The Ultimate Guide to Helmets

Adult helmet

Our mission is to get people outdoors, not sell gear. That's why our guide starts with the core function that needs to be addressed, then helps you evaluate your options holistically, since sometimes you may not need any gear & can use what you have at home. We want you to think critically about what you need, which is personal to you with no right answer (some people go venture outside naked without any gear, survive & have a great time).

Core function: We believe you should always wear a helmet if your activity has one. Remember, even if you're confident in your abilities, there may be crowds of other people less skilled than you. Combined with speed, and this can be dangerous. For example, even average skiers can reach speeds up to 60mph going downhill (97kmh), over 3 times faster that the top range of average commute speeds on a bike & as fast as highway speeds for vehicles (at least you need a license to drive)!

Is either the core function or the outdoor-specific gear made for it an essential?

An activity-specific helmet is recommended wherever available .

For rationale, read our 'what you really need' protip

What to use & how to choose

Type or Style

Choosing the right helmet is very similar to choosing outdoor clothing in the sense that there are many types of helmets for different outdoor activities that share a lot of fundamental characteristics (e.g., foam protection technology).

Unlike with clothes however, there are certification standards for each type of helmet, based on activity, to ensure safety. Helmets are tested rigorously given the conditions of that sport (e.g., speed of impact, type of impact, temperature, underwater vs dry land, etc.). There are a few helmets that are certified to be used for multiple activities (generally some combination of the first 4 activities below), but none that can be used across the spectrum (we don't even cover all possible outdoor activities below!). Not to mention for some people, a helmet is a fashion item, and they don't want to wear a helmet that's a different shape than the norm. While people do swap (e.g., use a bike helmet for climbing), we recommend only using a helmet for the activity for which it's certified.

Skateboarding or skating Biking Skiing or snowboarding Climbing or mountaineering Whitewater rafting or kayaking
Example images Skate helmet Bike helmet Ski helmet Climbing helmet Whitewater helmet

Where is the coverage focused?

Foam may be more thick in these areas

Generally a bike helmet is OK but you do want a style that covers the back of the head more Focus is on the sides of the head & front; back may be less uncovered, depending on style Focus is on the sides of the head & back Focus is on the top of the head, back of the head may be less uncovered Full head focus (imagine rolling in a river!)
How many impacts can a helmet take before needing replacement?

One & done*

Helmet designed to resist a single high velocity impact, foam will in many cases crush or crack

Multiple impact

Helmet designed to resist multiple, but less forceful collisions (e.g., falling rocks or smacking on rock)

How open is it?

Helmets have ventilation holes** to help you thermoregulate. Sometimes these vents can be adjusted to be opened or closed. Other times they're fixed. We generally describe how open a helmet can be

More closed

Most open

Very high exertion activity

More closed

Cold weather activity

More open

Can be either warm or cold weather activity

Most closed

Helps keep out water

Other feature differences

These influence design/ shape & price

N/A
  • Sun visor
  • Aerodynamic shape
  • May be lightweight
  • Goggle compatibility
  • Ear muffs + insulation liner
  • Varied ventilation & insulation features (can climb in warm or cold weather)
  • Floats

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

We carry helmets originally designed & certified for skiing & snowboarding (so it has that full-back shape), but with removable ear muffs to transform it to a certified biking & skating helmet

*Skateboarding or skating helmets may be be multiple impact resistant, but there are actually no specific certification standards & many people use a bike-certified helmet, which is one & done

**Vents are also placed differently (generally not in major coverage areas). For example, for climbing where falling rocks are a concern, vents are usually on the sides. For snowsports, vents are usually on the top

Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS)

There are different characteristics in terms of the protective material (e.g., foam), the shell, how the protective material & shell are bound together, or whether or not a helmet uses the third party MIPS technology. MIPS is the only aspect we'll discuss, because it's prevalent in the market (people are generally less interested in the other protective characteristics).

MIPS helps reduce the impact to your head from rotational forces. Imagine running then diving into the ground suddenly. After your head hits the ground, the rest of your body will likely continue to twist over so that you do a pseudo front flip (thus, rotational forces). When this happens, the brain also rotates, which is bad.

When a normal helmet hits the ground, it, like your body, continues to rotate over, so still bad. MIPS is an independent liner in the helmet that acts like a suspension system to hold your head still while the helmet rotates.

MIPS technology

Source: https://www.torpedo7.co.nz/community/help-and-advice/bike/gear-advice-technical-info/3604

Price

One of life's certainties is the trade-off between price & quality. This creates an inherently unfair situation. If you save money today by buying something lower end, you'll end up replacing it more frequently, spending money & time each instance so that at the end, you probably haven't actually saved anything. On the other hand, if you decide to invest in something higher end, you'll need a lot more upfront money, and you need to be able to use the item frequently enough to make it worthwhile.

We developed our rental program to address this unfairness. We don't sell lower end items. But for our higher end items, we offer them for rent at up to 90% off retail price, generally well below the cost of buying even the cheaper option. That's a win-win!

It may seem like the price & quality trade-off is disappearing, because you can find a cheap version of almost anything for tens of dollars that still has good reviews (assuming the reviews are real). Remember 2 things:

  • Many reviews are written after only a trial use, first use, or infrequent use: We've seen entire review videos of gear done at home, which is very different than actually being outdoors!
  • The point of gear is to give you a good experience because you've already spent money to be on vacation from work! Don't let quality issues affect your relaxation

For gear specifically, the quality issues center around performance & durability.

Snow helmets Lower end Higher end
Entry level Mid range Best in class
Price $20-50 $50-100 $100-200 $200-300

Performance differences

We'll call out the price points at which certain features discussed in this guide are likely to appear, then persist through higher end models

N/A; baseline Adjustable ventilation MIPS. BOA fit system No dramatically new features
Each feature gets 'more advanced', e.g., the number of vents, the fit system & how much adjustable control you have, the type of material & construction methods. We haven't discussed these since few people would be interested

Durability differences

Less durable More durable
Can refer to durability of chinstrap, insulation liner, ear muff, etc., as well as how prone shell is to scratching

Why we do/don't carry it

= we rent

= we sell

Our mission is to increase access to gear & we are proud to be the only company to rent as well as sell this type
Methodology notes on prices shown on this page

Size (capacity) & Fit

Youth Adult
Small Medium Small Medium Large
Size in circumference of head 48-53cm 53-58cm 54-56cm 56-58cm 58-60cm

Sizing headwear isn't as predominant as clothing, so few people know their sizing very well. We carry youth & adult unisex sizes (women-specific ones on average are smaller). Head shape also matters, and different manufacturers do tend to cater to different shapes, however there is no way to account for this in sizing. We encourage you to try on multiple helmets.

Many helmets can also be adjusted with a dial toward the back, the most advanced of these is the BOA fit system (like MIPS, it's a proprietary third party technology, for how it works click here). Other helmets may use an elastic one-size-fits-all liner on the inside. We carry both types.

Here's how to check for fit:

  1. Lift up on the helmet without the chinstrap buckled; you should feel some resistance (it shouldn't just pop off)
  2. Shake your head; the helmet should move with you & not flop around
  3. Follow the 2V1 rule:
    • 2 fingers from brow line to helmet
    • V shape strap around the ears
    • 1 finger space under the chin
2V1 rule

Source: https://mmbm.ca/cycling-safety/

What we carry

General Notes

  • We choose what we carry based on extensive research on what's the best value to our customers (e.g., price given performance & durability features) across all the top brands. We specifically do not carry every brand & model; for details on why we do/don't carry certain items in the How To Choose section
  • Buy prices are MSRP with tax, i.e., what you see is what you pay. Prices may differ in-store due to change in models or discounts, but this is rare. If we don't sell what we rent, we list MSRP value with tax
  • Rent prices are the starting pricess; enter trip dates on our Catalog to get exact prices (based on total trip length, not per day!). We also don't charge sales tax, an automatic savings of almost 10%!
Snow helmet Higher end
Entry level Best in class
Model Smith Holt Jr helmet Giro Battle helmet Smith Holt helmet Smith Vantage helmet
Smith Holt Jr Giro Surface or Battle Smith Holt Smith Vantage

Buy

MSRP with tax

$66

$60-80

value

$76 $282
Rent $8+ $10+
Online rental Catalog name Youth helmet Adult helmet
MIPS

We do not carry gear designed specifically for women since, in our experience, most people do not notice the differences; i.e., actual fit & personal preference are more important than industry-average differences based on sex (e.g., not all women are shorter). Whenever considering sex-specific gear, we recommend comparing all the options, to ensure the price difference is worth it (women-specific items are often more expensive).

When you rent online, we will pick a model for you. You can change the model if you pick-up in-store, subject to availability. On the Options page of our online order process, you can also select options or write-in any preferences. This section describes the majority of our models & options, but sometimes we carry others. We will only pick something else if it doesn't conflict with your choices indicated on the Options page; moreover, if there's a major functional difference (e.g., capacity), we will attempt to contact you first

Usage tips

Avoid the gaper gap

A a gap between your goggles & helmet (due to style or fit of either, or because the helmet is pushed too far back) that can make you a little colder & sunburnt, and also the butt of jokes on the mountain!

To avoid it, test wearing your goggles & helmet together (remember that goggles go outside, around the helmet, there's typically a clip or retainer in the back of most snowsports helmets to hold the strap in place). Generally, goggles & helmets from a single brand will be most compatible in terms of not leaving a gap.

Gaper gap

Source: https://www.freeride.se/kopguide-skidglasogon-goggles/

Maintenance tips

Repairing

If a helmet's goggle clip or retainer, or ear muffs or internal comfort liner comes off, you may be able to get a replacement from the manufacturer. If the buckle for the chinstrap comes off, you may be able to find a replacement at a fabric store. Especially for one & done type helmets, do not attempt a repair after a severe impact! Retire the helmet!

We have a general protip on how to store & maintain gear that we highly recommend reviewing as well. If you send us video or a good photo series, we may be able to help you evaluate your repair needs.

The exact numbers (e.g., weights, dimensions, prices, etc.) used were updated as of September 2019 . That said, there usually isn't dramatic change; we update & review the market roughly biennially.


Thoughts, ideas, questions? Let us know in the comments below! We're Last Minute Gear, the only outdoor gear shop where you can buy, rent, or borrow gear!