The Best Budget Bike Helmets
The Giro Fixture MIPS hugely impressed us throughout the testing process and came out as the clear top dog in our head-to-head bike helmet comparison. With a MIPS rotational impact system, a deep fit, and a highly-adjustable harness system, this model topped our test in both the protection and comfort metrics. Usually found only on high-end models, the MIPS system comprises a plastic insert that rotates within the outer foam shell to absorb rotational forces on impact. We were happy to see that Giro offers this safety feature at a very reasonable price point. The extra protection is packed into a well-constructed, sleek design that mirrors the look and feel of modern top-of-the-line-models and will span the test of time. The polycarbonate outer liner is fused to the EPS foam shell in the mold, meaning there is no chance of the two separating over time. The large visor is flexible enough to survive a minor spill or being dropped on the ground and works well to shield your eyes from the sun and keep brush out of your face on tight trails. To top it off, Giro offers the Fixture in five colors.
Despite our best efforts, we didn't find any significant drawbacks to the Fixture's design. It is one of the most expensive helmets in our test selection, but we think Giro packed in plenty of bang for your buck with high-end features, protection, and comfort. Some users might take issue with the non-adjustable, sewed ear splitters, but we didn't have any problems with them in testing. The straps sit flat on your face and leave plenty of berth for a wide variety of ear shapes and head sizes. Giro offers the Fixture in either the 54-61cm "Universal Adult" shell size that we tested or their XL size for the large-headed among us. We had testers with a variety of head shapes and sizes test this model out, and everyone was able to find a comfortable fit. Only the furthest head-size outliers will run into fit issues with the "Universal Adult" size. Giro designed the Fixture with off-road riding in mind, but this stylish all-rounder will work well for any kind of cycling.
The Retrospec CM-1 is a classic, simple, skate-style bike helmet with a price tag that won't put a massive dent in your pocketbook. This helmet tops the charts for its versatility, and can easily be used for skating, biking, commuting, you name it. After running it through our test process, we think this model provides a ton of value for those among us looking for a reliable, basic helmet that will keep their head safe. The CM-1 comprises ample interior padding and a thick EPS foam shell bonded to a durable ABS outer liner that doesn't scuff easily. The straightforward design means there aren't any prone-to-fail gadgets or features that you have to worry about. The CPSC-certified EPS shell is the thickest in our test and should provide proper protection in the event of an impact. It's available in small, medium, and large shell sizes that will fit heads from 51-63cm in circumference, and each helmet comes with a spare set of interchangeable pads that allow you to customize the fit for your head shape and size. The straps have sliding adjustable ear-splitter clips that sit flat against your face, and the chin buckle is easily adjustable to ensure a secure fit. With its thick padding, our testers found that this was among the most comfortable helmets in the test.
While we think this helmet is a great value, we also want to warn about some drawbacks to the design that we uncovered in testing. With thick padding, a monolithic EPS shell, and minimal air vents, this helmet can be stifling on hot days or long, strenuous rides. In testing, we found that things started to get a little bit sweaty on longer rides and that we wanted to avoid using the CM-1 on the hottest days. Short morning and evening commutes weren't a problem, but we were wary of anything more intensive. Additionally, we have minor concerns about the potential for the ABS outer shell to separate from the EPS foam over time. We didn't experience this in testing, but it's an issue that we've had in the past with this style of helmet, and almost any adhesive will eventually give up the ghost over time and when exposed to heat. We recommend avoiding leaving the CM-1 out in the sun for extended periods to minimize the chance of separation. Despite these minimal concerns, we think the CM-1 is an excellent buy for the price. It will serve anyone from commuters to aspiring BMXers well.
Coming in a good chunk of change cheaper than its counterpart, the Fixture, Giro's Isode is an impressively capable, comfortable, and durable helmet for the price. Tipping our scale at just 270 grams with a MIPS rotational impact liner included, the Isode is simultaneously among the lightest and most protective helmets we tested. With 22 vents that lead to interior channels in the EPS foam, this model keeps things airy and cool on hot days, hill climbs, and long rides. The Roc Loc sport harness system provides tons of fit adjustment while mimicking the full-circumference tightening of high-end harnesses. We had no issues with pinching, hotspots, or pressure points with this helmet during testing. As a package, the Isode features Giro's reliable in-mold construction that will span the test of time. The stylish design imitates modern top-of-the-line models and comes in seven different color options.
The Isode doesn't have many drawbacks, but there were a few things that kept it from topping our test. First and foremost, this model doesn't have the same deep-fitting, high-coverage shell shape as the Giro Fixture. This model sits higher up on your head and doesn't provide extra protection for your occipital lobe like its counterpart. Because of this, the Isode is best for road or recreational riding, where you are less worried about rocks and other surface abnormalities that might lead to a lower-rear-head impact in a crash. Additionally, the Isode only comes in a single "Universal Adult" shell size. The harness provides loads of adjustment, but those among us with either very large or very small heads might be out of luck with this model's fit range. For most people, however, the Isode is a great, inexpensive helmet that will feel right at home for everything from commuting to all-day bike touring.
PHZ. is not a well-known brand in the cycling industry, but they did a great job designing this budget-friendly helmet. It is among the lightest and lowest-profile in our test, and it's loaded with features to make your ride safer and more comfortable. Most impressively, this helmet comes with a rechargeable red LED tail light that fits securely into the back of the helmet. The light has three modes controlled by a clicker switch and is designed to make the rider more visible in high-traffic situations. In addition to the light, the helmet also comes with a short removable sun visor, a mesh inner bug liner, and a small chin pad that fixes to the buckle. The helmet is well constructed and looks like it will span the test of time with fused EPS and polycarbonate shells and a sturdy harness system. Other helmets we tested included flimsy tail lights without replaceable batteries, but this model appears built to last and didn't give us any issues in testing.
While there's a lot to like about this model, we have a few nits to pick. The EPS shell's shape isn't the most versatile we tested, and some of our testers found that the foam creates small pressure points at the back of the head, which can lead to minor discomfort over time. This isn't much of a concern for short rides or commutes, but some riders might not like this model for longer excursions. We also found that the sleek, low-profile look meant less head coverage and protection. Luckily we didn't get a chance to try out its performance in a crash, but the combination of its lightweight and low-coverage shell didn't inspire the same confidence as some of our favorite models in the test. Regardless, this model is CPSC certified and will undoubtedly help provide a layer of safety in the event of a spill. We think the PHZ. is a great option for anyone looking for a reliable commuter helmet at an affordable price.
Once we got our hands on the Giro Register MIPS, it didn't take long for our testers to realize that it uses the exact same shell, harness, and strap construction as our favorite road cycling model, the Giro Isode MIPS. Other than the different color options available, the two helmets are almost exactly the same. We were a little bit disappointed with the finding, but since we loved the Isode, we weren't overly troubled. The only substantial differences between the two models are the Register's small, detachable visor and the few extra dollars tacked onto its price tag. It's a minor alteration, but the visor successfully turns the Register into a slightly more versatile helmet than its less expensive counterpart. First off, the visor provides a little bit of sun and glare protection that the Isode is missing. Second, with a little bit more of a brush-deflecting buffer at the front of the helmet, we felt more comfortable exploring tight, overgrown paths and trails. Installing and removing the visor is fast and easy, with a set of tabs that flex into place in the front vents, so you can easily pop it off for a little aerodynamic boost on a road ride.
We think the Register is a slightly more versatile model than the Isode, but we're not entirely sold on it. While the visor improves the helmet's performance in certain conditions, it's a minor change, and we don't know if it's worth the extra five dollars that Giro charges over the Isode. A larger visor would have a more pronounced effect that would help justify the price difference. Also, even with the visor, the Register uses the same mid-coverage EPS shell as the Isode, and we would still be hesitant to take it out on full-blown mountain bike trails. Regardless, if you don't mind the extra few bucks and like the look and feel of a helmet with a visor, the Register delivers the same performance, comfort, and protection as the Isode with a little cherry on top.
Riders looking for a new helmet on a tight budget should take a look at the Moon Adult Bike Helmet. For the price, it's a surprisingly lightweight, comfortable shell, and the removable visor gives it a versatility boost. The harness system is easily adjustable with one hand, and it does a good job pulling tension around the full circumference of the head rather than pinching at the rear. There are no interior channels in the EPS shell to promote airflow, but the 25 vent ports do a decent job of keeping your head cool while riding. At a glance, the style mimics much more expensive helmets, but a close inspection of the construction and materials tells a slightly different story.
When we got our hands on the Moon, we quickly realized why the price was so unbelievably low. The plastic outer liner isn't very well-bonded to the EPS shell and was already starting to peel away slightly in places after a few uses. The shell's decals are designed to look like a carbon fiber weave, but up close, the finish appears unrefined. The helmet's interior padding is super soft and comfortable but doesn't absorb sweat well. We found that even in the slightest heat, sweat would start dripping. The visor is very lightweight and a bit flimsy, and we don't like its chances of long term survival. All in all, however, we weren't unhappy with the Moon's performance with price in mind. With a careful owner or less frequent use, this helmet could last and be well worth the price.
The Thousand Heritage Bike Helmet is a unique and functional helmet option for commuters and urban cyclists. Boldly touted by Thousand as "The first-ever stylish bike helmet," the Heritage was designed in the vein of vintage motorcycle helmets and is unique in more ways than one. The helmet's EPS shell includes a *Secret Poplock* magnetic port that opens up and allows access for a bike lock, meaning that you won't be saddled with a cumbersome bike helmet while scanning the aisles of the grocery store or grabbing a drink after work. We tried out the lock port a few times during testing, and it is both easy to use and secure. Beyond the unique styling and features, the Heritage features a durable, high-quality construction with a magnetic chin buckle, vegan leather straps, and a thick outer shell that isn't easily marred. The CPSC and ASTM certified EPS shell sits low on your head, providing good coverage and is offered in small, medium, and large sizes, with a dial harness at the helmet's rear to fine-tune the fit. All signs point to this helmet fitting almost any head size and surviving for the long haul.
Despite all that there is to like about this model, we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't point out some of the issues we unearthed in testing. In addition to being the most expensive model in our test, it's also the heaviest. The dial harness system, while highly adjustable, only pulls tension across the back of the head, which presses the front of the EPS shell against your forehead upon tightening. When the helmet is secured properly on your head, we noticed that a small pressure point tends to develop on the forehead after a few minutes of riding. We didn't experience any overt discomfort, but the feeling persisted every time we wore the helmet and tended to get worse over time. The vent ports in the EPS shell are relatively minimal, making any strenuous or long ride a sweaty affair, but we found that it breathed slightly better than the Retrospec CM-1.
Our testers unanimously approved of the Base Camp Commuter's sleek, unassuming style and think that its performance in our test makes it a good option for commuting and recreational cyclists. The outer shell's flowing lines are an amalgamation of classic equestrian, kayaking, and mountaineering helmets, with a close-fitting silhouette that avoids the bulbous nature of many bike helmets. Its thick interior EPS is CPSC certified and fused to the outer shell to prevent separation over time. With a few well-placed air vents that lead to internal channels in the EPS, we found that the Commuter allows enough airflow to keep your head cool on shorter rides in most conditions. A 3-mode integrated tail light at the back of the helmet ensures visibility in high-traffic or low-light conditions.
When the Commuter showed up at our door, we found a few drawbacks. First and foremost, we were a little bit disappointed with the quality of the helmet's black decals. From a distance, they look great, but up close, there are some faded sections and a bit of excess adhesive visible around the letters. This isn't a huge deal, but low-quality decals and questionable application don't inspire confidence in the rest of the helmet's construction. The tail light's housing seems dubious, and we're concerned about its longevity in wet conditions. The battery is replaceable, but it requires a screwdriver. For those not overly concerned about these issues, the Commuter is an affordable, comfortable, and stylish option perfect for city riding or running around town.
The Exculsky Mountain Bike Helmet is a lightweight, well-rounded option that is suitable for almost any cycling discipline. With a large visor and a high-coverage shell that drops down the back of the head, it's actually a more viable off-road and mountain biking option than the Giro Register in some ways. Twenty-one vents help promote airflow to keep your head fresh, and a mesh interior liner on the front half of the shell prevents bugs from flying into the helmet. The straps feature adjustable ear splitters, a traditional buckle, and a small chin pad. The harness system is adjustable both vertically and circumferentially and pulls tension around the entire head to ensure a secure, comfortable fit.
The Exculsky has a few key design issues that keep it from ranking higher in our test field. It only comes in a single shell size and has the smallest fit range in the test (56-61cm). The EPS shell shape is not as refined as our highest ranked helmets, and a few of our testers with head sizes on the upper edge of its fit range experienced pressure points and discomfort. For riders with average head sizes, however, the shell worked great. The visor attachment points thread into inserts in the EPS shell, and we found that they unthread easily and can fall out. If these are lost, the visor will no longer attach to the helmet. Riders with average head sizes looking for a versatile model will find a good option in the Exculsky but beware of the design and construction issues we mentioned.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our lead bike helmet reviewer, Zach Wick, has lived and breathed bike riding since he was a kid. He started out riding mountain bikes with his family when he was nine years old and hasn't stopped since. His career has taken him from state champion road cyclist to elite mountain bike racer and just about everything in between. These days he commutes to the office via bike every day and spends at least fifteen hours a week turning the pedals over. In addition to the countless helmets he's been through on the bike, Zach has also spent years working in a product development test lab in the cycling industry. He knows how to put a product through its paces to separate the wheat from the chaff.
For this bike helmet review, Zach and our team spent weeks digging into the best helmets available today to find the best values out there. After researching, we ordered the ten most promising models to put through our field test and spent two weeks putting them through their paces. Our testing involved lots of saddle time, including countless back-to-back comparisons, a variety of terrain and conditions, and some close examination in the lab.
Analysis and Test Results
Our awards and rankings aren't pulled out of thin air or based entirely on marketing copy. In order to provide you with the best information possible, we developed six key metrics in which we ranked each helmet. We evaluated each helmet's protection, comfort, ventilation, features, weight, and durability, and—after weeks of testing—rated them in each metric and combined the scores to get our final results. Metrics that factor more heavily into a helmet's overall quality—like protection and comfort—were weighted more heavily than the others.
Foremost on your mind when searching for a new mountain bike helmet should be your head's safety. Even a very affordable bike helmet can provide top-notch protection and is undoubtedly better than wearing no helmet at all. All of the helmets we tested meet the CPSC bicycle standard for protection. When compared to riding with no helmet, any CPSC-certified helmet will hugely minimize your chances of a brain injury in the event of a crash, but that doesn't mean that all helmets are created equal. Because we aren't a certifying agency, and we try to avoid crashing during testing, our protection rating is based on a fundamental analysis of the helmet's head coverage, construction, and protective features. Helmets that provide more head coverage or feature advanced constructions like multi-density EPS foam scored higher in our protection metric.
In recent years, rotational impact protection systems like MIPS have become prolific in bike helmets. These systems are designed to allow your head to move slightly within the helmet's shell on impact and reduce concussion-causing rotational forces. MIPS accomplishes this by attaching a thin plastic shell that can rotate a few degrees to the interior of the EPS shell. The science on systems like MIPS isn't completely settled, but the consensus is that they are a useful safety feature. The vast majority of high-end helmets include some kind of MIPS-like rotational impact system these days, and the technology is slowly trickling into the less expensive models. Because only Giro's Register, Fixture, and Isode included rotational impact protection, they were the highest-rated models in our test. The Fixture edged out the other two because of its high-coverage shell.
Beyond protection, comfort is the most important thing you want to consider when purchasing a helmet. The more comfortable your helmet, the more likely you are to put it on before each ride, and the more enjoyable your ride will be. Several factors impact a helmet's comfort, including the shape and size of your head. Some brands offer refined EPS shell shapes and well-placed padding that work for a wide range of head sizes, while others may be comfortable for only certain people. The harness system, straps, and ear splitters all play an essential role in a helmet's comfort as well. To analyze the comfort of each helmet, we had a variety of people try them on and give feedback. Additionally, we spent hours of ride time wearing each model to see if any discomfort developed over time. Helmets like the Giro Fixture, Exculsky, and Giro Isode, that didn't bug us on rides and were comfortable across a wide range of people received the highest scores in this metric.
A thickly-padded helmet may be comfortable, but it may be stifling once you start pedaling. For the majority of applications, it's essential that your helmet be able to breathe and ventilate while on your head. Whether you're pedaling into work or trying to summit your local climb, it's important that you don't end up with soaked hair and sweat pouring down your face. Helmets with a high number of vent ports typically breathe best, but that isn't the only factor that we considered when rating each helmet's ventilation. Vents that lead to interior channels in the EPS foam promote airflow far better than those that don't, and a few large, well-placed vents can be cooler than numerous small ones. Pad size, location, and material also play a role. Giro's Isode and Register were the best-ventilating helmets we tested, with the PHZ and Exculsky coming in close behind.
A simple, bare-bones helmet can be great for certain applications. Still, additional features like integrated lights, adjustable harnesses, lock mechanisms, and visors can vastly improve your ride and make your life easier at the same time. Not all features are created equal, though. When scoring helmets in this metric, we didn't simply tally up all of the nifty gadgets. We made sure to take a given feature's quality and utility into account as well. A small, flimsy visor provides far less utility than a large, well-constructed one, and an integrated tail light that fails after the first ride isn't the same as one that will last the lifetime of the helmet. Be wary of ridiculous feature claims when hunting for a new bike helmet. An inexpensive helmet packed with features is likely cheaply made and flimsy. A couple of the helmet features we tested looked great on paper but quickly disappointed or failed once we took them out into the field. With a quality rechargeable light, a mesh liner, and a removable visor, the PHZ impressed us with its features. The Thousand Heritage was also highly rated, but the Giro Register wasn't far behind with its MIPS system, removable visor, and robust harness.
Unless you're a racer looking for the lightest kit available, weight doesn't necessarily need to sit at the top of your priority list when seeking out a new helmet. For that reason, we weighted this metric slightly lower in our scoring. Even for short commutes, however, an overly-heavy helmet can be a burden. Lighter helmets tend to disappear on the head while you're riding—not causing a distraction or encumbrance—while heavy helmets can feel unwieldy and move around on your head easily. Our scoring in this metric is based mostly on a helmet's true weight, but we also took into account the way that it feels on your head. Often a well-fitted but heavy helmet can feel just as light on your head as a poorly-fitted and light one. Our top-rated model in this category was the PHZ. The Giro helmets each lost a little bit of ground here with the added weight of their MIPS systems.
Last but not least, it's important to take into account a helmet's longevity before buying it. Most EPS foam bike helmets are designed for single-impact protection, meaning you should replace your helmet every time you hit your head. For most of us, though, the time between crashes can be—and hopefully is—a very long time, so it's important to make sure your helmet's going to hold up for the long haul. A good bike helmet should be just as durable as the top-end models, in our opinion. To analyze each helmet's durability, we put it through the wringer of our field test, and we closely examined its construction to look for weak points. The longest-lasting helmets have fused exterior and EPS shells that won't separate over time, sturdy harness systems with solid anchor points, and simple, robust adjustment mechanisms. In testing, we found that inexpensive helmets boasting copious features were likely to be flimsy and prone to fail very quickly, and we kept them out of our recommendations. Aside from some of the least expensive models we looked at, most of our test field appears built to last, but we have the most confidence in the PHZ, the Thousand Heritage, and Giro's Fixture, Isode, and Register.
After months of research and comparative testing, we managed to boil a large field of helmets down to our favorites in the hopes that you'll find the right helmet for your needs. The models listed above represent the best budget-friendly bike helmets available in 2020 without any marketing lingo or outrageous claims. Here's to a simple, straightforward helmet purchase that will help you get out and enjoy your next bike ride!
— Zach Wick