Understanding Mips Helmet Technology

Here’s how this helmet system works to protect riders, skiers, cyclists and climbers—and how to decide if it’s right for you.

Helmets don’t just pop out of a mold and end up on a store shelf. Every model goes through several stages of design, review, and, most importantly, rigorous testing. The Consumer Product Safety Commission must give a helmet its stamp of approval, meaning it’s been shown in a lab that it will do an adequate job of preventing serious injury. But many helmet brands want to go above and beyond, employing unique technologies that promise even higher levels of protection. The most well-established of those technologies is called Mips, which stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System, and has a stamp of approval all its own. You may have seen the little yellow Mips logo dot on some helmet boxes, next to the online description of a helmet or likely above its left ear. That dot means the helmet, regardless of brand (be it a Giro, Smith, or Nutcase), is equipped with a third-party technology designed to protect your brain from nonlinear or “oblique” impacts. Here’s everything you need to know and consider before leveling up to Mips protection, whether it’s in a helmet for cycling, skiing and snowboarding, or climbing.

What is an oblique impact and why is it important?

Think of the spin that’s put on a tennis ball when it’s hit at an angle as opposed to straight on. In most accidents, the head is actually more likely to suffer an oblique impact than a purely linear one because we are usually traveling at speed, and any part of us that hits the ground will hit it at an angle. And as we’re learning more about the structure of the brain, there’s evidence that oblique impacts are also more dangerous because of the type of strain it puts on the tissues. Much of that learning is happening at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, where a few researchers founded Mips back in 2010. 

How does Mips protect against oblique impacts? 

What Mips came up with would seem like it’s pretty simple: Every Mips system involves some sort of low-friction layer between the helmet’s inner pads and the helmet itself. That layer allows the helmet to easily “shear” or slide across your scalp during an impact’s earliest fractions of a second. Much of the energy absorbed in the process would otherwise have been absorbed by the tissue in your brain. 

Helmet designers often use the term “deceleration” when talking about injury prevention. Your helmet is meant to stretch the time it takes for your head to come to a stop, instead of allowing it all to happen in an instant. That’s why helmet foam “crumples” in an impact, a lot like the front of a modern car. The low-friction layer of a Mips helmet does the same thing, but arching around the surface of your head instead of in a straight line into it. The two concepts work together to ensure as soft a landing as possible.

A Mips logo is seen on a smith helmet

What exactly is a Mips low-friction layer?

There are several different types of Mips protection. Helmet manufacturers work with Mips when designing a helmet. They choose which type best suits that particular helmet, and come up with an application tailor-made for that model. The original Mips low-friction layer is a ventilated sheet of flexible polycarbonate plastic that slides across special fabric panels inside the helmet. Several helmets still use this system, but not all. Some Mips helmets integrate their size-adjustment mechanisms with a Mips low-friction layer, making the feature almost undetectable. Others actually split the helmet into an inner and outer shell, and put the low-friction layer between the two. Though they vary greatly in form, the goal is always the protection against oblique impacts.

Who is Mips designed for?

Though mostly known in the cycling world, you’ll see Mips systems in helmets made for snowsports, motorsports, and even horseback riding. And the concept has truly extended to every corner of the sports that they touch. Though we often consider only the most extreme athletes needing fancy, high-tech protection, the benefit of Mips is that it is discrete and versatile enough to be in casual and even youth helmets. 

Are Mips helmets more expensive?

Though it depends on which Mips system is used, if there is a Mips and non-Mips versions of the same helmet, they usually vary by $10 to $20. And as the technology has gained popularity and seen wider manufacturing, the price has dropped significantly enough that many helmets are only available in a Mips version.

Can Mips be added to an existing helmet?

Mips keeps a close watch on the effectiveness of its technology. That means doing its own testing of every helmet that features one of its systems. That’s why there’s no reliable way to produce an aftermarket Mips system. The variables in helmet design and injury protection are pretty complex, and the best way for Mips to keep them in line is to make sure the development of the helmet and its low-friction layer always go hand-in-hand.

Well, should I get one?

Like so many pieces of active apparel, it’s best to try things on and make sure they work for you. Especially on helmets, fit and comfort are key, and no single feature is worth getting something that otherwise just doesn’t work for you. But with how common Mips has become, chances are, you can find a Mips-equipped helmet that suits your sport, your style, and most importantly, you.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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