The Best Mountain Bike Helmets - MIPS, All-Around and Light Options
What is the best bike helmet for mountain biking? We took nine of the most modern, extended-coverage, half-shell mountain bike helmets and compared them side-by-side over hundreds of miles of terrain. We rated each helmet in six different categories: comfort, adjustment, weight, features, ventilation, and durability. We found the best helmets for a variety of riding styles, from all-day uphill cross-country pedals to casual trail rides to enduro races, as well as helmets which will work across a wide range of mountain biking styles. We'll even give you our take on what "enduro" means.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Mountain Bike Helmet
Troy Lee A1
Best Bang for the Buck
Top Pick for Most Versatile Mountain Bike Helmet
Bell Super 2R MIPS
Analysis and Test Results
Wether you are sending your favorite jump line, racing enduro, or just rallying to the coffee shop, wearing a bike helmet is good idea. Fortunately their image has increased in the last twenty years and helmets have become cool. Wearing a helmet on a bike should be as natural as clicking your seatbelt when you get in a car.
All bicycle helmets are designed with the same purpose: to protect your head from impacts during a mishap. Whether that mishap is an overshot jump or a spacey driver making a left in front of you, bike helmets work by absorbing the force of your head smashing into something. Almost all bicycle helmets on the market today are constructed of a polycarbonate shell injection molded with a polystyrene foam inner liner. Impacts are absorbed by the polystyrene while the polycarbonate shell acts to distribute the force over more of the foam and it also serves to protect the foam from daily abuse. The helmet functions basically by absorbing an impact through being destroyed, and should be replaced after a significant crash. Repeat: bike helmets should be replaced after a significant impact.
Just like bikes come in many different styles for different terrain and riding styles, bike helmets come in a variety of different styles too. We think that most helmets fall into one of three categories: Mountain Bike Half-Shell, Mountain Bike Full-Face, and Road Bike. Here is a quick break-down of the differences and their applications.
Half-Shell Mountain Bike Helmets
Wondering what the heck enduro is? Well, basically it's a style of riding or racing that consists of riding up and then bombing back down as fast as you can. Sound familiar? Yeah, that's because this is what the majority of mountain bikers have been doing since the sport began. A couple of years ago the biking industry latched onto the word "enduro" and began pretending a new sport had been born. While there were once either cross-country or downhill races, there are now enduro races popping up all over the country. Whether you enjoy racing or not, this trend is good for the middle-of-the-trail mountain biker because gear aimed at enduro riders seems to be more versatile than products for highly specialized cross-country or downhill riders, and will more likely suit a rider that only has a one bike quiver. We think this is great because most fat tire riders have been "enduro-ing" for years.
Full-Face Downhill Helmets
Full-Face Review,to see our favorite full-coverage lids.
Road Bike Helmets
If you still aren't sure, we recommend you read our full buying advice article to figure out which type of helmet is best for your riding style.
Regardless of what type or rider you think you are, remember to have fun and wear a helmet.
Criteria for Evaluation
Comfort may be the single most important quality a helmet can have. If a helmet isn't comfortable, it will distract you from the trail and not allow you to ride at your full potential. We think the best helmets are quickly forgotten about after you clip the buckle.
All of the helmets we tested use lightweight open cell foam pads covered in moisture wicking fabric to pad between the hard polystyrene foam and the rider's head. The thickness, quality, and covering of these pads play a large roll in the overall comfort of a helmet. The most comfortable helmets have well mapped-out padding that covers all of the contact points between the polystyrene and the head. We also found that the helmets with denser padding were more comfortable. All the padding we tested was covered in a wicking material, but a few of them had coverings that are supposed to be antimicrobial. The Bell Stoker, for example, uses X Static padding that has silver fibers incorporated into the material to prevent bacterial from growing in the padding. We think that to some degree this is a solution to a problem which doesn't exist. We don't feel that the funk is a huge problem in half-shell helmets, which usually dry out fast enough to prevent something from growing in there. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for other mountain bike gear, like shoes or knee pads, which can stay wet between uses.
The most comfortable helmet in our test was the Troy Lee A1 which somehow seemed to fit like a glove on everybody who tried it. Troy Lee managed to sculpt a helmet which provides more coverage than traditional shapes, but was free from pressure points by covering all of the contact points between the head and foam with dense padding with a smooth covering.
One key component of a good product is the retention system, which typically consists of a semi rigid plastic band at the rear of the helmet. This band is tightened against the lower part of the occipital lobe and forces the front of the head into the brow area of the helmet for a secure fit. The majority of the helmets we tested use wheels to tighten the band. The size and shape of these wheels varies considerably. Our favorite wheel was found on the Giro Xar which uses a small but pronounced wheel to adjust rear retention band tension. We also really like the wheels found on the Troy Lee A1 and all of the Bell helmets in this test.
The POC Trabec and Fox Flux do not have click wheels. They instead use buttons and a ratcheting slider. This system requires two hands to fully manipulate and is more suitable to climbing helmets than bike helmets. Especially with mountain bike helmets, when you are less likely to be able to ride with no hands, we greatly prefer click wheels that can be adjusted easily with one hand. Some may see the lack of a wheel as a way to save weight, but consider that our three lightest helmets all have quality wheels. We think it is just a way to cut production cost, especially on the POC Trabec which was the most disappointing helmet, largely because of the lack of click wheel.
Another simple adjustment that is important to us is the fore/aft adjustment of the harness yoke. We find that this adjustment is key to getting the chin strap tight enough to keep the helmet put in a crash, but not make the wearer feel like they are being choked when the helmet is buckled. The Giro Feature is the only helmet in our test which did not allow for this type of adjustment because the chin strap is permanently fixed to the Y shaped yoke. Of the six helmets which did allow for fore/aft adjustment, we prefer ones that use locking hardware to secure the straps in place. The ones with locking hardware are the Troy Lee A1, Bell Super 2 MIPS, Bell Super 2R MIPS, Bell Stoker, Fox Flux, and Giro Xar.
Our test helmets varied in weight from 10.8 ounces to 26.5 ounces. The heaviest helmet in this comparison is the Bell Super 2R which we weighed with the detachable chin guard in place. With the chin guard removed the base half shell helmet still weighs a hefty 14.9 ounces. The lightest helmet in our review is the innovative Smith Forefront.
If you are a gram-counting cross-county rider you may want to consider a road cycling helmet. We recently tested eight of the best models on the market and found that on average they are a few ounces lighter than most mountain specific lids. A good deal of the weight savings is through the lack of a visor, but one look at the cross-country mountain bike World Cup field will show you that you can do without on race day.
We found that the perceived weight of a helmet has as much to do with how well a helmet fit as with the actual weight on the scale. The Troy Lee A1, for instance, was one helmet which felt considerably lighter than what the scale showed due to its awesome fit.
Interestingly, our testers found there to be little correlation between the number of vents a helmet has and how well it ventilated. We found the size and shape of vents to be much more important than total number. In fact, the poorest ventilation score went to the Bell Super 2, which has the most vents with 23. The highest scoring helmet in this test was the Giro Xar which is the helmet we want to be wearing when cranking uphill in the sun.
The feature shared by all of the helmets we tested, and one of the things that we feel separates mountain helmets from road helmets, is a visor. Visors serve as eye protection from sun, mud, and rain. The visors varied greatly in size and shape as well as in attachment method. Our testers prefer helmets which are secured in place by thumbscrews rather than snaps. The Troy Lee A1, Giro Feature, Bell Super 2 and Super 2R all use thumbscrews to prevent the visor from rattling around while mowing through chop. The rest of the helmets we tested use plastic snaps to secure the visor to the helmet which results in a less than optimum attachment and limits adjustment possibilities.
Our favorite visor is the one found on the Super 2 and Super 2R because of the large size, but mostly due to its ability to flip up far enough to be completely out of view and to accommodate goggles on the front of the helmet. The Super 2R MIPS took the top score in the features test because of the well designed visor as well as the detachable chin guard.
Our durability score was not a measure of crash resistance, but rather a measure of how well helmets hold up to day-to-day wear and tear. All of the helmets we tested are designed to protect the head through partial destruction of the helmet during a crash, and should be replaced after a significant impact.
We found that helmets which have outer shells that wrap fully around the lower edge of the delicate polystyrene foam had better resistance to dings and dents from daily use. The Troy Lee A1, Giro Xar, Fox Flux and POC Trabec all share this quality. The Bell Super 2 and Super 2R have a shell that comes close to fully protecting the bottom edge of the polystyrene though it doesn't quite provide full foam coverage.
If you are a conservative rider and never crash, you may actually want a helmet that scores high in our day-to-day durability test since you will get a lot more out of it than a rider who spends more time eating dirt.
There are many different types of bicycle helmets, just as there are an array of needs for the many different types of cyclists. The helmets in this review are specific to mountain biking. If you are still unsure of what the differences are between a mountain bike helmet, a road bike helmet, or a downhill helmet, we highly recommend you read our Buying Advice article which explains the differences in-depth and describes when is appropriate to wear each style. It also gives some tips on what qualities to look for in each type of helmet. We hope that our analyses in this review have helped to guide you when choosing a helmet for your mountain biking needs.
— Luke Lydiard
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