There are a number of important factors to consider when choosing a bike commuter helmet to protect your head. Before you rush into purchasing the best looking helmet, think about how it can keep you comfortable during your commute.
Personally, I decided to buy the Giro Reverb Helmet (link to check the price on Amazon) for bike commuting. For me, it’s the perfect balance of price and comfort. It also was a style that I liked. It has many of the features that I desired such as 9 vents, has kept me safe (story below), and I look good in it. I’ve been really happy with it.
Here’s a short bike helmet story! I was cycling with a group of friends on a misty morning. The road we were riding on wasn’t soaking, but it was definitely wet with dew. While turning left onto a side road my bike went sideways. It happened in a flash, and the side of my head hammered the ground and I found myself sliding across the ground. When I got up my elbow looked like a tennis ball, and my shoulder felt funny. Long story short the crash broke my collar bone. The good news is that my Giro Reverb helmet saved me from a severe head injury. Below is a photo of that helmet post-crash and if you look closely you can see a gouge where a rock took its toll. I’m just grateful it wasn’t my head. Moral of the Story: Always wear a bicycle helmet!
The most important takeaway from this article is that I strongly encourage you as a bike commuter to get a comfortable helmet that fits AND wear it. I remember in my early days of bicycling neglecting to wear a helmet, because I didn’t think it was cool. A helmet can truly save your life, and even if your bike commute is only a mile I would still say to wear a helmet. Your safety comes first!
What to look for in a helmet
The most important factor in a helmet is safety. All helmets sold in the U.S. will meet the standard safety requirement. But what other factors should you look for? Here are some things to consider:
- Comfort. Pick a helmet that feels good on your head. You don’t want it to be too tight on your head, and you also want to make sure that the straps won’t rub your chin raw. Get a helmet that is comfortable and won’t give you a headache. Personally I think a comfortable helmet outweighs the other factors.
- Ventilation. You want your head to breathe so that it doesn’t get sweaty. This is especially important if you’re riding to a job with no shower. Look for helmets with air flow.
- Style. The look of the helmet shouldn’t be the top factor, but you should like how you look with it on. I’ve known cyclists to buy a helmet in which they didn’t like the style, and they found themselves wearing it less. Get a helmet that you look amazing in and put it on!
- Price. Fortunately you can get safe, good looking, quality bike helmets for a decent price. You don’t need to spend $300 for a helmet. Typically an increase in price is for venting, style, or a unique helmet feature such as being fold-able.
- Visor. Some helmets come with a visor to help keep the sun out of the riders eye. The Reverb helmet that I use has one that is detachable. This is more of a preference than anything else.
- Parts availability. Many helmets come with removable padding or visors. If you lose padding or break a visor you’ll want to have chosen a major manufacturer where you can easily order new ones.
Bike Helmet Safety Standards
In the United States, all helmets sold are required to meet standards that are set by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. CPSC is the benchmark standard in the helmet world, but you may also see other standards such as ASTM, Snell B-90, or Snell B-95. These standards test the impact performance and strap strength of helmets. Interestingly enough, there have been studies comparing the safety of expensive helmets ($200+) and cheaper ones (~$20) that have found that the differences in safety are minute. You can read about one study between helmets here.
The good news about this is that it is perfectly fine to choose a helmet based on looks as long as it fits correctly. With this said, do NOT buy a used helmet! Not only will you be sticking your head into some other person’s stinky, sweat stained helmet…but more importantly you have no clue if the structural integrity of the helmet has been weakened or not.
Helmets should be replaced if…
- you crashed in it. Even if you don’t see visible damage you should replace as the foam can be crushed.
- it is from the 1970s!
- It doesn’t fit correctly.
- The outside is only foam or cloth instead of plastic.
- It doesn’t have a CPSC, ASTM, or Snell Sticker showing that it meets the safety standard.
New Bike Helmet Technology
A new technology for bike helmet design that you may have heard of is called MIPS. MIPS stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. Helmets designed with MIPS have an inner layer that allows the riders head to slide and twist slightly in a crash. This will lessen the force and reduce trauma. This is a newer technology, and not all helmets are designed with MIPS. The highest rated helmets in regards to safety came with MIPS technology. The Bell Stratus MIPS Bike Helmet (link to Amazon) is one the highest rated helmets in regards to safety and has this technology. It is not the cheapest, but if you want to be extra safe this could be the helmet for you.
Bike Helmet Construction
First you need to know two terms. The first is shell and the second is liner. The shell is what covers most bicycle helmets. It is usually plastic and holds the helmet together in a crash. It helps prevent punctures and allows the helmet to slide in a crash to protect your head and neck. Trust me – when I crashed the plastic shell is what helped my head slide with the rest of my body. There are scratches to prove it!
The liner is often made of foam and will crush upon force to help protect your dome. Many of the helmets today are constructed with a process called in-mold where the outer shell and inner lining are molded together. This process has made helmets increase in safety.
Find the Right Size Bike Helmet
When you are shopping for the right bike helmet, a good fit is essential. Helmets come in a variety of sizes and different brands can fit differently.
To find your size, measure the largest portion of your head. This can be done by using a string and wrapping it around your head and then measuring the length of the string with a yardstick. Below are some general sizing. Even with this sizing chart I recommend trying a helmet on prior to purchasing.
General sizing :
- Extra-small: below 20″ (51cm)
- Small: 20″–21.75″ (51cm–55cm)
- Medium: 21.75″–23.25″ (55cm–59cm)
- Large: 23.25″–24.75″ (59cm–63cm)
- Extra-large: above 24.75 (63cm)
- One size fits all (men): 21.25″–24″ (54cm–61cm)
- One size fits all (women): 19.75″–22.5″ (50cm–57cm)
- One size fits all (kids): 18″–22.5″ (46cm–57cm)
Fitting a Bike Helmet
Every human being has a differently shaped head and it is important when selecting the right bike commuter helmet that it fits properly and feels comfortable. And the most comfortable helmet might not necessarily be the most expensive one. Fasten the straps firmly. The Y of the side straps should be right below your ear. The chin strap should be firmly against your chin so that if you open your mouth wide you can feel the helmet pull down a little bit. The front rim of the helmet should be barely visible to your eye if you look upward.
At this point the helmet should feel comfortable, but not rocking around on top of your head. If the helmet rocks back or forward more than two fingers above your eyebrows or into your eyes you should adjust the straps. The helmet should fit when you buy it. It should fit comfortably, but not too small that it hurts you. In addition, the helmet should be big enough that it covers your forehead.
Final thoughts on bike helmets
When you are shopping around keep in mind that you will find incredibly priced helmets and bicycle gear online, however, I would encourage you to try them on first if possible for the reasons I mentioned above.
I hope this bike commuter helmet guide helps you choose a helmet that is safe, comfortable, and stylish. I believe that most people could become bike commuters, and that the investment to bike commute is relatively small. In my opinion, a helmet is an essential piece of gear for any bike commuter. Get yourself a helmet, and get out there riding!
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