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Trying to decide on the best new mountain bike helmet? After researching over 80 models, we purchased the 22 best available for side-by-side testing and comparison. A helmet is the most important piece of a complete riding kit, and with all the options out there finding the perfect model for your riding style and budget can be challenging. To clear things up, we spent months riding in these helmets while analyzing every aspect of their performance and design. After thoroughly testing each model, we rated them on six predetermined metrics: protection, comfort, ventilation, features, weight, and durability. We hope this detailed comparative review helps you find the right helmet for you.
In a hard-fought battle, the Giro Manifest Spherical edged out some incredible competition to earn our highest recommendation. This unique mountain bike helmet has all of the bells and whistles we would expect from a top-of-the-line, half-shell model in a well-executed, sleek design. Rather than the typical plastic MIPS liner, the Manifest packs Giro's MIPS Spherical rotational impact system which comprises two separate EPS foam shells connected by elastomers. The shells are made from two different foam densities and are designed to rotate against each other like a ball and socket joint in the event of an angular impact. The interior foam shell drops down low on the back and sides of the head to provide extra coverage for the temples and occipital lobe and fits a wide array of head shapes and sizes comfortably. Large front-to-back vents and interior channels in the EPS provide some of the best ventilation we've ever experienced in a helmet, and the interior padding does a great job of absorbing sweat on those long, hot rides.
We were extremely hard-pressed to find anything to complain about with this model. Performance-wise, we had no issues in testing. The only negatives we can point out are the high price tag and the average weight. With the dual-shell design and all the features we could ask for, this helmet packs a few grams of extra heft over the lightest models we tested. On the trail, however, the difference isn't noticeable with the Maifest's secure fit, and we're not concerned about a little bit of added weight for a do-it-all trail helmet. The price tag might be off-putting at first glance, but it's comparable to the other top-of-the-line helmets in the test. We think the Manifest's performance more than justifies the price tag.
The Giro Radix MIPS is the latest in a long line of functional, affordable mid-range offerings from Giro. With the shell shape of a classic mountain bike helmet, a comfortable fit, and a well-targeted list of features, this affordable helmet feels at home in a wide range of riding styles and conditions. The fit is versatile and incredibly secure-feeling as soon as you put the helmet on. Giro's Roc Loc harness allows you to dial in the fit to your exact preference and remains one of the best fit adjustment systems on the market. The inclusion of the MIPS internal liner provides a little bit of extra protection from rotational forces in the event that you hit the deck, and the EPS shell offers decent coverage. At just 360 grams for our size-Large test helmet, the Radix MIPS is also among the lightest helmets we tested.
While it's a versatile, protective helmet, the Radix MIPS isn't quite as burly as many of the all-mountain and enduro oriented helmets we tested. The more traditional shell shape doesn't drop quite as low on the back and sides of the head. Additionally, the visor is a bit small and flimsy in comparison with modern agro helmets. As a consequence, we wouldn't recommend this helmet as our top pick for aggressive all-mountain riding, but it feels right at home for cross country and trail riding.
The Specialized Camber also fared admirably against much more expensive competition during our test session. This helmet is just about as basic as you'll find on the mountain bike helmet market today with a fixed visor, single-density EPS, and no luxury features like eyewear integration, but it does include MIPS, a comfortable and highly adjustable harness, and adjustable strap splitters. Additionally, it features the same high-quality construction, top-of-the-line styling, and five-start Virginia Tech protection rating as it's more expensive counterpart, the Ambush 2 for a startlingly low price.
If you're willing to forgo the added features found on the flagship models in our test for a basic, no-frills option, this helmet should definitely be a consideration, but don't expect the exact same level of performance. The Camber's ventilation isn't on par with the top helmets in the test, and it comes with a little bit of a weight penalty over its more expensive pricier sibling, the Ambush 2. Regardless, for such a reasonable price, the Camber is surprisingly well rounded.
Despite its mid-range price tag, the Fox Racing Speedframe Pro was one of our top-rated and most highly regarded helmets. This model nearly bested several helmets that cost significantly more. It packs many of the features we would expect from a top-of-the-line trail helmet, including a MIPS rotational impact system, dual-density EPS foam, a goggle-accommodating adjustable visor, and a highly adjustable harness system. Out on the trail, it was one of the most comfortable, well-ventilated models we tested. It feels light on your head and offers a secure, confidence-inspiring fit. Additionally, it received the "Best Available" 5-Star rating in Virginia Tech's independent helmet safety testing.
The Speedframe Pro is slightly heavier than the rest of the top-shelf models. It's not ridiculously heavy by any means, but it tacks on an extra fifty grams compared to the lightest models. Additionally, the Speedframe doesn't quite provide the same level of coverage as the other top contenders. Regardless, it's still well worth a look for anyone in the market for a choice new lid at an approachable price.
New MIPS Integra rotational impact protection system
REASONS TO AVOID
May conflict with some sunglass arms
The Kortal Race MIPS is a new model from POC that stands out for its impressive protective qualities. The Kortal builds off the success of the ever-popular Tectal, with a deep fit and even more head coverage. It also features a new rotational impact protection system called MIPS Integra, which is strikingly similar to POC's SPIN system, although now it features a low-friction slip plane integrated into the foam of the helmet. This MIPS system is low profile and has the added benefit of not blocking any of the vents or air channels in this very well-ventilated helmet. In fact, this is one of the airiest helmets we've ever tested. The Kortal also features a new three-position adjustable visor that is designed to easily break away in the event of a direct impact. Additional features like Aramid bridges for structural integrity, a Recco reflector, and an NFC medical id chip further enhance its protective/safety qualities. The Kortal also carries all of the usual safety certifications in addition to the new Dutch e-bike standard.
Our gripes with the Kortal are few, but we did find a few nits to pick. We found the fit of the shell to be slightly narrower than most other helmets we tested, which may be an issue for those with particularly round head shapes. We think the new adjustable breakaway visor is great, although its position higher on the helmet limits its effectiveness at blocking low sun angles. The Kortal was designed to integrate with POC's new Devour sunglasses, but we found that the shell by the temples could conflict with the arms of many other sunglasses. It's also pretty pricey. That said, if you're looking for the most protective half-shell helmet on the market, we think the Kortal is worth every penny.
As part of a new wave of moto-inspired, open-face trail helmets, the Giro Tyrant Spherical provides significantly more head coverage than most of the standard mountain bike helmets we tested. Giro bills this beefy lid as a versatile option that can span the gap between gravity, trail, and dirt jump helmets. After weeks of rigorous testing, we support Giro's claim that it's an incredibly versatile helmet despite its heavy, protective construction. The first thing you'll notice when donning the Tyrant is that it shares a unique dual-shell construction with its half-shell counterpart, the Manifest. The inner shell is low-density EPP foam for minor impacts, and the outer shell is high-density EPS to absorb major collisions. Despite its double-shell composition, the helmet keeps a relatively low profile on your head, and the vents do a surprisingly good job of keeping things cool. Combine the innovative protection and coverage with Giro's Roc Loc harness system and refined shell shape, and you have a helmet that stays comfortable all day.
While we hugely appreciated the Tyrant's extra coverage and protection when things got rowdy, it does come with a weight penalty. This product is far heavier than your standard half-shell trail helmet. It doesn't make you feel like a bobblehead like some of the heavier full-face helmets out there, but you'll undoubtedly notice that it has more heft than your average lid. Given the Tyrant's intended purpose, we don't think the extra weight is a big problem. This model is perfect if you want to have fun on the trails and test your limits with the peace of mind provided by the protection from added coverage.
We tested a number of incredibly well-ventilated helmets, but the Specialized Ambush 2 stands out from the rest. Specialized used computational fluid dynamic modeling in this helmet's development to optimize the airflow from the front of the helmet, over the scalp, and out the back, and it's immediately apparent when you start rolling. Even at low speeds you can feel air moving through the helmet and cooling your head. The MIPS SL rotational impact protection system eliminates the need for an internal plastic liner and further enhances the ventilation effect. We didn't have any issues with excessive sweat or heat while wearing this lid, even on long, hot, exposed climbs. By no means is breathability all that the Ambush 2 has to offer. This was one of our highest rated models across the board. A well-designed eyewear integration allows you to stow your sunglasses beneath the visor on the front of the helmet. Two small vent ports on either side of the brow have hidden rubber flaps that hold your glasses securely with no chance of accidentally rattling out on rough trail sections. The helmet also has a highly-adjustable harness system and a burly visor.
The visor is not adjustable, but it does easily pop off and back on as an added safety feature in the event of a crash. The visor's higher position in the helmet, however, does not provide as much protection from the sun at lower sun angles. The adjustable harness does work well to provide a secure fit, but its integration into the rear of the shell doesn't allow it to be positioned as low on the back of the head as some other models. Regardless, we feel this is a great new model from Specialized with top-of-the-line features and performance that beats most of the other brand's flagship models on price.
Our mountain bike helmet review team consists of Jeremy Benson and Zach Wick. Jeremy is our Senior Mountain Bike Review Editor and a gravel and mountain bike racer who has been riding for three decades and has seen the progression of helmet technology over that time. He's also taken his fair share of diggers, suffering from more than one concussion and cracking a few helmets over the years. He knows from first-hand experience the importance of a quality helmet for both protection and comfort. Benson is a self-proclaimed heat of the day rider who appreciates the benefits of a well-ventilated helmet. Benson is also the author of Mountain Bike Tahoe, a mountain biking guidebook for the Lake Tahoe area published by Mountaineers Books.
Zach Wick has been riding and racing mountain, road, and cyclocross bikes for the last 15 years and has gone through his fair share of single-impact mountain bike helmets in that time. He knows what comprises a good helmet and won't hit the trails in anything he doesn't have confidence in. Zach has also spent years working in product development in the bike industry including five years in a test lab learning what makes a good product. He applies this experience and knowledge to our testing design to ensure our process is as rigorous as possible.
These two keep a close eye on new product releases throughout the year to stay up to date on the latest trends. For this review, they spent days researching countless models and discussing options before selecting 23 of the best to test and compare side by side. They rigorously tested each model through hundreds of miles of everyday riding on a variety of trails and in a wide range of weather conditions to test the fit and comfort, features, ventilation, and adjustability of each helmet. They also swapped helmets out regularly for head-to-head comparisons and learned that some minute differences only become apparent through back-to-back testing.
Analysis and Test Results
In recent years the fit, style, comfort, and protection of helmets have all improved dramatically, and strapping on a helmet for a mountain bike ride has become as natural as buckling your seatbelt when you get in a car. It's a good thing because they are the single most important piece of protective gear you can wear. No two helmets are made equal, and the helmets in our test vary in their design approach. This review covers extended-coverage half-shell helmets designed for cross country, trail, and enduro riding along with a couple of "full cut", open-faced helmets that offer even more coverage than your standard trail helmet. Our testers rated each model on protection, comfort, weight, ventilation, features, and durability. The combined scores led us to our best overall and top pick award winners. Related:How to Choose a Mountain Bike Helmet
The top-rated Giro Manifest Spherical and POC Kortal Race MIPS are two of the most expensive and also the highest performance models we tested. So you do get what you pay for. The Specialized Ambush 2 and Fox Racing Speedframe Pro represent the next tier of the price to performance ratio with a slightly lower price point and comparable performance with our top-rated helmets. Of course, price doesn't always reflect performance. Some of the mid-range models we looked at outperformed their more expensive counterparts. Riders looking for a good value from their helmet have plenty of options, including affordable models like the Giro Radix MIPS and the Specialized Camber.
Since a helmet would be useless if it couldn't keep your head safe, protection is our most heavily-weighted metric. We aren't crash test dummies, nor are we a certifying agency, so our protection rating is based on a helmet's construction, head coverage, and protective features like rotational impact systems. All of the helmets tested meet or exceed the US's CPSC Bicycle standard.
Head coverage plays a significant role in how protective a helmet is, and the amount of coverage varies from model to model. All of the helmets in this test are extended coverage half-shell helmets, though some offer a bit more coverage than others. The Giro Tyrant is one such helmet with a deep, "full cut" fit that drops down to provide more coverage on the temporal and occipital lobes. Lately more and more "full cut" open face helmets have been cropping up. We also tested the Fox Racing Dropframe, which offers similar coverage and styling. The Giro Manifest Spherical, Specialized Ambush 2, POC Kortal, and Leatt MTB 4.0 AllMtn are the highest-coverage helmets we tested with a more traditional half-shell design.
The construction of the helmet also contributes to its protection. Each model has an in-mold construction with a durable polycarbonate shell wrapped around an EPS foam liner. A number of newer helmets offer dual-density foam design with a mix of EPS and EPP foam intended to better manage impact forces from both high and low-speed impacts. The Giro Tyrant and Manifest Spherical feature an innovative dual-shell design in which EPP and EPS shells rotate against each other in the event of an impact. Other helmets, like the POC Tectal and POC Kortal also use aramid molded into their EPS foam to add strength.
Rather than EPS foam, Smith uses a proprietary material known as Koroyd in their high-end helmets. Both the Session and the Forefront 2 employ this material in their construction. Koroyd looks like a honeycomb, or a bunch of straws packed very tightly together and is intended to crush or crumple in the event of an impact. Since this material is porous, Smith claims it provides excellent impact absorption with the added benefit of allowing air to pass through it. The Forefront 2 boasts nearly full Koroyd coverage inside the helmet, while the Session has two smaller strategically-placed panels on the sides of the helmet. Bontrager has created a similar cellular structure they call WaveCel used in the Blaze helmet. They claim this unique wave-shaped structure absorbs impact and also works as a slip-plane to reduce rotational impact forces.
Modern helmets are designed to absorb impact by allowing the helmet to partially self-destruct. The foam is to absorb impact, while the plastic shell protects the foam and distributes the force over a larger area. A crash typically results in crushing or cracking the helmet's foam and shell instead of your skull. Any of the helmets we tested is unsafe to continue riding after a significant impact and should be replaced.
Nearly every helmet in this review comes with a rotational impact protection system of some kind. Most use the industry-standard MIPS system, but a few companies have gone on to develop their own technologies or partnered with MIPS to create unique designs. Leatt's Turbine 360 is meant to work similarly, with several Armourgel Turbines integrated into the construction of the helmet. 6D's ODS and 100%'s Smartshock are unique in their use of elastomer shock absorbers to reduce g-forces on impact. Bontrager's WaveCel is a new rendition and utilizes a porous structure that they claim can absorb impact and function like a slip-plane. MIPS created the MIPS SL system specifically for Specialized helmets, and it's built directly into the padding. POC now uses a new system called MIPS Integra in the Kortal and Tectal.
The IXS Trigger AM and Fox Racing Dropframe are the only helmets we tested without a rotational impact protection system. IXS chose to stick to the traditional EPS construction with no added frills for the version of the Trigger AM that we tested but has since started offering a MIPS version. The Dropframe uses thick interior padding similar to traditional full-face helmet designs. While the science behind rotational impact protection isn't exactly settled, we think it's a logical system and are happy to have it when we're out riding.
MIPS, Spherical, Turbine, ODS, Smartshock, LDL, WaveCel: Which safety standard is the best?
Rotational impact protection systems are now available in most helmets. MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) was the first on the scene and used to be the only game in town when it came to reducing rotational forces in a crash. Recently, several other technologies have entered the fray, Leatt developed Turbine, 100% designed Smartshock, Kali implemented LDL, Bontrager made WaveCel, and 6D designed ODS. Each of these systems aims to solve the same problem, but they approach it in a variety of different ways. Some systems, like Smartshock, LDL, and 6D tout both direct and rotational impact protection, while traditional MIPS is designed strictly to help with rotational impacts.
Which technology is the best? The jury is still out. We recommend doing some research and deciding for yourself. The cost of these systems has come down in recent years, and nowadays, they only add about 5-10% to the price of a helmet. Since the whole point of a helmet is to protect the brain through a reduction of impact forces, we recommend paying the premium price for a helmet with one of these systems.
Beyond safety, comfort is the next most important aspect of a helmet. A comfortable helmet feels natural and helps you stay focused on the trail. It's important to remember that comfort is subjective, and what works for you may vary based on the size and shape of your head. When in doubt, try on different models to find the size and fit that works best. Some brands' shell shapes tend to work better for specific head shapes while others are more versatile. Keep in mind that adjustable features like the retention system and chin straps play a role in how the helmet fits and our comfort rating.
All of the helmets tested use lightweight open-cell foam pads covered in moisture-wicking fabric to pad between the hard EPS foam and the rider's head. The thickness, quality, and placement of these pads play a significant role in a helmet's overall comfort. The most comfortable helmets have well-placed padding that covers the contact points between the polystyrene or MIPS liner and your head. Over-padded helmets can trap air and quickly overheat, so judicious pad placement is important.
The most comfortable helmets in our test were the Giro Manifest, Troy Lee Designs A3, Fox Racing Speedframe Pro, Giro Radix, Giro Tyrant, and Smith Forefront 2. All of these helmets seemed to fit every tester like a glove. The Troy Lee A2 MIPS, Giro Montaro, and the Bell 4Forty MIPS also scored well by providing ample coverage while still offering an impressively comfortable fit. All of these helmets have an agreeable shape and feature padding covered with a wicking material.
Each helmet in our review employs a harness retention system. Commonly referred to as a fit or size adjustment, these enable riders to make micro-adjustments to dial in the fit of their lid. Retention systems typically come in the form of a two-sided plastic cradle at the back of the helmet with a dial in the middle that pulls tension evenly from both sides. This adjustment tightens or loosens to hug the head snugly for a secure fit. The size and shape of these adjustment dials vary considerably, as does their ease of use. Our favorite systems were those like Giro's Roc Loc that pull tension around the entire head with small indexed positions rather than just pinching at the back.
Another fit adjustment found on all the models in our test is the chin strap, including the strap splitter by the ears. Most chin straps offer a range of adjustability so that you can get the correct fit to secure the helmet on your head. More and more modern helmets use magnetic buckles that attach securely and can easily be opened and closed while wearing riding gloves. The strap splitter allows the user to adjust the position of the straps by the ears. Ideally, the straps shouldn't make contact with the ears. Our favorite strap systems are found on the POC Tectal Race MIPS, POC Kortal Race MIPS, Oakley DRT5, 100% Altec, and the Specialized helmets with a Y-shaped strap yoke that holds them in the perfect position. Some of the simpler splitters, like those on the Smith Convoy, struggle to keep the straps away from your ears and sitting flat on the side of your face, which can create a nuisance over time.
To rate each helmet's ventilation, we assess how well it works in real-world riding situations. We swapped helmets and rode with them back-to-back in the same conditions. Interestingly, our testers found that the number of vents doesn't directly correlate to how well a helmet's ventilation system works.
The size, shape, and placement of a helmet's vents are just as important as the quantity. The Giro Manifest was one of the best in the test, with long front-to-back vents and an excellent internal air channel design that keeps the air flowing through the helmet. Our other top-performing helmet for ventilation is the Ambush 2. Despite having only 15 vents, it keeps the air flowing and your head cool. A couple of the other best-ventilated helmets in our test are the 100% Altec and the POC Kortal Race MIPS.
Features of mountain bike helmets are intended to improve fit, comfort, and protection while making your life a little bit easier out on the trail. One feature that all of the helmets we tested share is the visor—the main feature that sets mountain bike helmets apart from their road counterparts. Every model we tested has one, but they are certainly not created equal.
A visor's primary function is to shield your eyes from the sun, but they also serve as a little protection from rain and can help to deflect less consequential trailside obstacles. Helmet visors vary in size and shape, as well as in attachment method and adjustability. Many visors are adjustable and can be articulated up and down to improve visibility or to accommodate goggles. Others are static and fixed in the lowered position. Our gear testers prefer adjustable visors for their versatility and so that they can better accommodate goggles.
Our favorite visors are found on the Smith Forefront 2, Giro Montaro, and Bell 4Forty MIPS. They're all large enough to block the sun effectively, and each rotates up far enough to be entirely out of view and to accommodate goggles on the front. The POC Tectal also has an adjustable visor but is less user-friendly. It requires you to loosen a small screw to adjust and secure it in place. The Troy Lee A3 improves upon previous models with a 3-position Magnajust visor that can be pushed up high enough to accommodate goggles when not in use.
Many manufacturers are developing unique features as well. The Specialized Ambush 2 and Camber, for example, can be used with the ANGi sensor (available as an aftermarket purchase) that attaches to the back of the helmet and can be synced to your smartphone and the Specialized Ride App. The app can track your ride, provide people with ride start and stop notifications, and even notify your emergency contacts in the event of a crash. These interesting new features incorporate technology into your helmet and are likely to be seen more often in the near future. Likewise, POC has included a Recco reflector as well as an NFC medical id chip in the Kortal Race MIPS which can be read by first responders if you are unresponsive.
An emerging feature that has been showing up mostly on flagship models is eyewear integration. Whether for goggles or sunglasses, manufacturers are placing an emphasis on allowing you to store your eyewear on your helmet while riding. The Specialized Ambush 2 offers our favorite storage system by using vent ports with hidden rubber flaps to secure your sunglasses under the helmet's visor. Almost every brand that we tested offers some kind of eyewear integration on their top models with varying levels of effectiveness. Beyond the Ambush 2 we also found the Manifest Spherical, Smith Forefront 2 MIPS eyewear integration to work particularly well.
Our test helmets all fall into a fairly wide weight range from 12.35 to 25 ounces or 350 to 718 grams. The Smith Convoy was the lightest helmet in the review while the Giro Tyrant was the heaviest. Many of our top-performing helmets weigh within a few grams of each other. Differences in weight that small are hardly noticeable. For this reason, we put less emphasis on this metric than others.
In some cases, we found that the perceived weight of a helmet has as much to do with how well it fits as with the actual weight on the scale. The Troy Lee A3, for instance, was one helmet that felt considerably lighter than what the scale showed due to its excellent fit.
Our testers don't go out of their way to crash during testing. Therefore, the durability score is not correlated to crash resistance. It evaluates a helmet's ability to withstand daily use and common wear and tear. All of the helmets tested are designed to protect your head through partial destruction of the helmet during a crash. It is imperative that you replace your helmet after a significant impact. Beyond crash damage, most helmets should provide a responsible user with years of trouble-free use.
Helmets with full coverage outer shells that wrap entirely around the lower edge of the delicate EPS foam have better resistance to dings and dents from daily use and abuse. Most of the helmets in the test share this quality. We also observed how wear affected all the moving parts, fit adjustments, outer shells, and inner padding. The vast majority of the helmets that we tested are durably constructed and should span the test of time assuming that you can avoid hitting the deck.
Mountain biking has the potential to be a high-impact activity, and protecting your head while you rip over rugged trails is the most important thing you can do. Choosing a helmet that will protect you from the inevitable crash but that is also durable enough to last, light enough to not weigh you down, and breathable enough to make you feel like you could ride for hours can be an overwhelming task. Our testers put each of these models through their paces to provide you with the best information possible before you make your next helmet purchase, and we hope that this in-depth review helped to point you in the right direction.
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