While part of the thrill of racing downhill is the blast of wind in your face, as trails have become more gnarly and bikes have become more sleek and quick, it’s important to think about how to protect your head and face. Indeed, mountain biking has come a long way from the days of repack races and klunking down old fire roads.
This evolution in riding styles has ushered in a revolution in safety gear, particularly in helmets. After all, your noggin is the most important thing to protect if you have an unexpected OTB (off the bike) experience. This is why riders today make the effort to shop around for the best full face mountain bike helmet on the market.
A particular favorite with downhill, lift assist, and free ride bikers, a full face helmet offers advanced protection for rides where the risks of a spill are more serious. Not only are falls more common off-road, but the consequences are often more severe.
Road rash pales in comparison to whacking your head on a boulder. In spite of this, there is still a debate among some riders about whether to wear a half shell or full face helmet. For others, the answer is clear: full face all the way.
Both half shell and full face helmets protect your skull, but a full face helmet encases your whole head. This offers protection for your ears as you crash through branches, and for your nose, teeth and jaw bone as you crash through rocks and logs. Nobody sets out to go down, but it happens to even the most cautious riders. Finally, many riders are choosing to wear neck braces, and those should only be worn with a full face helmet.
First, get to know your way around a basic helmet. Most helmets consist of three parts, the liner, the shell, and the straps.
- The liner is the most critical part of the system. It is usually made from molded polystyrene foam. This foam is shot into a mold, where it expands to create the basic structure of the helmet. On top of this, some manufacturers use nylon or even metal mesh as reinforcement, especially around vents. The main purpose of the liner is to absorb the impact in the event of a crash and to redistribute it more evenly around the impact area. Not only does this protect the physical structures of your skull, it also reduces the net g-force experienced by your brain.
- An outer shell covers the internal liner. Sometimes this outer shell is made from the same material as the lining, while in others it may be made from lightweight, durable materials such as fiberglass. In some helmets, the outer shell is simply glued to the outside of the lining. In other helmets, the lining foam is expanded into the shell, bonding them together.
- Finally, the straps are meant to allow you to adjust the fit and keep the helmet securely in place. The straps are typically made from nylon or polypropylene, and are attached through a series of cinches, joints and wheels that let you dial in the perfect fit. A properly adjusted helmet feels more comfortable and offers better protection.
No matter the style of helmet or the materials it contains, in order to legally be as a mountain biking helmet in the United States, the helmet must meet the standards identified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Look for the CPSC label on any helmet you are considering.
Note that these are different and far less rigorous requirements than the Department of Transportation (DOT) rating given for motorcycle helmets. It should also be noted that there are ratings that go above and beyond the one offered by CPSC and are used to rate the helmet’s safety for various types of biking. If you plan to be involved in competition, find the minimum rating requirements for your sport’s governing body.
What kinds of things should you consider when picking out the perfect helmet? Some key considerations should be comfort, fit/protection, weight, and the presence of a visor.
Let’s face it, if your helmet isn’t comfortable, you aren’t likely to wear it. At the very least, it will seriously detract from your enjoyment of the ride. One of the main comfort features is moisture-wicking padding that protects your head from direct contact with the helmet lining. Look for a helmet that, when properly fitted, doesn’t place pressure on any one spot on your head.
Speaking of a proper fit, a quality adjustment system in the helmet is a must. This is called the retention system, and is typically made of a series of firm plastic, straps, cinches and dials that let you orchestrate the perfect fit.
First, you’ll dial in the firm plastic around the lump on the back of your head (the occipital bone), then snug everything else into place. If your helmet slides around too much, it won’t be there to protect you when you need it most.
Many riders consider weight to be a big factor when choosing a helmet, however, with the lightweight materials on the market today, you won’t find many that weight too much. The differences will most likely be subtle, and sometimes the right fit can make a helmet feel much lighter than it actually is.
Visors come in varying length and widths to block out glare from the sun. Some helmets come equipped with fixed visors, while others have fully adjustable visors so you can get the angle and coverage just right. Higher end helmets feature break away bolts on the visor attachments to prevent the visor from snagging and twisting your neck during a fall.
Now that we’ve reviewed some basic components and considerations, let’s look at a few examples of the different helmets available on the market.
Bell Transfer-9 Helmet Graphite 54
Made from composite, this affordable helmet offers great features for the price. It offers extra padding and coverage in the back for extra protection in the event of a spill. It has an adjustable visor affixed with breakaway screws, so you neck doesn’t get jerked around if the visor catches on the ground.
The internal padding and quick-snap cheek pads are adjustable for a comfortable fit. As an additional safety feature, it includes an Eject helmet removal system so that emergency crews can safely remove your helmet.
When it comes to bonus features, the Transfer-9 is loaded. There is a breakaway camera mount to help you capture the action. The helmet also has Soundtrax speaker pockets to hold your earbuds while you ride. The padding is removable and washable, so you can keep your helmet fresh trail after trail.
Some users have noted that the cheek pads can be a snug fit, making the helmet a bit uncomfortable at first. Overall, the helmet is comfortable, though it may not be as well-ventilated as some other helmets on the market. The online sizing chart and instructions make it easy to find the right fit for you.
Related: If you are looking for eye protection that offers a bit more than your sunglasses, try the Oakley O-Frame MX Goggles with Clear Lens. It rocks triple-layer face foam to wick away sweat, as well as anti-fog and scratch- and impact-resistant lenses.
Troy Lee Designs D3 Reflex Bicycle Helmet
This high-tech helmet has plenty of bells and whistles. This is an updated helmet, with improved shape, fit and feel, as well as increased protection in frontal crash zones. New 3D formed cheek pads offer expanded coverage, comfort and a more secure fit.
This solid helmet was tested in a digital wind tunnel to fine tune the shell design and aerodynamics. The injection-molded airflow system includes 20 intake and exhaust ports to maximize ventilation, keeping you cool when the ride heats up.
To keep you even more comfortable, the helmet includes chin bar shock pads, as well removable, washable inner liner that wicks moisture and keeps you dry. To keep you safe, the quick-release cheek pads allow for emergency helmet removal.
To keep you grooving, the helmet has intentionally built cavities for your audio. Finally, to round out your moment in the sun, it has two removable, adjustable visors, allowing you to choose the right one for the conditions.
Related: To ride in style, consider pairing your helmet with the Troy Lee Designs Ace Jersey. Available in a variety of colors, this cooling 100% polyester shirt sports a full zipper and three rear pockets and a zippered secret stash pocket.
Giro Cipher Helmet
The Cipher from Giro offers a great combination of protection, vision, comfort and style. The fiberglass shell is lightweight, and the expanded polystyrene liner cradles your head.
Users rave about the built-in camera mount and the ease with which it operates. It should be noted that you may need to purchase an extra clip for your camera, depending on what your kit came with.
On the downside, some users report that the helmet is not well-ventilated, and therefore gets hot. Additionally, there were some complaints about the positioning of the chin strap making it a bit uncomfortable.
Related: Get your goggle on with these CRG Motocross ATV Dirt Bike T815-105 Series Off Road Racing Goggles. Available in a variety of colors, these flexible anti-fog, scratch-resistant lenses offer 100% UV protection.
POC Cortex Flow Bike Helmet
The lightweight POC Cortex flow is built with a multi-impact liner. Made from expanded polypropylene instead of polystyrene, it is more resilient to crashes, which means you’ll feel more comfortable still strapping it on after minor spills.
These easily-recognized helmets come with some of the best ventilation on the market. The chin bar is placed to maximize protection while not restricting airflow. The specialized ear chambers are designed to help optimize balance and hearing.
The easy-to-adjust visor offers great coverage, even at the sides. While this helmet is lighter weight than some on the market, users report that it doesn’t feel as plush. Also, the helmet doesn’t meet some of the downhill racing certification requirements, so check be sure to check that it is recommended for your type of riding. While the Cortex is available in a wide variety or colors, it is only available in three sizes, so it may be difficult to get the perfect fit.
Related: If the elements don’t get in your way and you want an extra layer of warmth, check out the Ezyoutdoor Full Face Breathable Balaclava. Made from lycra, it is quick-drying and moisture-wicking to keep you comfortable and on the go.
Fox Head Rampage Race Helmet
This affordable helmet is a solid investment for beginners who may not stick with the sport. It has a price point well below some of the other full face helmets on the market, and, as always, you get what you pay for. The padding inside the helmet is soft and velvety against your skin, but does not feel as plush as other helmets.
Additionally, the Fox Head Rampage Race Helmet does not wick moisture well and eventually becomes soggy. The visor is small and covers you well when you are heading into the sun. However, its narrow width leaves you exposed to glare if the sun is coming from the side or you are winding your way through corners.
This is one of the lightest full face helmets on the market, and it does meet the basic standards of protection. However, users report that it does not live up well to daily wear and tear. Other users report that this helmet did indeed do its job, and protected their noggin through some pretty nasty spills.
Related: Give your knuckles some protection with these Fox Racing Dirtpaw Race Gloves. Made mostly from polyester, the palm and thumb are padded with synthetic leather. The neoprene knuckles protect you from hard knocks, while the silicone fingertips give you plenty of manual dexterity.
Bell Sanction BMX/Downhill Helmet
Marketed as being edgy and aggressive, this lightweight helmet may leave a bit to be desired. To be fair, it was designed for younger/smaller riders, for whom weight may be a big factor. It is important to note that this helmet does meet the basic requirements for a cycling helmet, but does not meet some of the stricter recommendations for mountain biking.
In general, casual users report that they are satisfied with the Bell Sanction BMX/Downhill Helmet. It feels sturdy and has the basic safety features in place, but it lacks some of the finer details in more expensive helmets. For example, the visor is thin and doesn’t offer a good range of protection.
Additionally, it is difficult to adjust on the go. The lining cannot be removed for washing, and the vents don’t move much air through the helmet. All users report the importance of carefully using the sizing charts when making your size selection, as the helmet tends to run a bit small.
Related: If you are buying this for a junior rider, consider pairing it with a THE Industries Youth Lightweight BMX and Mountain Bike Long Sleeve Jersey. Made from 100% polyester, it is lightweight, breathable, and wicks moisture away from the body. The long sleeves will help avoid scratches from nearby brushes and branches as they race downhill.
Triple Eight Invader Full Face Helmet
Triple Eight helmets come with their patented Conehead molded liner. The shock-absorbing layer is specifically designed to redirect the energy of an impact, reducing the result g-force experienced by your head. For comfort, the helmet is lined with a moisture-wicking fabric to keep the sweat from dripping.
Users report that they are satisfied with this helmet. Its initial snug fit molds to your shape in no time. Its sturdy feel gives you confidence on the track or on the mountain. It doesn’t distract you from the matter at hand, and is comfortable enough to wear all day long.
Related: To protect your hands while enhancing your grip, try Triple Eight ExoSkin Full Finger Gripper Gloves. They keep the sweat off your grips, warm your fingers, and protect your skin from blisters.
Searching for a mountain biking helmet can be a real adventure in itself. There are so many styles and colors to choose from, it can be hard to know just where to start. Remember that while there are always points for style, the real aim when choosing a helmet is protecting your melon.
Be sure that it fits correctly and that you wear it properly. Shop for the right balance of price, comfort and protection. Beyond that, any extra, such as spaces for tech and an adjustable visor, are just mud on the tires.
If you found this article to be at all helpful, or if you have comments about your experience with any of these helmets, let us know by leaving comment. In fact, leave a comment even if you just want to share a story about your latest off-the-bike adventure!