The Best Full-Face Downhill Mountain Bike Helmet Review
What is the best full-face helmet for downhill mountain biking? We tested 6 of the best and most popular downhill helmets on the market and found some awesome helmets as well as a few we don't think are up to the task of protecting your noggin while you shred the gnar. We evaluated each full-face for protection, comfort, durability, ventilation, and weight; the size, shape, and attachment of its visor; as well as the extras included with the helmet. We found the absolute best helmet for downhill riding as well as a few helmets which are nearly as awesome at a fraction of the price. We also have a few suggestions for aggressive Enduro rides which require a lighter duty full-face.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
No matter what style of biking you are doing, wearing a helmet while riding a bike is a no brainer. The hard part is deciding what type of helmet to wear. For mountain biking, we often ask ourselves "Do we need the added protection of a full-face or can we get away with a lighter, more ventilated half-shell helmet?" When making this decision we factor in what type of terrain we will be riding, what type of bike we are riding, and how gnarly we think we are going to get.
Types of Mountain Bike Helmets
Full-face helmets cover significantly more of the head than half-shell helmets and are best suited for the most aggressive styles of bike riding where crashes are both common and likely to be very violent. If you aren't quite sure what type of helmet you need we recommend you check out both our How to Choose a Mountain Bike Helmet and How to Choose a Full-Face Downhill Helmet articles for more details.
Best Mountain Bike Helmet Review and check out a half-shell lid for sure.
A lightweight, well-ventilated lid is the way to go since crashes are less likely to be catastrophic.
If you're riding in the in between up-and-downhill "enduro" category then you may want to own a both a full-face and a half-shell helmet. The half-shell for the mellower rides and cardio courses and a full-face for the gnar fests with not much pedaling.
Slope style riders will also usually go with the security of a full-face downhill helmet while dirt jumpers often go with a half-shell skate style lid.
Criteria for Evaluation
We think that comfort should be a top priority in a helmet because comfortable helmets are less distracting and allow you to concentrate on your line. While you will likely never completely forget you are wearing a full-face helmet like you might with a half-shell, we look for helmets which feel like an extension of the body rather than a hinderance. We found that the most comfortable helmets have interior padding constructed of dense open-cell foam covered in a soft to the touch and wicking material. This padding tends to pack out over time, especially in the cheek pad area where it is the thickest. Once a downhill helmet's padding packs out, we found that it will not only be less comfortable but also tend to bounce around on the head a bit more.
The Bell Transfer-9 is the most comfortable helmet in our test and we awarded it a rare perfect ten in this test. This helmet uses dense interior padding which is covered in a smooth velvety material to hold the helmet securely in place while preventing pressure points between the head and the polystyrene.
Visors serve to shield the eyes from sun, rain, or mud, depending on conditions. All of the helmets in our test, along with all of the half-shell helmets in our other review have visors. In fact, a visor is the primary feature that we feel sets a half-shell mountain helmet apart from a half-shell road helmet. Most road helmets do not have a plastic visor because it would interfere with your line of sight when looking forward while riding in a tuck position on a road bike. Road bike helmets can be paired with a short brimmed cycling cap when the sun is low on the horizon or when riding in the rain. Cyclocross riders also often go with a cap rather than a visor, though cyclocross bikes are rarely ridden in the drops and a plastic visor would probably suffice.
The visors in our test varied significantly in both length and width. Another important difference is how the visor is attached and secured. All of the visors are attached with two removable screws on either side of the helmet that allow the visor to pivot up and down a few degrees to adjust for conditions. These screws are typically thumbscrews which can be manipulated without a tool, though we found that a coin worked in cranking many of them tight. Four of the six helmets in our test had an additional attachment point beneath the center of the visor which served to stabilize the visor and tighten it in place. All four of these helmets used a simple slotted slider and an additional thumbscrew which passes through the slider into an insert in the helmet. We came to prefer helmets with three rather than just two attachments as it allows for the side screws to be left less than cranked and adjust the angle of the visor by just manipulating the center screw. The Giro Cipher and Bell Transfer-9 only use the two screw method and require both screws to be loosened in order to move the visor, and we found that the visor sometimes ended up a bit crooked.
Visors are much more flimsy than the rest of any full-face, and most are designed to break away in a crash. Unfortunately, visors are typically designed for a certain helmet and are not likely to be compatible with other helmets. For this reason, if you damage one in a minor crash that doesn't total the helmet, you will have to track down a replacement specifically for that helmet. The Troy Lee D3, which came with an extra color matched visor, is the only helmet to include a spare.
The D3's visor is our favorite and took the top score in this test. This had nothing to do with the spare, but is because of its width, length, and solid attachment method. The D3 uses two titanium screws at either side of the visor and a third plastic slider/screw beneath the visor to attach and adjust its visor. This massive visor gives the D3 a very moto look, which we expect from a company with roots in motocross.
The average weight of the six downhill helmets in our test is 39.1 ounces. For comparison, the average weight of the seven half-shell helmets in our mountain bike helmet test was around 12.7 ounces. This means that full-face helmets are around three times heavier than half-shell helmets. It's hard to quantify exactly how much more protective a full-face is compared to a half-shell, but we think they cover between two and three times more of the head. The gram counting crowd will likely skip the protection of the full-face altogether and save twenty or more ounces by rocking a half-shell. It's pretty easy to justify the extra ounces to keep your gold grill intact for downhill riding, though.
As with half-shell mountain bike helmets, we found that helmets that fit securely felt lighter than the scale may reflect. One such helmet was the Giro Cipher, which at 40 ounces is one of the heavier helmets we tested, though its snug fit make it feel lighter on the head.
The heaviest helmet in our test is the Bell Transfer-9, which despite its super secure fit, feels much heavier on the head than any other helmet we tested. We think the Transfer is an excellent helmet, especially for $200, but if the weight is a deal breaker for you consider its carbon shelled big brother, which weighs considerably less though it is twice the price at $400.
The lightest helmet in our test is the Bell Sanction at just 34 ounces in a size Large, though we don't consider this helmet fit for full-blown downhill shredding. Sure light weight is important in a helmet, but we don't think you should sacrifice protection to lose just a few ounces. If light weight is your top priority in a full-face, then we recommend that you check out the Fox Rampage which weighs just 2.8 ounces more than the Sanction while being a more protective lid.
Our ventilation test measured two types of ventilation. We first considered how well each helmet allows cool air to flow into the helmet and transport built-up heat away from the head. The second thing, which is unique to full-face helmets, is how well each helmet's chin guard allowed the wearer to breath. We found that this type of ventilation is influenced by the size and shape of the chin guard as well as the size of the vents in the guard. The biggest factor in how well a helmet allows the wearer to breath is the proximity of the chin guard to the mouth. Keep in mind that full-face helmets are always going to feel suffocating compared to half-shells no matter how well-vented or well-placed the chin guard is.
The highest score in this test went to the POC Cortex Flow, which allowed for excellent airflow through its shell as well as easy (for a full-face) breathing because of its long chin guard with a massive vent. The lowest score in this test went to the Giro Cipher, which is suffocating because of its much too close for comfort chin guard.
We awarded each helmet a relative protection score based on the certification standards that it meets as well as a close inspection of its construction. We did not perform any scientific crash testing on the helmets, but leave that to the certifying agencies. We did do some unscientific crash testing when things didn't go as planned, and we were forced to devour a couple dirt sandwiches.
Full-face bike helmets can be combined with neck braces like a Leatt or Atlas. We tested all of the helmets with a Leatt DBX. (You can read more about neck braces and certifications in our Buying Advice article.) Of the helmets we tested, the ones we feel would work best with a Leatt are the Troy Lee D3, Bell Transfer-9, and Giro Cipher. These helmets allow for excellent range of motion but also have sturdy bottom edges that we feel would handle the load if you happen to lawn dart on your head.
The downhill helmets we tested came with a variety of extras ranging from spare visors, helmet camera mounts, and speaker pockets. All came with some sort of storage bag. Most of these bags are simple fabric sacks, except for the one included with the Troy Lee D3, which came with a substantial storage bag that can also accommodate goggles, gloves, and a few other small items.
One of the more interesting extras was found on the Bell Transfer-9, which is compatible with the Eject system. The Eject system, sold separately, is a small air bladder placed in a recess molded into the inside of the Transfer's polystyrene liner. The bladder can be inflated by a small tube that extends out of the back of the helmet. This system is designed to allow trained rescuers to carefully remove the helmet and minimize secondary injuries by inflating the bladder with a syringe of air. We've noticed that the availability of the Eject System is pretty limited online, so if you are sold on the Transfer-9 because of it, you may want to first try to hunt down a retailer which has the bladders before you buy the helmet. Bell.com does not currently have the system, but we've seen a few for sale on moto oriented web stores.
The highest score in this test went to the Troy Lee D3, which not only includes that substantial storage bag but also includes an extra color matched visor should should you damage the first one. We think that these two extras are likely to get used along the course of the helmet's lifespan.
Full-face helmets are typically more durable by design than other types of helmets. One area of weakness we identified in our half-shell helmet test is the bottom edge of the helmet. Helmets which have exposed polystyrene foam along the bottom edge do not hold up to day-to-day use as well as helmets which keep the polystyrene protected. Full-face helmets do not suffer from this weakness since all of the impact absorbing foam is encased within the shell.
We did not do any scientific crash or durability testing of these helmets. Instead, we just wore them day-in and day-out while riding, and examined how well they held up. The most impressive helmets in this test were the Bell Transfer-9 and Troy Lee D3, which came though our test with almost no signs of wear. Other helmets we tested did not fair as well.
Consider the type of mountain biking you plan to be doing, the terrain, and your bike when picking the best helmet for you. This review is designed to help you select the most appropriate helmet for your mountain biking needs. See our full Buying Advice article for a more detailed description of the differences of full-face, half-shell, and road bike helmets.
— Luke Lydiard
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