Cyclist putting on a bike helmet

How to choose a bike helmet

Essential for cyclists, bike helmets protect your head against impact. They reduce peak energy of an impact and help your head decelerate slowly. Like the crumple zone of a car, the foam in a helmet crushes to absorb energy. Also like crumple zones, bike helmets get destroyed in the process, and should be replaced after a major impact – even if you can’t detect any visible damage.

Essentials

  • Buy the right size bike helmet, and adjust it properly
  • Wear it, because it won’t protect you if it’s just hanging on your handlebars
  • Replace it after about six years or after any major hit

Road and cyclocross helmets

These helmets are designed to be aerodynamic, lightweight and provide good ventilation. Most use microshell construction, a thin layer of semi-rigid plastic glued or bonded onto expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. They’re designed to protect your head, absorb impact and slide on contact with road surfaces. They are usually well ventilated, so don’t offer significant protection from penetrating objects like tree branches. They do give you excellent visibility so you can see what lies ahead and see other cyclists around you. To save weight, most don’t include a visor.

recreational and commuter bike Helmets

Helmets designed for urban riding and cycle commuting are usually quite economical and comfortable to wear. You can use them for other activities as well, such as inline skating or skateboarding. Some have a visor to keep sun and rain our of your eyes. Most are quite adaptable so you can wear them through seasons and add warm layers underneath if you commute on your bike through the winter.

Mountain bike helmets

These helmets prize protection over lightness and aerodynamics. They are usually hardshell helmets that use a thick, high-density plastic composite outer shell lined with EPS foam. The outer shell protects your melon from objects like sticks and branches, and they have deep coverage to protect the back and sides of your head. Most have a visor to protect your eyes from mud, rain and low-hanging obstacles on the trail. Great for all styles of mountain biking, these helmets also work for BMX riding and skateboarding. Full-face models that offer complete ear, cheek, and jaw coverage are designed for terrain park riding and downhill racing.

Bike helmet features

Once you’ve decided on a style you can look at extra features. More features tend to increase the price, but it can also add more comfort and a better fit.

  • Sizing adjustment wheel on the back of the helmet can be adjusted to fit the circumference of your head. This is important for a perfectly tuned fit.
  • Ventilation is just holes in a helmet, so they must be engineered to be strong even with all those holes. Helmets with little or no ventilation are easy to produce and tend to be less expensive, but are much hotter on long rides.
  • Vent mesh guards can be a helpful way to keep bugs and tree debris out of your helmet and hair. These guards are fitted within the vents. They allow full airflow but prevent debris from getting through.
  • Visors are helpful on both sunny and rainy days. They give an extra piece of sun protection and they prevent rain from dripping onto your face.
  • Adding some reflective details to your helmet can help you stay visible during dawn and dusk rides.

Bike helmet fit

The first step is to find the right size for you. Like shoes or jeans, helmets have sizes and measurements. If you can’t try it on in the store, find the measurement and measure your own head. Where possible, use the adjuster wheel to create a snug fit around your head. The helmet fits properly when:

  • It does not wobble from side to side, or tilt from front to back
  • It does not move when you shake your head in any direction
  • The helmet stays level across the forehead just above the eyebrows.
  • The helmet does not tilt backwards
  • The straps are equally tight and the chin strap feels snug when you open your mouth

Certification

Certification is established by governing bodies who set impact standards. Before you purchase any helmet, ensure it has a certification sticker from the CSA, EN, ASTM, CPSC or Snell B90/B95.

You may find the CPSC (Consumer Products Safety Commission) sticker shows up most frequently. Bike helmets sold in the US must comply with the CPSC standards. The Canadian helmet market is a fraction of the size of the US market, and CPSC has become the accepted benchmark for helmet certification in Canada. A CPSC sticker is excellent assurance of thorough testing to ensure a high level of safety.

Care

Cycling helmets are designed to endure one hard impact. Once the helmet has been in a collision, retire it, even if it shows no sign of external damage. If you are unsure, replace it. Six years is a reasonable lifespan for a helmet that’s never been in a crash.

Don’t store your helmet in a hot place like the trunk of your car. Extreme temperatures can break down the foam and make it less shock absorbent. Substances like sweat, fresh water, or saltwater will not damage a helmet.