Whether you are new to cycling or are a seasoned two-wheeled warrior, one of the very first safety items that should come to mind is a helmet. Bicycle helmets can be a polarizing topic, with arguments for and against their use – some passionate cycling advocates say that a helmet is a must every time you ride, while others aren’t as convinced of their need.
No matter your own feelings on helmets, you know that finding the right one for your particular cycling interests, style, and safety can be pretty daunting. There are literally hundreds of choices at every price point imaginable. Here’s our comprehensive guide to the best bike helmets in 2019, sprinkled through with tips and details to make your shopping experience as easy as possible.
The Humble Bicycle Helmet
At their best, bicycle helmets have one role: to protect your head from impacts resulting from crashes. Bicycle helmets are designed to provide coverage to the delicate structures of your head, cushioning any blows the rider might face on- or off-road. The typical bicycle helmet consists of three major components:
The shell – made of injection-molded plastics, polymers, or even carbon fiber, the shell keeps the helmet together and provides the first layer of impact protection.
The inner liner – this is where the majority of impact absorption and deceleration happens. Helmet liners are usually made of some type of expanded foam, such as EPS (expanded polystyrene) or EPP (expanded polypropylene). In most helmets, the inner liner deforms during a crash, cushioning the rider’s head from impacts.
The suspension system – this is the collection of brow bands, straps, and buckles that suspend the helmet on the rider’s head. Each brand has their own unique attributes, such as dial-fit suspension or adjustable straps to customize the helmet’s fit.
Manufacturers may add additional components, such as sun visors, sunglasses retainers, and padding “fit kits” to further add comfort and utility for the rider.
Bike Helmet Safety: The Basics
In the United States, bicycle helmets must meet certain minimum safety requirements. Helmets are tested in different ways to determine whether they can withstand impacts and whether they will stay in place during collisions. There are three nationally-recognized standards in use:
Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) Certification – this certification must accompany all helmets sold in the U.S. and has been so since 1999.
American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Certification – the presence of an ASTM sticker on a helmet indicates that the helmet has passed several rigorous safety tests, in particular the ASTM F1447 standard.
Snell Memorial Foundation (“Snell”) Certification – an independent testing organization with their own safety standards, Snell certification was considered the gold standard throughout the 1970s and 80s. Today, a Snell sticker on a bicycle helmet indicates that it has passed B-90A standards, meeting roughly the same safety standards as the ASTM certification, although the Foundation also has a more stringent B-95 standard that many advocates say is superior to the other certifications.
Bicycle helmets are designed to protect your most valuable attribute: the gray matter between your ears. It’s wise to choose a helmet that passes at least one of these certification standards.
A Word About Bicycle Helmet Sizing
In your quest to find the perfect bicycle helmet, you may have discovered that each company has its own sizing. A medium-sized helmet from Brand X may not fit the same as a similarly-sized model from Brand Y. Every helmet manufacturer uses its own forms and construction methods, meaning that you really need to check the dimensions carefully before purchasing. Here are some tips to selecting the right size for you, regardless of brand:
- Every bicycle helmet publishes a fit guide; typically, sizing is based on a measurement of the circumference of your head. Check the guide for specifics on sizing of different models.
- Bicycle helmets offer some form of size adjustment, like ratcheting straps or dials to tailor the fit to your unique head size. Take advantage of these adjustments for the perfect fit.
- Many bicycle helmets come with various internal pads in several thicknesses. Do NOT rely on these to correct a poorly-fitting helmet. The pads are only to make wearing it more comfortable, not to make it fit better.
- Got a big noggin? Be prepared to try on different sizes and models across brands. There are a few models out there that should contain your big head!
Aero vs. Ventilated: What’s the Difference?
For years, helmet manufacturers have devised ways to improve airflow into and through the helmet. In fact, this became an arms race of sorts, with each helmet maker adding more and more vents, scoops, and slots to force air around the rider’s head. Ventilated helmets are great, especially on hot days when the temperatures are high enough to virtually bake your brain.
All that changed about a decade ago, when professional bike racers sought ways to reduce drag in high-intensity sprints. Helmet manufacturers turned to aero considerations, reducing venting and increasing smooth, slippery areas for air to go around the rider’s head. Although these helmets still offer some type of interior ventilation, it is minimal at best.
Best Ventilated Bicycle Helmets
- Sena R1 Smart – in addition to the massive cooling vents in the shell of this helmet, the R1 Smart comes with unique features, including Bluetooth connectivity, built-in speakers, and a mic so you can communicate with your riding partners. How cool is that?
- Rudy Project Strym – splitting the difference between ventilation and aerodynamics, this helmet is ideal for training rides, races, and everything in between. It meets exacting safety standards and a easily-adjusted suspension system for comfort.
- Kask Rapido – a unique fit system adjusts in three directions at once, offering unrivaled retention. The bonded shell and core provide great protection, and the multiple vents help keep you cool when you’re putting out the watts.
- Bell Drifter – less expensive than other ventilated models, this stylish road helmet from Bell comes in a myriad of color options and adds MIPS for even more protection in crashes. A removable sun visor finishes this budget-friendly model off.
- Bell Gage – incredible ventilation is made possible by the 26 massive vents in the shell of this helmet. The helmet comes in several colors, all featuring an adjustable fit system and removable anti-bacterial interior padding.
- Giro Foray – tons of color options and a huge number of cooling vents characterize this popular road helmet. The Giro Roc Loc 5 retention and fit system ensures that it fits your head perfectly and stays in place when the chips are down.
- Giro Synthe – a perfect blend of aerodynamic slipperiness and cooling ventilation earned this helmet an editor’s choice award by a leading cycling magazine. The Roc Loc fit system and MIPS add an incredible amount of protection for the rider’s head.
Best Aero Bicycle Helmets
- Louis Garneau Vitesse – designed to slip through the wind, this sleek helmet is ideal for the go-fast crowd. It comes in two colors, and meets multiple international standards for safety.
- Giro Vanquish Aero – even though the outer shell has numerous ventilation ports, clever design features add aero benefits. It comes with a really cool magnetic eye shield by Zeiss. The helmet is also equipped with MIPS for added safety.
- Giro Aerohead – when only the best will do, fast riders turn to the Aerohead to cheat the wind. Available in several colors, the helmet comes with an aerodynamic face shield/lens held in place with magnets.
- Rock Bros Aero – ready for aerodynamic advantages, but don’t have the budget for a fancy helmet? Rock Bros has your back. This helmet comes in multiple colors with an adjustable and comfortable suspension system, all under $50.00.
- Rudy Project Spectrum – available in five colors, this helmet helps you slip through the wind, all while keeping you cool on the hottest days. An adaptive suspension and RSR10 retention system improves the fit.
- Rudy Project Boost 01 – looking like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie, this helmet was designed with one goal in mind: to go fast. It still manages to offer impressive ventilation on hot rides. An optical flip-up face shield adds to the aero effect. The Boost 01 is incredibly popular with triathletes.
- Kask CPSC Infinity – tested in the wind tunnel, this helmet strikes the perfect balance between aerodynamics and heat management. Kask reinforces the internal structure to add even more safety for riders.
What is MIPS?
If you’ve been shopping for the best bike helmets, you may have run across the word “MIPS”. This new technology has turned the helmet industry on its head, adding new levels of protection. So what the heck does MIPS mean?
Developed in Sweden, MIPS stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. Helmets with MIPS technology are made with two layers of foam that rotate against each other. This provides a different level of protection to riders, especially in slower-speed crashes or oblique (at a sharp angle) impacts. By allowing the helmet to rotate during a crash, it reduces the amount of force jostling your brain, and in theory makes the helmet a bit safer.
The jury’s still out whether MIPS is a “must-have” feature, but more and more helmet makers are adding it to their models. At their best, MIPS-equipped helmets may provide extra protection for you brain, making the slightly added expense worth the cost.
Best MIPS-Equipped Bicycle Helmets
- Giro Register – integrated with MIPS, this stylish helmet offers a bunch of great features and colors, and won’t break the bank.
- Giro Isode – from one of the best-known bike helmet makers comes the Isode, a unisex helmet with MIPS. It comes in a range of colors and features 19 cooling vents.
- Giro Syntax – highly-rated, this MIPS-equipped helmet offers a handful of color options and Giro’s exclusive RocLoc 5 Fit System.
- Bell Stratus – from the helmet industry leaders at Bell comes the Stratus, with a bonded shell/liner, a floating suspension system, and MIPS right from the factory. It comes in a wide range of colors and sizes to suit any rider.
- Bell Draft – this relatively budget-friendly road helmet is equipped with MIPS and comes in a range of colors. 25 vents help keep you cool on the hottest days.
- Lazer Z1 – sporting a whopping 31 vents for cooling, this MIPS-equipped helmet is on the high end in terms of price, but it gets great ratings from road riders around the world.
- Lazer Blade+ MIPS – just like the name says, this helmet features MIPS in addition to internal reinforcements, giving the helmet greater durability. The suspension system is highly adjustable for comfort.
Best Budget-Friendly Bicycle Helmets
As you shop around for the bicycle helmet of your dreams, you may have been surprised by some of the prices. In fact, you may be experiencing “sticker shock” – with several helmets from popular brands going for upwards of $200.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There are numerous budget-friendly helmet choices on the market. Sure, you might not get all of the latest features or the hottest brands, but these less-expensive helmets still provide all the protection you need when riding. Here are some of our favorite helmets for under $50:
- Basecamp Specialized – for around $30, you get multiple color choices, high safety standards, and some unique features like built-in LED taillight, bug net, and visor.
- Victgoal Dual-Fit – this highly-ventilated and highly-rated helmet comes in around $30, yet it offers a ton of great features, including a magnetic removable “goggle” and a built-in LED taillight.
- Critical Cycles CM-1 Classic – a ton of colors brings you in, and the inexpensive cost seals the deal. This skate-style helmet is a great choice for riders on a tight budget, but who want style, comfort, and safety.
- Schwinn Thrasher – from one of the most recognized names in the bike industry, this helmet may only cost about $20, but it has the features and style of helmets in much pricier categories. The Thrasher comes in a range of colors to suit any look.
- Moon Unibody – CPSC certified and featuring 25 vents for cooling, this helmet ticks all the boxes without breaking the bank.
- GoMax Aero — available in several colors, this helmet offers a built-in LED taillight, a removable visor, and an in-mold shell/liner for safety.
- Kingbike Ultralight — a removable sun visor, a built-in light, and great color choices characterize this very affordable bike helmet.
Best Commuter Bicycle Helmets
A lot of bike commuters prefer helmets that don’t look so racy. For shorter trips to and from work, all those vents and bright colors of race-oriented helmets aren’t really desired. As a response, several bike helmet manufacturers have added commuter-friendly options to their lineups. These helmets generally have more subdued colors and less of a go-fast appearance, which fits pretty well with the whole urban vibe that commuters dig.
Another popular choice among urban riders and bike commuters is the “skate-style” helmet. Here, the choices run the gamut from very plain to garish and even cute color and style choices. Skate-style helmets have one major drawback – they don’t ventilate terribly well, having only a few vent holes in the top and front. Some riders may feel these helmets are too hot in summer conditions. In any case, here are some of our favorite commuter-oriented bike helmet models:
- Thousand Heritage – with a subdued shape and special features, this safety-rated bike helmet is perfect for commuters. A hidden internal lock lets you lock your helmet to your bike when you’re away. Best of all, this model comes in colors from mild to wild.
- Nutcase Metroride — long a personal favorite as well as popular among urban riders, this helmet features great ventilation for a skate-style helmet and comes in a bunch of stylish colorways.
- Nutcase Solid Street — another great skater-style helmet, and it comes in colors to match your mood, your bike, or anything you desire.
- Triple Eight Gotham — certified for safety in cycling and skating, this helmet may be pretty basic, but it comes in a ton of great colors and has an innovative internal foam system.
- Bern Watts — for discerning commuters and urban riders, the Watts helmet ticks all the boxes and does it in style. Best of all, it comes in great colors without being too flashy.
- Bern Unlimited Berkeley — billed as a summer helmet, this model offers better ventilation than typical skate-style lids. It comes in great colors and passes rigorous safety standards.
- Bell Segment — from one of the most recognizable helmet makers, the Segment offers true urban style and comfort to spare.
Taking Care of Your New Bicycle Helmet
Say you’ve shelled out a couple hundo on a new helmet. How do you go about taking care of your investment? It’s not as hard as you might imagine. Here are some tips:
- First, when you’re done riding for the day, some riders like to rinse the helmet out with fresh water to flush out all the sweat and salt. A few riders (myself included) have even been known to walk right into the post-ride shower with their helmets on.
- Remove the inner pads if you can – most are attached with hook-and-loop material. These pads can be washed in the sink or can even go into the washing machine if you put them in a small mesh bag. Washing them periodically keeps them fresh. Don’t forget to put the pads back in before your next ride!
- Wipe any mud or grime off the outer shell of the helmet with a damp rag. Try not to use any harsh cleaners; water is the best option here.
- Check the shell, inner foam, and suspension for any cracks, dents, or fraying periodically. Surface scratches on the shell are no big deal, but any large gouges or cracks mean you should probably set aside some funds to replace your helmet.
- Store your helmet in a cool, dry place, and don’t let it bang around when you’re not riding. Frequent drops or bangs can eventually reduce the foam’s ability to protect you.
- DO NOT leave your helmet in a hot car for extended periods of time. Excessive heat can damage the protective foam, leaving you with a helmet that may not protect your brain when you hit the deck.
When Should I Replace My Helmet?
Bicycle helmets offer great peace of mind as you ride, protecting your head from potential injuries. Bicycle helmets don’t last forever, though, and you’ll probably have to replace your helmet every few years to be safe.
Signs your helmet needs replacing include:
- Obvious large dents or cracks (even small cracks) in the outer shell.
- Frayed or loose straps.
- Broken buckles or adjustment sliders.
- Cracks in the interior foam or missing chunks of foam.
Less obvious but perhaps the most important factor that goes into replacing your helmet is this: if you’ve been in a crash and have hit your helmet on the pavement, it’s a great idea to replace the helmet immediately. Here’s why: helmet foams are designed to absorb impact, effectively cushioning your head and brain. The foam compresses during a crash event, and even though it may not look compressed, its ability to absorb another impact is greatly reduced. Why take a chance when your safety is at stake?
It’s a good idea to get specific helmet replacement details from your helmet’s manufacturer. Some helmet makers even offer a crash-replacement policy, getting you a new helmet at a reduced cost. Save the booklet that comes with your helmet for all the juicy details!
Get Out and RIDE!
We hope you have found our 2019 Bicycle Helmet Buyer’s Guide useful and informative. Our goal is to make you a smarter shopper, giving you the details you need to choose the best bicycle helmet for your riding style and safety needs. Armed with this Buyer’s Guide, there’s only one thing left to do: put your helmet on and go for a ride!