The Best Road and Mountain Helmets You Can Buy Right Now

the editors of Bicycling
Photo credit: Staff

From Bicycling

The first step in buying a helmet is determining how you will use it. If you like rowdy trails and big air, consider either a trail or enduro model, which will have greater protection for the back of your head than a road-style helmet, which tends to prioritize ventilation and weight over added side and back protection.

Downhill helmets have chin bars—some of which are removable—for even more protection. Road and cross country (XC) mountain bike helmets are light and extremely well-ventilated, but may lack the added protection of trail helmets. They typically do not have a visor or are designed to accommodate goggles.

Some helmets are designed with commuters in mind. They tend to be a little tougher, to stand up to the rough and tumble abuse that typifies urban use, and often have features like light clips, or even built-in lighting. They usually have slightly less ventilation than road helmets and, of course, a more casual aesthetic.

Ventilation

Road and XC helmets are the flyweights of the helmet world. They are the lightest and most-ventilated helmets out there, and in some cases not only vent well but actually enhance cooling over wearing no helmet at all by directing airflow through the helmet and over your head. Other helmets that prioritize impact protection, like downhill and some mountain bike helmets, often have fewer vents (more holes = less protection against rocks and sticks). Don’t be fooled by the “more vents are better” mantra. You can’t judge a helmet’s cooling ability simply by how many vents it has. The Giro Synthe, for example, has only 19 vents but is widely regarded as a well-ventilated helmet, while the Kask Valegro has a whopping 37 vents. The size and design of the vents is often more important than the quantity.

Proper Fit

No helmet will protect you without the proper fit. “A helmet will only protect you if it fits correctly,” says John Thompson, Scott’s helmet product manager. Sizes vary by company, but most offer a suggestion for what head sizes each will accommodate. Measure the circumference of your head to determine the best size; if you fall between sizes, go by comfort.

Photo credit: Trevor Raab

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Safety And Standards

All helmets sold in the USA must meet a Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) standard. However, the standard is old (adopted in 1998), and does not, for example, contain any language about mitigating rotational forces on the brain, nor does it lay down any standards for a full-face helmet’s chin bar. Given all we’ve learned about brain injuries in the past 20+ years, the CPSC test is in desperate need of an update.

There are voluntary and third-party tests outside of the CPSC test. Of them, we like Virgina Tech’s STAR tests which were developed with a more modern understanding of head injuries than the CPSC’s test.

VT’s protocols evaluate a helmet’s ability to mitigate liner acceleration and rotational velocity, then assigns a ranking of zero to five stars. A helmet gets more stars if the testing indicates it does a better job of reducing injury. Virginia Tech only recommends helmets that receive four or five stars.

Outside of CPSC and VT’s STAR, most reputable helmet makers have their own in-house test protocols. The specifics of those tests and the results are often proprietary and not shared with the public.

However, no controlled test can replicate every possible real-world crash. But wearing a helmet is always better than not wearing a helmet, and our understanding of what makes an effective helmet, and the associated testing, improves every day. And that means helmets are always becoming better and safer.

How We Tested

Every helmet on this list has been thoroughly evaluated and vetted by our team of test editors. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and engineers, and use our own experience riding in these helmets—and even crashing in some of them—to determine the best options. Our team of experienced testers spent many hours and miles wearing these helmets on the road, on the trail, on commutes, and at the bike park. We evaluated them on performance, value, fit, comfort, ventilation, aerodynamics, adjustability, and aesthetics to come up with the models that best serve every budget and every kind of rider.

Helmets Under $100

—TESTED PROTECTION FOR JUST $20—

Schwinn Intercept


The Schwinn Intercept is a $20 helmet that ranked four stars in Virginia Tech’s STAR testing. That’s a higher ranking than several helmets VT tested that cost hundreds more. Though it is an inexpensive helmet, it still features a dial-adjustable fit system, and a removable visor. The Intercept is a one-size-fits-most helmet with a claimed weight of about 350 grams—surprisingly light for such an inexpensive helmet. Note that the Intercept has fewer and smaller vents than higher end helmets, which suggests less ventilation.

—STYLE AND SMARTS—

Thousand Heritage

Here’s one helmet we actually want to wear to the bar. Inspired by vintage motorcycle helmets, the trendy, comfortable Thousand Heritage has vegan leather straps and vents on the top and in the back to keep you cool. The logo in the rear pops off to reveal a small channel you can use to secure the helmet by with your lock. An adjustable dial allows you to adjust the fit, and we had no trouble doing up the magnetic buckle with just one hand. But if you tend to set your helmet on the ground, do so dome-up with this one—it scratches easily.

―BEST VALUE ROAD HELMET―

Specialized Echelon II


The Echelon II is the latest incarnation of the tried-and-true Echelon, which has been a staple of the Specialized helmet line for years. Although it’s labeled as a road helmet—in Specialized speak that means there is no visor—it’s perfectly suited to trail riding as well. Like it’s more expensive brother, the Prevail II, with the advent of the Hairport fit system the Echelon II now comes in a unisex model so ponytails and bronytails alike will fit comfortably in the updated retention system. The Tri-Fix web splitters aren’t adjustable, but the straps stay well away from the ears, and reflective details are found in the webbing and in stickers on the helmet’s surface.
Full Review

—BEST BUDGET ALL-AROUNDER—

Giro Syntax MIPS

The Giro Syntax look like it should be a lot more expensive than it is. In the not-so-distant past, cheaper helmets looked, well, cheap. Straps were tougher to adjust, retention systems were subpar, and there was noticeably less ventilation. In short, they were clunky. The Syntax, on the other hand, is far from clunky. It boasts 25 large vents and a polycarbonate shell bonded to an EPS foam liner. Add in the proprietary Roc Loc Air 5 MIPS retention system and this helmet looks, feels, and performs quite well. The ventilation is more than adequate to keep you from overheating, and despite the extra coverage in the back, it doesn’t feel excessive for road riding. Additionally, off-road riders who don’t like the full coverage of traditional trail helmets might enjoy this helmet.

―BEST VALUE MOUNTAIN BIKE HELMET―

Bell Spark MIPS


Bell introduces this entry-level mountain bike helmet at a lower price than its previous comparable models. Meant to be as beginner- and budget-friendly as possible, the Spark is made with a single layer of EPS foam and uses a MIPS system. It comes in two universal sizes—adult and youth/women’s (same size range but different colors). The visor is fixed in a functional, low position to minimize adjustment distractions. Built to be simple and affordable but long lasting, the helmet has edges that aren’t coated with the hard outer shell that covers the rest of it. But the contact points where it touches the ground (also where the chin strap attaches) are reinforced with rubber bumpers to protect the exposed EPS foam from cracking or wearing down.

―BEST SKATE-STYLE LID―

Giro Quarter MIPS


If you prefer the look of a skate helmet, but are looking for something a bit more refined, the Quarter is a great option. It’s value priced, looks right, and has some thoughtful details. The hard plastic outer shell and urethane edge bumper protects the foam against everyday knocks, so you don’t need to handle this helmet as delicately as a lightweight model. The MIPS liner is nicely integrated and should/might help in some impacts, and the padding is comfortable. Ventilation is just okay—there’s no channeling inside the helmet, and the vents are small—and there’s a lot of foam against your skull. Fit is Giro’s typical slightly oval shape, with only the padding to fine-tune it—there’s no fit system here. Overall, though, as long as it feels good on your head, it’s a comfortable and affordable option.

―BEST FOR LITTLE RIPPERS―

Nutcase Baby Nutty

The Nutcase Baby Nutty is a smart-featured helmet for kids. It comes in six cool patterns for girls and boys, (Outer Space, shown), has 11 vents to prevent sweaty heads, and snaps together easily via a magnetic buckle. Netting over the intake vents keeps bugs out, and soft fleece padding under the chin-strap clasp prevents pinching or rubbing. The Baby Nutty comes in one size that’s said to fit heads between 47 and 50cm, but with its elastic fit system, additional pad sets, and adjustable strap, there’s some wiggle room to fine-tune fit.

Helmets Over $100

—AERO OR WELL VENTILATED—YOU CHOOSE—

Lazer G1 MIPS

From a profile view, the Lazer G1 MIPS cuts a similar shape to the company’s Bullet 2.0 aero helmet, so adding the optional ($20) Aeroshell cover should make your noggin nice and slippery in the wind. With or without the shell, though, the G1 MIPS is a much nicer helmet to wear—it’s lightweight and moves air extremely well. Our tester quickly found a comfortable fit that didn’t press down on his glasses nor tilt up too high, and the top-mounted fit dial makes for easy on-the-fly adjustments. You get two sets of pads—a “race” set, which is thinner, and a comfier, thicker set. Our only gripe, besides the fact that it makes your head look a bit more mushroom-y than many road helmets, is the premium price, but then it’s a premium product. But if you don’t mind the looks, the G1 MIPS won’t fail to impress.

—BEST NEW IMPACT-ABSORBING TECH—

Bontrager Specter Wavecel


The Specter WaveCel helmet incorporates a new impact-absorbing technology that Bontrager claims prevents a concussion in 99 out of 100 incidents. WaveCel does add weight, around 53 grams according to Bontrager, compared to a standard foam helmet. Our Specter weighed 360 grams (size medium) on our scale, which is on the heavy side for a road helmet (A $90 Giro Agilisweighed 306g on the same scale). In our experience Wavecel slows airflow compared to a helmet with open vents. We didn’t feel the rush of air over the head that we experience in the best-ventilated helmets. Still, the Specter ventilates well enough for many rides, but may be a bit stuffy for hot and humid summer riding. Like any helmet, the Specter will fit some riders better than others. However, we did experience several hotspots that detracted from its overall comfort. All of which raises a challenging question: is the promise of increased safety worth the added weight, and compromised ventilation and comfort?

—BEST FOR SUMMER RACING—

Liv Rev


The lightweight, sleek Rev is the official helmet of the women’s WorldTour team, Team Sunweb. It’s superlightweight and has 20 strategically placed vents that promote awesome airflow, making it a top choice for hot summer rides. The retention system goes around the back of your head, attaching to the helmet near your temples, and the MIPS system cups your cranium from forehead to crown, ready to rotate upon impact to protect your brain. The straps are soft and easy to adjust, plus it’s lined with anti-microbial padding to eliminate that dried-sweat stink. The Rev comes in matte grey and white, or black and purple, and it’s not too bulky—so it looks as fast as it feels.

—OPEN FACE WITH EXTRA PROTECTION—

Fox Dropframe Pro

The Fox Dropframe Pro may be an open face helmet, but it offers nearly full-face coverage. Coverage starts at the eyebrows and ends about an inch below the edge of the occipital bone. There’s also generous coverage around the temples, and the helmet’s portholes protect riders’ ears—without obstructing hearing— and part of the jaw. The Dropframe Pro also has a MIPS liner, and dual-density foam liner. There’s a lot of helmet here which shows up on the scale. This helmet weighs 524 grams (large, our scale) where a typical trail helmet is usually around 340 to 380 grams. This is a warmer helmet: There’s no internal channeling, and there’s lots of padding touching the riders head, and air flow is just okay (however, the openings around the ears provide more cooling than helmets that cover the ears), so it is a touch stuffy. It’s a little heavy and a little warm, but it is comfortable, and the extra protection is welcome. So far it is the best-scoring bicycle helmet in Virginia Tech’s impact testing.

—STYLISH TRAIL HELMET WITH ALL-AROUND PERFORMANCE—

MET Roam


MET’s Roam might be a more obscure choice than the popular options from Giro, Troy Lee, or POC. But this is a great trail helmet that’s competitive with the best in the category. This well-made helmet has a well-integrated MIPS liner, and slightly extended coverage at the temples and down the back of the head. The weight (398g, medium, my scale) is a touch heavy, but competitive. It’s quite comfortable too: the pads are plush and don’t itch bare skin, the chin strap is supple, and the dial-fit system (horizontally and vertically adjustable) wraps the head without pressure points. High speed ventilation and low speed breathability are both very good. The visor looks huge, but it doesn’t project into the field of vision much—a potential downside for riding when the sun is low. The Roam is very goggle friendly, with integrated-guides and room to dock the goggles under the visor. If you prefer glasses, the forward vents offer a place to stash them. With comfort, performance, and quality, the Roam is one of our favorite helmets.

―BEST CRASH-SENSOR TECH―

Specialized S-Works Prevail II with ANGi


Specialized has refreshed its helmet line to include an increased level of safety. A tiny new electronic sensor called ANGi can direct your phone to send out a call for help in the event of a crash. In addition to ANGi, the Prevail also integrates a new, more comfortable MIPS system. Larger vents and exhaust ports increase ventilation, and an updated micro-dial system lets you adjust the helmet’s height for a more dialed and improved fit. Its more streamlined profile keeps the Prevail II locked in as one of Specialized’s top-performing helmets. It also solves that annoying ponytail issue and includes a Gutter Action brow pad that keeps sweat from dripping into your eyes.
Full Review More Images

―AWESOME VENTILATION―

Giro Aether


With increased ventilation and improved aerodynamics over the company’s Synthe, the Aether would already be a top-performer if it stopped right there. But the real gold in this helmet is the proprietary MIPS system. Instead of the sliding layer inside the helmet, the shell and outer layer can move independently, thus getting rid of the sometimes annoying plastic liner from the traditional MIPS system and providing, according to Giro, even more protection from impacts. The updated Roc Loc 5+ Air retention system is minimalist and easy to adjust, making the helmet feel as good as it looks.
Full Review More Images

―BEST FOR COLDER WEATHER―

Smith Trace


The Smith Trace replaces the company’s top-end Overtake road helmet that was discontinued at the end of 2018. It retains the previous model’s best feature: Aerocore, panels of a honeycomb-like material called Koroyd that is said to increase airflow and, along with the EPS foam, absorb more energy upon impact. But compared to the Overtake, the Trace has better aerodynamics, improved eyewear integration, and a sleeker look.
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―BEST FOR KEEPING BUGS OUT―

Rudy Project Strym


The Strym is a helmet you can use for road rides, mountain biking, everyday cruising on a bike path, or commuting in traffic. The Airframe frontal padding employs layers of Dry Foam and antibacterial fabric. The fabric transpires sweat beads into vapor, keeping the foam padding dry and the helmet stink-free. The Strym uses the company’s latest adjustable retention system, the RSR 10, which boasts a comfortable wraparound fit and seamless micrometric adjustment to keep the helmet glued to your cranium. Bugstop frontal padding keeps critters outside the helmet, and riders can choose from black, white, dark grey, fluorescent yellow, fluorescent pink, blue with orange accents, and navy blue with white accents.

―BEST HOT-WEATHER DH MODEL―

Troy Lee Designs Stage Stealth MIPS


The 2019 Stage Stealth by Troy Lee Designs is the featherweight full-face helmet you won’t need to take off as soon as you’re done descending. Ours weighed 702 grams, although the exact weight will change as you swap out interchangeable liners and cheek pads of varying thickness. The foam liner attaches to the helmet via Velcro patches on the MIPS lining; behind it, there’s EPS and EPP foam for high- and low-speed-crash protection. Numerous air intakes and exhaust ports promote airflow, keeping your head cool on climbs, and the magnetic buckle is easy to manipulate with thick gloves on. Enduro enthusiasts and trailhead Darth Vader impressionists: We’ve found your helmet.
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―BEST FOR PONYTAILS―

Giro Ember MIPS


Modeled after the company’s wildly popular Synthe, the Ember takes the same technology and styling and packages it into a less expensive model for women. But don’t think unsafe when you think less expensive. The MIPS liner offers the same great protection as it does in more expensive helmets, and the dial retention system is ponytail compatible. Ample ventilation comes courtesy of 26 vents, and nine color options means there’s something for everyone.

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