The Best Mountain Bike Helmets - MIPS, All-Around and Light Options

We recently updated our Mountain Bike Helmet comparison by testing new helmets from Bell and Smith. Here  McKenzie Long trains for the upcoming XC race season in the Smith Forefront.
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


Review by:
Luke Lydiard
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday
July 1, 2015

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Best Overall Mountain Bike Helmet


Troy Lee A1


Troy Lee A1 in Cyclops Gold Metal Flake Editors' Choice Award

$83.40
at Competitive Cyclist
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The Editors' Choice Award goes to the Troy Lee A1, which is the best half-shell mountain design we have tried. All of our testers agreed that the A1 is one of the most comfortable bike helmets they've ever worn. The A1 uses well-mapped, dense padding to protect your head from pressure points. The A1 also has an awesome visor, which is approximately the same size as the Bell Super, though it has less range of articulation to accommodate goggles worn beneath the visor. The only downfall of the A1 is the price, which was the second highest in our test. It is possible to pick this helmet up for a more reasonable price in one of the less bling colors. If you, like many enduro riders, are trying to decide between the A1 and the Bell Super, we recommend you consider your priorities. If you want the best looking, most comfortable, most durable helmet, you should spend the extra money on the A1.

Best Bang for the Buck


Giro Feature


Giro Feature in Red Best Buy Award

$39.99
at Competitive Cyclist
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The Giro Feature wins our Best Buy Award and is our favorite moderately priced helmet. The Feature has an excellent fit and a visor articulation method similar to helmets costing nearly twice as much. The rear retention band is comfortable and secure and uses a click wheel to adjust. This helmet does lack some features, like fore/aft adjustment of the chin strap and a full-wrap shell protecting the foam edges. The Feature barely beat out the Bell Stoker for this award, which is the same price but it does not have as great a visor. Riders who want a good deal but also want a highly articulated visor should go with the Feature.

Top Pick for Most Versatile Mountain Bike Helmet


Bell Super 2R MIPS


Top Pick Award

$169.90
at Amazon
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The Bell Super 2R MIPS wins our Top Pick Award for being the most versatile half-shell mountain bike helmet because it can convert from an extended coverage half-shell helmet to a light duty full-face helmet in under a minute. The Super 2R is the only one of its kind which we've tested so far. Bell gave the Super 23 vents, yet it received the lowest score in our ventilation test. This isn't surprising since we scored it with the chin guard in place while none of the other helmets in this comparison have that level of coverage. The Super 2R is better ventilated than any full-time full-face helmet we know of. This helmet is aimed at the enduro rider who wants the extra ventilation of a half-shell for the climb and wants the added coverage of a full-face for the decent. There are four models of the Super 2. The "R" models are sold with the chin guard while the models without the "R" are not. The two MIPS models have an extra layer of protection which is designed to limit forces applied to the brain in certain types of crashes.

select up to 5 products
Score Product Price Weight (size medium) oz Number of vents Goggle or Sunglasses Guide?
83
$139
Editors' Choice Award
12.9 16 No
75
$220
Top Pick Award
26.5 (with chin guard) 14.9 (no guard) 27 No
74
$155
14.9 27 No
73
$75
Best Buy Award
11.8 12 No
71
$130
11.3 17 No
71
$75
11.7 13 No
70
$220
10.8 21 Yes
62
$150
12 16 No
59
$100
14.4 20 No

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.

Different Types


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.

Three distinct types of bicycle helmets. From left to right: Full Face Mountain  Half Shell Mountain and Road Bike.
Three distinct types of bicycle helmets. From left to right: Full Face Mountain, Half Shell Mountain and Road Bike.
Notice the difference in coverage between a Road Bike Helmet (left)  a Half Shell Mountain Bike Helmet (center) and a Full Face Downhill Helmet (right).
Notice the difference in coverage between a Road Bike Helmet (left), a Half Shell Mountain Bike Helmet (center) and a Full Face Downhill Helmet (right).

Half-Shell Mountain Bike Helmets


The Bell Super 2 MIPS in Infrared.
Like the name implies, a half-shell mountain model covers about half of the head, as opposed to the entire head, like with a full-face helmet. The most obvious difference separating a mountain lid from a road lid is a removable visor which shields the eyes from sun, mud, and rain. Traditionally half-shell helmets are worn with sunglasses, but more and more people are wearing them with goggles as the enduro craze spreads like a zombie apocalypse. The latest trend in mountain bike helmets is additional rear and side coverage for more aggressive riding where impacts are more likely. We tested seven of these modern extended-coverage designs in this review, frequently referred to as enduro 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


Bell Transfer-9
Full-Face mountain models offer increased protection over half-shell designs by covering the entire head. Full-face helmets are usually worn with goggles and can be combined with a neck brace (like a Leatt) for very aggressive riding to protect the neck from over-extending during a serious impact. Though they appear very similar to motorcycle or motocross helmets, they meet different standards and are designed for different impact speeds. Check out our Full-Face Review,to see our favorite full-coverage lids.

Road Bike Helmets


Kask Vertigo in Azzurro.
Road bike helmets are very similar to half-shell mountain helmets but typically do not have a visor or extended rear coverage. These helmets forgo the handy visor because it would interfere with the field of view while riding a road bike in an aggressive forward position on the drops. Coverage and durability take a backseat to light weight and ventilation, which are usually the top priorities in road bike helmet design. To see the best models in this field of helmets, reference our Road Bike Helmet Review.

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


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.

McKenzie Long shreds the Lower Rock Creek Trail in the A1 helmet in Cyclops Gold Metal Flake.
McKenzie Long shreds the Lower Rock Creek Trail in the A1 helmet in Cyclops Gold Metal Flake.

Adjustments


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.

Buckles which lock the yoke in place  like the hardware on the Giro Xar (pictured) are our prefered method of fore aft chin strap adjustment.
Buckles which lock the yoke in place, like the hardware on the Giro Xar (pictured) are our prefered method of fore aft chin strap adjustment.

Weight


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.

The Bell Super 2R MIPS (left) is the heaviest helmet in our test while the Smith Forefront (right) is the lightest. Even with the chin guard removed the Super 2 is still the heaviest helmet in our comparison.
The Bell Super 2R MIPS (left) is the heaviest helmet in our test while the Smith Forefront (right) is the lightest. Even with the chin guard removed the Super 2 is still the heaviest helmet in our comparison.

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.

Ventilation


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.

Luke Lydiard warms up in the Xar before his local XC race. The lightweight  well ventilated Xar is an excellent choice for cross-country riding and racing.
Luke Lydiard warms up in the Xar before his local XC race. The lightweight, well ventilated Xar is an excellent choice for cross-country riding and racing.

Features


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.

The thumbscrew beneath the A1's visor is used to fix the visor in place. This screw can also be used to vary the amount of force needed to push the visor around while riding. We found that leaving the screw just barely snug allowed the visor to be adjusted on the fly without it moving on its own.
The thumbscrew beneath the A1's visor is used to fix the visor in place. This screw can also be used to vary the amount of force needed to push the visor around while riding. We found that leaving the screw just barely snug allowed the visor to be adjusted on the fly without it moving on its own.

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.

The Super's visor adjusts far enough upward to accommodate wearing goggles on the front of the helmet between descents.
The Super's visor adjusts far enough upward to accommodate wearing goggles on the front of the helmet between descents.

Durability


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.

The Xar's polycarbonate shell wraps completely around the lower edge of the polystyrene  which increases the helmet's lifespan. The anchor points of the webbing harness are also protected by shell material.
The Xar's polycarbonate shell wraps completely around the lower edge of the polystyrene, which increases the helmet's lifespan. The anchor points of the webbing harness are also protected by shell material.

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.

Conclusion


We recently updated our Mountain Bike Helmet comparison by testing new helmets from Bell and Smith. Here  McKenzie Long trains for the upcoming XC race season in the Smith Forefront.
We recently updated our Mountain Bike Helmet comparison by testing new helmets from Bell and Smith. Here, McKenzie Long trains for the upcoming XC race season in the Smith Forefront.

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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