How to Choose the Right Motorcycle Helmet

September 09, 2016
 How to Choose the Right Motorcycle Helmet

It’s the one thing between that very fragile head of yours and the road flying by beneath you, so it’s crucial that you buy the right helmet for the type of riding you are doing, and more importantly, a helmet that fits correctly.

In this guide, you’ll learn about the different types of motorcycle helmets available in Australia; we’ll teach you the basics of fitting a helmet, and we’ll weigh up the pros and cons of different types of helmet configurations popular today among dirt and road motorcyclists.

Why do we have to wear motorcycle helmets in Australia?

Without doing too much to scare you away from a sport you already know is dangerous, every motorcyclist should be aware of the risks associated with the sport to encourage them to ride safely, and with the correct gear. In 2015 alone, 30 motorcyclists died on Victorian roads.

Motorcyclists are at far greater risk than car drivers on our roads – there’s much less between you and an oncoming vehicle or the road below you. The protective gear you wear can mean the difference between injury and death.

We wear helmets in Australia not just because it’s illegal not to, but because they are tested and proven to be the best technology we’ve come up with for protecting a rider’s head in a crash.

So, you need to make sure you are not only wearing the right type of helmet that fits you correctly, but one that keeps you performing at your best, whether you’re on the racetrack, trail riding, or commuting to work.

Buying a motorcycle helmet that fits correctly

Whether you are visiting your nearest store to try on a range of helmets or interested in buying a helmet online, you’ll need to know what size you need, what shape your head is, and some key checks to make when it's on to know if it fits properly.

The first step is to measure the circumference of your head.

What size helmet do I need?

All of the major motorcycle helmet manufacturers provide size charts to help you work out which size bracket (S, M, L, XL etc.) you fit into based on the circumference of your head in centimetres or inches.

So grab that tape measure and wrap it around your head like so.

measuring your head to determine what size motorcycle you need

Our dummy doesn’t have a brow ridge so it’s hard to see in this photo, but you should be measuring a line that starts about 2cm above your eyebrows and continues around to the widest point at the back of your head. We’re aiming to measure the greatest distance around your head.

Once you’ve got your measurements you can compare them with each manufacturer's charts to get a rough idea of the size you need a particular model.

However, measuring your head is only the first step to finding the ideal fit. Next, we need to talk about helmet shapes.

What shape is your head?

Typically, heads are oval shaped; it’s pretty rare for someone to have a perfectly round dome. There are three different helmet shapes designed to fit riders with the corresponding skull shape:

  • Long oval: When viewed from above your head is much longer from front to back than it is ear to ear.

  • Intermediate oval: Your head is slightly longer from front to back than ear to ear. This is the most common head shape.

  • Round oval: Your head is almost round in shape.

Helmet shapes for motorcycle fitting

It’s important to not only find a helmet that is the right circumference for your head, but that is close to being the same shape as well.

To do this, get a friend to look at your head from above, take a photo of the top of your head, or measure it from front to back and left to right to map out a circle on a piece of paper so you can see the shape for yourself. The aim is to get a rough idea of which category you fall under – they’re pretty broad, after all.

If a helmet is too long for your head, you’ll end up with pressure building around your temples. If it’s too round, you’ll experience pressure on your forehead and at the back of your skull. While it might not feel like much, after spending a few hours on the road a minor annoyance can turn a distracting pain.

racing demands a precise fit to ensure that a helmet protects your head in a high speed collision

Race helmets are often even tighter than endurance models, but they are never uncomfortable: discomfort leads to distraction which leads to mistakes.


After purchasing a helmet it’s always good to spend 25 - 35 minutes with it on before hitting the road. You can always return a helmet that’s ‘as new’, but as soon as you throw a leg over, you own it.

Before we explain the process of trying a helmet on, a quick note on standards.

AS/NZ 1698:2006 - Australia and New Zealand standard for motorcycle helmet safety

The first thing you should do when picking up any helmet to try on is to look for the sticker that says “Certified Product As/NZ 1698:2006”.

AS 1698 is the only Australian standard for protective helmets for vehicle users and indicates that the helmet model you are holding has been tested and proven to be effective in an impact. Well, not that exact helmet of course, but other models in the same line of products have been tested.

There’s an important point there that you might have missed. If a motorcycle helmet has been ‘tested’ it cannot then be used on the road. The same goes for your new motorcycle helmet: take extra care not to drop it on the ground or leave it rolling around in the tray of your ute because a damaged helmet needs to be replaced immediately.

How to try a helmet on and guarantee a great fit

You must try a helmet on and determine that it fits correctly before heading out for a ride. We’ll outline the steps you should take every time you try a helmet on, whether you’ve had a helmet delivered to your home (that matches your head circumference and shape), or you are trying it on in-store.

  1. Grasp the chin straps, pull them apart to widen the opening, and slide the helmet onto your head. Easy? It’s probably too big. Yep, a helmet shouldn’t usually slide on like a hat; it should take a bit of force to pull it past your ears and sit securely on your head.

  2. Next, secure the chin strap using the double D-ring or tighten the quick release buckle.

  3. Now we need to check if it fits properly, because even if it felt pretty tight going on, there is still a good chance that it's too big. Firstly, get a friend or the salesperson to hold the chin bar and rotate the helmet from side to side while you hold your head still facing forward. The amount of movement in the helmet is a good indication of fit. A well-fitted helmet should pull the skin on your cheeks and forehead with it; a poorly fitting helmet will slide sideways, obscuring your view and running the risk of it coming off in a crash.

  4. Next, get them to do the same up and down. The helmet should not be able to slide down over your eyes, but rather should sit just above your brow ridge. You’ll feel a tugging sensation on your scalp and forehead if the helmet fits well.

  5. To check that the cheek pads are a good size, get someone to try and slide four fingers into the helmet alongside your cheekbones. If they slide in, it’s too big: if they can’t slide their fingers in, it’s probably a good fit.

  6. Then perform the same four-finger test in the forehead area. If they can fit them between the padding and your face, it’s too big.

  7. There is one last critical test we need to perform to check that the helmet fits correctly before considering comfort, features, and graphics. With the helmet strap done up, tilt your head forward and get your buddy to lift the helmet at the base by your neck in an attempt to roll it forward off your head. If it can roll off your head with the chin strap secured, there is a chance that it can roll off your head during an accident. This helmet is no good for you.

  8. Rinse and repeat until you find a model that passes every test.

You’ve tried some helmets on and you’ve found one that passes all the tests. But it feels pretty tight, right? This is why it is a great idea wear the helmet for 25 - 35 minutes before deciding to buy.

The helmet’s lining will compress with time – it’s never going to feel this snug again. But, a helmet can also be too small. It’s important that it feels snug but comfortable. It should not be creating any pressure points around your face and head. If after 25 minutes you start to feel pain anywhere, that helmet is probably either too small or the wrong shape.

The same can be said if your eyes start to feel strained or go blurry, or if your teeth start biting into your cheeks or lips.

When wearing a helmet, it's vital that the cushioning does slip across your skin because it is this pressure that keeps it facing the right way in a crash preventing your neck from twisting with the weight of the helmet.

Now that you know how to work out your helmet size and shape, and the tests you should make while trying on any helmet, let's look at some of the different helmet configurations to determine which is best suited to your style of riding.

Understanding the different types of helmets available

The first thing you’ll notice when walking into a motorcycle shop is just how many different types of helmets there are. Even experienced road motorcyclists and trail riders might not know why dirt and road helmets are designed so differently. Let’s take a look at the different types and why they are designed the way they are.

Road helmets

A traditional road motorcycle helmet is an oval-shaped full-face helmet that completely encloses the head. The face shield opens and closes, protecting the rider from debris and in the event of a crash when closed.

Road helmets feature a lot of internal padding designed not only to cushion the head on impact, but to reduce road noise and insulate against the cold experienced at highway speeds.

full face race helmet with vents positioned further back   how to choose a motorcycle helmet

Most road helmets do away with the sun visor found on off-road models as they tend to act like a sail at high speeds.

Air intakes around the helmet’s outer shell can be opened and closed as needed providing ventilation and preventing your visor from fogging up from condensation.

It’s important to note that there are many varying road helmet configurations such as dual-sport helmets, modular, open-face and half shell helmets. We’ll explain their features in more detail later.

Off-road helmets

Whereas road motorcycle helmets use a face shield to protect the rider’s face from debris flying up off the road, off-road motorcycle helmets are more commonly designed for use with goggles. If you tried wearing a fully-enclosed road helmet while throwing a dirt bike around the trails you’d find your visor fogging up pretty quickly – the helmet’s ventilation systems struggling to keep up with the amount of heat your head produces when working hard.

motocross helmets can be worn with goggles to allow greater ventilation   how to choose a motorcycle helmet

Combining goggles with an open face allows the helmet to vent much more effectively while offering decent protection from debris. Goggles are also arguably much better and keeping dust out of your eyes than a face shield is. The addition of a sun visor helps keep the glare out of your eyes as well.

The chinbar on off-road helmets protrudes to a much greater degree than road version. This is to further add protection in case of hitting your chin on the handlebars while providing additional airflow from underneath.

So, now you understand that main differences between road and off-road helmets and why it’s important that you wear the right type for your riding destination, we can think about the type of riding we will be doing most of the time and choose a helmet style that matches best.

Finding a helmet that matches your style

If you’re tempted to go into your nearest motorcycle shop and grab the coolest looking helmet you can find, you wouldn’t be the first. But more important than graphics or hi-tech features is the type of riding for which it has been designed.

While road helmets might look only subtly different from the outside, those subtleties make all the difference after some time spent on the road.

Some road helmets are categorised based on the type of riding for which they are designed.

  • Touring helmets: Built for riding long distances, touring helmets are usually more comfortable and slightly heavier than race helmets. The greatest difference, however, is in the positioning of the air vents. Touring helmets are intended to be worn while riding a touring bike, or any motorcycle with an upright riding position. Vents are located on the top of the helmet encouraging maximum airflow for the rider sitting upright.

  • Race helmets: Designed for one place and one place only: the race track. Race helmets are made from advanced materials such as carbon fibre and kevlar which provide the same level of protection while reducing the weight of the helmet. They are also designed to fit very precisely, some helmets come with adjustable cheek pads for those minute changes. And, like touring helmets, they feature vents in the right place. Because motorcycle racing demands an aggressive, low riding position, vents are located further back on the helmet allowing for the head to be tilted forward at the most aerodynamic position.

the agressive riding position adopted while riding demands a race helmet

  • Dual-sport helmets: For on and off-road adventure riding, dual-sport helmets are almost like a hybrid between road and motocross helmet. While they feature a face shield like road helmets, they also allow room for wearing a pair of goggles to help keep the dust out on dirt roads. With a slightly protruding chinbar, dual sport helmets maximise ventilation while being safe enough to ride on the road as well.

Not all helmet configurations are named after styles of riding. Some helmets are unique in most part because of their shape.

  • Modular helmets: Sometimes referred to as flip-face helmets, modular helmets can be flipped open at the chinbar using a latch system which allows the rider to cool down and speak more easily. When closed they look very similar to full-face helmets, but it’s important to note that as soon as you add a mechanism for opening and closing the front section of the helmet you limit that helmets safety rating. It is for this reason that you won’t see any motorcycle racers wearing modular helmets. For day to day riding and commuting, however, you’ll find that they adhere to the same safety standards as touring and dual-sport helmets.

  • Half shell helmets: You’ll probably recognise these from any of the number of times you’ve been passed by a motorcycle gang. Half helmets protect the top of your head effectively in a crash, and of course, provide a lot more ventilation than full-face helmets. But they don’t offer the same amount of protection in a crash because half of your face is exposed. Every rider has their own set of priorities when it comes to choosing a helmet, and a half helmet might be perfect for you.

  • Open-face helmets: commonly worn by moped and scooter riders, half helmets offer greater protection than half helmets, covering the ears and sides of the head. They can be worn with a pair of sunglasses or sometimes goggles and allow the rider to talk easily while travelling about the city.

half helmets are good for city riding enabling you to talk and keeping you cool

So which helmet best describes the way you like to ride? Do you plan on riding long distances? Are you keen on racing your road bike at local track days and club events? Do you dream of taking your motorcycle cross-country, tackling the toughest terrain and long stretches of open road?

Answering questions such as these will help you find a helmet that not only fits and is comfortable but that meets the demands of your favourite style of riding.

Now you can consider aesthetics and optional features. Why only now? Because you don’t need those things for a helmet to save your life! And there is a good chance that even if they don’t have the colour you want they can order it in or find you an equivalent in a different brand.

Graphics

What colour and design your choose for your helmet mostly comes down to personal preference. Perhaps you’re going for a helmet that matches your bike or your riding gear. Maybe you like the sleek all-black look. Before you choose a helmet graphic based on aesthetics alone, there are a couple of things to consider with regards to road safety.

modular high vis helmet

A modular helmet with hi-vis finish stands out well any time of the day.


Helmets with reflective panels are going to make you much more visible in low light conditions while riding on the road. Same goes for hi-vis helmets. You might think they don’t look as cool as the one with the crocodile fighting the bear, but seriously, if you are planning on riding a lot at night time or commuting regularly to work early in the morning, consider looking for a helmet that, at the very least, isn’t completely black.

Even a white helmet or a block colour will stand out better than black against the background. And you're not only at risk during the day. Dark colours are also much harder to see in the daytime.

Optional features

We could have just as easily called this section ‘cost’, because a lot of the time, this is where you can spend a lot more money.

Let’s go over some of the features available with various helmet models to help your work out where you want to spend those extra dollars.

  • Vents: More expensive helmets usually feature advanced ventilation systems to help keep you cool and prevent your face shield from fogging up while closed. The more time you can spend with your face shield fully closed, the safer you are on the road.

  • Removable / adjustable linings: As we mentioned earlier, some high-end race helmets allow you to fine tune your fit by adding and removing a few millimetres of cushioning around the cheek area. Other helmets feature removable linings which can be washed – great if you are riding in Queensland. Best yet, race helmets and some high end touring models have a removable neck brace that enables emergency service professionals to lift your helmet off easily without the helmet tugging against your jaw risking a neck injury.

  • Scratch resistance: If you’re planning on travelling long distances or expect to leave your helmet out of its storage sack a lot of the time, a scratch resistant finish might be a good option for you.

  • Face shield: Consider purchasing a second face shield if your helmet doesn't come with one. It’s great to have a tinted shield to switch to on bright summer mornings. More expensive face shields are usually much more durable and likely to remain intact on impact.

  • Straps: There is nothing more annoying than the end of a strap flapping wildly against the side of your neck at 100kph. Most helmets come with some way of securing the tag end of the strap out of the way, just make sure yours does too. Padded straps are also nice, especially on longer rides.

  • Lightweight materials: Realistically, this is only of concern for motocross riders (who need to conserve energy) and anyone who plans on racing. The weight savings afforded by a helmet made from kevlar and carbon fibre versus fibreglass are marginal for everyday riders, and you just might find a heavier helmet is more durable.

Confident that you know what to look for you can now start shopping your favourite brands to find the perfect helmet for your next ride.


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