Bike helmets: choosing the right type and size


March 28, 2022


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Bike helmets

Many of us know how important it is to have the right gear on when venturing out for a bike ride, and a bike helmet is certainly one of the most important pieces of equipment you can wear. Whether you are venturing out on the road or the trail, make sure yours is right for you.

There are different types of bike helmets, and your final selection should be based on many factors, from the type of cyclist you are to the size and level of protection you need. Winston Endall, cycling specialist at SAIL, goes through everything you need to know before making a purchase, including:

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Are bike helmets mandatory and why you should wear one?

Legislation varies (so check before setting off), but as a guide, Ontario requires all those under 18 to wear a helmet, while adults aren’t mandated to do so. In Quebec, wearing a helmet is mandatory when riding an electric bike only. However, some cities and towns (such as Sherbrooke) require one for anyone under 18. But even if it is not a legal obligation, scientific testing shows that helmets do save lives. In case of impact, the foam inside the helmet compresses to absorb the shock and dissipate it over a larger area, reducing your risk of concussion. “A helmet is like insurance,” says Winston. “You don’t expect to get into an accident, but if you do, you’ll be glad you have it.”

The type of helmet you need based on your cycling habits

People often ask if they can use the same helmet for road cycling and mountain biking, or even whether they can put on their ski helmet. After all, protection is protection, right? Not quite. Impact zones, and therefore impact absorption, will differ based on whether you are cycling on the road in a forward position, or taking on jumps on a trail in the woods.

Here is a quick guide based on your chosen activity.

Activity Recommended helmet type Characteristics
Road cycling (road bike, gravel bike and electric bike) Road cycling helmet More streamlined
Good ventilation
Impact coverage focused on the front and sides
Less protection against branches and trees
Mountain biking
Mountain biking helmet Hard shell
Impact coverage focused on all side with extra protection on the back and sides
Increased protection against branches and trees
Heavier, less streamlined
Commuting Urban style helmet Hard shell
Less ventilation
Warmer for winter
More economical

The features to look for in a bike helmet

Road cycling helmets

As road cyclists, whether they are competitive athletes or casual riders, sit in a forward position for extended periods of time, it’s important to choose a lightweight helmet that’ll make it easier on the neck. Ventilation is also a key feature. Some performance cyclists may worry that ventilation can add drag, but for most, ventilation should definitely win over those extra seconds on your time, especially on hot days. Road cycling helmets don’t offer as much protection against branches and trees as mountain bike helmets do, but you can pick one with a visor to keep the sun and rain out of your eyes. Look at brands Smith, Bell and GIRO for some great options.

Mountain biking helmets

These usually have a harder shell and look like a slightly ventilated army helmet. For any type of mountain biking, protection trumps weight or aerodynamic concerns. In addition to increased impact protection at the back and sides of your head, they can stop branches from hurting you better than a road cycling helmet would. Again, brand GIRO, Smith and Bell offers some good mountain biking helmets.

Commuter or urban helmets

As they are usually used over shorter distances, urban helmets require fewer features. Here, any type of cycling helmet will do, according to Winston, but if you’re riding during the shoulder seasons or even in the winter, you may consider a hard shell or something adaptable so you can add layers for warmth. Brand Bell has some fun, quirky helmets in its collection.

How to pick the right size and adjust your helmet

According to Winston, it is possible to buy a helmet online by first measuring your head, but it’s a bit like buying shoes online. You never know if they’re going to fit right. Your best bet is to try your helmet on before purchase. It should fit snugly, sit one centimetre above your eyebrows, and not slop back and forth when you move your head. You can use the spinner wheel at the back to adjust it. The side straps should be snug, and each buckle should sit just below your ear. When your helmet is all done up, you should be able to fit two fingers under the chin strap comfortably.

Certification and safety standards

Your helmet should really be certified by a recognised entity. Look for a CSA, EN, ASTM or CPSC sticker. Uncertified knockoff helmets may be cheaper, but this is not a feature you want to skim on. For those looking for an extra level of protection, a helmet with Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (or MIPS) technology is a good investment. In case of side impact, your helmet can sometimes rotate on your head, which won’t protect you as much. MIPS helmets have a separate shell which absorbs the rotational force.

How often should you replace your bike helmet?

Every five years is usually the right time to consider buying a new bike helmet. But really, a helmet needs to be replaced after any type of impact. That is, anytime it touches the ground, whether there is visible damage or not.

How to care for and store your helmet

Inspect your helmet often for cracks or damage: if you see anything, replace your helmet altogether. When dirty, simply wipe with a wet cloth. Don’t store it in a sunny or hot place in the summer (such as the trunk of your car) as the heat can weaken its structure.

A few pro tips

  • When buying a kids’ bike helmet, don’t go for a bigger option hoping it’ll last longer. It needs to fit snugly on your child’s head.
  • Visors are a great feature, whatever type of cycling you’re doing. For road cyclists, they can keep the sun and rain out of their eyes, and mountain bike enthusiasts can get some protection from flying mud.
  • Be careful of solvents (such as gasoline) if storing your helmet in a shed as they can melt it down.

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