In a rush? Here's the best helmets in 2022
Best for: backcountry roads - Giro Agilis MIPS Women’s Bike Helmet
Best for: saving space - Closca Foldable Bike Helmet
Best for: technical trails - Oakley DRT5 mountain bike helmet
Best for: those who want quality on a small budget - Bell Tracker Helmet
Best for: those gnarlier trails - Giro Men’s Helios Spherical
Best for: coping with a variety of terrain - MET Allroad Helmet
Best for: those looking to cut weight as much as possible - HJC Furion
Best for: those riding at night or in poor visibility - Bell Formula LED MIPS road helmet
Best for: cold weather riding - Troy Lee Designs A1 Drone Helmet
Best for: riding in extreme heat - POC Unisex Ventral Lite Helmet
Best for: comfort - Kask Protone Helmet
Kicking off your guide to the best bike helmets
Protecting your head’s got to be the most important thing to consider on a bikepacking trip. Well, okay, the bike may actually be the most important thing but a good cycle helmet is way up there. Helmet technology has come a long way since the brain buckets of a few decades ago; these days you can sit back, enjoy your ride and forget you’re actually wearing one.
No, it’s not mandatory and yes, we all know people who swear by never wearing one, but we can’t stress the importance of protecting your bonce enough. Being dead can seriously ruin your trip. Just saying.
But with so much choice out there how do you choose your ideal lid? And what even is a bikepacking helmet anyway? Is it different from a mountain bike helmet? Luckily we’ve done the work for you so you don’t have to – read on to find the best helmet for you.
Do I need a specialist bikepacking helmet?
There’s not really any such thing as a specialised bikepacking helmet and it’s not a one size fits all. Don't worry though - you won't need two helmets. It depends on what sort of terrain you’ll be covering on your trip. Traditionally, bikepacking differs from cycle touring in that you’re more likely to be getting off the beaten track, but lines can blur from time to time. Who’s counting, right? Anytime spent out on the bike is a bonus!
Depending on where you’re going, you may get away with a road cycling helmet, but if those roads are likely to be rougher then a mountain bike helmet or gravel helmet should be fine.
How are bicycle helmets constructed?
Most helmets are constructed along similar lines. Basically they have a hard, plastic outer shell with air vents and a cushioned inner liner to take the brunt of an impact. Most have some extra padding for comfort and a fully adjustable fitting system. All helmets should be certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
This is the most obvious part of the helmet as it’s the bit that’s on show. It’s your first line of defence in a crash and is designed to take the first brunt and protect the foam liner. It’ll also help protect against sharp objects from piercing the helmet.
Most shells are made from some form of plastic, usually polycarbonate, as it’s cheaper to manufacture yet tough. Polycarbonate is heavier than other materials, so some manufacturers use composite fibres like fibreglass or carbon fibre. These are lighter but usually have a price tag to match.
In cheaper helmets, the shell is usually glued to the liner whereas more expensive helmets have the shell moulded to the liner. Moulded bicycle helmets are usually stronger but remember all helmets need to pass rigorous safety tests so this shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker.
This is a crucial component of the helmet and is made up of a foam that’s light, yet designed to compress on impact, reducing the force on the brain during a crash.
The most popular foam liner used is expanded polystyrene (EPS). Some helmet brands have experimented with new materials but it's still EPS foam that’s mainly used.
Once EPS foam has been compressed though it won’t spring back into shape, which is why your helmet needs replacing after a knock.
These are essential as they stop the helmet from flying off your head! Straps are generally nylon and can be adjusted to get the best fit. They fasten under your chin using a buckle to keep everything in place.
There’ll also be some form of mechanism for adjusting the straps. Depending on the brand and price, this will usually be a wheel, knob or slider.
Helmets usually also have some sort of interior padding for extra fit and comfort. These can often be removed for washing.
What different types of bicycle helmets are there?
Road Bike Helmets
Road helmets are all about aerodynamics and ventilation. They’re designed with speed in mind and weigh less due to having more air vents to help you keep you cool when you’re pounding it out along the tarmac.
The downside is they don’t offer as much protection as other types of helmets, particularly if you’re taking some gnarly trails. Mountain bike helmets really come into their own here.
Mountain Bike Helmets
The best mountain bike helmets also offer good ventilation but are sturdier and heavier, and often come with extra features such as visors and extra coverage at the back of the head for more protection. Downhill riders often opt for a full-face helmet so their entire head is covered but this is probably a bit overkill for bikepacking.
Gravel Bike Helmets
You’d think that these would be basically the same as mountain bike helmets, but there are subtle differences. This is due to the fact that gravel riding tends to be a combination of tricky rough roads, high-speed road riding and slow climbs plus everything in between, so gravel helmets have evolved to cope with whatever’s thrown at them.
Gravel bike helmets tend to be lighter and well ventilated, plus they often have some cool extra features such as a clip to secure sunglasses or riding eyewear when you’re not wearing them – if you want to be posh it’s called an eye garage (ooer!)
Collapsible Cycle Helmets
These have really taken off in recent years. Although fairly lightweight, cycle helmets are still on the bulky side, so unless you’ve bags of room chances are you’ll need to wear them when you’re not on the bike.
Foldable helmets score here because they’re easier to stow away when they’re not needed and you don’t run the risk of permanent helmet hair.
But are they safe? All helmets sold still need to pass rigorous tests to be certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). However, they’re designed more for a commute across town on an electric bike so they may not stand up to the rigours of a proper gnarly route.
If you’ve spent time looking at bike helmets lately (and we’d guess you have as you’re reading this) then chances are you’ll have come across the term MIPS.
So what is a MIPS helmet and what does it mean for you?
MIPS stands for Multi-directional Impact Protection System. Doesn’t exactly roll easily off the tongue, but the technology is based on the work of Swedish Neurosurgeon Hans Von Holst, who realised the human brain handles straight-on impacts better than impacts that force the brain to rotate.
He found that most cycling accidents result in rotational forces on impact, which can do some serious damage even when a helmet’s worn. Van Holst discovered that making a helmet with two low-friction layers inside causes a certain motion between the helmet and head which reduces rotational brain injuries.
How does MIPS helmet technology work?
A thin layer of material, known as a slip plane or slip liner, is fitted into the bike helmet. Although it’s a part of the helmet, it’s anchored at key points which means there’s some freedom of movement. It’s this movement that means less pressure is placed on your brain in an impact.
Helmet brands have been flocking to partner with MIPS and use its technology in their helmets, but does it really work? MIPS claim that a helmet using MIPS rotational impact protection system gives at least 10% more protection than those without. In reality, this 10% figure is a minimum baseline and most helmets see a much larger improvement than this.
All helmets, with and without MIPS, need to pass certain safety standards before they can be sold, but MIPS also has its own testing standards and they have brought out a range of designs to fit particular brands.
The downside to MIPS technology is that helmets using it tend to be on the pricier side and can also fit differently. You may need to go for a larger size than you’re used to.
MIPS helmets also used to be less breathable due to the slip planes blocking the vents, although MIPS has developed a lighter-touch design that gets around this.
Should I get a MIPS helmet?
Helmets using MIPS technology do seem to offer better protection in the event of an impact, although do bear in mind that all helmets on the market have undergone rigorous safety checks and although we can’t guarantee that one helmet's ability to protect you is better than another, any helmet is better than no helmet.
How do I fit my helmet?
First you’ll need to know your helmet size. Chances are you’ll already know this if you’re a seasoned cyclist but it doesn’t hurt to check, just in case you’ve been wearing the wrong size for years. It can happen.
Grab a tape measure (not the metal kind – that’ll hurt!) and wrap it around the widest part of your head, around two inches above your eyebrows. A length of string will do if you don’t have a tape measure handy, just make a mark where it meets and measure this against a ruler.
If you’ve not worn a particular type of bike helmet before, the best option is to physically try it on for size and fit. If you can’t get to a store to try it, don’t be frightened to send an online order back if it’s not right and try another size – you need to get this right and helmet sizes can vary from brand to brand.
No two heads are the same so your new helmet should adjust to get the fit just right for your noggin. Most have a sizing dial on the back you can twist; the helmet should feel tight but not overly so. As a good rule of thumb, you should be able to put two fingers together and place them between the top of your eyebrows and the helmet.
Adjust the chin strap so it’s snug but doesn’t cut into your skin; there should be just enough room to fit one finger between the strap and chin. The side straps should form a ‘V’ shape that fits around your ears, not on top of them.
When you feel the helmet fits, give it a wobble. There shouldn’t be too much excessive movement. Straps loosen over time, so check them from time to time to make sure all’s still snug.
Summing it all up
The best helmet for you will largely depend on two things; your budget and where you'll be going. Bike helmets designed for roads, mountain biking or gravel riding all have their place on a bikepacking trip.
Looking for a good quality lid on a shoestring budget? The Bell Tracker might fit the bill nicely. Going somewhere hot? You'll need a lightweight helmet with adequate ventilation like the Ventral Lite. Looking for the best protection on those gnarlier trails? The Giro Men's Helios should have you covered.
Riding in low light? You'll appreciate the LED fitted into the Bell Formula. Going somewhere considerably cooler? Give the Troy Lee Designs A1 a spin.
New to bikepacking and want to give it a try? Why not come along on our intro to bikepacking beginner's weekend in the Cotswolds?
How often should I replace my bicycle helmet?
It’s generally recommended that you replace your lid every three to four years. This is because exposure to the elements can degrade the helmet over a period of time. The EPS liner will gradually lose its volume even if there’s been no major impact. Even the act of putting the helmet down or accidentally knocking it against the door frame has an impact over time.
Of course, you need to replace any helmet after a hard knock. But what if you only took a small tumble and it doesn’t look as though it’s damaged?
You should still think about replacing it, as any damage might not be visible. Plus if any part of the inner helmet was crushed during the impact it’ll be less able to protect you a second time.
Do I Need a Visor?
The main visual difference between road helmets and mountain bike helmets/ gravel bike helmets is that off-road helmets usually sport a visor. Road helmets don’t usually have these to keep them light and aerodynamic, but visors do offer some extra protection from the sun, overhanging branches and impacts. An adjustable visor gives you greater flexibility.
It’s really down to personal preferences and the difficulty of the terrain you’ll encounter. Many helmets come with a detachable visor so you’ll have the choice.
How do I look after my bike helmet?
Once you’ve paid over a decent wedge of cash for your helmet, you’ll want it to last as long as possible. For starters, treat it gently. The fewer knocks it has the better, so try not to drop it and don’t just chuck it into the car or cupboard under the stairs (or is that just us?)
Clean it from time to time with some mild soap and water and a non-abrasive pad. Don’t even think about putting it in the washing machine, dishwasher or tumble drier.
If the fit pads are removable they can be machine washed on a cool setting or replaced when they’re worn. Be careful which insect repellent you use as those containing DEET can damage your lid.
Can I use a mountain bike helmet for bikepacking?
Absolutely. Mountain bike helmets will give you brilliant protection on those rougher, less-developed roads. The best mountain bike helmets will have extra coverage but still allow for sufficient airflow to keep you cool.
Can I use my mountain biking gear for bikepacking?
No reason why not. Bikepacking involves getting off the beaten track and tackling a whole variety of terrain from single-track to trail riding so mountain bike gear would suit the trail nicely. You don't need to spend a small fortune to start bikepacking - just use what gear you have already, whether it's mountain bike gear or road gear.
Our founder George quit his job to take an epic trip from Alaska to Panama - read all about the gear you'll need for your own bikepacking trip.
Mountain bikes stand up to the rigours of the trail nicely and as long as you can fit some bags onto the frame of your mountain bike for your stuff, you're good to go!
What are the best mountain bike helmets for bikepacking?
If you're going totally off-road and onto particularly gnarly trails, a mountain bike helmet might suit you better than a road helmet. The best mountain bike helmet for you may not be the best mountain bike helmet for your bestie though. Lids are like fingerprints - they're individual.
Some mountain bike helmets have features you won't necessarily need on a bikepacking trip - you probably won't need a full-face helmet or full head coverage for example (unless you're going somewhere really interesting... in which case, can we come?)
We've researched a whole host of helmets, including some of the best mountain bike helmets for bikepacking, so take a peek above!