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How to Choose a Mountain Bike Helmet

by Jim Bartlett October 21, 2016

How to Choose a Mountain Bike Helmet

There are two basic types of mountain bike helmets: open-face mountain bike helmets or full-face mountain bike helmets. The type you choose depends on the riding you plan on doing. In general, how aggressively you ride and where you ride will determine the amount of protection you need from your helmet.

Open Face Mountain Bike Helmets

There are two styles of open-face mountain bike helmets: cross-country and skate style. Either one can offer adequate protection for cross country, single track, and recreational mountain biking. All Mountain (AM) / Cross Country (XC) mountain bike helmets look a lot like the prototypical bicycle helmet — aerodynamic design, lightweight, well-vented, covering the top of your head but also extending down the back of your head. Dirt Jump (DJ) / Skate Style mountain bike helmets have more of a round, bucket-like shape. They have slightly less ventilation than a cross country mountain bike helmet but typically have a more durable hard shell / ABS exterior, plus a bit more coverage on the sides and back of your head. Features of Cross-Country MTB Helmets May Include:
  • A streamlined, technical and classic bike helmet look
  • Constructed with an impact absorbing EPS liner and polycarbonate or ABS plastic exterior shell
  • Lightweight, well-ventilated and aerodynamic (ideal for hot weather and riding for long periods of time)
  • Comfortable for long periods of time
  • Provides protection for the forehead, top, and back of the head
  • A removable or rotating visor for eye protection against wayward branches and the sun
  • Cross-country style MTB helmets are sold in different shell sizes and sometimes come with ratcheting or adjustable dials for a snug and comfortable fit
  • These helmets come in a wide range of prices, starting at about $35

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Features of Skate-Style MTB Helmets May Include:

  • A classic but cool bucket-shaped look
  • Constructed with an impact absorbing EPS liner and a sturdy ABS plastic, fiberglass composite, or carbon fiber composite exterior shell
  • A bit heavier and less ventilated than cross-country bike helmets but provide excellent head coverage and can resist minor bumps more easily
  • Not as well suited for endurance riding because of their weight and lack of ventilation
  • Skate-style helmets are sold in different shell sizes and sometimes come with additional padding to adjust the fit and snugness
  • Tend to be more budget-friendly but can range in price, starting at around $30

Full Face Mountain Bike Helmets

The risk of injury is inherent in mountain biking, especially in downhill riding/racing or other high speed riding and dirt jumping or any riding in which
you’re going to be airborne (or trying to get air). Choose a mountain bike full face helmet if you plan on doing any riding with a high probability of crashing (even the best riders can and will crash). You can also choose full face mountain bike helmets because you like the styling, level of protection, or other features. Remember that helmets are mandatory in competitions; the sponsoring organization will stipulate in the rules if a full face downhill mountain bike helmet must be used.

A full face mountain bike helmet differs from other bicycle helmets in a few distinctive ways:

  • First off is the obvious — your chin, jaw, and mouth are covered. This shields the lower half of your face from flying rocks, branches, and other debris and, more importantly, protects your face and jaw in the event of a crash or fall.
  • Constructed with an impact absorbing EPS liner and thin polycarbonate, fiberglass composite, or carbon fiber exterior shell
  • Full face downhill mountain bike helmets also typically cover more of the back of your head than other mountain biking helmets, which is helpful in the event of a backward fall.
  • Of necessity, full-face mountain biking helmets are heavier than other bicycle helmets, although advances in materials technology have brought down their weight (and cost).
  • Full face mountain bike helmets rely on passive as-you-go venting to circulate air through the helmet, which differs from a multi-vented open-face mountain bike helmet
  • Full face mountain bike helmets have moveable visors to help shield your eyes and the upper portion of your face
  • Thick and dense interior cheek and head pads for a snug and comfortable fit
  • Full face helmets tend to be more expensive than open face helmets, but come in a wide range of prices starting at about $80

Should My Mountain Bike Helmet Meet Any Certifications?

By federal law, all helmets sold as "bicycle helmets" in the United States, including helmets for mountain biking, must meet the requirements of the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) bike helmet standard. Look for the CPSC sticker on the inside of the helmet, and do not buy a helmet for biking that does not meet the CPSC safety standard.

Full face mountain biking helmets will sometimes go further and meet additional standards, such as the:

  • ASTM F1952 Downhill Mountain Bike Helmet Standard
  • ASTM F2032 BMX Helmet Standard
  • DOT standard for motorized, wheeled sports
  • Snell Helmet Standards (which requires the most aggressive testing, although some believe it is too extreme to produce a cost-effective and comfortable helmet that bikers will enjoy wearing.)

Note that some full-face bicycle helmets are not tested to the ASTM F1952 standard for downhill mountain bike helmets or to the ASTM F2032 standard for BMX helmets due to the additional cost to the manufacturer. Both of these certifications test the performance of the helmet's chin bar. Lack of this safety standard does not mean the helmet is unsafe. If you want a full-face helmet that meets the additional standards of either ASTM F-1952 and/or ASTM F-2032, XSPortsProtective carries a number of full-face downhill helmets that are tested to meet the ASTM F1952 and mountain bike helmets that meet the ASTM F2032 safety standard.
See our Helmet Safety Standards Guide for more info on the different types of helmet standards.

How to Measure Your Head for a Helmet

For helmets to protect you from a serious head injury, they have to fit properly and remain in place during a crash. Below, we go over some features that help ensure a proper fit for this vital piece of mountain bike protective gear. Measure your head and select a helmet that fits your size. Be careful not to assume sizing; age, height, and weight have little to do with how big your head is! Measure, measure, measure, and then pick the right size for you.

How big is your head?

The first step in determining what size mountain bike helmet you should buy is the measure your head with our Helmet Sizing Guide.

How should the mountain bike helmet fit on your head?

helmet sizing guideThe way a helmet rests on your head is critical to how it will perform for its intended use. How many times have you seen the neighborhood kid riding his bike down the street with his helmet kicked way back on his forehead so that he looks more like a comic strip character with an orb growing off the back of his head? This is NOT the proper way to wear a helmet. Proper helmet fit means good head coverage. When you try on a helmet, the front of the helmet should sit down onto your forehead until just above your eyebrows. There should be room enough to slip on a pair of goggles or sunglasses, but not much more. A half-inch in most cases.
Mountain bike helmets are usually sold with a different exterior shell size to accommodate the size of the wearer’s head, along with sometimes interchangeable fit pads or a rotating dial to further customize the fit and snugness. Every mountain bike helmet has a sizing table in its description that shows the head size (usually in centimeters for more accuracy) and corresponding helmet size (Small, Medium, Large, etc.) 

Does the mountain bike helmet feel comfortable when you wear it?

Different manufacturers make their helmet molds differently. For you, the wearer, what’s important is that the helmet fits comfortably all the way around your head. If you think you’ve got the proper size, but the helmet is still a little roomy in a spot or two, that is not a big deal. You can add included fit pads where necessary to achieve a more secure fit. However, if you’ve selected what you believe is the proper size but feel an uncomfortable pressure anywhere around the circumference of your head, then this helmet is probably too small for you. Try a different size or style of helmet from the same line or try a different manufacturer altogether. To find a mountain bike helmet that fits you comfortably, start with XSportsProtective’s Helmet Sizing Guide, then use your head measurements to compare all of the different helmet offerings from the different manufacturers that appeal to you. You will find a great selection to choose from.

What Should I Expect to Pay for a Mountain Bike Helmet?

Prices for mountain bike helmets can range from $30 to over $350. All of them meet the CPSC standards, so why is there such a huge variation in price? It depends on the extra features. Comparing open face mountain bike helmets to full face helmets is like comparing apples to oranges, so we'll split up these to categories and address them separately for the discussion on price.

Open Face Mountain Bike Helmets

Prices for open face helmets can range from as little as $35 to $250.

In the low price range, you'll find:

  • Skate-style MTB helmets often have hard shell construction, making them a bit more durable.
  • Cross-country style helmets at the lower price point are typically made using in-mold construction, much like higher end cross-country helmets.
  • Less venting options and smaller overall vents
  • Basic, adjustable fit systems and fit pads to help create a comfortable fit
  • Heavier overall weight because of use of less technical materials and construction
  • Higher-profile look
  • An excellent choice for kids, spare helmets and those who just need a helmet for more recreational purposes

In the mid-price range, you'll find:

  • In-mold construction
  • Massive vents and many venting options
  • Internal reinforcement that helps strengthen the helmet without adding bulk, making it low profile
  • A great choice for the beginner-to-intermediate biker who would like to upgrade to more professional features and comfort but without completely breaking the bank

In the high price range, you'll find:

  • In-mold construction
  • Helmet structure may be internally reinforced with super light materials such as carbon fiber for added durability without adding extra weight
  • More comfortable adjustable fit systems to tune your helmet perfectly to your head shape
  • Much lighter weight
  • The most aerodynamic shapes for less wind resistance and a super low-profile look
  • Massive vents and tons of venting capabilities
  • An excellent choice for the cyclist who has made the commitment to get better/faster/stronger in their respective sport

Full Face Mountain Bike Helmets

Prices for open face helmets can range from as little as $90 to $600. That can be a sizable investment. 

Shop our collection of mountain bike helmets

Learn More About: Certifications Learn More About: Helmets Learn More About: How to Choose Guides Learn More About: Mountain Bike Helmets Learn More About: Mountain Biking Learn More About: Price Comparisons Learn More About: Sizing

Jim Bartlett
Jim Bartlett


Founder of XSportsProtective, snowboarder, mountain biker, father of four young kids who love action sports.

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