3 Best Mountain Bike Helmets Reviews

3 Best Mountain Bike Helmets Reviews

Looking for the best mountain bike helmet? To help you find it, we researched nearly 50 of the top models in 2020 and chose 5 to test and compare. We tested each of these helmets for several months and hundreds of miles of trail riding with our testers analyzing every aspect of their performance and design along the way. We evaluated each model’s protection by looking at its coverage, rotational impact system, and protective features. We also looked at their comfort, ventilation, features, weight, and durability. You’ve got a lot of great options, and we’ve nailed down the best of the best for your consideration.

Top Pick

POC Tectal Race Spin, Helmet for Mountain Biking by POC $219.95 $21995


Top Pick for Protection

The Tectal Race SPIN impressed our testers in nearly every way and put up a fierce fight for the Editors’ Choice Award.

Top Pick for Protection
POC Tectal Race SPIN

Impact Protection System: SPIN | Adjustable Visor: Yes

A previous Editors’ Choice award winner, the Tectal Race SPIN saw stiff competition in this test and was narrowly edged off the top step of the podium. It remains our second highest rated model, and we’ve awarded it our Top Pick for Protection. The Tectal has a deep fit and best-in-test head coverage. It also features POC’s own rotational impact protection system, known as SPIN, for an added layer of safety. A great fit with a quality size adjustment system and well-designed straps makes it easy to keep the helmet comfortably snug and secure. The Tectal also has some of the best ventilation in our test selection. This lightweight helmet also features an adjustable visor and a goggle strap retention system that add to its already impressive versatility, with applications ranging from cross country rides to enduro racing.

Our biggest gripe with the Tectal is that the visor is a little less user-friendly to adjust than the competition. While it’s one of the most expensive helmets in our review, it represents a good value considering that it’s one of the most comfortable and protective mountain bike helmets on the market today.


Troy Lee Designs Adult All Mountain XC Mountain Bike A2 Jet Helmet by Troy Lee Designs $179.00 $17900 


Top Pick for Ventilation

Troy Lee Designs has been producing the A2 MIPS half-shell mountain bike helmet for a few years, and it has quickly become a popular model. Testers were impressed with the A2 in many ways.

Top Pick for Ventilation
Troy Lee Designs A2 MIPS

Impact Protection System: MIPS | Adjustable Visor: Yes, barely

The Troy Lee A2 MIPS is a quality mountain bike helmet that scored relatively high marks in all of our rating metrics. It offers lots of protection with ample head coverage, a dual-density EPS and EPP foam design, and a MIPS rotational impact protection system. Testers found it quite comfortable, with a quality fit adjustment system and good strap design. It’s competitively lightweight and is highly durable. It looks barely used after heavy testing abuse. Even though it tied for the least number of vents, it has great ventilation. The vent’s size, layout, and well designed internal air channels help give this helmet some of the best airflow of all the models in this test.

The most glaring drawback of the A2 MIPS is the very limited adjustability of the visor. It has an adjustment range of about one centimeter, so it isn’t the best option if you ride with goggles regularly. It has a good amount of coverage, but it can’t match the more in-depth coverage offered by a couple of deeper fitting competitors. That said, this is an excellent helmet for all types of riding, and we’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys ample airflow.

Oakley DRT5 Men’s MTB Cycling Helmet by Oakley


Notable for Eyewear Integration

Oakley recently entered the mountain bike helmet market with their first production model, the DRT5.

Notable for Eyewear Integration
Oakley DRT5 MIPS

Impact Protection System: MIPS | Adjustable Visor: Yes

Oakley is an industry leader for eyewear, so it’s no surprise that their first production mountain bike helmet would make eyewear integration a priority. The DRT5 has only recently hit the market and provides a high level of head protection with good coverage, a solid feeling in-mold construction and a MIPS liner. Testers also found it to be quite comfortable with a 360-degree Boa fit adjustment system, well-designed straps, and minimal, but effective padding. Most of the helmet’s features enhance the user’s experience with eyewear. The Boa fit system has a thin cable that doesn’t conflict with the arms of glasses, even if they overlap. There are two clips on the back of the helmet designed to grab onto sunglass arms and securely stow them in place. Oakley also incorporated a silicone sweat gutter across the brow that effectively blocks sweat from dripping onto your lenses, and the visor is also adjustable to accommodate goggles. Oakley broke the mold when they designed this helmet.

The DRT5 lost serious ground to the competition for its heavy weight. It is the second heaviest in the test. At 476 grams it weighs about 80 grams more than the average. Testers also found the ventilation to be sub-par, especially when compared to the airier models in this review. If you’re less concerned about weight and ventilation, this is a protective and comfortable option with some unique features.

Head tester Jeremy Benson testing the Session on the trails in...
Head tester Jeremy Benson testing the Session on the trails in Downieville, CA. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Why You Should Trust Us

Our lead mountain bike helmet reviewer is Jeremy Benson, a Truckee, CA-based writer and mountain bike racer. Benson has been mountain biking for nearly three decades and has seen the progression of mountain bike helmet technology in that time. He’s also taken his fair share of crashes, suffering from more than one concussion and cracking many helmets in the process. 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.

  • The Forefront 2 weighs in at 374 grams or 13.19 oz, slightly less than their claimed weight of 13.4 oz for the size medium we tested. Credit: Jeremy Benson, Heather Benson
  • The Coveta is a good helmet, but our testers felt the fit was a little too shallow and offered less protection than the competition. Credit: Jeremy Benson
  • The Vaporfit dial on the Smith Session is easy to use even with gloves on. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Previous pageNext page 1/3Benson keeps a close eye on new product releases throughout the year and spent hours researching more than 50 models before selecting 11 of the best to test and compare side-by-side. We tested each model during hundreds of miles of everyday riding on a variety of trails and in a wide range of weather conditions. During testing, we evaluated each helmet on its fit and comfort, features, ventilation, and adjustability. We also swapped helmets out regularly for head-to-head comparisons.

The Tectal Race is a fantastic helmet with great coverage, comfort...
The Tectal Race is a fantastic helmet with great coverage, comfort, performance, and features. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Analysis and Test Results

In recent years the fit, style, comfort, and protection of helmets have 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. That’s a good thing because they are the single most important piece of protective gear you can wear. This review covers extended-coverage half-shell helmets.

In an ideal world, you never crash, but accidents can and do happen — often, suddenly, and without warning. Trust us. We play crash test dummy more often than we’d like. When you eventually crash, your helmet is designed to absorb the brunt of the impact and protect your skull and the precious brain inside it. Modern mountain bike helmets are generally constructed of an EPS foam (or polystyrene) liner molded inside a more durable plastic (polycarbonate) shell.

The foam is intended to absorb impact while the plastic shell protects the foam and distributes the force over a larger area. Modern helmets are designed to absorb impact by allowing the helmet to partially self-destruct. A crash typically results in crushing or cracking the helmet’s foam and shell, as opposed to your skull. You must replace any helmet following a significant impact.

The helmets in our test have varying levels of coverage, ventilation, adjustments, and features that all affect their level of comfort and degree of protection. Our testers rated each model on their comfort, adjustments, weight, ventilation, features, and durability. The combined scores led us to our best overall and top pick award winners.

Value

Our Editors’ Choice award winner, the Specialized Ambush with ANGi and the second highest scoring POC Tectal Race SPIN, are two of the most expensive and also the highest performance models we tested. So you do get what you pay for, but sometimes you get quite a bit more. Of course, that isn’t always the case. Several of the most expensive helmets in the test score quite a bit below some of the less expensive models.

Here we show the yellow MIPS (left) in the Troy Lee A1 and the blue...
Here we show the yellow MIPS (left) in the Troy Lee A1 and the blue SPIN in the POC Tectal Race SPIN. The MIPS is a shinny plastic surface. POC bakes the SPIN tech into the blue pads. Credit: Chris McNamara

Protection

Since the purpose of wearing a helmet is to protect your head, it is the most important and most heavily weighted of our rating metrics. 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 rotational impact protection system. 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 POC Tectal Race SPIN is one such helmet with a deep fit that drops down to provide more coverage on the temporal and occipital lobes. The Specialized Ambush has a very similar amount of coverage to the Tectal, though it doesn’t fit as close to the head. The Smith Forefront 2 has nearly the same amount of coverage as these competitors.

More coverage = better protection. It's simple science, but it's...
More coverage = better protection. It’s simple science, but it’s still science. Credit: Jeremy Benson

The construction of the helmet also plays a role in its protection. All of these helmets have an in-mold construction with a durable polycarbonate shell wrapped around an EPS foam liner. The Troy Lee A2 has a unique dual density foam design with a mix of EPS and EPP foam that is intended to better manage impact forces from both high and low-speed impacts. Other helmets, like the POC Tectal and the Specialized Ambush, also use aramid molded into their EPS foam to add strength.

You can see the two different types of foam in the helmet. The...
You can see the two different types of foam in the helmet. The denser EPS is dark grey, and the softer EPP is lighter grey. Credit: Jeremy Benson

In addition to foam, Smith uses a proprietary material known as Koroyd in their helmets. Both the Session and the Forefront 2 employ this material in their construction. Koroyd looks a lot like 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 which is used in the Blaze helmet. They claim this unique wave-shaped structure absorbs impact and works as a slip-plane to reduce rotational impact forces.

A closeup view of the Koroyd in the Forefront 2. The structure looks...
A closeup view of the Koroyd in the Forefront 2. The structure looks reminiscent of a honeycomb and provides impact resistance and airflow at the same time. Credit: Jeremy Benson, Heather Benson

Every helmet in this review comes with some sort of rotational impact protection system. Most use the industry-standard MIPS system, but a few companies have gone out on their own to develop their own technologies. POC has developed SPIN, which is incorporated into the padding and is intended to absorb impact and provide a slip-plane, while also reducing weight and not affecting the fit of the helmet. Leatt’s Turbine 360 is meant to work similarly, with a number of Armourgel Turbines integrated into the construction of the helmet. 6D’s ODS system is unique in its double shell design and damper system that they claim provides superior protection from both linear and rotational forces. Bontrager’s WaveCel is the new kid on the block and is a porous structure that they claim can absorb impact and function like a slip-plane. Meanwhile, the MIPS SL system is a new style of MIPS that is exclusive to Specialized helmets and is built into the padding of the helmet.

MIPS SL technology is exclusive to Specialized helmets. It is...
MIPS SL technology is exclusive to Specialized helmets. It is integrated into the padding, which has rotational play in the thin black bands where the pads are connected to the helmet. Credit: Jeremy Benson

MIPS, Turbine, SPIN, ODS, 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, four other technologies have entered the fray, Leatt developed Turbine, POC created SPIN, Bontrager made WaveCel, and 6D designed ODS.

What’s the difference between the technologies? MIPS uses a very thin liner suspended inside the shell that provides a slip plane in a crash. Turbine and SPIN also are designed to slip similarly, although they both do so while also providing some shock absorption. ODS is a completely different design that uses two shells suspended with elastic dampers to absorb linear and rotational forces. WaveCel is a cellular structure on the inside of the helmet that is intended to work like a crumple zone to absorb energy from direct and oblique impacts. MIPS does not provide any shock absorption and can affect the fit of a helmet. Some people notice this, but most don’t.

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 one of these technologies.

The Tri-Fix web splitter is well designed and adds to the Ambush's...
The Tri-Fix web splitter is well designed and adds to the Ambush’s already impressive comfort. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Comfort

Comfort is one the most important aspects of a helmet. The more comfortable your helmet is, the less distracting it is, allowing you to devote all of your attention to the trail ahead of you. It is 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. Keep in mind that adjustable features like the retention system and chin straps play a role in how the helmet fits and its level of comfort.

All of the helmets tested use lightweight open cell foam pads covered in moisture wicking fabric to pad between the hard polystyrene 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 laid out padding that covers the contact points between the polystyrene or MIPS liner and your head.

The most comfortable helmets in our test were the POC Tectal Race SPINSpecialized Ambush, and the Smith Forefront 2, which all seemed to fit every tester like a glove. The Troy Lee A2 MIPSGiro Montaro, and the Bell 4Forty MIPS also scored well by providing ample coverage while still offering an impressively comfortable fit. All of these helmets feature padding covered with a wicking material.

The more comfortable your helmet is the easier it is to focus on the...
The more comfortable your helmet is the easier it is to focus on the riding, or the view, or both… Credit: Jeremy Benson

All the mountain bike helmets in our test have a retention system, often referred to as a fit or size adjustment, used to adjust the fit to the rider’s head. Retention systems are typically 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.

The large dial on the fit adjustment is easy to use one-handed and...
The large dial on the fit adjustment is easy to use one-handed and with gloves on. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Another fit adjustment found on all the models in our test is the chin strap, including the strap splitter by the ears. This adjustment is crucial to the user’s comfort and also plays an important role in keeping the helmet secure in the event of a crash. Most chin straps offer a range of adjustability so that the user can get the chin strap tight enough to stay on your head, but not so tight that it ends up being uncomfortable. The Leatt DBX 3.0 and the Bontrager Blaze have unique magnetic buckles that attach securely and can easily be opened and closed with one hand. The strap splitter allows the user to adjust the position of the straps by your ears. Ideally, the straps shouldn’t make contact with the ears. Our favorite strap systems are found on the POC Tectal Race SPINOakley DRT5, and the Specialized Ambush, with a Y-shaped strap yoke that holds them in the perfect position.

No other helmet in the test is as well ventilated as the Ambush...
No other helmet in the test is as well ventilated as the Ambush. With 20 vents and deep air channels that run from front to back, it keeps you cooler than the competition. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Ventilation

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 Specialized Ambush took top honors, with 20 vents and a very good internal air channel design that keeps the air flowing through the helmet. Our other top-performing helmet for ventilation is the Troy Lee A2. Despite having only 13 vents, it keeps the air flowing and your head cool. A couple of the other best-ventilated helmets in our test are the POC Tectal and the Smith Session.

The little green light on the ANGi sensor tells you that it's...
The little green light on the ANGi sensor tells you that it’s transmitting a signal to the Specialized Ride App. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Features

All of the mountain bike helmets in our test have a variety of features intended to enhance fit, protection and rider comfort. One feature that all of the helmets share is the visor, the 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 testers prefer adjustable visors for their versatility and compatibility with goggles.

Our favorite visors are found on the Smith Forefront 2 and on the Bell 4Forty MIPS. Both are large enough to block the sun effectively, and both rotate 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.

Previous pageNext page 1/2Many manufacturers are developing unique features as well. The Specialized Ambush with ANGi, for example, comes with their ANGi sensor that attaches to the back of the helmet and can be synced to your smartphone and the Specialized Ride App. Through the app, it can provide people with ride start and stop notifications, track your ride, and even notify your emergency contacts in the event of a crash. It is new and interesting.

It's different, that's for sure. Testers had mixed feelings about...
It’s different, that’s for sure. Testers had mixed feelings about this system, but it is a unique approach to eyewear integration. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Oakley has also gone out of their way to add features to the DRT5 to enhance eyewear integration. They use a Boa fit adjustment system that doesn’t conflict with the arms of glasses, and they’ve incorporated a silicone sweat gutter that prevents drips on the lenses. On the back of the helmet, they’ve added an Eyewear Landing Zone in the form of two clips that hold the arms of your sunglasses relatively securely on the helmet. Add to that a quality visor that flips up high for compatibility with goggles, and they’ve thought of seemingly everything.

  • At 515 grams for the size M/L we tested, this is the heaviest helmet in the test. Credit: Jeremy Benson
  • Weighing only 350 grams, the Ambush is one of the lightest models we tested. Credit: Jeremy Benson
  • At 515 grams for the size M/L we tested, this is the heaviest helmet in the test. Credit: Jeremy Benson
  • Weighing only 350 grams, the Ambush is one of the lightest models we tested. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Previous pageNext page 1/2

Weight

Our test helmets all fall into a weight range from 12.06 to 18.17 ounces. The heaviest helmet in our test was the 6D ATB-1T Evo, while the lightest was the Specialized Ambush. 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 A2, for instance, was one helmet that felt considerably lighter than what the scale showed due to its excellent fit and airy feel.

With modern helmets, it's more comfortable than ever to keep your...
With modern helmets, it’s more comfortable than ever to keep your head protected in the event of a crash. Credit: Jeremy Benson

Durability

Since our testers don’t go out of their way to crash during testing, our durability score isn’t a measure of crash resistance, but rather a measure of how well a helmet holds up to daily 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. The POC Tectal, Smith Session, Troy Lee A2, Bell 4Forty, and Leatt DBX 3.0 all share this quality. We also observed how wear affected all the moving parts, fit adjustments, outer shells and inner padding.

Conclusion

There are many different models and styles of mountain bike helmets, just as there are an array of needs for the different cyclists who count on them for protection. The helmets in this review are extended coverage half shell helmets specific to mountain biking. We hope the information presented here helps you find a mountain bike helmet that is right for your needs and budget. Happy Trails!

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