Choosing a bike helmet can be one of those things you might not think twice about, but it's important to not just pick up the first one you find.
As protective gear, your bike helmet needs to fit properly and have the appropriate safety features for the activity you're doing, whether it's mountain biking or cruising neighborhood streets.
"The right helmet will protect your head, which of course is the most important part," says John Cordoba, product manager at Specialized. "The wrong helmet could leave you unprotected, [at risk of] a concussion or something much worse."
Granted, with so many options on the market, how is someone supposed to settle on the perfect style? Below, experts weigh in on what you need to know before buying a bike helmet, and offer up some great options for every type of cyclist.
Shopping for Bike Helmets
Good news: Every bike helmet on the market in the U.S. has been certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), meaning they need to pass a specific test to ensure that the biker is protected, so be sure to double-check for this certification before making a purchase.
When it comes to picking the right model and style, there are many different factors to take into consideration to find your Goldilocks helmet.
Just like you buy a certain sneaker for running versus lifting weights, the same goes for your helmet. There are different styles based on what you'll be wearing the helmet for, whether it's commuting, road cycling, mountain biking or competing. Mountain bike helmets, for instance, offer full-face coverings for additional protection, while commuter helmets will emphasize comfort and visibility.
The Right Size
The first thing you should consider when purchasing a bike helmet is what size will fit your head and head shape. Typically, bike shops and online vendors will have helpful sizing guides to help you find the right fit. Just keep in mind that sizes will vary from brand to brand, which is why you should always take some measurements.
"The right size is critical," says Eddie Meek, customer experience manager at Priority Bicycles. "You can get a general sense of what size you want by measuring, but it's really ideal to try on the style you're into before purchasing, unless you're familiar with the way that a brand or particular model fits."
Meek says that the right fit should be snug but not uncomfortable, and if the style is too loose, it might not offer the protection you need. You want the helmet to fit low on your forehead with only one to two fingers fitting between the bottom of your helmet and your eyebrows.
Ideally, you'll buy your helmet at a specialty retailer or direct from the outlet in-person, Cordoba adds. "This will help you nail the right fit and feel really comfortable with your decision."
Special Safety Features
MIPS, or multi-impact protection system, is new technology that's designed to absorb rotational impacts. Cycling statistics show that when a rider falls, they typically fall at an angle, according to MIPS Protection. MIPS is an added low-friction layer inside of a helmet that can reduce harmful forces transmitted to the brain during a collision.
Once you level up from a commute-friendly style to something that's intended for road, mountain or racing, you're likely going to want to choose an option that has this technology, Meek says. It is not required, however, and plenty of helmets that are CPSC-certified don't have MIPS.
How Often Should You Replace Your Bike Helmet?
There’s a rule of thumb that you should replace your helmet every four to five years, Cordoba says. "Although you may think it's cool, you definitely don’t want to wear a helmet from the '80s or '90s," he says, explaining that the quality of the foam degrades over time — especially in heat.
"If you’re in Arizona, for example, it would wear a lot faster than somewhere that is a cooler climate, like Washington State," he says.
The Best Bike Helmets
Now it's time to get shopping. Remember: In-person retailers can offer guidance you won't get online, but if you're going to shop virtually, do yourself a favor and purchase directly from the manufacturer, if possible. This will make potential returns breezier, critical when it comes to the try-at-home process.
Best Bike Helmets for Commuting
With any helmet, the most important things are comfort and safety. "If the helmet is more comfortable, you're more likely to wear it, which will make you more safe," Meek says. For commuters in particular, visibility is important as you'll be riding both before and after work — perhaps in low-light conditions.
And although you may find some helmets with added reflectors, which could be helpful, Meek stresses that the most important feature for commuter cyclists is to have lights on the actual bike, to alert cars and fellow riders to your location.
Shop These Commuter Bike Helmets
Best Bike Helmets for Road Cycling
Ventilation is something you really want to take into account when you start to pick up the cadence and pace, Meek says. "If you're hot, it's going to be uncomfortable, and if you're uncomfortable, you may be tempted to ditch your helmet, which is a big no," he adds.
Your head heats up just like the rest of you when you're pushing yourself during an outdoor cycling workout, so these helmets will have more ventilation and a sleeker look.
Some road bike helmets also feature SPIN (Shearing Pad INside) technology, which is a silicone, gel-like membrane inside the helmet padding that enhances ventilation and protection. They might also have grooves, where riders can securely stash sunglasses during shady miles.
Shop These Road Bike Helmets
Best Bike Helmets for Mountain Biking
When you're climbing hills, you have to be prepared, Meek says. That's why mountain and gravel-specific helmets will have added protection in the back — you could fall in different ways than you might on a road bike. These styles will also have a visor in the front to protect against branches and other things that may get in your face, Meek says.
More intense riders who are leaning into downhill-specific training may opt for a style that resembles more of a BMX helmet. "Downhill helmets, as they're called, have full-face coverings," Meek says, adding that there are even some hybrid styles with a detachable face shield. "More serious and risky riding requires more protection." Very few recreational mountain bikers would need this next-level style, however.
Shop These Mountain Bike Helmets
Best Bike Helmets for Racing
This is likely a style cyclists and triathletes would only wear on race day or really serious training rides. The aerodynamic design reduces drag from wind to give you a competitive advantage; these helmets aren't necessarily vented for optimal comfort.