How To Buy a Helmet

Your helmet is a really cheap insurance policy compared with, say, a major concussion or traumatic head injury. Most helmets are purpose-built for a specific sport. A few multi-sport helmets are also designed for ski, bike and skate crossover use, but these generalists usually compromise to be adequate, but not great, for any one sport.

Cycling helmets: Bike helmets differ by type of rider. From incredibly light and aerodynamic time trial helmets to commuter designs that look like a baseball helmet, this category really has something for everyone. Chris Smith, a spokesman helmet manufacturer at Lazer pointed out some broad points about bike helmet design.

Safety Standards: Regardless of the helmet design, weight or price, every bicycle helmet sold in the United States, Europe or Australia must pass strict safety standards: CPSC 1203 in the USA, AS/NZS 2063:2008 in Australia and CE 1078 on Europe. Translation: any helmet designed for bicycling will protect your head to government standards.

Type: Many specialized bike helmets exist, but the majority of riders want something from one of three categories: road, mountain and multi-sport.

Road: The lightest design, road helmets are designed for long rides in comfort. Riders will benefit from ventilation systems and aerodynamics optimized for fast riding.

Mountain: Generous head coverage, visors and low speed ventilation set mountain bike helmets apart. These helmets protect the back and side of the head more than road helmets. They are usually a little heavier and fit more firmly for off road use.

Multi-sport: These helmets often look a little like beefy baseball helmets. They are inexpensive, modestly ventilated and quite protective. They often serve double duty for skateboarding, inline skating and even snow sports.

Fit: A bicycle helmet should fit snugly but not tight. The helmet should cradle the head in a way that it will not slide around during a violent head movement caused during a fall, yet should be comfortable enough to wear for an extended ride.

General size guidelines from the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute:

Extra Small: Less than 20 7/8
Small: 20 7/8″
Medium: 21 1/4″-22 3/8″
Large: 22 3/4″-24 1/8″
Extra-large: above 24 ¼

Note: These are only guidelines. Sizes will vary from one manufacturer to another.

Fit Systems: Helmet fit systems are used to fine-tune the helmet size. Most brands offer two or three sizes of each helmet. Pro tip: Purchase the smallest size possible with the fit system opened all the way up. Then use the system to adjust for as close a fit as possible. This will result in the lightest, least bulky helmet possible of any given design.

Fit systems include removable padding, adjustable cradles or other proprietary technologies that use cables or plastic dials to get a perfect fit.

Materials: Expanded Polystyrene is used in most bike helmets. This material crushes during a fall to absorb impact instead of your skull. Bike helmets are NOT reusable. If you hit your head once, the helmet should be retired.

Climbing Helmets: Some modern rock and ice climbing helmets are designed as all-purpose helmets used anywhere from crags to ice to mountaintops. Others are constructed with one or two specific uses in mind. Whatever you choose, a helmet will protect against falling objects and blows during your own falls.

Types: There are two types of common climbing helmets – suspension and foam.

Suspension Helmets: These work much like hard hats worn on construction sites. The hard helmet shell is suspended away from the skull with nylon webbing. These helmets are usually very adjustable and can be used with a hat and headlamp. Many classic mountaineering, ice and trad climbing helmets are this style.

Foam Helmets: This style is more like a bike helmet, with a hard shell molded to an inner foam layer that provides protection from blows. Some modern helmets called hybrids are made with foam over only the top section of the helmet – the area that would be hit by a falling rock – and some suspension.

Features: Consider ventilation, adjustability, durability and weight when purchasing a climbing helmet. Think about the types of climbing you plan to do. A sport climber should rank weight and ventilation at the top of the list. A mountaineer must have adjustability for layering insulation below the helmet and headlamp compatibility for alpine starts.

Whitewater Helmets: Getting knocked out in the water is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, whitewater helmets are well made, comfortable and come in a wide price range.

Construction: Most whitewater helmets begin with a shell made of ABS plastic, carbon fiber, Kevlar, long fiber thermoplastics or other similar materials. This hard but elastic layer provides protection from sharp and hard objects.

Some whitewater helmets have a second layer made from EBA foam or another shock-reducing material. This layer varies from brand to brand and at different prices.

In some designs, a thick outer shell is suspended away from the head with a system of straps.

Fit system: Almost all whitewater helmets have some sort of adjustability, from a simple chinstrap adjustment to a complex and integrated tensioning system. Generally, helmets with little adjustability come in a wider variety of sizes.

Purchase a helmet with a snug yet comfortable fit. There is not need for the helmet to fit like a glove, but it must stay in place during shock or when getting dragged along a river bottom while you flail to roll in shallow whitewater.

Visors and full-face: Many whitewater helmets come with an integrated visor and some come with full-face protection. A full-face helmet protects the chin and face from impact and is a good choice for those going after tough rapids and drops or who regularly navigate very narrow passageways.

Use these tips to help guide your search for a new helmet and be sure to consider reviews by your peers when selecting this important piece of safety gear.