This article was updated on 9/30/2019
Perhaps no other piece of cycling gear offers a more bewildering array of choices than mountain bike helmets. Nearly all the top industry names sell mountain bike helmets, and most offer a litany of models. Faced with so many options, how does a rider figure out which is the best mountain bike helmet for them?
It’s simple: Use your head. The most important thing you can do when shopping for the best mountain bike helmet is to insert your melon into said helmet. Some people have round heads. Some have oval heads. One shop owner I know even says one customer claimed to have a square head.
Whatever your cranial shape, don’t compromise when shopping for the best mountain bike helmet. You want a smooth but not cramped fit at all points on your head. And you don’t want slippage. Nor do you want tightness in one area, like on top, while the backside feels loose.
What to look for in a mountain bike helmet
You want the chin strap to be secure but not uncomfortable. That means not only adjusting its tension but making sure the side buckles don’t press against your ears or otherwise cause discomfort—over the course of riding, any buckle pressure will start to grate.
Be sure to test the retention system for ease of use, comfort, and strength. Check out the padding—they all wear out, but it’s an area where some manufacturers skimp. Conversely, some provide a full replacement set with purchase.
The best approach when shopping the best mountain bike helmets is to go to your favorite bike shop (or shops) and try on a variety of models. Mountain bike helmets vary in style and amount of padding. Most allow you to adjust fit with the turn of a knob at the rear.
Unlike road versions, mountain bike helmets typically come with visors. Some are adjustable so you can flip them back for better visibility while climbing. If you wear glasses or goggles, check visors for eyewear support. For riders who use a helmet-mounted camera or night light, some mountain bike helmets come with built-in mounts.
Most helmets meet US and international safety certification standards. Beyond that, many feature MIPS, or multi-directional impact protection system. MIPS is intended to add protection via the helmet’s inner layer in event of a crash. The idea is for the helmet’s outer shell to absorb linear impact, while the inner layer rotates enough to reduce the rotational impact on the brain.
This feature typically adds $20 or more to the price of the helmet, which has led skeptics to question its cost-benefit. Caveat emptor applies—you and your pocketbook get to decide. Several mountain bike helmet makers offer MIPS and non-MIPS models.
A number of companies also have developed in-house technologies that obviate the need for MIPS, they say. They offer similar impact-reducing, multi-layered shells designed to deliver similar protection. For example, Kali Protectives, a leading non-MIPS maker, offers a fascinating deep dive into helmet technology on its web site here.
Beyond fit, you need to consider the type of riding you do. Most vendors offer helmets for everything from cross-country, which emphasizes ventilation and lightweight, to downhill, where full-face protection tops the list. Traditionally, riders need different helmets for different disciplines. But here’s a tip: The lines are getting blurred. Bikes are getting faster, trails are getting rowdier, and many riders feel a need for both maximum protection and maximum comfort.
For more on that point, let’s get rolling with our list of best mountain bike helmets listed here in alphabetical order.
Bell Sixer MIPS
Bell’s new Sixer is a sleek trail helmet packed with functional design features and a sleek aesthetic. Well placed vents offer premium airflow through the protective while an integrated MIPS system differs from others by providing a sleek, low profile fit keeping the shell of the helmet closer to your head. Goggle compatibility is enhanced with a strap gripper at the rear of the helmet, adjustable visor height, integrated camera/light mount and a full hard shell round out the package.
- Sleek with great ventilation
- Breakaway camera mount
- Integrated MIPS
- Goggle compatibility
- Decent visor adjustability
- Tooled visor removal
- Glasses storage compatibility
Bontrager Blaze Wavecel
One of the newest in protective technology, the Bontrager Blaze is built around WaveCel technology. WaveCel is a collapsible cellular structure that lines the inside of your helmet. It works like a crumple zone that absorbs the force of an impact before it reaches your head. A magnetic buckle system makes connection quick and easy, while a Boa adjustment system makes around the head adjustment simple with only one hand. Strategically placed vents offer head cooling airflow, and its slick Blendr mount system accommodates POV cameras and lights with a snap-in magnetic base that easily releases the equipment in case of a crash.
- WaveCel tecnology
- One-hand Boa fit adjustment
- Magnetic accessory mount system
- 1-year crash replacement warranty
- Short visor with limited adjustability
Giro Montaro MIPS
Giro holds a special place in the pantheon of bike helmet progress, having pioneered the lightweight foam shell that met safety standards while offering improved ventilation and comfort. The Giro Montaro carries this legacy forward, with the added benefits of expanded side and rear coverage, front-facing goggle integration via strap grippers on the back of the helmet, visor adjustment, and camera or headlamp mount integration with a breakaway in the event of a crash. Giro also is an enthusiastic supporter of MIPS and offers a wider size range than most, with options from XS to XL, plus toddler and youth sizing.
- Lots of sizes
- Roc Loc fit system
- Front-facing goggle support
- Breakaway camera/headlamp mount
- Not the burliest
- Hot on really hot days
IXS TrailRS Evo
For shoppers on a budget, the IXS TrailRS Evo offers a great price-to-features ratio. It provides versatile fit through a lightweight and flexible internal cradle and a micro-disc rear dial, and the sturdy visor will fold out of the way in a crash. Lack of MIPS keeps the price down, but IXS meets European and American safety standards and believes molding its foam inner shell directly to the outer hard shell provides optimal safety.
- In-mold protection
- Highly adjustable visor features quick-release in case of crash
- Wide ranging fit options
- Sweat padding comparatively skimpy
Kali Maya 2.0
Weight-conscious riders will love the Smith Forefront 2 and its unique honeycombed Koroyd liner protection technology. The rap against Koroyd initially was lack of ventilation, which Smith has since addressed with AirEvac channels along with intake and exhaust ports. The Forefront 2 isn’t cheap, but it comes with features such as a 3-position visor, sunglass and goggle support, an option to add an integrated accessory mount, and a lifetime warranty.
- Low weight
- Koroyd technology
- Great fit
- Eyewear support
- Lifetime warranty
- Ventilation still falls short of others
For 2019, the Ambush offers two MIPs options. Featuring a generous visor that easily flips up and down, the Specialized Ambush is a great all-around helmet. It has plenty of venting, generous rear coverage, and an easy-to-use tension dial for fine-tuning fit. Its “Gutter Action Brow” liner, designed to channel sweat away from your eyes, actually works. It doesn’t hurt that my Ambush matches the color of my Evil Following MB frame, although Evil’s “smashing pumpkins” color designation may not translate comfortably to the helmet world. (Specialized calls it “moto orange speed-streak.”)
- Low weight
- Well ventilated
- Wide visor adjustability
- Internal “Mindset 360” system offers around-the-head tension adjustment
- Micro-index visor slide nut can loosen and fall off
- Padding could be more robust
- No MIPS options
Troy Lee Designs Stage
A just-released helmet from Troy Lee Designs, the Stage may the first helmet to truly bridge the gap between low weight and ventilation, and burly protection. Traditionally lightweight helmets aren’t robust enough for extreme riding, while full-face downhill helmets are too heavy and hot for trail use. But the Stage aims to be a true crossover option, offering cooling rivaling a typical trail helmet, while its chin bar and surround protection make it suitable for bike park and downhill riding. And it’s reasonably light at just under 700 grams, though that’s still about twice as heavy as a typical trail helmet.
- Crossover trail and downhill appeal
- Chin bar for added protection
- Reasonable low weight given level of protection
- Superior ventilation
- MIPS options
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