CycleAbility's Guide To Bike Helmets

Here at CycleAbility we believe that helmets give us superpowers. Not only do they protect our noggins from getting bumped, but they give us courage and confidence and make us look really awesome too. Each time we get on a bike, we make sure to have our helmets on properly and check to make sure our friends and family do too.

In this article, we offer some guidance on how to fit, choose, and care for bicycle helmets.

For the national guidelines for helmet use, please visit: https://www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.dot.gov/files/8019_fitting-a-helmet.pdf

But First, Parents, please be a “Roll Model”

As all parents know kids are copycats. What they see you do, they will do too. This means that to keep them safe, you need to keep yourself safe first. Encourage your little ones to wear their helmet by wearing one yourself and set a good example for your family and the entire cycling community.

How to Properly Wear a Helmet

Just like seat belts and shoes, helmets need to be properly fitted and worn to ensure safety and comfort. With the helmet level and snug on your (or your rider’s) head and buckle strapped under your chin, here is how to check proper fit.

2-finger check: forehead, chin, ears

With your index and middle fingers together place them on your forehead just above your eyebrows. The bottom of the front of the helmet should be no more than two-finger widths above your eyebrows. This ensures that the front of your head will be properly protected.

Next, slide the same two fingers between your chin and the buckled strap under your chin. If your chin is level, your fingers should touch both your chin and the strap with the buckle centered under your chin. If the strap is too loose the helmet could come off and if it is too tight the helmet will be uncomfortable.

Then, making a “peace” sign with your fingers, put them up to your ear, the straps should match the angles of your fingers with the slider adjustment sitting just below your earlobe.  

You may need to make some adjustments to ensure proper fit. It’s easier to do these by taking the helmet off or looking in a mirror. Over time you may also need to make minor adjustments.

Wiggle Test

Once all adjustments are made and the helmet is sitting properly on your head, reach back and adjust the tightness of the helmet until it is snug but not uncomfortable. Most helmets have adjustment systems either as a knob or a strap, if not you’ll need to make sure the helmet is exactly the right size for your head.

To check this, wiggle your head side-to-side and up-and-down, the helmet shouldn’t move much. If it wobbles or moves out of position it is not fitted properly and may not be safe. Head to a bike shop if you need help fitting a different size.

Helmet Types & Choices

If you walk into any bike shop, odds are they have a diverse selection of helmets in all sizes, shapes, colors, features, and costs. Choosing a helmet that fits properly and fits your budget and style preferences is key to ensuring that you will stay safe and actually wear it.  Make sure the helmet is comfortable and certified (look for the label on the inside of the helmet).

Helmet Styles

There is a full spectrum of helmet styles. These styles are partially functional and partially fashionable. Here’s a general overview:

  • Road Bike Helmets: These are a very common style of helmet that are identified by the many vent channels on the top of the helmet and typically do not have a visor. They are aerodynamic, have plenty of ventilation, and are usually lightweight.

  • Mountain Bike Helmets: these helmets are similar to a road bike helmet, but typically have a visor and may have bigger coverage on the back of the helmet.

  • Sport Helmets: Sport helmets are distinguishable by their dome-shape. They look more like a ski or skate helmet and can be multi-purpose. Many kids’ helmets are considered sport helmets, but aren’t as effective on a bike as a traditional road or mountain helmet.

Helmet Features

Beyond the basic shell, straps, and padding, various helmets have a wide-range of features to consider. Typically the number and quality of features will influence the price of the helmet. Just know that as long as the helmet is certified and fitted properly, it will do its job of keeping the rider safer.

  • Fit Adjustments: Many helmets have and adjustable fit controlled by a knob or strap  at the back of the helmet and by strap adjustment sliders on the chin strap. We typically recommend finding a helmet with an adjustable fit, just know that the nicer the adjustment system and straps, the more expensive the helmet.

  • Structural & comfort features: The shell of the helmet must have a certified level of safety, but many manufacturers are coming up with foam-alternatives and add-ons to improve the aerodynamics, comfort, weight, or ventilation of the helmet. Examples of this include visors, reduced-static padding, or Smith’s “aerocore construction.”  

  • Safety features: Beyond the basic certification requirements, many helmets have increased safety features such as MIPS or removable chin bars. Sometimes these features are not necessary, but MIPS helps reduce rotational injury in an accident and is recommended by CycleAbility.

  • Add-Ons: Other accessories such as camera mounts, sunglasses integration systems, magnetic buckles, and removable insulation are some of the many add-ons that may improve your helmet experience.

When to Replace a Helmet

Helmets have a limited lifespan and should be replaced at least every 5 years. Further, once a helmet has an impact in an accident or a drop, it should be replaced even if it isn’t visually damaged.

Caring for Your Helmet

Keeping your helmet in good shape will help extend its lifespan and encourage you to wear it (nobody wants a stinky helmet). Here’s how to care for your helmet:

  • Keep it Cool: Excessive heat will cause expansion of the foams and plastics and may reduce its effectiveness.

  • Keep it Clean: Many helmets have removable padding that can be washed in a washing machine. The rest of the helmet can be cleaned with mild soap. Just don’t soak your helmet in water.

  • Keep it Safe: try to avoid dropping your helmet or letting other riders use it.