Choosing the Right Motorcycle Helmet

John L. Stein
by John L. Stein

The helmet has an interesting role to fill: part fashion, comfort, and protection. Here’s what we’d look for in ours.

For motorcyclists, helmets can range in importance from their most essential piece of riding kit to a mere afterthought. The drivers for this may be complex, but our guess is that the more serious you are about riding, the more serious you are about helmets. And conversely, if you treat riding lightly (perhaps as only a secondary activity), a helmet may register as no more important than a backpack, sunglasses, or shoes.

At, we’ll freely admit to being rabidly in the former camp. We care deeply about riding and about our gear. Accordingly, we’ve had plenty of helmets available to use over the years, and often can make a choice about what to wear with a given bike, on a certain ride, or even in different weather conditions.

But above all else, we look for safety. The helmets we wear must come with a manufacturing date (found inside the helmet under the liner) five years or newer, plus DOT certification, and for certain activities, a Snell certification may be required. In short, we’d chase the latest and best safety standards and manufacturing dates we can get. Because like bike tires, Greek yogurt and leftover pizza, helmets – and the materials that comprise them – can, will, and do age. That perfect, racy MotoGP-style lid you paid a fortune to get? In a decade it’ll start to feel like a retro lid. We know, because the interior of a 52-year-old Bell Star that is still around here has crumbled like a Precambrian hummingbird nest. Bottom line, a freshly made helmet can offer a better user experience and a longer effective product lifespan, if you’re counting the years in service.

Today, the variety and choices of helmets is nearly endless, from minimalist cruiser lids to comfy touring protection fitted with intercoms to Grand Prix-ready racing helmets. Here are some key points we look for in various categories. thanks Yamaha for sponsoring this new rider series.

Full-Face Helmets

We’d wager most helmet sales are full face. They just flat make sense: Maximum safety in a crash, maximum weather protection, maximum noise isolation, and a nearly endless set of choices for shields – tinted, clear, anti-fog, photochromic, reflective – you name it. Prices range from cheap to expensive. Whichever you pick, choose quality, comfort, fit, and style so it instantly becomes the one you want to wear. A few full-face helmets integrate “jet fighter” style tinted inner sun shields (that hinge down inside the clear outer shield) so you can use the helmet day or night. This is a handy feature, but it means looking through two shields in bright daylight if you want protection from both sun and wind.

Open-Face Helmets

There’s a lot to like about open-face helmets, which channel 1950s designs from pioneering companies like Buco and Bell. You get an easy-to-use helmet with top peripheral vision that is typically lightweight, easy to carry and store, and doesn’t cost much. What you don’t get is maximum protection in certain accidents, or protection from the daily dose of insects, dust, rain, or other airborne particles. We have used open-face helmets, and understand their fit, comfort, and style. (We still prefer the additional protection offered by full-face helmets.) Bonus features can include ventilation and snaps to fit either visors or shields.

Touring Helmets

For touring, we want quiet, comfort, and features. We’d look for the “Cadillac” (our term) of liner materials because while touring, a helmet’s going to be worn for hour after hour after hour. This demands sweat-wicking liner material, easy-to-use ventilation toggles on the chin bar and the front of the helmet, and a tool-free, quick-change shield. Despite the expense, we’d choose a brand that offers photochromic shields (these change their tint due to a chemical reaction between UV light and lens molecules). That way, the morning sun, midday rain showers, or a blazing sunset don’t require stopping for shield changes. If you like to stay in touch, choose a touring helmet that accepts an intercom setup.

Modular Helmets

Popular with touring riders, urban riders, social riders – for good reason. With the push of a button on the chin bar, the front of the helmet pivots up, allowing the wearer to converse, eat or drink, or just get some fresh air while studying a map or using electronics. In this way, modular helmets are like convertibles – except that we wouldn’t ride with the helmet in the open position. For our money, a good modular helmet should be as comfortable as a full-face lid; its opening mechanism should work intuitively and easily, and the chin bar should stay put when you pivot it up. One note: Some full-face helmets feature a soft “chin spoiler” that reduces air turbulence at the lower front opening, but modular helmets may not have this feature. However, their chin straps may fasten with a handy latch instead of traditional D-rings.

Dirt Helmets

The dirt helmet (e.g., for motocross, enduro, or trail riding) we know today arrived in the 1970s, a blend of traditional open-face helmets of the 1950s and full-face street helmets of the late 1960s. Now, dirt riding is such a highly aerobic activity that effective cooling ventilation is crucial. Also, the eye ports of modern dirt helmets are designed for goggles, but always try on the brand you’re shopping with the goggles (and glasses, if any) you intend to use. Finally, consider the type of body armor you may use (including a neck brace), and whether the shoulder or back pads interfere with the helmet’s lower edge.

Dual Sport/ADV Helmets

This design is a more recent “hybrid” in the market. Essentially, it’s like a full-face street helmet that’s shaped like a dirt helmet…but features the street helmet’s flip-up shield. Got that? Advantages include a combined on-road/off-road look, the peaked visor of a dirt helmet to protect against flying dirt (aka roost) or mud splatter on the trail, and that flip-up shield. Again, quality and fit count big-time here, as does ventilation for long, hot days in desolate places. Which actually sounds pretty good to us!

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John L. Stein
John L. Stein

John L. Stein brings 30 years of both automotive and motorcycle experience, having written for AutoWeek, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Sports Car International, Chevy Outdoors, Truck Trend, Cycle World, Motorcyclist, Adventure Travel, and Men’s Journal, just to name a few. His articles have been published in the US, England, Japan, Australia and France. His technical knowledge combined with his ability to understand and effectively communicate what a motorcycle is doing underneath him is an invaluable resource to the team.

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Join the conversation
  • Doug Doug on Oct 22, 2023

    I’m considering going back to the Arai brand but am wondering about the lack of mips or similar technology used in their very comfortable helmets. The store employee seemed knowledgeable about helmets but only offered that Arai believes the shape and construction/manufacturing method lends itself to inherent benefits achieved by slight rotational effect of the head (which mips technology emphasizes) and various angle impacts.

    Can anyone comment on Arai’s claims of this type of protection to minimize brain injuries?

  • Scott W H McKay Scott W H McKay on Feb 09, 2024

    Finding a helmet with Snell approval is becoming more and more difficult. Most quality street helmets are now ECE approved rather that Snell.