The brain is one of the most important organs in your body. Therefore, wearing a helmet to protect it while mountain biking is one of the most critical things you can do. So which helmet is right for you? To assist you in making this important decision, we researched the best mountain bike helmets before choosing a selection of 11 to test and compare side by side. We tested each model over the course of several months and hundreds of trail miles while testers analyzed every aspect of their performance and design. Our test team considered each model's fit and comfort, closely evaluated protective features, and tested ventilation on long and hot summer rides. Read on to find the helmet that best suits your needs and budget. This review covers extended coverage half-shell helmets. There is also a full-face Downhill Helmet review for all you downhill chargers.
The Best Mountain Bike Helmets
This summer we added eight new models to our test selection. We discovered new award winners and developed new opinions of our old favorites. The POC Tectal Race SPIN took top honors, winning our Editor's Choice Award. The new Smith Forefront 2 and all-new Smith Session were close runners-up, with the Session 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 riders. The Bell Hela Joy Ride, the women's version of the Bell 4Forty, is our favorite and also the winner of our Best Buy Award.
Best Overall Mountain Bike Helmet
POC Tectal Race SPIN
The Tectal Race SPIN takes top honors, winning 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 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 that add to its already impressive versatility.
While it's one of the most expensive helmets in our review, 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 on the market today.
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 a term used by Bell for their line of women's helmets. Other than slightly different sizes and color options, they are identical to their male/unisex counterparts, in this case, the Bell 4Forty MIPS. The Hela Joy Ride MIPS offers excellent extended 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 check out full face helmet options.
Our only real gripe with the Hela Joy Ride MIPS is the ventilation, which works adequately 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 also available without MIPS for $75.Read review: Bell Hela Joy Ride MIPS
See men's version: Bell 4Forty MIPS
Mountain bike helmets are typically unisex. When you do come across a designated men's or women's helmet, however, 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 level of protection with extended coverage, a MIPS liner, and strategically placed Koroyd crumple zones. Testers instantly loved the Session for its comfort, with an agreeable shape and Smith's Vaporlock system to dial in the fit. The adjustable visor is also a favorite, with three positions for uninhibited sight and goggle compatibility. Ventilation is one of its top qualities, with big airy vents that keep the head cool on the hottest of days, earning it our Top Pick for Ventilation Award.
The Session just narrowly missed 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 the competition. Leatt developed the 360 Turbine system, which differs substantially from the MIPS system used in most mountain bike helmets. There are ten small blue dials in the DBX 3.0, called Turbines, made with a proprietary material that Leatt calls Armourgel. Armourgel remains soft and pliable until impact, when it stiffens. Leatt employs 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 that the DBX 3.0 provides good ventilation, back of the head coverage, and an adjustable visor for goggle compatibility. Testers also like the magnetic Fidlock buckle because it works well one-handed while wearing gloves.
Testers aren't in love with this 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
If you're riding a bike, wearing a helmet is always an excellent idea. In recent years, the fit, style, comfort, and protection of helmets have improved dramatically, and strapping on a helmet to go 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.
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. 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 are constructed of an EPS foam (or polystyrene) liner molded inside a more durable polycarbonate (plastic) 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 through partial destruction of the helmet. A crash 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 in our test have varying levels of coverage, ventilation, adjustments, and features that all affect their level of comfort and degree of protection while riding. Our testers rated each model on their comfort, adjustments, weight, ventilation, features, and durability. The combined scores led us to our best overall and top pick award winners. Read on to find out more about the different models in our mountain bike helmet test.
If you're looking for 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, yet it still scores well from a performance standpoint. Our Editor's Choice Award winner, the POC Tectal Race SPIN is one of the most expensive and also the highest performance model we tested.
MIPS, Turbine or SPIN: 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, two other technologies have entered the fray, Leatt developed Turbine, and POC created SPIN. What's the difference between the technologies?
MIPS uses a very thin liner suspended inside the shell that provides a slip plane in a crash. Turbine and SPIN also are designed to slip similarly, although they both do so while also providing some shock absorption. MIPS does not provide any shock absorption and can affect the fit of a helmet. Some people notice this, but most don't.Which technology is the best? The jury is still out. 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 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 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 placement 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 most comfortable helmets in our test were the POC Tectal Race SPIN, Smith Forefront 2, and the Smith Session, which all 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 of these helmets feature padding covered with a wicking material.
Most helmets have several adjustable features that are intended to enhance the fit and for compatibility with goggles. We rated these adjustments based on their user-friendliness, functionality, and whether or not they enhance the helmet's performance. In general, the adjustable features of mountain bike helmets are the retention system/fit adjustment, the straps, and the visor.
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 band 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 more secure fit.
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 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 the important role of 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 has a unique magnetic buckle that attaches 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 for comfort. Our favorite strap system is found on the POC Tectal Race SPIN, with a Y-shaped strap yoke that holds them in the perfect position.
All of the mountain bike helmets in our test have a variety of features intended to enhance fit, protection, and rider comfort. The one feature that all of the helmets in our test selection share is the visor. Visors are the primary feature that sets mountain 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 and on the Bell Hela Joy Ride. Both are large enough to block the sun effectively, and both rotate 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 as it requires you to loosen a small screw to adjust and secure it in place.
Protective features are another consideration. Many modern helmets come with a rotational impact protection system, and there are now more options than ever before. MIPS was the first system on the market and quickly gained traction, becoming the industry standard. These days, MIPS has competition from POC with their SPIN system, and from Leatt with their 360 Turbine Technology. Each 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 adds additional protection that is worth the added expense.
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 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.
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 the 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 polystyrene foam have better resistance to dings and dents from daily use and abuse. 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, fit adjustments, outer shells and inner padding wore 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 to test them in the same exact 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. That said, one of the best in this test is the Giro Hex, and it has a whopping 21 vents. The Hex is one of the helmets we want to be wearing when cranking uphill in the sun. Our other top-performing helmet for ventilation is the Smith Session. Despite having only 15 vents, and some Koroyd material on the sides, this helmet manages to keep the air flowing and your head cool. A couple of the other best-ventilated helmets in our test are thePOC Tectal, Smith Rover MIPS, and the Troy Lee A2 MIPS.
Our test helmets all fall into a range of weight from 9.54 to 14.09 ounces. The heaviest helmet in our test is the Giro Montaro MIPS, while the lightest is the Giro Hex. Many of our top performing helmets weigh within less than an ounce of each other, and for the most part, 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 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 extended coverage half shell helmets specific to mountain biking. If you're still unsure of what the differences are between a mountain bike helmet, a aerodynamic road bike helmet, or a burly downhill option, we 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 mountain bike helmet that is right for your needs and budget. Happy Trails!
— Jeremy Benson and Dustin Schaad
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for tips.