On the hunt for the best mountain bike helmet? To help your search, we read up on nearly 100 of the top models in 2019 and chose 15 to test and compare side by side. We tested each of these helmets for several months and hundreds of miles of trail riding and analyzed every aspect of their performance and design along the way. We evaluated each model's protection by looking at its coverage, rotational impact system, and protective features. We also looked at their comfort, ventilation, features, weight, and durability. There are loads of great helmets out there, but there are also a few duds. We put in the legwork to nail down the best of the best and make sure you're happy with your next lid.
The Best Mountain Bike Helmets of 2019
|Price||$200 List||$213.40 at Amazon|
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|$119.95 at Competitive Cyclist|
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|$165.00 at Competitive Cyclist|
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|$300.00 at REI|
|Pros||Crash detection system, lightweight, good ventilation, comfortable, adjustable visor, MIPS, good coverage||Well ventilated, lightweight, great coverage, SPIN system, comfortable||Adjustable visor, MIPS, Koroyd protection, improved ventilation, good coverage||Great ventilation, durable construction, not overly expensive||Adjustable visor, magnetic buckle, magnetic accessory mount, WaveCel|
|Cons||Expensive||Expensive, visor is less user friendly than the competition||Expensive, still not as ventilated as the competition||Average protection, less versatile fit shape||Expensive, moderately heavy, somewhat bulky and bulbous appearance|
|Bottom Line||The Specialized Ambush comes with a unique crash detection system and is one of the best helmets we've tested.||The Tectal Race SPIN has great protection, comfort, and ventilation in a lightweight package, making it one of our favorites.||The highly anticipated Forefront 2 replaces the original with the same great fit and several notable improvements.||A solid all-around helmet that will keep your head cool on hot days and stand up to wear and tear.||The Blaze is an expensive fully-featured half shell helmet that comes equipped with Bontrager's new WaveCel technology.|
|Rating Categories||Specialized Ambush with ANGi||POC Tectal Race SPIN||Smith Forefront 2 MIPS||100% Altec||Bontrager Blaze WaveCel|
|Specs||Specialized Ambush...||POC Tectal Race SPIN||Smith Forefront 2...||100% Altec||Bontrager Blaze...|
|Rotational Impact Protection System?||MIPS SL||SPIN||MIPS||Smartshock||WaveCel|
|Number of vents||20||15||20||15||13|
|Goggle or Sunglasses Guide||Yes, sunglass & goggle integration||Yes, Goggle Clip||Sunglass & goggle integration||Yes||Yes|
|Weight||12.35 oz, 350g, size Large||12.87 oz, 365g, size M/L||13.19 oz, 374g size Medium||13.5 oz, 381g, size L/XL||16.40 oz, 465g, size Large|
|Sizes||S - L||XS/S, M/L, XL/XXL||S - L||XS/SM, M/L||S - L|
Best Overall Mountain Bike Helmet
Specialized Ambush with ANGi
The Specialized Ambush with ANGi scored high marks across the board, earning it our Editors' Choice award. It has a deep fit, excellent coverage and comes equipped with a MIPS SL, which integrates with the helmet's padding. Specialized claims that it is the lightest MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system) technology. The Ambush provides a high level of comfort with ample padding, a quality strap design, and a 360 degree fit adjustment system that tightens the helmet securely and comfortably. With 20 vents and an excellent internal air channel design, it also provides the best ventilation in the test. It's impressively lightweight, and the visor easily adjusts to accommodate goggles. The most unique aspect of the Ambush is the ANGi system. This is a small sensor attached to the back of the helmet that can detect a crash and send a notification to your emergency contacts through the Specialized Ride App.
It's hard to find fault with such well designed and high-performance helmet, but we did find some nits to pick. The overall construction feels a little less robust than some of our other competitors. At the front of the helmet, there is exposed EPS foam across the brow that could be susceptible to damage if you are hard on your gear. Beyond that, we were very impressed with the Ambush with ANGi — one of the best mountain bike helmets money can buy.
Read review: Specialized Ambush with ANGi
Top Pick for Protection
POC Tectal Race SPIN
A previous Editors' Choice award winner, the Tectal Race SPIN saw stiff competition in this test and was narrowly edged off the top step of the podium. It remains our second highest-rated model, and we've awarded it our Top Pick for Protection. The Tectal has a deep fit and best-in-test head coverage. It also features POC's own rotational impact protection system, known as SPIN, for an added layer of safety. A great fit with a quality size adjustment system and well-designed straps makes it easy to keep the helmet comfortably snug and secure. The Tectal also has some of the best ventilation in our test selection. This lightweight helmet also features an adjustable visor and a goggle strap retention system, adding to its already impressive versatility, with applications ranging from cross country rides to enduro racing.
Our biggest gripe with the Tectal is that the visor is a little less user-friendly to adjust than the competition. While it's one of the most expensive helmets in our review, we feel it represents a good value considering that it's one of the most comfortable and protective mountain bike helmets on the market today.
Read review: POC TECTAL SPIN
Top Pick for Ventilation
100% designed a remarkably refined half-shell trail helmet with the Altec. For a brand that focuses mainly on full-face helmets, they nailed the Altec's ventilation and construction while managing to sneak in some clever features to make your life easier out on the trail. The first thing we noticed when donning this helmet for a ride was the breathability. While it has relatively few vents ports, the ones it has are massive, well placed, and they lead to an interior channel in the EPS foam shell that runs around the back of the head. On hot days or long climbs, it does a great job of keeping your head cool and relatively sweat free compared to the more stifling helmets in our test. Beyond its airy feel, the Altec features a solid, durable construction that seems like it will last at least a few seasons if you can avoid head impacts. After two months of heavy testing, our test model looked as good as new. The finish on the polycarbonate outer shell doesn't scratch easily, and there's very little exposed EPS foam to chip away over time. Add in 100%'s Smartshock elastomer rotational impact protection, and the relatively low price compared to some of our other top models, and we think the Altec is a great value.
Our only real issues with the Altec were the fit of the EPS shell, and the average head coverage. We noticed some minor pressure points at the back of the head every time we put the helmet on, but it never became a major discomfort out on the trail. It's not an uncomfortable feeling but doesn't fit like a glove on many head shapes. Also, while it does provide a little bit of extra coverage compared to traditional cross country and road helmets, the Altec sits a bit higher on the head than some of the other top models in our test.
Read review: 100% Altec
Best Bang for Your Buck
Giro Chronicle MIPS
Giro's Chronicle is designed to be a mid-range offering, but it ended up outperforming many of its much more expensive counterparts in our test. The competition was tight for our Best Buy Award, but at less than half the price of some of the heavy hitters, the Chronicle took the top spot with no glaring weak points. Our favorite aspect of this model was its versatile fit. Giro's EPS shell has been refined through their decades of experience and will fit most head shapes without issue. On top of that, the Chronicle sits low on the head for a secure-feeling, high-coverage fit, and the Roc Loc harness system pulls tension around the whole head. With MIPS integrated into it's interior, the Chronicle also provides modern protection and peace-of-mind out on the trail.
At its low price point, the Chronicle doesn't pack as many features as many models we tested. While the features that it does have are well-executed, you don't get the same luxuries like anti-microbial padding or molded reinforcement in the EPS shell as Giro's top-shelf helmets. Despite the limited number and size of the vents, the Chronicle ventilates well, but it doesn't stack up with the best performers in our test.
Read review: Giro Chronicle MIPS
Notable for Eyewear Integration
Oakley DRT5 MIPS
Oakley is an industry leader for eyewear, so it's no surprise that their first production mountain bike helmet would make eyewear integration a priority. The DRT5 has only recently hit the market and provides a high level of head protection with good coverage, a solid feeling in-mold construction and a MIPS liner. Testers also found it to be quite comfortable with a 360-degree Boa fit adjustment system, well-designed straps, and minimal, but effective padding. Most of the helmet's features enhance the user's experience with eyewear. The Boa fit system has a thin cable that doesn't conflict with the arms of glasses, even if they overlap. There are two clips on the back of the helmet designed to grab onto sunglass arms and securely stow them in place. Oakley also incorporated a silicone sweat gutter across the brow that effectively blocks sweat from dripping onto your lenses, and the visor is also adjustable to accommodate goggles. Oakley broke the mold when they designed this helmet.
The DRT5 lost serious ground to the competition for its heavy weight. It is the second heaviest in the test. At 476 grams it weighs about 80 grams more than the average. Testers also found the ventilation to be sub-par, especially when compared to the airier models in this review. If you're less concerned about weight and ventilation, this is a protective and comfortable option with some unique features.
Read review: Oakley DRT5
Why You Should Trust Us
Our lead mountain bike helmet reviewers are Jeremy Benson and Zach Wick. Jeremy is a Truckee, CA-based writer and mountain bike racer who has been mountain biking for nearly three decades and has seen the progression of helmet technology over that time. He's also taken his fair share of diggers, suffering from more than one concussion and cracking many helmets in the process. He knows from first-hand experience the importance of a quality helmet for both protection and comfort. Benson is a self-proclaimed heat of the day rider who appreciates the benefits of a well-ventilated helmet. Benson is also the author of Mountain Bike Tahoe, a mountain biking guidebook for the Lake Tahoe area published by Mountaineers Books.
Zach Wick has been riding and racing mountain, road, and cyclocross bikes for the last 15 years and has gone through his fair share of single-impact helmets in that time. He knows what makes a good helmet and won't hit the trails in anything that he doesn't have confidence in. Zach has also spent years working in product development in the bike industry and has spent plenty of time in a test lab learning what makes a good product. He applies this experience and knowledge to our testing design to ensure our process is as rigorous as possible.
These two keep a close eye on new product releases throughout the year and spent hours researching countless models before selecting 15 of the best to test and compare side-by-side. They tested each model through hundreds of miles of everyday riding on a variety of trails and in a wide range of weather conditions. During testing, they worked with our team to evaluate each helmet on its fit and comfort, features, ventilation, and adjustability. They also swapped helmets out regularly for head-to-head comparisons.
Related: How We Tested Mountain Bike Helmets
Analysis and Test Results
In recent years the fit, style, comfort, and protection of helmets have all improved dramatically, and strapping on a helmet for a mountain bike ride has become as natural as buckling your seatbelt when you get in a car. That's a good thing because they are the single most important piece of protective gear you can wear, and finding the right helmet should not be taken lightly. This review covers extended-coverage half-shell helmets designed for cross country, trail, and enduro riding.
In an ideal world, you never crash, but accidents can and do happen — often suddenly and without warning. Trust us. We play crash test dummy more often than we'd like, and we don't know anyone who's managed to avoid the occasional pileup. 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. Modern mountain bike helmets are generally constructed of an EPS foam (or polystyrene) liner molded inside a more durable plastic (polycarbonate) shell.
The foam is intended to absorb impact while the plastic shell protects the foam and distributes the force over a larger area. Modern helmets are designed to absorb impact by allowing the helmet to partially self-destruct. A crash typically results in crushing or cracking the helmet's foam and shell, as opposed to your skull. You must replace any helmet following a significant impact.
No two helmets are made equal, and the helmets in our test vary in their design approach. Our testers rated each model on their protection, comfort, weight, ventilation, features, and durability. The combined scores led us to our best overall and top pick award winners.
Related: The Best Bike Helmets of 2019
Our Editors' Choice award winner, the Specialized Ambush with ANGi and the second highest scoring POC Tectal Race SPIN are two of the most expensive and also the highest performance models we tested. So you do get what you pay for, but sometimes you get quite a bit more. Of course, that isn't always the case. Several of the most expensive helmets in the test score quite a bit below some of the less expensive models. On the other hand, some of the cheapest models we looked at outperformed their more expensive counterparts. Riders looking for good value from their helmet have plenty of options.
Since a helmet would be useless if it couldn't keep your head safe, protection is the most important and heavily-weighted metric in our test. We aren't crash test dummies, nor are we a certifying agency, so our protection rating is based on a helmet's construction, head coverage, and rotational impact protection system. All of the helmets tested meet or exceed the US's CPSC Bicycle standard.
Head coverage plays a significant role in how protective a helmet is, and the amount of coverage varies from model to model. All of the helmets in this test are extended coverage half-shell helmets, though some offer a bit more coverage than others. The POC Tectal Race SPIN is one such helmet with a deep fit that drops down to provide more coverage on the temporal and occipital lobes. The Specialized Ambush's coverage is very similar to the Tectal, though it doesn't fit as close to the head. The Smith Forefront 2 and Giro Chronicle each offer nearly as much coverage as our top two.
The construction of the helmet also plays a role in its protection. All of these helmets have an in-mold construction with a durable polycarbonate shell wrapped around an EPS foam liner. The Kali Maya 2.0 and Troy Lee A2 have dual-density foam design with a mix of EPS and EPP foam that is intended to manage impact forces from both high and low-speed impacts better. Other helmets, like the POC Tectal and the Specialized Ambush, also use aramid molded into their EPS foam to add strength.
In addition to foam, Smith uses a proprietary material known as Koroyd in their helmets. Both the Session and the Forefront 2 employ this material in their construction. Koroyd looks a lot like a honeycomb, or a bunch of straws packed very tightly together and is intended to crush or crumple in the event of an impact. Since this material is porous, Smith claims it provides excellent impact absorption with the added benefit of allowing air to pass through it. The Forefront 2 boasts nearly full Koroyd coverage inside the helmet, while the Session has two smaller strategically placed panels on the sides of the helmet. Bontrager has created a similar cellular structure they call WaveCel, which is used in the Blaze helmet. They claim this unique wave-shaped structure absorbs impact and also works as a slip-plane to reduce rotational impact forces.
Nearly every helmet in this review comes with a rotational impact protection system of some kind. Most use the industry-standard MIPS system, but a few companies have gone on to develop their own technologies. POC has developed SPIN, which is incorporated into the padding and is intended to absorb impact and provide a slip-plane, while also reducing weight and not affecting the fit of the helmet. Leatt's Turbine 360 and Kali's LDL are meant to work similarly, with several Armourgel Turbines integrated into the construction of the helmet. 6D's ODS and 100%'s Smartshock are unique in their use of elastomer shock absorbers to reduce g-forces on impact. Bontrager's WaveCel is the new kid on the block and is a porous structure that they claim can absorb impact and function like a slip-plane. Meanwhile, the MIPS SL system is a new style of MIPS that is exclusive to Specialized helmets and is built into the padding of the helmet.
The IXS Trigger AM is the only helmet we tested without a rotational impact protection system. IXS chose to stick to the traditional EPS construction with no added frills. While the science behind rotational impact protection isn't exactly settled, we think it's a logical system and are happy to have it when we're out riding.
MIPS, Turbine, SPIN, ODS, Smartshock, LDL, WaveCel: Which safety standard is the best?
Rotational impact protection systems are now available in most helmets. MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) was the first on the scene and used to be the only game in town when it came to reducing rotational forces in a crash. Recently, six new technologies have entered the fray, Leatt developed Turbine, 100% designed Smartshock, Kali implemented LDL, POC created SPIN, Bontrager made WaveCel, and 6D designed ODS. Each of these systems aims to solve the same problem, but they approach it in slightly different ways. Some systems, like Smartshock, LDL, SPIN, and 6D tout both direct and rotational impact protection, while MIPS is designed strictly to help with rotational impacts.Which technology is the best? The jury is still out. We recommend doing some research and deciding for yourself. The cost of these systems has come down in recent years, and nowadays, they only add about 5-10% to the price of a helmet. Since the whole point of a helmet is to protect the brain through a reduction of impact forces, we recommend paying the premium price for one of these technologies.
Comfort is one of 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. 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 models to find the size and fit that works best. 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 EPS foam and the rider's head. The thickness, quality, and placement of these pads play a significant role in a helmet's overall comfort. The most comfortable helmets have well-placed padding that covers the contact points between the polystyrene or MIPS liner and your head.
The most comfortable helmets in our test were the POC Tectal Race SPIN, Giro Chronicle, Specialized Ambush, and the Smith Forefront 2, all of which seemed to fit every tester like a glove. The Troy Lee A2 MIPS, Giro Montaro, and the Bell 4Forty MIPS also scored well by providing ample coverage while still offering an impressively comfortable fit. All of these helmets feature padding covered with a wicking material.
All the mountain bike helmets in our test have a retention system, often referred to as a fit or size adjustment, used to adjust the fit to the rider's head. Retention systems are typically in the form of a two-sided plastic cradle at the back of the helmet with a dial in the middle that pulls tension evenly from both sides. This adjustment tightens or loosens to hug the head snugly for a secure fit. The size and shape of these adjustment dials vary considerably, as does their ease of use. Our favorite systems were those like Giro's Roc Loc that pulled tension around the entire head rather than just pinching at the back.
Another fit adjustment found on all the models in our test is the chin strap, including the strap splitter by the ears. This adjustment is crucial to the user's comfort and also plays an important role in keeping the helmet secure in the event of a crash. Most chin straps offer a range of adjustability so that the user can get the chin strap tight enough to stay on your head, but not so tight that it ends up being uncomfortable. The Leatt DBX 3.0, Bontrager Blaze, and IXS Trigger AM have unique magnetic buckles that attach securely and can easily be opened and closed with one hand. The strap splitter allows the user to adjust the position of the straps by your ears. Ideally, the straps shouldn't make contact with the ears. Our favorite strap systems are found on the POC Tectal Race SPIN, Oakley DRT5, 100% Altec and the Specialized Ambush, with a Y-shaped strap yoke that holds them in the perfect position. Some of the simpler splitters, like those on the Kali Maya 2.0 struggle to keep the straps away from your ears and sitting flat on the side of your face, which can create a nuisance over time.
To rate each helmet's ventilation, we assess how well it works in real-world riding situations. We swapped helmets and rode with them back-to-back in the same conditions. Interestingly, our testers found that the number of vents doesn't directly correlate to how well a helmet's ventilation system works.
The size, shape, and placement of a helmet's vents are just as important as the quantity. The Specialized Ambush was one of the best, with 20 vents and an excellent internal air channel design that keeps the air flowing through the helmet. Our other top-performing helmet for ventilation is the 100% Altec. Despite having only 15 vents, it keeps the air flowing and your head cool. A couple of the other best-ventilated helmets in our test are the POC Tectal and the Smith Session.
All of the mountain bike helmets in our test have a variety of features intended to enhance fit, protection, and rider comfort. One feature that all of the helmets share is the visor, the feature that sets mountain bike helmets apart from their road counterparts. Every model we tested has one, but they are certainly not created equal.
A visor's primary function is to shield your eyes from the sun, but they also serve as a little protection from rain and can help to deflect less consequential trailside obstacles. Helmet visors vary in size and shape, as well as in attachment method and adjustability. Many visors are adjustable and can be articulated up and down to improve visibility or to accommodate goggles. Others are static and fixed in the lowered position. Our testers prefer adjustable visors for their versatility and compatibility with goggles.
Our favorite visors are found on the Smith Forefront 2 , the Giro Chronicle, Giro Montaro and Bell 4Forty MIPS. They're all large enough to block the sun effectively, and each rotates up far enough to be entirely out of view and to accommodate goggles on the front. The POC Tectal also has an adjustable visor but is less user-friendly. It requires you to loosen a small screw to adjust and secure it in place. The Kali Maya 2.0 also has a large, effective visor, but it doesn't rotate up far enough to accommodate goggles.
Many manufacturers are developing unique features as well. The Specialized Ambush with ANGi, for example, comes with their ANGi sensor that attaches to the back of the helmet and can be synced to your smartphone and the Specialized Ride App. Through the app, it can provide people with ride start and stop notifications, track your ride, and even notify your emergency contacts in the event of a crash. It is new and interesting.
Oakley has also gone out of their way to add features to the DRT5 to enhance eyewear integration. They use a Boa fit adjustment system that doesn't conflict with the arms of glasses, and they've incorporated a silicone sweat gutter that prevents drips on the lenses. On the back of the helmet, they've added an Eyewear Landing Zone in the form of two clips that hold the arms of your sunglasses relatively securely on the helmet. Add to that a quality visor that flips up high for compatibility with goggles, and they've thought of seemingly everything.
Our test helmets all fall into a weight range from 12.06 to 18.17 ounces. The heaviest helmet in our test was the 6D ATB-1T Evo, while the lightest was the Specialized Ambush. Many of our top-performing helmets weigh within a few grams of each other. Differences in weight that small are hardly noticeable. For this reason, we put less emphasis on this metric than others.
In some cases, we found that the perceived weight of a helmet has as much to do with how well it 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 excellent fit and airy feel.
Since our testers don't go out of their way to crash during testing, 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 tested are designed to protect your head through partial destruction of the helmet during a crash. It is imperative that you replace your helmet after a significant impact. Beyond crash damage, most helmets should provide a responsible user with years of trouble-free use.
Helmets with full coverage outer shells that wrap entirely around the lower edge of the delicate EPS foam have better resistance to dings and dents from daily use and abuse. The POC Tectal, Smith Session, Troy Lee A2, Bell 4Forty, and Leatt DBX 3.0, 100% Altec, and Trigger AM all share this quality. We also observed how wear affected all the moving parts, fit adjustments, outer shells and inner padding.
There are many different models and styles of mountain bike helmets, just as there are an array of needs for the different cyclists who count on them for protection. The helmets in this review are extended coverage half shell helmets specific to mountain biking. We put in the work (or had a lot of fun depending on how you look at it) in the hope that this information helps you find a mountain bike helmet that is right for your needs and budget.
— Jeremy Benson, Zach Wick