When riding your bike, the most important thing isn’t your frame material, wheel size, or gear ratio—it’s what’s on your head. Whether you’re shredding singletrack on a mountain bike, logging pavement miles on a road bike, or just commuting to work, a helmet is essential for a safe and enjoyable ride. Cycling presents a range of potential hazards for your head. Not only are you far above the ground, but depending on your discipline, you may be exposed to potential collisions with trees, cars, or pedestrians. No one wants to think about crashes, but they do happen—that’s why the best protection you can invest in is a good helmet. Get one that fits properly, and it can save you a lot of trouble and pain down the road. Here’s how to find the right helmet for you.
Ask Yourself These Questions
Before you start shopping and comparing helmets, take a moment to think about where and when you ride, as well as how much you can spend.
What kind of riding do I do?
Mountain biking on twisty singletrack, road biking on country highways, commuting on city streets: The places you ride your bike will have a big effect on the right helmet style for you (more on that below).
What weather will I be riding in?
Consider your local climate and the seasons you ride in. Some helmets prioritize venting for hot days and hard rides, but if you mostly go on leisurely excursions (or live in a cooler climate), you may not need those features.
How big is my head?
Many modern helmets have an adjustable fit, but that can only get you so far. Measure your head and choose a helmet that is close to your head size to ensure a good fit.
Will I need to carry my helmet when I’m off the bike?
This is an important consideration for bike commuters. Helmets can be a bit bulky, and that makes them annoying to carry around once you arrive at the office (or grocery store, or wherever you’re biking to). Look for collapsible or less bulky models that are easier to carry and stash away. Alternatively, you can also lock up your helmet with your bike—some helmets even have dedicated features to make this easier.
How much am I willing to spend?
Protecting your head is a worthwhile investment, but everyone has different budgets to work with. Decide how much you are willing to spend and then aim to get the best protection possible in that price range.
Get a Good Fit
A helmet only works if it fits: Even the most advanced technology is useless if the helmet slips off your head or falls out of position. It’s also important to make sure that it’s comfortable. If you don’t like how a helmet feels, you’re less likely to wear it—and a helmet that collects dust in your garage won’t do anything to keep you safe.
Measure Your Head
Helmets come in a variety of sizes that vary depending on the manufacturer. The easiest way to determine their right size for you is to know your head dimensions. Grab a tailor’s flexible tape measure, and wrap it around your head at its widest point. If you don’t have a flexible tape measure, use a piece of string. Wrap it around your head, mark the circumference on the string (or cut it), and then lay it down straight next to a tape measure: That’s the circumference of your head.
A Proper Fit
Once you have your head measurement, it’s time to try on some helmets. Try on a variety of sizes and styles to get a better idea of your preferences. A helmet should feel snug around your head but not uncomfortable. If it has soft pads on the inside (most do), your head should press against them, but it shouldn’t feel like the helmet is constricting your skull.
The helmet shouldn’t move if you shake your head up and down or side to side. The chin strap should be tight enough that pushing up on the front of the helmet doesn’t cause the helmet to tilt backwards or lift off your head. The helmet should sit level on your head, not tilted forward or backward, and rest about an inch above your brow.
If the fit is close, but not quite perfect, there are remedies. Many helmets have an adjustment system, often a dial at the back, that allows you to tighten or loosen the fit. In addition, you may be able to swap in different foam pads to adjust the fit to your head.
Most helmets use a two-layer system to protect your head. The outer shell of the helmet is usually a hard plastic. This prevents objects like a sharp stick from penetrating and helps the helmet slide across asphalt or dirt, which prevents any sudden stops that could injure your head and neck.
In premium road helmets, weight is a critical concern (at least for some cyclists). For that reason, some components, like the outer layer, may be made of ultralight carbon fiber instead of plastic. Helmets that utilize this material will weigh less but cost considerably more—probably not the best choice for beginners.
Underneath the outer shell, most helmets are made of expanded polystyrene foam. This material will compress or split on impact. In doing so, the foam absorbs and dissipates impact forces and protects your head from serious injury. (This is why bike riders are encouraged to replace helmets after severe crashes and to never buy a used helmet, where it’s often hard to determine any internal foam damage.)