From rogue branches to incoming debris, helmets do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to head protection. But to save money, many cyclists use a standard road bike helmet instead of a mountain bike helmet, which is a pretty bad idea.
Mountain bike helmets are made after several rounds of quality checks to ensure that the helmet integrity is strong enough to withstand any impact you might encounter on the trails. Not only that, but they also receive a certification after they are deemed safe to use.
So although it is a bit more expensive than a road helmet, an MTB helmet is a critical piece of protective gear in your kit. Let's take a deeper look at how they work, what types there are, and the outstanding features you'd want in your helmet.
Types Of Helmets: Road, Cross-Country, Downhill, And Trail
Cross-Country (XC) Helmet
Cross-country helmets, also known as XC helmets, are the lightest and most breathable helmet type. If you're planning to coast down flowy singletrack, these helmets are a breeze and a pleasure to ride in. However, they don't do very well in gnarly downhills since they offer almost no protection from obstacles.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have downhill helmets that provide a ton of heavy-duty protection. If you're a downhill rider, you prioritize speed, and the last thing you want is to be smacked in the head by a branch as you zip down the mountain trails.
The full face helmet is very popular among enduro and racing bikers because it offers extra coverage and protection with a sturdy unibody shell and visor. The downside is that it can get boiling inside, making this type of helmet unsuitable for longer rides. That said, many cyclists keep a full face helmet on hand anyway for more rigorous rides and use a lighter one as their primary helmet.
Some opt for a full-face helmet with a removable chin bar to convert it to a helmet with more ventilation when they don't need so much protection. However, that does come with a pretty hefty price tag.
A trail helmet is an ideal compromise between the lightweight XC design and the full coverage downhill helmets. It offers a good amount of coverage around the temples, sides, and the back of your head while providing plenty of ventilation.
A higher-end trail helmet also includes an adjustable visor and soft interior padding for extra protection and comfort for longer, more challenging rides. Because of its versatility, it's usually the go-to model for beginner and expert mountain bikers alike.
How Do Helmets Work?
A helmet's main job is to provide impact protection by absorbing impact energy and distributing the load evenly.
Mountain biking helmets are made from Expanded Polystyrene(EPS) foam that compresses on impact. The EPS liner serves two purposes-cushioning the blow and distributing the force of the crash. Since the foam could split, helmet manufacturers use a hard, smooth outer shell to keep everything in place. Besides protecting your head from puncture-type accidents, the shell slides on the ground to protect you from jerky movements that could cause nasty neck injuries.Not only that, but a mountain bike helmet comes with a visor that protects your face from rocks or debris. The visor also shields your eyes from the scorching sun-you don't want to be seeing double when you're riding your brand new mountain bike.
Impact Protection Systems
Modern-day mountain biking helmets are constantly improving since safety is the number one concern for most mountain bikers. That's why many bike gear manufacturers include innovative impact protection technologies made to prevent further head injuries in an accident.
One of the most popular mountain bike helmet systems is a multi-directional impact protection system (MIPS). A MIPS helmet uses a thin plastic lining inside the helmet that pivots the shell ever so slightly during impact to reduce any twisting forces delivered to your head.
Ideal Sizing And Fit
Finding the perfect fit is critical to ensure maximum effectiveness during an impact. It's also for your general comfort since mountain biking is already a physically demanding sport-you don't need your helmet to make it harder for you.
When your helmet is too loose, it flops around your head and makes riding on a rough trail a harrowing experience. But if it's too tight, it constricts your head, and you might end up with a pounding headache at the end of the day.
That's why it's essential to buy a helmet that fits perfectly. Theoretically, all models use a one-size-fits-all across all brands. But if you're into serious riding, you should invest in a helmet that comes in multiple sizes or a more sophisticated fit system.
Helmet sizes are based on the broadest part of your head, which is approximately an inch above your eyebrows. The ideal way to measure your head is, of course, using a measuring tape. Try to keep the tape as level as possible and above your ears. You should also use a mirror to check and re-measure a few times to ensure that your numbers are good.
A well-fitting helmet sits level on your head and feels snug without any retention systems in place. When trying on the helmet, push the helmet from side to side and back to front. The helmet should not tilt or move too much when you fiddle with it.
What To Look For When Purchasing A Mountain Bike Helmet?
It's inevitable to sweat buckets when you're on your mountain bike. That's why no matter which design you choose, you should always pick one that includes plenty of air vents in the helmet. The more air vents there are, the easier it is to disperse hot air and the cooler you'll feel on the trails.
But ventilation isn't just about the number of vents on your helmet. There are also multiple factors involved, including the padding thickness and the MIPS liner inside the helmet. Even though they provide comfort and protection, they also tend to interrupt the airflow.
Think about it—how does it feel to wear a bowling ball on your head when cycling down rough mountain trails?
While extra protection might feel more critical initially, the heavier helmet might put a lot of stress on your neck and shoulders. On the other hand, there's no point in wearing a full-face helmet over the much sleeker and lighter XC helmet when you're doing some casual riding, so pick one that suits your preferred riding style the best.
Padding And Comfort
You're going to wear the bicycle helmet for an extended time, so you have to make sure you're 100% comfortable in it.
Padding does more than just provide comfort—like the chin strap, it also keeps your helmet in place for maximum impact protection. Not only that, but it should also provide enough ventilation to keep you cool on the trail. Some helmets even come with a machine-washable removable liner to make them more hygienic. You can also add more padding to make it as thick or thin as you want it.
The retention system has evolved beyond the straps under your chin. Now, most modern helmet designs include an additional retention system behind your head that can be adjusted to fine-tune your fit.
There are a few variations-older models use a thumbwheel while others use more advanced fasteners like the glove-compatible Fidlock Magnetic Buckle. Regardless, you should always ensure that you can adjust the retention system with one hand while you're riding.
Higher-end helmets also offer some height adjustment for the perfect head fit. You can try to fit a cotton cap under the helmet and retention system to see if it suits you. You should also remember that retention systems are meant to keep the helmet on your head in a crash. If it takes too much adjusting for the helmet to fit you, it most likely doesn't.
Most of the helmets on the market are unisex, but certain women-specific features might make your riding trip more comfortable. For one, women's bike helmets have smaller diameter sizes and are typically more colorful. Besides that, some also provide ponytail support for long hair.
Don't worry-these helmets are only optimized to make life easier for women. The impact protection technology and safety protection aren't compromised.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can climbing helmets be used as biking helmets?
No, since climbing helmets and biking helmets are built based on different specifications. Climbing helmets are designed to spread the impact of falling rocks and debris across your entire skull. They won't do very well when a rock or branch comes hurling at high speed.
An MTB helmet, however, is designed to take the impact from flying debris. Not only that, but they go through several rounds of rigorous safety checks to ensure their effectiveness against trail obstacles.
2. How much should I spend on mountain bike helmets?
Mountain bike helmets are available in an extensive price range. You can find cheaper helmets from $20 onwards or higher-ends that start at $60. It depends on the helmet material and its features. For example, carbon fiber composite is the most durable and lightest helmet material, but it is often more expensive than plastic. You would also need to pay more for advanced safety features and other bells and whistles.