Ask RideApart: What Should I Look For In a Motorcycle Helmet?

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You ask, the community answers, it’s Ask RideApart. This week: What should you look for in a new motorcycle helmet?

This one comes from Jeff, a commuter in San Francisco who wants to start doing track days: “For the last three years, I’ve been riding around the city on a Ninja 500 and now a Street Triple R. That bike’s so good, it’s making me want to see what it can do on the track. I’m slowly putting together a better arsenal of riding gear, but I’m still using my old Scorpion helmet. I really want to get something nicer, but I also want to be an informed consumer. I want to know how to make the best choice between something that’s $400 and $800. Does the old adage ‘If you’ve got a $200 head, wear a $200 helmet still apply?’”

Can you guys help Jeff out? What features, specs and details should he be looking for while he’s shopping for a new motorcycle helmet?

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  • Frick

    The one that fits the best.

  • Bret Prins

    ‘If you’ve got a $200 head, wear a $200 helmet still apply?’” No there are plenty of motorcycle helmets out there that are just as safe in the $300 range compared to the $800 ones. A good example in my opinion is the Bell RS1 with a full Snell 2010 rating. No doubt a great safe helmet, but at the same time it doesn’t offer a few things that I LOVE about my Bell Star Carbon. The Star carbon is lighter, better aerodynamics, and a few other ventilation teaks. But ultimately its not a safer helmet by any means.
    If you’re buying a helmet with ECE22 or Snell 2010 certification, its going to be a safe lid for the most part, DEPENDING on how it fits your head. That’s crucial.
    The REALLY expensive lids from Schuberth have had extensive aero testing and you are really paying for that and the materials they use. Aria also make great lids…But fuck are they expensive for what you get. Just my opinion.

    • Bret Prins

      Although I slammed Aria, they are one of the only manufactures who make different models for the different shapes of peoples head. That’s a pretty big effort, and really important.

    • Ben W

      Arai, like the other premium brands of helmets, offer fit and finish that you just don’t get in the lower-priced tiers. If you haven’t been spoiled by a premium helmet, it’s easy to be very satisfied with something less expensive. Once you cross that line, though, it’s tough to go back. Arai’s support is pretty remarkable, too.

      My Arai was up for replacement last year. I first went with a Bell RS-1 and had to return it. No matter what combination of helmet and visor I tried, and I tried a ton of ‘em, I was sensitive to the optical distortion and most people aren’t. After that, I wanted very much to get an Icon helmet, since I logically know that they’re great and affordable, but I couldn’t get past the little details. The switches felt mushy and cheap, liners were rough and firm, and other minor things just bothered me too much. Over the course of 4+ years, the little luxuries are worth it to me.

      My wife disagrees entirely. She loves her Icon helmets and doesn’t want to get spoiled like I am. When it’s time to replace this Arai, I’ll definitely try out all of the other options again. At the rate of progress from competition, there’s a fair chance I may switch brands.

      • Kenneth

        Yes, optical distortion is a consideration. I, too, tried replacing my Shoei with a Bell RS last year and had to return it, due to a subtle fishbowl effect I didn’t notice while in the store. In my experience, I’ve had perfect vision thru Arai and Shoei shields, along with great fit for my “intermediate oval” head shape. ‘Worth the cost, for me.

  • Mark Vizcarra

    The best helmet would be the one that fits your head and be all day comfortable with it. It doesn’t matter how much it costs as long as it fits.

  • David Magallon

    Three rules:
    1) Fit
    2) Fit
    3) Fit

    • David Magallon

      Ok, seriously, fit is top priority. Unfortunately for my wallet, that meant an RF-1100. So I’d spend as much as it takes (within reason) for a helmet that fits best. Other features are nice bonuses and vary if you’re looking to tour with it or just ride street or track.

      Ventilation is important (for me anyway) and I can imagine it being more so on the track. Quietness is also important for longer rides. Internal sun visor is nice for touring. Photo-chromatic visors might be better if available for your helmet.

      Should go without saying that it should have good visibility and at least DOT certified.

      • runnermatt

        I was just checking Revzilla. They have photochromatic pin-lock face shield that can be pre-ordered. Only problem is that it is $169.99 regular price. Ouch, that is half of what I paid for my Shoei Quest.

        • Rameses the 2nd

          Get a low profile pair of sun glasses, like Ray Ban aviator, and wear it under you helmet visor. Your eyes need UV protection when you don’t have your helmet on and it is much cheaper than buying a $170 visor or paying $200 more for internal sun visor (Shoei GT-Air).

          • runnermatt

            Good advice. However I already wear polarized prescription sunglasses and just switch to my regular glasses when it gets dark.

  • Mark D

    As a fellow commuter in SF (who still rocks a Ninja 500), I can recommend whole-heartedly my $180 Icon Airmada. Its amazingly stable at speed, flows a lot of air, and once it broke in, fits oh-so-snugly, but is never painful. I tried on more expensive helmets like the RF-1100, and for the increase in price, it didn’t seem worth it. Sadly, I couldn’t try that helmet at speed, or on a long tour, but fit and feature wise, its no better than the Airmada.

    • APG7

      I’m in SF as well and will be buying one shortly. Any stores that stock the Airmadas?

  • Likhi Ondov

    If you ride in all weather, a helmet line that supports a anti-fog lens (or has something like Pinlock) is really important to maximize your ability to see.

    I also like being able to easily swap out lenses w/o needing a screwdriver.

  • CruisingTroll

    Gotta echo what others have said:

    1) Get a helmet that fits YOUR head.

    2) Fit.
    3) Quiet.
    4) If you’re using it primarily for commuting, then seriously consider a flip-face helmet. If you wear glasses, flip-face is da bomb.

    There may be a very minor difference between a $100 helmet and a $400 helmet as far as protection goes, but there isn’t going to be any meaningful difference in protection between a $300 helmet and a $900 helmet. The additional money gets you a variable array of the following: more fit choices, easier face shield changes, more comfortable lining, less noise, easier to remove and clean lining, lighter weight, more and fancier shield options, Bluetooth connectivity and of course, wicked graphics and using the same model helmet as a MotoGP / Supercross rider. How important each of those features is for YOU should help you decide where to spend your money.

    • Lee Scuppers

      Agreed about modular helmets with glasses.

    • dinoSnake

      ^ this

      Fit first, fit second. Then get quiet (if you can) and THEN worry about extras you want.

      Fit may seem a non-brainer but it isn’t as every manufacturer seems to have a different take on the most common shape of the human head. From long oval to full round (profiles as seen from above), humans have a wide range of skull shapes and every manufacturer has to decide what shape their helmet is designed for (but then, with only a few exceptions like Arai, not tell you!) So you’ve got to physically try on many models to find the ones that suit you best (and use resources that you can to help, like webBikeWorld).

  • maxkohl

    1) Fit
    2) Weight

    Those are the two things you will notice the most.

  • Garrett Nelson

    Fit is most important before other features, but lightness is a big plus too. For a helmet to wear at track days while on a naked bike you’ll probably really want to take aerodynamics into account. I wear and AGV Grid, and I’ve noticed that at higher speeds with the big chin vents open that the front of the helmet lifts a bit while on a naked bike like a streetfighter 848. It gets a bit annoying after a while. Something with better chin vents or more aero features would probably be nice to have. Something like the x-12 or new RF1200 or Arai Defiant would probably make for a good choice.

  • DerekB

    bonus =.internal sunshade

  • ben

    After fit and weight, and Snell ECE Certs, make sure you buy a helmet with the right aeros for the type of bike you’re riding (they design helmet aeros based on your sitting position on the bike, and they’ll help save you from neck cramps, which are debilitating). Also, I always check to make sure the optics are any good on the visor. Lots of the pop down type visors have heavy distortion in them. If there’s any distortion in either of the visors, I don’t buy it… it’s a detail that I think says alot about the quality of the build.

  • Von

  • eddi

    Make sure it fits your head. Nothing beats going to a local shop and trying one on. Besides bikes, it’s the other thing I always buy locally. Even, gentle pressure around the whole head. No tight or loose “it’ll break in” spots. Strap it up and close the visor. Still good? Now try to pull it forward over your head, HARD! Then backward. Twist it and see if it stays in place. Please don’t hurt yourself doing it. No wiggling? You have a winner.
    If the helmet is DOT approved you have a good helmet. ECE22 or Snell take it up a big notch. Not everyone is happy with the current Snell standard, that will take some research and deciding on a person’s part. A $200 dollar helmet is safe but the materials and finish and especially the extras will be lacking. As you buy up you get comfort (assuming the basic fit to your head is good), better and quieter venting, lighter weight if you switch shell material. In Jeff’s range you have some premium head gear.
    My current helmet is an HJC IS-MAX. One of the aforementioned $200 jobs. Fits perfect, not that heavy. I like the modular chin bar. Noisy is the main downer. I’ve heard some discouraging words about it, even around here. Thing is favored helmets are as subjective as favored bikes.

  • josh

    depending on your peripheral vision, you may find it beneficial, especially on the street, to get something with a large view port. I have a nexx xr1r carbon, a icon variant and a hjc clsp. The cslp feels like looking through a cardboard tube in comparison to the other two.

  • vince

    visit: safety ratings & price

  • Mason Apostol

    A lot of people are saying that “fit” is the most important thing. To put a finer point on it, you do not want the way your helmet fits your head to distract you while you are riding. Like Jeff, I’m experimenting with track days, and I have found that a helmet I use on the street is not the helmet I prefer on the track.

    I have a Nexx R1R and I also have a big head. On my Triumph with its more upright position, I like the helmet. However, I recently rode a BMW S1000RR with a more forward riding position, and I had visibility issues. The way the helmet fit my head was good in an upright position, but I couldn’t angle the helmet properly so that I could see down the track on the BMW. I was so uncomfortable that it was distracting. I switched to my old Arai, which felt better in my riding position.

    To make sure a helmet fits, Try it on while in your riding position. Try it on for more than 10 minutes. See if you can adjust the strap while wearing your gloves. Price may signal that a helmet is high-quality, but higher price does not mean that it is a better helmet.

  • Deeds

    Consider how quickly you will tire of the skulls and barbed wire decals.

    • Mykola

      600 grit sandpaper, masking tape, Rustoleum spray paint, 1000 grit sandpaper, Rustoleum spray paint, 1000 grit sandpaper, Rustoleum spray paint, 1000 grit sandpaper, etc., 2000 grit sandpaper, polishing compound, buffing compound, wax.
      Don’t quote me on the last three, I went with matte black. Your grit may vary.

      • pdad13

        According to helmet manufacturers, this is probably not a good idea, especially on polycarbonate shells. Some paints and adhesives will degrade the shell but that’s entire up to you whether you want to chance it or not. It will also invalidate any manufacture’s warranty.

        • Justin McClintock

          While it will no doubt invalidate the warranty, if you don’t sand all the way through the original paint the new paint can’t hurt the shell.

          • pdad13

            Maybe. It depends on which paints (or adhesives) you use. On polycarbonate shells, you really need to be very careful. The factory paint on helmets is usually a two-part water-based paint. You shoulldn’t just grab any can of spray paint, as it’s possibly incompatible with the factory paint. The worst case is that there are solvents in the spray paint that damage the factory paint and could damage the shell. The not-quite-worst case is that the incompatible paints react and don’t bond properly and you get a peeling mess.

            • Justin McClintock

              True, but if you’re worried about it, just use a water based primer first. Water based primer will stick to oil based paint (while water based PAINT will not), and will give you a nice, consistent backdrop to work on. Then use a water based paint and follow up with a water based clear coat when you’re done.

              • pdad13

                I’ve always been told not to use oil-based paints and primers with their water-based equivalents or urethanes and lacquers.But I’m not doubting that there are some combinations that work. I’m not a professional painter. All I’m saying is that’s it’s tricky on polycarb shells. There are even many cleaners that can really damage the shells.

                Most fiberglass composites should probably be okay, though.

                My main point is that you need to be really careful and really research the materials when painting helmets.

      • eddi

        Better to go the other way. Plain helmet then add vinyl decotations. There’s pre-made stuff and if that doesn’t suit try a local sign shop or a shop specializing in vehicle wraps. Or best, do it yourself. Just remember, you’re going from flat sheets to a round surface. Vinyl stretches but only one way.

        • Mykola

          I’ve used reflective stickers on my first helmet for visibility, and yeah they did change the look and were retroreflective to boot.

          • eddi

            I just followed your link. I’m a plain-helmet type, but those reflective designs make me think about a change in style. Reflective White on White.

    • Dustin


  • Richard Kimes

    Carefully consider the type of riding and the distance your normally go. Buy the best helmet you can afford and try it on, for at least 10 minute prior to purchase, this will ensure a proper snug fit (you should be able to chew gum but the helmet should be secure around the crown of your head (1 inch above the eyes) to ensure a proper fit. After 10 minutes with a snug fit that you can chew gum in feel for hot spots or soreness around your head. If nothing, you’re probably good on the size. . Most people buy helmets too big for them and the sizing between brands can be fluctuate. A large in a SHOEI can be a XXL in something else so just don’t assume. Don’t be afraid to ask your salesperson for a recommendation or to special order something if you like it but it isn’t just quite right.

  • ThinkingInImages

    I agree on fit, not only to your head but for the type of riding you do. I prefer modular/flip helmets. Color and style matters. Look for something smooth. A helmet with with a lot of vents may be noisy. If you ride a lot in the sun, black may not be the best choice (it’s also the color of asphalt).

    I’ve had a lot of helmets over the years and pretty much keep to AGV and Nolan.

  • APG7

    I actually checked the Cycle Gear on Harrison, and no dice on the Airmada, Might just ball park the size and Revzilla it.