Whether you're planning to hit the road, trail or track on a motorcycle, ATV or snowmobile, one of the most important pieces of gear you can get is a good helmet.
There are some important helmet safety standards to know a little about. Helmets that meet the various standards display a designation on the back or inside the helmet lining. Helmets that don't display a designation probably have not been submitted for compliance testing and probably aren't worth buying no matter how cheap. Helmets by reputable manufacturers also generally display the manufacturer's name, date of manufacture, size, model, and material information.
In general, each set of standards evaluates things like impact protection capabilities and penetration protection of the shell, coverage provided by the design, and retention (strap) strength. Unfortunately, each set of standards is different, making comparisons on performance difficult, but in any case, a helmet approved by any of the recognized standard-setting organizations is more likely to be effective than a helmet that isn't.
While no set of standards is necessarily proven better than any of the others for any given sport or type of helmet, it may be important to know which approvals a helmet has if you plan to use it for competition (a helmet can hold more than one approval) because some race sanctioning bodies allow only certain approvals. For example, one sanctioning body may allow only Snell Foundation approved headgear, while another allows DOT, ECE, or Snell.
DOT stands for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which enforces Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Standard 218 applies to safety helmets sold in the U.S. The Snell Memorial Foundation is a private, non-profit organization that has been looking at helmet safety since 1957. Snell's standards are updated every five years, with its latest edition being M2010.
ECE stands for Economic Community of Europe. The current ECE standard is 22.05 and applies to helmets sold in Europe, but has come into wide use and many helmets sold in the U.S. have ECE approval. You might also see ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and BSI 6658 Type A (British Standards Institution), but these are less common. BSI also evaluates personal protection products such as body armor used for racing, resulting in the CE (Certification Europe) under the BS EN 1621 1 standard and back protectors under BS EN 1621 2.
Another regulatory tidbit to be aware of in the U.S. is whether or not helmet use is mandatory. Federal law does not address it and state laws vary. Nearly all states require helmet use for at least some riders or passengers; for example some states require helmets for riders with temporary or learner's permits, or under age 21, but not for riders holding their regular cycle license. Some states mandate helmet use for all riders, period. Some states also mandate use of helmet reflectors, eye protection and day-time headlight use. So, know the law where you plan to ride.
The American Motorcyclist Association can help, it has a great database of state laws on its website. Helmet designs have evolved over the years into specialized gear for different purposes.
Motocross, trail riding and ATV uses are the target of a range of full-face motocross helmets that are characterized by a chin bar that extends out further than full face models targeted for road use, and tend to have sun visors, but not flip up face shields, allowing easier use of goggles. This design is popular for snowmobile use as well.
Snowmobile helmets are sort of a breed of their own. Unlike most helmets where ventilation and keeping things cool inside is a design feature, snowmobile helmets are designed to work best in the cold. These helmets come equipped with removable breath boxes (internal deflectors to keep your breath from fogging up the face shield), double lens or even heated face shields to prevent fogging. It's a good idea to size the helmet to allow the use of a balaclava inside for that extra measure of warmth without making the fit too tight. Modular full-face helmets (designed to allow the chin bar and face shield to unlock and be lifted up together) may be a good option to consider.
Depending on the manufacturer, model and design, there may be a range of options to consider, such as various tinted shields, including some that are photochromatic, which change tint in response to light levels. If you opt for a dark tint shield, for a day-long ride, consider getting clear lens high impact riding glasses to wear in the helmet, so if the ride goes into the hours of darkness, you'll be able to see and protect your eyes with the shield up.
Some helmets have removable inner liners and side pads that allow cleaning, or replacement to adjust the fit of the helmet. If in-helmet communication gear is in your plans, motorcycle helmets with a speaker cavity are available.
The range of colors and graphic designs available is extensive. Color is a safety feature, as well. Some research shows that the likelihood of accidents with other vehicles is reduced when the rider wears bright colors, including the helmet. Some models have LED lights for increased visibility to vehicles approaching from the rear and an LED map light in the front.
Many helmets come with nylon straps equipped with D-rings for retention. Using those can be a drag with gloves on, so motorcycle helmets with quick-release locking buckles might be worth considering. Aftermarket quick release buckles can also be to the existing straps. Chin strap covers may also be available for some models.
Ventilation is another feature to consider most helmets have some form of closable vents in the chin bar, sides and/or crown. Tiny vents tend not to work all that well and this is a feature to try out if you are able to take a helmet out on a demo ride.
The construction of the outer shell not only affects impact characteristics, but weight. Resin, polycarbonate, fiberglass or carbon fiber composite and combinations of these are in common use.
The carbon fiber models tend to be lighter than other models, but also tend to be more expensive. Shell design also affects overall comfort in terms of limiting wind noise and buffeting through aerodynamics. Some models include a removable chin curtain and neck roll that can limit wind noise in the helmet.
After sorting through all the options and settling on the type, look and options, then size it up so it fits snugly, but not so tight as to be uncomfortable.
In general, if the helmet can move when your head doesn't, when the chin strap is adjusted and secured, it's too loose. If you can barely get the thing on, or the top of your head doesn't fit all the way to the top of the helmet's interior, it's too small. Trying some motocross or motorcycle helmets on and noting the size can help assure you'll get a good fit if you order a helmet, but sizing charts put out by each manufacturer can work as well. Like clothing, sizes can vary from one manufacturer to another; one brand's small may fit like another brand's medium. Models with removable lining components can be more precisely sized.
Two more things you might not think about can help protect your helmet investment. A carrying bag or carrying case is a good finishing touch for any helmet purchase and it can keep your new lid looking like new for a long time. The warranty can really help if something fails. Warranties can be as short as 90 days or as long as five years. Whichever one applies, keep your receipt and warranty information because you may not be able to get warranty service without them.
Final thought: buying a used helmet may seem like a good deal, but even apparently minor damage or out-dated design can make the helmet much less effective. The old rule to keep in mind is probably still true: if you have a ten dollar head, get a ten dollar helmet.