for better airflow and ventilation. The obvious drawback is that your face isn’t as well-protected as with full face motorcycle helmets.
And while some open face helmets come with an integrated visor, most will require you to wear glasses for eye-protection.
Open face helmets are quite popular with the cafe racer and neo-retro motorcycle crowd.
- More head coverage than skull caps
- Extends to the sides of your face
- Provides improved airflow and ventilation compared to full face helmets
- Most models don’t come with any eye-protection
- The front of your face is left unprotected
If you can’t decide between full face or open face helmets, modular helmets get you the best of both worlds.
These helmets have a similar design to full face helmets, but the front part that covers your face can be moved out of the way, similar to how the visor on a full face helmet works.
So you have a full face helmet for when you want extra face protection. And when you want to feel the wind in your face or just air out the stuffy helmet, you get an open face setup.
Modular motorcycle helmets don’t have that many drawbacks. One small issue some models have is that the front part tends to catch the wind when you put it up. This means you have to fight the wind just to keep your head level.
And while they may look like full face helmets, modular helmets aren’t quite as safe. They do offer a similar amount of impact absorption, but actual full face helmets will still have a slight edge.
Finally, because they have a few more components for the actual mechanism that flips the front portion, they tend to weigh a lot more than their full face counterparts.
- Modular design gives you the best of both full face and open face helmets
- Improved protection for your face, compared to open face helmets
- Better ventilation than a full face
- Noise levels inside the helmet are low when it is closed
- The front part of the helmet catches the wind in its open position, forcing your head back
- Impact absorption isn’t quite up to the level of a proper full face
- More components mean the helmet is even heavier than full face helmets
Offroad or motocross helmets are specifically designed for riders who take their motorcycles off the beaten path.
These helmets have special designs that make the rider a bit more comfortable in demanding off road conditions. These include an extended chin bar and visor that give you more space for ventilation and airflow.
The larger opening up front allows you to use goggles with these helmets as well. They come with a fixed visor above the opening that shields the rider from sunlight and also protects them from any road debris offroad.
These types of helmets are the go-to off-road, and also function well on the street. You might need to buy some eye protection/goggles, as the design of these helmets often doesn’t have those features.
Another concern with on-road use is that motocross helmets don’t have as much insulation as full face variants, so it might get a bit chilly in winter.
- Fixed visor for protection against the sun
- Extended chin allows for better ventilation and airflow
- Large front opening allows you to use goggles
- May not come with any eye protection
- Insulation against cold isn’t as good as full face helmets
- Fixed visor tends to lift your head in high wind
Adventure/Dual Sport Helmets
Dual sport helmets combine a lot of the best features of both full face and offroad helmets. They are designed to split the difference between on and off road use.
They are fully enclosed, so noise levels are bearable when you are riding in a busy city center.
The front opening and the visor are both larger than those on other helmets. That means you get a wider field of vision, which is great for when you take your ADV offroad.
Most models allow you to flip the visor out of the way if you would rather use your own goggles.
Like the off road helmet, you get a fixed visor that shields you from the sun and any falling debris. This may cause buffeting, but there are some models that let you detach it altogether.
- Enclosed, full face design
- Noise levels are lower
- Larger front opening
- Wider field of vision
- Can be used with goggles
- Ideal for both on-road and off-road use
- Fixed visor models may cause buffeting in high wind
Skull Cap Helmets
A skull cap helmet is one of the most basic forms of head protection you can get. It is usually made of a thin sheet of plastic, and only really covers the top and rear of your head. These helmets also lack a lot of the impact absorption material that other helmets come with.
The helmet is held in place by two straps on either side that go over your ears and meet at the chin. These helmets are very lightweight and minimal, but don’t offer a ton of protection in the event of a crash.
This type of helmet is quite popular with ‘biker gangs’ and many riders try to emulate that style today. However, because they lack proper protection for your head and face, many manufacturers have stopped making them.
- Provides coverage for top and rear of head
- No eye-protection
- Little to no impact absorption foam
- Little protection in case of a crash
Helmet Safety Standards Explained
You might be asking: What makes one helmet safer than the next?
Well, most helmets use similar components and materials for the construction. What differs is the quality and design of these particular components. This is also what makes one helmet safer than the next.
There are a couple different safety standards that are followed by the motorcycle helmet industry. You might have heard of some of them, such as DOT, ECE, SNELL, and the like.
All of them test helmets differently, and their rating systems are also based on different performance metrics. Here’s a quick overview of each.
The US Department Of Transportation (DOT) dictates the federal standard for motorcycle helmets to be sold in the US. As such, they require every manufacturer to certify that their helmets meet this standard.
This standard is set by the Economic Commission for Europe. It is used by most European countries.
The Snell standard is set by Snell Memorial Foundation, which is a non-profit organization. They voluntarily test and certify helmets, and some racing sanctioning organizations require that the helmets used be Snell certified.
The FIM is the newest standard, set by the FÉDÉRATION INTERNATIONALE DE MOTOCYCLISME (FIM), the world body that sanctions global professional motorcycle racing. This standard applies to all helmets used for professional motorcycle racing.
Sharp is an acronym for the Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme. This standard was established by the government of the United Kingdom in 2007. SHARP tests helmets bought at retail, thus ensuring that they are testing the same helmets that are available for consumers.
All of these standards test the helmets differently, and there isn’t necessarily one winner among them. That means you can’t say a helmet that bears the certification of one standard is necessarily better than the next.
Really, you will have to judge which one you think is best for yourself.
For example, the DOT is criticized for letting manufacturers test their helmets themselves. Similarly, the FIM racing helmets have stricter standards for on-track use, but they are also significantly more expensive than others.
Generally speaking though, a helmet that is certified by one of these standards is safe to use.
The Perfect Motorcycle Helmet For You
So how do you find the perfect motorcycle helmet for yourself?
Well, the exact type of helmet you buy will depend on the type of riding you intend on doing and the fexact features you find useful.
Put simply, we think that the full face motorcycle helmet is the best all-round package for both the street and the track.
So if you ride a sportbike, you might like full face helmets as they are great for both commuting, and beating your personal best lap time. They offer a quiet experience, and enhanced protection for your head and face.
On the other hand, full face helmets can get a bit stuffy in off-road scenarios where you have to contend with high heat and harsh sunlight .
Here, the more spacious motocross helmet with its fixed visor might be more to your liking.
If what you really want is the feeling of the wind in your face, but don’t want to sacrifice safety to get it, an open face or modular helmet is worth looking into.
And finally, dual sport helmets give you a lot of benefits for both on and off road riding in unfamiliar locations. The wider opening gives you a better view of your surroundings off road, while the clever venting systems let you soak up highway miles in comfort.
So there’s a helmet for every occasion. Again, we think that a high quality full face should suffice for most people, or you might want something a little bit more specialized. It all depends!
Finding A Motorcycle Helmet That Fits
No matter what type of helmet you get, one thing that is certain: You need a helmet that fits!
An ill-fitting motorcycle helmet can actually cause more problems than it solves. In fact, if your helmet doesn’t fit your head, we wouldn’t even recommend riding with it!
So how do you find a motorcycle helmet that fits?
We’re assuming that you already know what type of helmet you need.
After that, it’s time to take some measurements, so grab a tape measure and a friend.
Ask your friend to wrap the tape measure around your head. Be sure to position the tape measure above your eyebrows, and make sure it sits snugly around your head. Include the widest part of the head.
Now that you know what kind of helmet you want and how big it needs to be, refer to your favourite helmet manufacturer’s sizing chart to see which of the sizes being offered fits you.
Here, we should mention that helmet sizing can be a bit ‘iffy’. The sizing will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, helmet to helmet, etc. It also comes down to the exact shape of your head, which will be different from person to person.
The best thing to do is to visit local stores and try on the helmets you were considering. Even if you don’t find the exact model you’re looking for, a helmet from the same manufacturer can still give you a pretty good idea of their sizing.
How Much Should You Spend On A Motorcycle Helmet?
Helmets can often be the most expensive article of motorcycle gear you buy. There are helmets that cost under $100, and ones that get well into the thousands of dollars.
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t let price deter you from buying the helmet you want. Helmets are an investment that only has to pay off once, and we’d much rather have the safest option for when that time comes.
Still, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg just to get a helmet that is safe and has the features you need. A lot of the time, when you pay extra for a helmet, you’re not paying for more safety, but rather higher quality materials and other high-end features that cost more.
As a rule of thumb, we would recommend buying a helmet in the $200 to $500 range, if you want a motorcycle helmet from a reputable brand.
Of course, you can go much higher and much lower, but in our experience, the sub-$100 helmets of the world are quite basic, while the $700-plus segment is mostly designer stuff that is made from lightweight, expensive materials.
Important Considerations When Buying A Motorcycle Helmet
So, to sum up, these are the important considerations you need to make when buying a helmet.
Different types of helmets have unique features that are better suited to different scenarios and riding conditions.
Be sure to pick the right type of motorcycle helmet for your particular use case, be it racing on the track, commuting on the street, navigating off road dirt paths, or traversing continents on your adventure bike.
Another thing to consider is the features you need a helmet to have. And that doesn’t mean you should just get the helmet that has it ALL. Instead, get the one that has what you NEED.
The less extra features your helmet has, the lighter it will be. And believe us, lighter is better when it comes to motorcycle helmets.
There are a couple different safety standards that motorcycle helmets follow. Some of these standards are from government bodies, while others are from private organizations.
Which one you choose will depend on which one you trust most to test the helmets!
An ill-fitting helmet is about as effective as an ill-fitting condom.
Fit is the most important consideration to make when buying a motorcycle helmet. You want your helmet to sit snugly on your head with secure straps to hold it down so that it doesn’t go flying if you crash.
As a rule of thumb, your helmet should not move around on your head when you put it on and go riding.
Lastly, the money you’re willing to spend will determine which helmet you can get. Here, we would recommend spending between $200 and $500.
And remember, not all that glitters is gold. That means you don’t have to spend multiple thousands of dollars just to get a helmet that can keep you safe in the event of a crash.
At the same time, we wouldn’t recommend getting a helmet that costs much less than $100. Helmets at this price point might be perfectly safe and the bargains of the century, but we don’t want to take the risk of finding out!