How to buy a motorcycle helmet

Motorcyclists are required to wear a helmet in every Canadian province, unlike the US, where many states have made helmets optional under certain conditions.

There’s a lot of choice on the market, with a wide array of brands and styles. How’s a noob to choose which skid lid best suits their needs?  Do you want an HJC? A Bell? Do you want DOT, Snell, or ECE rating? Open-faced? Full-faced? 

While helmet purchasing is an individual choice, we’ve put together some tips to make it easier. Read on:

Find your size

Finding a helmet that fits properly is arguably the most important part of the buying process. Internet trolls argue endlessly about safety standards and price points in the Interwebz forums and Facebook groups, but none of that matters if your head rattles around inside the helmet, or if your helmet pops off in a crash because it’s too big. Get yourself a helmet that fits.

In theory, helmet sizing should be standard, but if you try on a few different helmets, you’ll find otherwise; a size L for one brand might fit like an XL from another brand. You might even find variance within one manufacturer’s offerings, due to manufacturing tolerances or materials used, or just poor quality control.

A helmet’s fitment is at least as important as its safety rating, as a poorly-fitting helmet is by its nature unsafe anyway. Photo: Richard Seck

So the best way to figure out what you need for a helmet size is to go try on the helmet you want to buy. You want it to be snug, but not uncomfortably tight. You don’t want any space between your forehead and the inner front of the helmet; there should be no front-to-back movement if you nod your head while wearing the helmet.

The same goes for the sides: the cheek pads should touch your face, and you want the helmet to stay in place when you move your head side-to-side, but you don’t want the helmet to be uncomfortably tight in the sides either.

As well, make sure the helmet doesn’t bump into your chin or nose when you push in gently from the front. You don’t want to get out on the highway, only to find wind pressure is pushing your helmet into your face.

Even an expensive helmet like this Shoei Neotec might be a poor choice if it’s made for a different head shape.

If you must buy online, it pays to stick to helmets that you know will fit, because you’ve worn them previously. If you had an RPHA Max in M, and it fit, then you can safely buy a replacement helmet online. But please, don’t go to a dealer who has the model in stock, then order it online. This is a pretty chintzy move, considering you’re using their assets to send business to a competitor.

Want to try a helmet you haven’t worn before? You can get a rough idea what size you’re looking for by measuring your head. Take a tape measure and run it around your head where it’s the largest (usually above your eyebrows somewhere). Then, take that measurement to the helmet manufacturer’s website to see what size you need (here’s an example from the HJC site). But you’re taking a chance on buying a helmet that doesn’t fit. 

Remember, there’s more to helmet fit than just a sizing measurement. Some helmets are made to fit a round-shaped head, and some are made to fit a more oval-shaped skull. Without trying it on, it’s not easy to know if your helmet of choice will fit you, even if the sizing numbers might say it does.

Bell Moto-3 crash
Here’s Zac’s recently-crashed Bell Moto-3. You can get cheaper vintage helmets, but he appreciated the extra protection it offered when his front tire blew out.

Safety second

You’ll see three levels of safety ratings of helmets in North America: ECE (the European standard), DOT, and Snell. DOT is the minimum safety standard in North America. The latest ECE-rated helmets (ECE 22.05) have similar standards, but are more rigorously tested by the authorities; DOT helmets are rated by the manufacturer, not the testing body. Snell has the most rigorous helmet safety standards, and is typically required for any sort of track work.

There are three different theories to helmet safety standards. The first is that anything that’s street-legal with a DOT sticker is good enough, even if it resembles a blackened chamberpot or a World War II Nazi stormtrooper’s headgear. If that’s your jam, then go ahead, knock yourself out, probably literally — the majority of this article is probably not for you.

The second theory is that you must purchase the helmet with the most rigorous safety testing available. The DOT standard is not enough for these buyers; they look for helmets that meet the latest Snell standard. Often, these helmets also tend to be more expensive.

Looking to save money by purchasing a chintzy no-name helmet? Make sure that DOT sticker wasn’t just added after an online purchase, like these ones available through Amazon.

The third theory is that it does make sense to pay attention to safety standards, but that for many riders, a Snell certification is overkill. These riders might compromise by buying a full-face helmet that offers more protection than a DOT-rated bucket helmet, but not as much as a race-spec Snell-rated helmet. This is probably the approach taken by most riders.

We’re not going to get into the respective advantages of each rating system, because that would take an article in itself, or maybe even a series of articles. Suffice to say that if you plan on getting out on a track, you’re probably going to have to buy a Snell helmet. If you’re just riding on the street at legal speeds, a DOT-rated helmet from a reputable manufacturer might suffice, and an ECE 22.05-rated helmet should certainly be enough.

There is some conjecture as to whether Snell-rated helmets are ideal for slow-speed street crashes, due to their stiffer construction for high-speed accidents. Maybe there’s truth in that, maybe there isn’t, but at least if you buy a helmet that’s Snell-rated, it probably has quality workmanship and materials, which in itself is worth paying more for.

Open-faced 3/4 helmets are not as safe as full-faced helmets, but they’re a better choice than a bucket-style lid. You can decide for yourself if the added comfort or style of a 3/4 helmet is worth losing the safety of a full-faced helmet. At lower speeds, they’re probably more comfortable, but they certainly aren’t as safe in a crash.

7 thoughts on “How to buy a motorcycle helmet”

  1. Last year high sided after a car pulled out in front of me. Head crashed to the ground wearing a Shoei full face Snell rated helmet. Sliding down the road thinking how loud it is in my helmet! Helmet chin bar scraped to the base and no head injury. Broken wrist and road rash on my knee. If I was riding a 3/4 helmet my chin would still be on the road! Always ride with the best protective equipment. I was only riding around the block to fill my bike with gas at the end of the season in November.

  2. Agreed TK4, I buy Bell online 1 year old leftovers for 75% off. I got hit by a deer wearing one and it saved my life, EMT said good thing you had a full face helmet or we’d be picking your bottom jaw off the road. The service life is based on exposure to UV and your sweat. a 5 year old new helmet in the box never in the sun or been sweat into is good for the next 5 years, and if you are a very occasional rider you could go longer. I bought my first Bell at the dealer, after that I buy the same model in the same size from the least expensive online retailer I can find it at. I’ve had more pricey helmets but the 250 USD helmet reduced by 75% because it is last years graphics is the right bang for the buck and after a crash test with 0 head injury but a destroyed helmet I’ll keep buying every 4-5 years. (Hopefully not sooner due to another crash)

  3. Great article! Canadians crossing the US border to ride in the USA should make sure their helmets also display the US DOT along with either Snell or ECE rating. Having the Snell or ECE ratings only as some Canadian riders may have or removing the US DOT rating sticker can cause problems at the US border crossing.

    1. Joel – current DOT stickers are a lot more sophisticated than the knockoffs. They display the manufacturers name and some other pertinent information. Too bad we can only post pictures in the Soapbox, I’d show you.

  4. Editor Mark asked for suggestions about what to do with old helmets. I’ve posted previously in Soapbox that your local fire department or EMS can sometimes use them for training purposes.
    If you’re just going to toss them in the trash, first cut the straps off so someone doesn’t end up reusing it.
    If you look on the back, or inside on the liner you’ll usually find a date of manufacture stamp.
    5 years of use, as you’ve suggested, is usually about it BUT if you find something brand new, old stock that the retailer is willing to discount savings can be had. Just because its been sitting in the box in a warehouse somewhere for a couple of years doesn’t mean its no good.
    Colours and graphics change every season, so if you’re willing to not be the coolest kid on the block there are perhaps savings to be had there.
    Next….

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