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.