Nowhere on earth does the old cliche “you get what you pay for” ring truer than when it comes to motorcycle helmets. There are safe motorcycle helmets, there are cheap motorcycle helmets and there are comfortable motorcycle helmets, so go ahead and pick any two of those three choices. Want one that’s safe, comfortable and affordable? Good luck with that, because in all my years of riding, I haven’t found one.
I’m going to start with some advice (and a disclaimer) up front. First, I don’t recommend anything other than a full face helmet. They’re structurally stronger than an open face helmet, and if you should happen to find yourself skipping across pavement face first (like I did), you’ll come to appreciate the wisdom of your choice. Are they uncomfortable in the summer heat? Not if you spend the money on a helmet that vents properly, and even a little sweat is a whole lot more pleasant than skin grafts. Call me weird, but I don’t want a plastic surgeon making me a new chin or nose from ass skin.
Now for the disclaimer: I’m not going to go into the whole DOT versus Snell debate here, because it’s been covered in as much detail as you’d care to read by experts like Dexter Ford. To vastly over-simplify the issue, DOT approval is simpler and far less expensive to obtain. Snell approvals are much harder to obtain, since they test helmet strength to more rigorous standards; that turns out to be less than a good thing, since Snell tested helmet strength and not shock absorbency, at least until the M2010 standard. Snell certified helmets that have the M2010 label now meet a baseline for both impact resistance and shock absorbency, and this standard changes with the size of the helmet (since a bigger head weighs more). Want to be as safe as you possibly can be? Shop for a motorcycle helmet that meets Snell M2010 standards, not just DOT standards.
The first thing you want to look for in a helmet is fit. No two people have the same size and shape head, so the most important thing is trying on as many helmets as you can. You see the first problem up front: if you mail order a helmet to get the lowest possible price, you can’t try it on. What if there’s a similar one from a different brand that fits much better? Unlike shoes, motorcycle helmets don’t “break in”; if it isn’t comfortable in the store, it sure as hell isn’t going to be comfortable two hours into a ride. Take my old AGV, for example: I bought it because it was safe and cheap, but rides longer than an hour were marathon torture sessions. Two hours in the saddle was excruciating, and after three I was ready to confess to anything (“I shot Kennedy, even though I wasn’t born yet. Just get this damn helmet off my head.”), so I’m speaking from experience here. Go to your local retailer and try on helmets before you buy one. If you can, support the local guy, too – he may cost a few bucks more, but he’s also going to be there on a Saturday when you suddenly need a new tire or 530 chain. Remember, there’s an important difference between “price” and “value”.
How do you know if the helmet fits? It should be snug getting it on over your ears, but not uncomfortably tight. With the helmet on and loosely strapped, try rotating your head from side to side; if the helmet moves, it’s too loose and you need a smaller size or a different shape. If it doesn’t move, but it feels like there’s a railroad spike being driven into your forehead, chances are good it’s too small. Try the next size up, or try a different helmet shape (which is another reason to patronize your local dealer, since they can generally recommend what helmets will fit the shape of your head the best). Once you have the right size and shape helmet, try to cinch down the strap as tight as you’ll wear it. Does it pinch? Can you fasten the strap with gloves on? Can you snap or tuck in the excess length of nylon webbing? Like the rest of the helmet, if the strap isn’t comfortable in the shop, it’s really going to suck out on the road.
As for brands, I currently favor Shoei over the others. I’ve owned Arai helmets in the past, and they’re very good but near the top end of the price range. Shoeis are a little bit quieter, the shield changing mechanism is simpler than the one used by Arai and they’re a little bit less money than Arai helmets (but still expensive). Over the years, I’ve had helmets from AGV (cheap and safe, but uncomfortable), Kiwi (cheap and comfortable, but I wouldn’t want to crash in it) and Nolan (see Kiwi) to name just a few. Good helmets cost serious money for a reason – their fit and finish is top notch, their ventilation is functional and well designed, their face shields are optically clear, their gaskets seal well and they’ll stand up to years of use.
Unless you know the helmet’s history, avoid buying used helmets. First, all helmets have a finite shelf life, and manufacturers will generally tell you that’s around five years. Their ass is on the line if someone gets hurt wearing one of their lids, so they err on the side of caution. As for me, I’ll replace helmets under normal use every 10 years or so, but don’t consider that an “expert’s recommendation”, especially since I baby my helmets when I’m not wearing them. If a helmet is crashed, or even dropped on the ground, bin it. Even a fall from a handlebar or seat can be enough to crack a shell if the helmet lands on a rock or sharp object. There are places you can save money and there are places you need to spend money; protecting your head definitely counts as one of the latter.
Once you’ve bought a new helmet, treat it with respect. Buy a good helmet bag (I like the fleece lined, heavy-duty nylon ones myself) and store the helmet there when not in use. Keep it out of direct sunlight, since UV isn’t good for the components that make up a helmet. I always let mine air out overnight when I get back from a ride, so mine never seem to build up the funk associated with old helmets. If yours does, try one of the commercial helmet cleaners and deodorizers, but NEVER us stuff like Lysol or other harsh cleaners and disinfectants. Likewise, don’t store your helmet around paint or gasoline, since solvents can attack a helmet’s foam lining. Think “cool, dry place away from rodents” and you get the picture.
No matter how much money you do spend on a helmet, it will be much less than a visit to the emergency room, and it will be exponentially less than any kind of reconstructive surgery. No single piece of riding gear is more important, so take the time to do a little research before you buy. Feel free to hit me up with any questions on the topic.