How to Choose a Helmet That’s Right For You
Whether it’s a leisurely Sunday ride to the neighborhood park or a hectic commute to work during the week, the one accessory every cyclist needs is a good helmet. Choosing one that’s right for you might seem slightly overwhelming because there are so many options to consider.
In the end, you’ll be glad you did. Approximately one-third of non-fatal bicyclist injuries are to the head, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and surprisingly around half of adults reportedly aren’t wearing a helmet when they hit the street on two wheels.
One study found that the simple switch to wearing a helmet could mean an 85% reduction in a head injury and an 88% reduction in brain injury.
A helmet can be the difference between a minor injury and a life-changing one, so it’s smart to always make sure you leave the house with a helmet that is best suited to you and your level of activity.
Where to start
“The protection offered by most helmets is pretty similar,” Randy Swart, the executive director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, told The Strategist earlier this year. “And it’s a good level of protection.”
Helmets in the U.S. are approved through a series of tests by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to make sure they are defensive enough to protect a blow to the head in accelerations over 300 g — in simple terms, the helmets are tested to make sure they can protect against an event that might cause a skull fracture or brain injury.
That being said, a lot of what you want in a helmet is up to personal preference. Beyond basic safety factors, considerations include visibility, comfort, and overall appearance of the helmet.
“Over the years, I’ve found that if a helmet is a bit more pleasing to the eye, people will wear it more,” Kyle Kelley, owner of Los Angele’s Golden Saddle Cyclery, said in an interview with New York Magazine.
Key factors to take into consideration when choosing a helmet
Your level of activity will be a big factor in the type of helmet you choose, so start by getting the basics ready before shopping around. Determine the size you will need, formulate an idea of the type of riding you’re most likely to be partaking in, and, finally, decide whether there are any special features you want your helmet to have.
Fit: A well-fitted helmet is the most important factor in deciding which helmet is right for you. Something that’s too small or too large can actually negatively affect your safety in a crash. It should be snug but not so tight that it’s uncomfortable.
All helmets are based on the head’s circumference. These are industry standards for sizing:
Extra small: below 20″ (51 cm)
Small: 20″–21.75″ (51 cm–55 cm)
Medium: 21.75″–23.25″ (55 cm–59 cm)
Large: 23.25″–24.75″ (59 cm–63 cm)
Extra large: above 24.75″ (63 cm)
One size fits all: has a highly adjustable fit system
To find your size, simply measure the widest part of your head with flexible measuring tape (this ensures accuracy). Once you’ve picked out the right size of helmet, you may have to fine-tune the fit by adjusting the tightness and chin strap.
Style: Your style of riding will be a major factor in the helmet that you choose. If you’re a cyclist that’s doing a lot of road biking, you’ll probably want something light to amp up the comfort factor on long rides, while a casual rider will probably want something a bit more economical.
Special features: Ask yourself what kind of features you want in a helmet to help you achieve your perfect ride. Do you want good ventilation to help keep you cool? (This might be smart for commuters to consider) Something aerodynamic? Extra padding and sturdiness for more rugged rides off-road?
“As more people choose the bicycle as a mode of transportation, better helmet design is one of the tools that can be used to address the increasing number of cycling injuries,” says David Zuby, chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
He helped formulate a ratings program based on research by Virginia Tech and IIHS that can help cyclists determine designs that may be better suited for them.
“Our goal with these ratings is to give cyclists an evidence-based tool for making informed decisions about how to reduce their risk of injury,” says director of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab Steve Rowson. “We also hope manufacturers will use the information to make improvements.”
This comes at a time when electric bikes and scooters are gaining popularity and causing more injuries due to their style and speed. Emergency room health care professionals say they’re seeing a steep increase in patients on bikes who could have benefited from wearing a helmet.
When to replace your helmet
Just like all safety equipment, helmets have a life cycle. Most importantly, you should replace your helmet if you’ve experienced a moderate-to-severe crash.
“A helmet can look fine after a crash,” says Rich Handel, a test project leader at Consumer Reports, but explains that the plastic outer shell of a helmet doesn’t always tell the full story. There may be damage beneath the surface that you can’t see.
“Once that foam is compressed, you are reducing the safety margin you have,” he says. “That’s not going to protect you.”
If you haven’t encountered an accident that may leave your helmet compromised, you should consider replacing your helmet every three to five years out of an abundance of caution. Many manufacturers recommend that timeline, and if you’re unsure of your own helmet, the Consumer Product Safety Commission advises you should for sure replace a helmet once every ten years. More wear and tear or exposure to the elements may speed up the need for a new helmet.
Where to buy
Specialty cycling shops, sporting good stores and even big box retailers are all acceptable places to find helmets that will protect you in a crash and likely prevent a serious head injury.
It’s best to do your research first and seek out any expert advice before you make a final decision.