Here’s How To Pick the Right Motorcycle Helmet for Your Next Ride
Whatever you do: Protect your head!
- Guides & Gear
Your head is where all your thoughts, emotions, decision-making prowess, and anxieties reside. Beneath the mass of hair, skin, and bone lies you, your being, your personality. Without it, you’d just be a gangly mass of limbs without agency: a ragdoll. That’s why, whenever you get onto a motorcycle, a helmet should be cinched to your noggin.
Although motorcycle helmet laws differ from state to state, The Drive is universal in its resolve on the matter. The author has had offs on motorcycles with his helmet saving my snarky personality from being Thanos-snapped out of existence. Everyone and I absolutely mean everyone, who throws a leg over a two-wheeled machine should wear a helmet.
Buying a helmet can be an overwhelming prospect, and not just because pricing ranges from inexpensive to make it rain. You’ll need to consider a number of variables, including helmet size, type of riding you do, construction, DOT certification, weight, wind noise, accessories such as communication capability, and the price point you can afford to meet your desires and expectations.
Never fear, as The Drive’s editors have purchased many, many motorcycle helmets over the years for all sorts of riding. I’ve been riding since I was 17 years old and am now … older, with my own office that features a large selection of motorcycle helmets adorning my office walls. Today, I’m going to impart my experience, so the next time you go for a ride, your brain stays safe.
Why Do I Need a Motorcycle Helmet?
If the multiple quarter-inch-deep gashes etched into my helmet aren’t convincing enough, let’s talk about the data. The worst can and does happen on a daily basis in the United States.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), you’re 27 times more likely to be killed on a motorcycle than in a car, with roughly 5,000 riders losing their lives every year. Helmets reduce the chance of death by 37 percent, while also reducing the chance of serious brain injury by 67 percent. A helmet increases the possibility of you surviving in case of an accident.
Aside from accident protection, helmets also protect you while you’re riding. Do you enjoy having pebbles and stones shot at your face at mach 57 from the car in front? Do you like bees, grasshoppers, and cicadas hurtling into your eyes, gumming up your teeth, and buzzing around your ears? No? Then wear a damn helmet.
What Are the Different Types of Motorcycle Helmets?
Given there are a lot of motorcycle disciplines, there’s an equal number of helmet styles, one for every occasion, as it were. To give you a better sense of what you’re looking at while scrolling online for your next lid, we’ve broken down the different helmet styles below. Check it out.
Full-face helmets are, as you’d expect, helmets that cover your entire face and head. These helmets are designed to be pulled onto your head and completely encase it past your chin. These are the safest types of motorcycle helmets, as they offer the most coverage.
A full-face helmet has an actuating shield that provides enough of a field of view (FOV) to see outward and your periphery but has a smaller opening than a dual-sport helmet. This is because a full-face helmet is primarily designed for on-road use where highway debris can be kicked up at the rider’s face. A smaller opening means said debris is less likely to penetrate the shield and impact the rider’s eyes and face.
Full-face helmets often have multiple vents and extractors to reduce heat buildup in your helmet, and the shields can be removed and swapped out for cleaning, replaced for damage, or replaced for a tinted version. They come in a wide array of materials and paint schemes.
A modular helmet is a full-face helmet that features an actuating front faceplate, meaning the portion of the helmet can flip up, from the chin guard to just above the shield. This gives the rider the ability to speak to other riders with greater ease, increase airflow while stopped at a traffic light or in traffic, and make it easier to put on and remove.
These helmets feature all of the same safety features as a full-face and dual-sport helmet, but with more versatility for day-to-day operations. Modular helmets are great for hot climates where a full-face helmet can get toasty after a short ride. They can be heavier, however, as the mechanism for the helmet’s faceplate increases the helmet’s weight, which can cause neck, shoulder, and back strain.
They come in a wide array of materials and paint schemes.
Dual-sport helmets are an interesting class, as they blend a few disciplines. Most dual-sports combine the functionality and safety of a full-face helmet, with the design and off-road prowess of a dirt-bike helmet.
These helmets have a large FOV for better off-road vision, a large mouth intake for increased cooling (often featuring an air filter), and a visor to cut down on the sun’s glare. They’re also built to the same exacting standards as a full-face or modular helmet. Dual-sport helmets are designed for grand touring and adventure (ADV) riding, like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman did in their Long Way series.
They come in a wide array of materials and paint schemes.
A dirt-bike helmet is different from a dual-sport helmet in a few key ways. First and foremost, they’re not really designed for street use. Although the protection is there, as long as your dirt-bike helmet is DOT approved, it’s not meant for highway blasts or protecting your eyes from errant bugs and tire-spewn rocks. To that end, instead of a closable shield, there’s just an opening designed to fit a set of motocross goggles.
These helmets are designed for competition and off-road use, with a larger mouth intake that sometimes features an air filter, room for a drinks tube, and sweat-wicking fabric. There’s also a visor that’s meant to cut down on the sun’s glare. Get one if you’re throwing a leg over something like a Honda CRF450RX.
Open-face/quarter helmets are exactly what they sound like: Your face is open to the elements. Open-face helmets have a similar construction to a modular helmet, just without the helmet’s lid and shield. A quarter helmet is one that only protects the top of your head, ending its protection right above your ears.
I would never recommend an open-face or quarter helmet to anyone. They’re just not as safe as a full-face or even a modular helmet. Why go to the trouble of protecting the sides of your head/top of your head and leave the moneymaker exposed? Do you think you can rotate in the middle of a crash to skid just on the side? You absolutely can’t. Get something real, not something that just gives you the Sons of Anarchy aesthetic you saw on TV.
How Do I Buy the Right Motorcycle Helmet?
The type of motorcycle helmet you purchase will come down to a few factors:
- What type of motorcycle riding you do?
- What material do you want around your head?
- How much money do you have to spend on your safety?
- What size do you need?
The biggest factor in determining which helmet you choose comes down to what type of motorcycling you do. For riders who primarily stay on pavement, such as cruisers, sportbikes, naked, and pavement-bound dual-sports, you’ll want a full-face, modular, or dual-sport helmet. These provide the best coverage, safety, and overall versatility for that type of riding.
You’ll want to tailor your specific helmet choice to cruising, sportbikes, naked, and dual-sports, too, as you wouldn’t want a Valentino Rossi-spec race helmet for your Harley-Davidson or a dual-sport helmet for a Ducati Streetfighter V4 S. Pick the right style for the right type of motorcycling you do.
Material selection is going to be a big factor, as well, as not every helmet is built with the same materials. Helmet shells can be hard plastic, carbon fiber, carbon kevlar, and other woven fibers with hard shells to increase the helmet’s safety and reduce the possibility of brain damage and penetration. And with those material selections, the price varies. Something like a carbon-kevlar weave, especially one that’s exposed carbon, increases the helmet’s price due to manufacturing costs. That’s something you should be aware of.
As for overall price, helmets range from a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. This price variance depends on material selection, features like built-in comms, paint scheme, and manufacturer. Name brands like Shoei, Alpinestars, AGV, O’Neal, Bell, Icon, Klim, and others tack on extra dollars. In my experience, they’re worth it.
And last, but certainly not least, is size. Let’s talk a little more about sizing your helmet and how to do it at home.
How To Size a Motorcycle Helmet
Sizing your head for a new motorcycle helmet is pretty easy and can be done right at home — as long as you have a sewing-style measuring tape. You know, it comes in that box of loose pins, safety pins, and the measuring tape every parent gives to their child when they leave the house. It’s probably under your bathroom sink.
Helmets are sized in centimeters and go from XS, S, M, L, XL, 2XL 3XL. Once you have your measuring tape, wrap it around your head right above your eyebrows and ears—this is the thickest point of your head. Cinch the tape around your head so that it’s snug but not overly tight. Remove the tape measure from around your head, making sure you don’t adjust the measurement and see how fat your head is. We’d recommend taking it at least twice to be sure of the size.
If you don’t have a tape measure at home and don’t want to spend the $1 it costs on Walmart for one, but you know your hat size, you can also use that.
Here’s the breakdown of helmet sizes and their corresponding size in centimeters. I also broke it down into inches for everyone moaning about metric.
XS: 53-54 cm/20.8-21.2 in
S: 55-56 cm/21.6-22 in
M: 57-58 cm/22.4-22.8 in
L: 59-60 cm/23.2-23.6 in
XL: 61-62 cm/24-24.4 in
XXL: 63-64 cm/24.8-25.2 in
3XL: 65-66 cm/25.6-26 in
There can be slight variances from manufacturer to manufacturer, though Icon, HJC, Alpinestars, Shoei, Sedici, Biltwell, AGV, Klim, and Arai all align to the above sizing. Bell and Simpson’s helmet tolerances, however, are just slightly different. So measure accordingly.
I get it, we’re not all readers. Some need to see the product being handled to get it, so why not check out this video from us explaining the different types of motorcycle helmets.
FAQs About Motorcycle Helmets
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.
Q: Won’t a helmet make me look like a dweeb?
A: First off, what is this, the ’80s? Who says dweeb anymore? And second, does your continued survival make you dweebish? If so, call me Jonathon “dweeb” Klein.
Q: So, you’re saying I should wear a helmet?
A: That’s a pretty big throughline with this article, yes.
Q: Are all motorcycle helmets equally safe?
A: Nope, construction and manufacturer matter, as does whether the helmet you’re looking at is DOT approved. Do your research on the helmet, the company, and whether it’s been approved by DOT for on-road use.
Q: Do motorcycle helmets expire?
A: They do. Most manufacturers say that you should replace your helmet every three to five years, but if you’ve accidentally dropped a helmet on a hard surface (or thrown it) or had an accident, you should replace it immediately. The structural integrity could be compromised.
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