Helmets 101: A Guide to Helmet Types

Looking to buy a helmet this year? Whether it’s your first helmet or just a replacement, here’s some information that might help you pick what works for you.

Styles

Broadly speaking, there are five different types of helmet styles: Full-face, Modular , Open-face, Beanie and Dirt. Here are the differences between them:

A full-face helmet offers complete protection.

Full-face: A full-face helmet is just what it sounds like: a helmet that covers all of your face, along with the rest of your head. They’re considered the safest helmets, so naturally, they’re chosen by riders doing the most unsafe activity of all—racing. They aren’t exclusively for racebikes—due to their functionality and safety, scooter riders, cruiser rides, adventure riders and everyone else on two wheels wears these helmets too.  Prices for full-face helmets start with $100ish specials sold at automotive and department stores, cranked out with love and care by Chinese sweatshops. From there, the sky is the limit. Pricey lids, like Shoei, Arai, Schuberth and the like are often made by skilled workers in European or Japanese factories, with significant wind tunnel testing and safety certification procedures to ensure quality, and therefore cost a lot more money.

The Schuberth C4 is a high-end modular helmet. It looks a lot like a full-face helmet, but if you look closely at the chinbar, you can see the joint that allows the front of the helmet to flip upwards.

Modular: A modular helmet looks like a full-face helmet, but the part that protects your lower face (the chinbar) rotates upwards, along with the visor. This makes it easier to get a drink or talk to fellow riders when you stop, or ask bystanders for directions when you’re lost. It also makes these helmets less strong, so they aren’t approved for most racing series and can’t a Snell safety rating (see below). Modular helmets typically cost a bit more than an equivalent full-face, and weigh a bit more. They also usually have touring-friendly options like drop-down visors, which are less common on other helmets. Like full-face helmets, modulars are an excellent choice for bad weather riding, as there’s lots of protection from wind and cold air.

The Bell 500 is a classic open-face helmet. You’ll usually see cruiser riders or vintage bike enthusiasts sporting these.

Open-face: Open-face helmets cover most of your head, but have no chinbar. The trendy, Euro-style open-face helmets are called jet helmets, and are frequently worn by scooterists. North American riders opting for an open-face helmet usually choose the 3/4 helmet style, a.k.a. “The Helmet That Came In From The ’70s,” complete with glitter flake paint and pinstriping. Just the thing for the chopper rider, who doesn’t want a front fender, but does want a bit of brain protection in a crash. Some open-face helmets are available with removable jaw guards, or other features to protect your face in a crash, but most assume you won’t land on your nose if you fall off the bike (hopefully). Euro open-face helmets can often carry a good safety rating, despite their lack of 360-degree protection. Most open-face helmets have some sort of detachable face shield as an option; it won’t stop you from losing your teeth in a crash, but the face shield will block rain and wind in poor weather. Hipsters love open-face helmets, as it allows their beards to blow freely in the wind.

Here’s a beanie helmet. Does it look like it provides much protection?

Beanie: Beanie helmets are typically worn by cruiser riders, or inner-city stunt riders on bikes with dubious ownership claims. A beanie offers protection from a ticket for riding without a helmet, but that’s pretty much it. They aren’t good in foul weather, and when you see a novelty beanie helmet with a sketchy-looking DOT certification sticker, run away. The sticker doesn’t mean the helmet is safe. In the past, many beanie helmets were styled like World War II Nazi headgear, but that’s less popular these days, probably because when you say “stormtrooper,” most people think Star Wars now.

Here is a typical dirt bike helmet, with extended chinbar to make breathing easier.

Dirt: Dirt helmets usually have no visor to protect your eyes. Most riders with dirt helmets wear goggles instead (although some dual sport helmets now come with visors, just like a full-face or modular helmet). Helmets intended for offroad riding almost always have a large, jutting chinbar that makes it easy to breathe when you’re wrestling your bike out of a mudhole, and a broad brim that extends far over your eyes, to keep roost from getting into your face when all your faster friends blast past you. Some people wear dirt helmets on the street, especially supermoto riders, but they don’t work particularly well in this role. The poor aerodynamics can leave you with with neck pain at the end of a longer ride, feeling like King Kong was trying to wrestle your helmet off during the ride.

Safety ratings

There are two standards for motorcycle helmet safety in North America—the Snell Foundation’s rating (which changes regularly) and the DOT (Department of Transportation) rating.

Hopefully, your helmet is in better nick than this rental unit in Cuba.

There’s some debate as to whether the Snell rating is necessary for street riders. Snell’s rating is intended to keep riders safe during high-speed crashes, which  translates to stiffer helmets. That’s not always so good in a low-speed crash; it means your brain can get a lot of energy transmitted from the crash, as the helmet is over-engineered for the lesser impact.

However, if a helmet carries a Snell rating, it means the company has actually gone ahead and had Snell certify the helmet before it can carry the rating. That’s not the case with a DOT rating; helmet manufacturers get their DOT certification on the honour system. Independent testing isn’t necessary to get the DOT rating, but the US’s National Highway Safety Administration does conduct random testing after the helmet is on the market. If a manufacturer’s product fails the random test, the fines are expensive.

DOT certification is not as stringent as Snell certification. You can buy a beanie helmet with a DOT certification, but Snell helmets are always full-face configuration.

So, the best way to figure out if a helmet is safe enough for you is to ask: Are you going to be riding fast or slow? If you’re riding fast, get Snell. If you’re riding at street speeds, a DOT helmet might be better, but you’ll probably want to buy from an established manufacturer whose self-testing regime you can trust. Ultimately, at least for street riding, it’s your choice, so if you aren’t comfortable with a DOT helmet, then buy Snell—but make that an informed choice.

An Arai helmet like this is a lot more expensive than a made-in-China skid lid bought at a department store, but offers premium features and arguably more safety.

Prices

The saying goes: “$50 helmet, $50 head,” to imply that if you only pay a pittance for your helmet, you don’t value your brain function.

There is some truth to that saying, but consider the reverse: Does this mean if you pay $1,000 for a helmet, you only value your brain function at $1,000? That’s still ridiculous.

The reality is that a $600+ helmet typically packs some pretty nice features: light weight, high-quality materials, and theoretically it will last longer. Many of the high-end Japanese and Euro manufacturers have helmets in this price range.

But if you pay less, you can still have safety. You can find Snell-approved helmets for less than $200 from Canadian retailers. It just won’t be as cushy, probably won’t last as long, and won’t have the same features.

The most important thing to get right when buying a helmet is to ensure you have the correct fit.

Fit

Basically, you want your helmet to be snug, and not move around when your head moves. There are many comprehensive helmet-buying guides online, but they all are based on you trying the helmet on first; don’t expect to order a helmet off the Internet and have it magically fit you, without trying it on first. You’ll save a lot of money dealing with online retailers, but you’ll get a far better fit if you go through your local dealership.

As a general rule, you don’t want your helmet loose, even though many riders think this is more comfortable. You’ll also find that helmets have different shapes for different heads; some brands are known for producing helmets that fit roundish heads, other brands build for oval-shaped heads. Some brands build helmets that run smallish (a medium feels more like a small), or vice-versa. And some brands have adjustable cheek pads to help your fit, some brands will let you swap liners to achieve a closer fit … you get the idea. If you really want to find out if a helmet fits you, the best way to do so is to try it on. But, make sure this is a priority in your buying process—if your head is rattling around inside your helmet during a crash, it can’t protect you as well, which makes your purchase a silly way to spend your money.

14 thoughts on “Helmets 101: A Guide to Helmet Types”

  1. “There’s some debate as to whether the Snell rating is necessary for street riders. Snell’s rating is intended to keep riders safe during high-speed crashes, which translates to stiffer helmets. That’s not always so good in a low-speed crash; it means your brain can get a lot of energy transmitted from the crash, as the helmet is over-engineered for the lesser impact.”

    I’ve never heard such a ridiculous thing. There is no low speed crash that could armed you because you are wearing an over-engineered helmet. Over-engineered helmet absorb impact, big or strong. And believe me, I’ve tested a lot of helmet over my life, 35 years on road bikes, and cities are as bad as tracks, there’s a lot more obtacles. Once, I rear ended a Jetta at 40 km/h and flew over it and landed head first in front of it. Felt nothing but a little neck pain. My Arai absorbed everything.

    Speaking of Arai, they are expensive but why are they the only one making oval shape helmet? I tried other brands but nothing fits my head. Even in Arai I’ve got to carefully choose, the Signet being the best fit for me. The fit is also very important because you’re going to have that for long hours on your head.

    1. It’s not ridiculous. Do some research. There has been a bit of debate over the years.

      Just because a product works well in one application does not mean it works well in another.

      That doesn’t mean I subscribe to the anti-Snell position, but people do deserve to be aware of it.

      Personally, I like to find a helmet with European ECE 22.05 rating, but that isn’t always available in North America.

    2. How could you have not heard of this? It’s been an issue of contention for years and mentioned by probably every major moto site at some point in time.

      1. No, I’ve never heard this. Kind of things people say to justified wearing a 1/4 inch shell as a helmet.
        It reminds me when I was young. Seat belt law was introduced. People argued that in some condition it was dangerous…

    3. A Snell shell must be much harder to withstand two major impacts in succession; which means it does not break as easily and transmits more force to the skull in slower speed collisions than a shell that would break more easily.

      It would also have been useful to have some discussion of the ECE certification from Europe; a lot of helmets that don’t meet Snell standards do meet ECE. Technically it is not legal here for street riding because for some reason our regulators haven’t adopted it even though it’s better than DOT. Most sold here will have a DOT sticker too.

      1. Yes. I did consider mentioning ECE, as I said in my above comment, but it muddies the waters as it isn’t a street-legal certification here. Despite that, it’s the standard that most in-the-know street riders look for, in my experience.

    4. It is the difference between a heavy steel bumper and the plastic and styrofoam constructionson your current car. The steel will stand up to the impact but transmit the force to the car’s occupants. The styrofoam and plastic crumples to absorb the shock, leaving the occupants unhurt.

  2. Zak, beanie helmets are not useless, they prevent sunburn on balding pates, and the little visors keep the sun off your forehead and eyes at some angles.

      1. One of the worst sunburns I ever got came from riding across central Ohio without a helmet; a stripe between my sunglasses and bandana was burnt, windburnt and eroded by road grit. So I speak from experience; stupid, bad experience.

  3. There is a lot of talk that helmets should be replaced every 5 years regardless of their condition. Is this just a way of getting me to buy another helmet or is there any truth to this? I am currently using a 5 year old Shoei GT Air.

    1. I’ve heard that opinion as well but I usually go by the condition of my helmets. I usually ride about 25,000km a year and after that much time my helmets are looking pretty sketchy and I start shopping for a new one. Helmets I wear less often I will keep for 10 years.

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