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Motorcycling 101: How to choose a helmet

So many tough choices call for a quick lesson in helmet purchasing.

So many tough choices call for a quick lesson in helmet purchasing.

How much is your head and brain worth to you? That’s a question I always pose to people who ask me whether or not they should cheap out or splurge on a brand new helmet. Can you really put a price on the most important organ in your body? A properly designed, fitted, and tested helmet can mean the difference between walking away with a few scrapes and bruises or a trip to the hospital and a word with your next of kin.

Today, we’ll be looking at how to choose the right motorcycle helmet for you. We’ll cover things such as how to fit a helmet, the different types available on the market right now, and a few handy tips to make sure your choice is a solid one. A helmet should be the first and most important investment after you get a motorcycle, and something that should be cared for for the next few years. It is a personal choice, so personal that you’ll literally be sweating for hours for many days to come with the helmet you choose. So let’s make sure we get it right, shall we?

What kind of helmet do you want?

With so many brands and so many variations of motorcycle helmets to choose from, it can be a daunting task to narrow down your favorites. To begin, let’s list down the most common types of helmets that you’ll encounter at your local motorcycle store. These types of helmets can range from a few thousand pesos to even 50,000 pesos for the high end and race ready variants. Work within your budget to find the best middle ground between style, comfort, and safety.

Full Face

Full-face helmets are the safest, but can also be heavy and warm in hot weather. Full face helmets, as the name implies, protect your entire face, including your jaw, which is often left exposed by other kinds of helmet. In the event that you crash and fall to the ground face-first, you’ll be thankful of the extra protection that this kind of helmet provides.

Open Face

While offering the best vision and ventilation, an open face or three-quarter helmet leaves your face uncovered. The vulnerable chin, jaw, and the entire front of your face is exposed in the event of an accident. Not exactly the safest, but one of the most comfortable.


Modular helmets try to combine the benefits of the previously mentioned two types. They have a chin bar that can be flipped up, meaning that they can function as either a full-face or open face helmet depending on the situation. You can keep a modular helmet on while you perform activities like eating, drinking, talking or taking photos. The flexibility is good, and modular helmets are far safer than open face helmets when the bar is down. Nonetheless, the presence of a hinge weakens the structure, and makes it still somewhat less sturdy than full-face helmets when there’s an impact.

Dual Sport

Essentially a cross between a street and a dirt bike helmet, these helmets incorporate off-road features, such as a peak/visor, but in a more aerodynamic package to suit the higher speeds of street riding. These helmets have a variety of configurations, such as removable visors and allowing the use of goggles. Dual sport helmets generally have oversized face shields for extra-wide peripheral vision.

Pay attention to the stickers

Organizations exist that test helmet designs to make sure that minimum standards are met. These groups test for things such as whether the helmet provides enough peripheral vision while you’re riding and how well it holds up in collisions. It’s wise to only choose a helmet that has received certification from such an organization. This will give you some assurance that the helmet will actually protect you.

There are two main types of safety ratings, those required by law in a specific country, and those submitted for testing to a third-party organization. The former, like DOT in the United States or ECE 22.05 in Europe, are largely voluntary standards. This means that while a certain level of protection is required, no testing is needed in order to produce a helmet.

Arguably, the most important, is the latter group is filled by those like SNELL or SHARP. A manufacturer will submit a helmet to these third-party testers for approval in order to receive this certification. The helmet then goes through a robust testing process for a random sample of each shell size, from several batches of helmets. If they all pass, the manufacturer must then pay to carry the SNELL or SHARP certification sticker on their helmets for each model produced. This acts like a badge of honor and you can rest assured that several clones of your helmet have already been subjected to cruel treatment and passed the test.

Try it on

Now that you’ve chosen the type of helmet and the design or color combination you want to rock on your motorcycle, let’s get down to sizing. Always remember that a cheap helmet that fits you right will protect you better than a 30,000 peso helmet that fits you poorly. Helmet size and fitment is absolutely critical to providing safety and riding comfort for years to come.

If your helmet is too loose, expect it to bounce around and swivel around your head, which means that it might suddenly obstruct your vision or cause some other distraction while you’re traveling at speed. On the other hand, if it’s too tight, it might give you a headache or, for those with glasses, pain on the bridge of the nose and top of the ears , which could also impair your riding on the road.

You want a helmet that touches your head but doesn’t put pressure on it. When you’ve tried your helmet on, check to make sure that the cheek, temple, and brow pads rest on your face without pressing down on it. Also, try moving the helmet from side-to-side to make sure that it fits snugly but not too tightly. When you remove it, check for red marks on your skin. If you have any, it’s too tight for you. Some helmets even have softer padding to accommodate wearers of glasses or shades. Look for a marking or tab that indicates this if you want the best comfort for riding with prescription glasses.

Here’s a handy tip:

To get your size in inches, wrap a tape measure around your head from just above your eyebrows to the rear of the skull. This circumference, usually listed in inches, can be cross-referenced with the size chart on any helmet. This should give you a ballpark figure of the sizing you want to try first, and then you can go up or down a size as needed for comfort.

Additionally, you have to determine your head shape. A perfectly sized helmet may fit snug on one rider but loose or uncomfortable on another. Head shape is just as important as head size. Some manufacturers factor in the following shapes when making the helmets:

  • Long Oval - This shape resembles a more oblong head that is longer front to back and narrow side-to-side

  • Intermediate Oval - This shape closely resembles a round head with a shorter front-to-back and wider side-to-side than the Long Oval. Most companies make helmets Intermediate Oval.
  • Round Oval - This shape resembles an oblong head that is longer side-to-side rather than front-to-back like the Long Oval

Replacement and Maintenance

Any helmet, under normal wear and tear, will last up to five years. After that, regardless of how well you took care of it, it must be replaced to be absolutely sure. Wearing a bad helmet is no better than wearing nothing at all since it could fail without notice when you need it the most.

Helmets that have suffered impacts from road accidents always need to be replaced right away. If you drop your helmet, you don’t necessarily need a new one, but you need to make sure that it hasn’t been damaged and still fits correctly before you put it on and go riding again. Don’t just look at the outside, because it’s the soft interior of the helmet that’s most vulnerable to damage.

Make sure to wash the inner liner of the helmet regularly, as this makes contact with your hair, skin, and absorbs the sweat, dust, and road grime over time. It’s also a good practice to wear a balaclava to provide a layer of wicking material between your skin and the liner. It’s all about good hygiene, too, you know.

Final Words

There is no such thing as a perfect, do-it-all, keep-you-safe-all-the-time helmet. Riding experience, respecting other road users, and a positive attitude to riding safety help immensely and can even keep you from ever having to test out your helmet’s crash capabilities. Now that you’ve chosen a helmet that you like and it fits you perfectly, make it a point to wear it at all times, regardless of how fast or how far you’ll be going on your two-wheeled vehicle. It’s the law and it will keep you safe and provide many years of riding enjoyment. As the kilometers rack up and the seat time on your motorcycle increases, you may even want to invest in more expensive and feature packed helmets down the road. Ride safe and always keep the rubber side down.

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