When it comes to motorcycling there are few decisions that you’ll make as important as choosing a helmet. Picking the wrong helmet can lead to constant minor irritations such as poor fit or design, as well as to serious problems such as not actually protecting your fragile skull when you finally do come off your bike.

Taking a fall is not a question of if, but when. At least, that’s the best attitude to take in my opinion. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, as they say. It always amazes me that people are willing to spend so much on an actual motorcycle and so little on a good helmet, but I guess it has to do with the fact that people often believe that other people are more likely to have accidents or bad luck than they are. The good news is that even cheap helmets have at least the minimum safety certifications. But I still think it is a good idea to spend as much as you can on a helmet – within reason, of course.

You can go and have a look at my helmet review page where I look at some of the cheap (but still certified!) helmets that a person entering motorcycling would probably be interested in. If you don’t find what you are looking for there, this buyer’s guide will help you figure out the most important things to look at when you are helmet shopping.

Sizing Up

It is very important that your helmet fits properly. In this day and age of internet shopping, it is of course not that practical to actually try before you buy, but most helmet sellers will happily take a helmet back if the fit is not quite right.

There are also manufacturer-specific sizing guides so you know how to determine your size. Don’t go by categories such as “XL” or “XXX” – these are not consistent across different countries and helmet makers. Rather, look for the actual measurements for each size class as your starting point. You should also measure your head as instructed on each respective sizing guide, so that you are working with the right numbers.

Fit is probably one of the most important safety factors. A poor-fitting $1000 helmet is way worse than a perfectly-fitting cheap one. More relevant to your day-to-day experience is comfort. Obviously, a helmet that fits right is also comfortable, so either way this is something that you want to get right.

It’s not just about the absolute shape of the helmet either. Every person’s head shape is somewhere between a round and oval shape. Each person tends more towards one or the other end of this spectrum. Most people are somewhere in the middle, but it’s easy to just take a picture of the top of your head with your phone or a camera and check the overall shape for yourself. You can then match your head shape with the helmet you have in mind. Many manufacturers will actually say whether their helmet is round, oval, or rounded oval. If they don’t, don’t hesitate to shoot them an email or phone them to confirm.

Adjustability

No helmet is going to be 100% unless you happen to have a head that matched the interior perfectly, so many have ways in which you can adjust the fit of the helmet. Often you can do this by swapping out the pads inside for ones of varying thicknesses. This doesn’t affect the safety of the helmet, since the shell is the part that takes the impact. Different manufacturers have different solutions to final fit adjustment. Some have thin pads that you can remove or add in. Others make use of an air pump system. You want your helmet fit to be snug, but you don’t want it unevenly tight with painful pressure points. Keep in mind that cheek pads and the headlining will wear in a bit over time.

What Type of Helmet?

There are quite a few styles of helmets available on the market – they are meant for different purposes and you should try and use them as they’re designated. Some helmet types, I think, no one should ever wear; specifically, any helmet that only protects the top of the skull, as big cruiser riders are wont to wear. Trauma to your face can leave you just as dead or disabled as a cracked skull, no matter how cool you look wearing it.

Racing Helmets

Sportbike helmets are built to be light, strong, and aerodynamic. They don’t necessarily have the best long-distance comfort or soundproofing. If you are planning on doing trackdays or other (hopefully legal) high-speed riding, then these are your best choice. I wouldn’t recommend them for general purpose use, even if you use a sportsbike on a daily basis for commuting. They aren’t going to make a difference riding at the speed limit, so you might as well get a touring or modular helmet for that purpose. You can get those with sports helmet style graphics anyway, so you don’t even have to worry about spoiling your looks.

Other Helmet Types

Most of us don’t need or want racing helmets, so you are better off getting a dual sport helmet if you alternate between the street and dirt. If you do long-range touring, then (obviously) touring helmets are the way to go. I also personally find, as someone who wears glasses and has a big head, that helmets with flip-up faces are way easier to put on.

Half face and three-quarter face helmets give you more visibility and can be nicer to ride around in, but obviously they don’t protect you as well as full-face helmets.

Full-Face Helmet

Open-Face Helmet

Safety Ratings

DOT ratings are the ones you are most likely to see on helmets and they are required of helmets in the U.S. However, the DOT rating system is voluntary and the manufacturer is entrusted with ensuring that the helmet does meet DOT standards as advertised. Testing of helmets for DOT compliance does occur, but is not required to display the sticker. SNELL and SHARP standards, on the other hand, require independent third-party testing; if you see these stickers you can consider it a better guarantee of safety standards.

In general, though, it’s unlikely that a company would lie about DOT certification, as the first person to suffer an obvious helmet failure could sue them into oblivion. Every SNELL and SHARP sticker costs money, though, so budget helmets tend to stick to DOT. Hey, you pay your money, you make your choice, mate. You can learn more about these ratings in my dedicated article.

Price

I can’t tell you how much you should be spending on a helmet. There used to be a saying that went “If you have a $50 head, wear a $50 helmet”. That’s no longer necessarily true. Cheaper helmets are not necessarily any less safe for normal (in other words, non-reckless) riding, but they may compromise durability, quality, comfort, and any other place corners can be cut. You may never actually crash, but you have to wear that helmet every day, so minor irritations can drive you crazy.

Don’t Be a (Crash) Dummy

The bottom line is that, legal or not, a helmet is not an optional extra. You are going to have to buy one and you might as well make it a good one.