Your brain is important. Thus, a helmet is one of the most critical pieces of protective equipment you can wear while mountain biking. Which helmet is the best for you? To help with this important decision, we researched the best helmets before choosing 11 to test and compare side by side. Over several months our testers rode hundreds of miles in each model, scrutinizing every aspect of their performance and design. We analyzed each helmet's fit and comfort by passing them between riders, carefully evaluated protective features, and took on long, hot summer rides to sweat-test ventilation. Keep reading to find out which is best for your needs and budget. This review covers half-shell helmets, we also have a full-face Downhill Helmet review for all you downhill chargers.
The Best Mountain Bike Helmets
Analysis and Award Winners
This spring and summer we added eight new models to our test selection. We found new award winners and developed new opinions of old favorites. Our podium was completely rearranged this year, with new winners across the board. The POC Tectal Race SPIN took top honors, winning our Editor's Choice Award. The all-new Smith Session was a close runner-up, taking home our Top Pick for Ventilation Award. Though mountain bike helmets are largely unisex, we tested two women's models to find the best options for lady rippers. The Bell Hela Joy Ride is our favorite and it won our Best Buy Award.
Best Overall Mountain Bike Helmet
POC Tectal Race SPIN
The Tectal Race SPIN wins our Editor's Choice Award. It's the best helmet in our test in nearly every way. This helmet is extremely versatile, with applications ranging from cross country rides to enduro racing. The Tectal has best-in-test head coverage. It also features POC's rotational impact protection system, known as SPIN, for added safety. A very comfortable fit with a quality size adjustment system and well-designed straps makes it easy to keep the helmet snug. The Race also has some of the best ventilation in our test selection. This lightweight helmet also has an adjustable visor and a goggle strap retention system that add to its already impressive versatility.
While it's the most expensive helmet in our review by a fair margin, our testers are enamored with the Tectal Race SPIN. We feel that it represents a good value considering the fact it's one of the most comfortable and protective mountain bike helmets money can buy.
Read review: POC Tectal Race SPIN
Best Bang for the Buck
Bell Hela Joy Ride MIPS
The Bell Hela Joy Ride MIPS impressed our testers with its comfortable fit, robust protection, and a full set of features at a reasonable price. "Joy Ride" is Bell's brand for women's helmets. They are identical to their male/unisex counterparts, in this case, the Bell 4Forty MIPS, with slightly different sizes and color options. The Hela Joy Ride MIPS offers excellent coverage on both the temporal and occipital lobes and comes with a MIPS rotational impact protection system for enhanced protection. A quality size adjustment and strap system add to the helmet's comfortable fit. An adjustable visor is compatible with goggles and adds to its versatility. Testers found the Hela Joy Ride MIPS suitable for virtually all riding styles, from XC to enduro, although downhillers may want to explore the full face helmet options.
Our only real complaint about the Hela Joy Ride MIPS is the ventilation, which works but doesn't quite match the competition. Otherwise, it's mostly gold stars for this affordable and comfortable all-mountain helmet. Both the Hela and the 4Forty are available without MIPS for $75.Read review: Bell Hela Joy Ride MIPS
See men's version: Bell 4Forty MIPS
Most mountain bike helmets are unisex. When you do come across a designated men's or women's helmet, the only differences are usually colors and sizes. The LIV Coveta we reviewed is one of the rare exceptions. It was designed specifically for women.
Top Pick for Ventilation
Smith Session MIPS
The Session is an all-new model in the Smith helmet range for 2018. It falls in the middle of their lineup in terms of price, but at $160 offers protection, features, ventilation, and style that exceed the asking price. The Session provides a high degree of protection with great extended coverage, a MIPS liner, and strategically placed Koroyd crumple zones. Testers instantly loved the Session for its comfort, with Smith's Vaporlock system to dial in the fit. The adjustable visor is also a favorite, with three positions for uninhibited sight and goggles compatibility. Ventilation is one of its top qualities, with big airy vents that keep the head cool on the hottest of days.
The Session just narrowly missed out on the top step of the podium in our test to the POC Tectal Race SPIN due to the Smith's slightly reduced head coverage and its tricky strap system. That said, the Session is an excellent helmet that delivers serious protection, comfort, features, and ventilation at a reasonable price. We think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better helmet at this price.
Read review: Smith Session MIPS
Top Pick for Innovation
Leatt DBX 3.0 All Mountain
Innovative features like 360 Turbine Technology and the Fidlock magnetic buckle separate the Leatt DBX 3.0 from its competition. Leatt's own 360 Turbine system differs substantially from the MIPS system used in most mountain bike helmets. There are ten small blue dials in the helmet, called Turbines, made using a material that Leatt calls Armourgel, which remains soft and pliable until hardening on impact. Leatt uses Armourgel in other helmets as well as some of their body armor and claims the Turbine 360 system reduces rotational acceleration while also absorbing energy during impact. Testers also found the DBX 3.0 to provide good ventilation, back of the head coverage, and an adjustable visor for goggle compatibility. We like the magnetic Fidlock buckle because it works well one-handed while wearing gloves.
Testers aren't in love with the helmet's straps, however. They meet close to the ear, are tricky to adjust, and are less comfortable than the competition. Overall though, we are quite impressed with the DBX 3.0 and its unique and innovative features.
Read review: Leatt DBX 3.0
Analysis and Test Results
Anytime you're riding a bike, wearing a helmet is an excellent idea. The fit, style, comfort, and protection of helmets have improved dramatically over the past few decades, and strapping on a helmet to go for a mountain bike ride has become as natural as buckling your seatbelt. That's a good thing because they are the single most important piece of protective gear you can wear.
Ideally, you never crash, but accidents can and do happen, trust us, we take our fair share of crashes. If, well, when you eventually crash, your helmet is designed to absorb the brunt of the impact and protect your skull, and the precious brain inside it, from damage. Generally, modern mountain bike helmets include an EPS foam (or polystyrene) liner molded inside a more durable polycarbonate (plastic) shell. The foam absorbs a collision while the plastic shell distributes the force over a larger area. An impact to your helmet typically results in a crushing or cracking of the foam and shell, as opposed to your skull. You must replace any helmet following a significant impact.
The helmets we tested have varying levels of coverage, ventilation, adjustments, and features that all affect their level of comfort and protection while riding. We rated each model using predetermined metrics of comfort, adjustments, weight, ventilation, features, and durability. The combined totals from these ratings led us to our best overall and top pick award winners. Read on to find out more about our mountain bike helmet test.
To find the best deal, see our Price vs. Performance analysis above. Hover your cursor over the dots to find out how each model ranked on this chart. Notice that our Best Buy, the Bell Hela Joy Ride is one of the least expensive helmets we tested, and it still scores relatively well from a performance standpoint. Our Editor's Choice Award winner, the POC Tectal Race SPIN is both the most expensive and the highest performance model we tested.
MIPS, Turbine or SPIN: Which safety standard is the best?
MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) used to be the only game in town when it came to reducing rotational forces in a crash. Now Leatt has Turbine, and POC developed SPIN. What's the difference between the technologies? MIPS uses a very thin liner that provides a slip plane in a crash. Turbine and SPIN also are intended to slip is a similar way while also providing some shock absorption. MIPS does not provide any shock absorption and can affect the fit of the helmet. Some people notice this, but most don't. So which technology is the best? The jury is still out. What is clear is that any of the three options usually only add 5-10% to the cost. Since the whole point of a helmet is to reduce impact forces, we recommend paying the premium price for one of these technologies.
Comfort is among the most important aspects of a helmet. The more comfortable your helmet is, the less distracting it is, allowing you to devote all of your attention to the trail ahead of you. The less you notice them, the better. We feel the best helmets are the ones that you completely forget about after you put them on. It is important to remember that comfort is subjective, and what works for you may vary based on the size and shape of your head. When in doubt, try on different helmets to find the model and fit that's best for you. Keep in mind that adjustable features like the retention system and chin straps play a role in how the helmet fits and its level of comfort.
All of the helmets 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 extent of these pads play a significant role in the overall comfort of a helmet. The most comfortable helmets have well laid out padding that covers the contact points between the polystyrene and the head. The helmets with slightly denser padding are more comfortable.
The most comfortable helmets in our test were the POC Tectal Race SPIN and the Smith Session, which both seemed to fit every tester like a glove. The Troy Lee A2 MIPS and the Bell Hela Joy Ride also scored well by providing more coverage than traditional shapes while still offering an impressively comfortable fit. All the padding we tested is covered with a wicking material.
Most helmets have several adjustable features, and we rated them based on their ease of use, functionality, and whether or not they enhance the helmet's performance. The adjustable features of mountain bike helmets are generally the retention system/fit adjustment, the straps, and the visor.
Most mountain bike helmets have a retention system, often called a fit or size adjustment, used to adjust the fit to the rider's head. These are typically in the form of a two-sided plastic band in the back of the helmet with a dial in the middle that adjusts the tension of the band against the underside of your occipital lobe, the back of the skull.
This adjustment tightens to hug the head snugly for a secure fit. All the models we tested have a small wheel that tightens or loosens the retention system evenly from both sides. The size and shape of these adjustment dials vary considerably, as does their ease of use. All of the adjustment systems work pretty well, but our favorite was on the POC Tectal Race SPIN, which uses a large and exceptionally easy to adjust dial. We also really like the adjustment dials found on the Smith Session, Troy Lee A2 MIPS, and the Leatt DBX 3.0.
Another necessary fit adjustment is the chin strap, including the strap splitter by the ears. This adjustment is not only crucial to the user's comfort, but it keeps the helmet secure in the event of a crash. It's necessary to get the chin strap tight enough to stay on your head, but not so tight that it ends up being uncomfortable. The strap splitter's shape controls the position of the straps by your ears. The straps shouldn't make contact with the ears for comfort. Our favorite strap system is the one on the POC Tectal Race SPIN, with a Y-shaped strap yoke in a fixed position that keeps them from making ear contact.
All of the mountain bike helmets we tested have specific features intended to enhance fit, protection, and rider comfort. One feature that all of the helmets in our test selection share is the visor. It's the primary feature that sets mountain helmets apart from road helmets. Every model we tested has one, but they are not created equal.
The primary function of a visor is to shield your eyes from the sun, but they also serve as protection from rain and can help to deflect less consequential trailside obstacles. They vary in size and shape as well as in attachment method and adjustability. Some visors are adjustable and can be pushed up to accommodate goggles. Others are static and fixed in the lowered position. Testers prefer adjustable visors for their versatility and compatibility with goggles.
Our favorite visors are found on the Smith Session and on the Bell Hela Joy Ride because of their large size, but mostly due to their ability to rotate up far enough to be entirely out of view and accommodate goggles on the front of the helmet when not in use.
We also considered the protective features of each model. Many modern helmets come with a rotational impact protection system, and there are now more options than ever before. MIPS was the first on the market and is widely considered to be the industry standard. Nowadays, MIPS has competition from POC with their SPIN system, and from Leatt with their 360 Turbine Technology. Each one of these systems operates on the same basic premise, and we feel they add a measure of safety. The price of these systems has come down dramatically over the past several years, and we think that it is worth the added expense.
Our durability score isn't a measure of crash resistance, but rather a measure of how well a helmet holds up to daily wear and tear. All of the helmets we tested are designed to protect the head through partial destruction of the helmet during a crash. You have to replace your helmet after a significant impact. Beyond crash damage, most helmets should provide a responsible user with years of trouble-free use. We did not intentionally crash and hit our heads while testing these helmets, nor did we do any laboratory crash testing.
Helmets with full coverage outer shells that wrap entirely around the lower edge of the delicate polystyrene foam have better resistance to dings and dents from daily use. The POC Tectal, Smith Session, Troy Lee A2, Bell Hela Joy Ride, and Leatt DBX 3.0 all share this quality. The Giro Chronicle has a shell that comes close to adequately protecting the bottom edge of the polystyrene, though it doesn't quite provide full foam coverage. We also observed how all the moving parts held up to heavy use and how the outer shells and inner padding wore over time.
We rated each helmet's ventilation based on how well it worked in real-world riding situations. Interestingly, our testers found that the number of vents doesn't directly correlate to how well the ventilation works.
The size and shape of a helmet's vents are just as important and the quantity. That said, one of the best in this test is the Giro Hex, and it has a whopping 21 vents. The Hex is the helmet we want to be wearing when cranking uphill in the sun. Our other top-rated helmet for ventilation is the Smith Session, with only 15 vents this helmet manages to keep the air flowing and your head cool. Some of the other well-ventilated helmets in our test are the Smith Rover MIPS and the Troy Lee A2 MIPS.
Our test helmets varied in weight from 9.54 to 14.09 ounces. The heaviest helmet in our selection is the Giro Montaro MIPS, and the lightest helmet is the Giro Hex. The differences in weight are quite small, generally not even noticeable, so we put less weight on this metric than some of the others.
We found that the perceived weight of a helmet has as much to do with how well a helmet fits as with the actual weight on the scale. The Troy Lee A2, for instance, was one helmet that felt considerably lighter than what the scale showed due to its awesome fit.
There are many different models and styles of mountain bike helmets, just as there are an array of needs for the many different cyclists who use them and count on them for protection. The helmets in this review are half shell helmets specific to mountain biking. If you are still unsure of what the differences are between a mountain bike helmet, a aerodynamic road bike helmet, or a burly downhill option, we highly recommend you read our Buying Advice, which explains the differences in depth and describes when it is appropriate to wear each style. It also gives some tips on what qualities to look for in each type of helmet. We hope the information presented here helps you find a helmet that is right for your needs and budget. Happy Trails!
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.