How To Shop For A New ATV Helmet

Boy (4-6) sitting on ATV, family in background
(Brian Bailey/Getty Images)

Depending on the state you live in, odds are a helmet is a required piece of equipment for all ATV riders and passengers.

Helmets are the single most effective means of preventing head injuries that result in death or permanent disability. The helmet you put on your head may be only thing responsible for saving your life when your own judgment, skill, and luck have failed to keep you from harm. That is why choosing the right helmet is so important.

Safety Aside, Here Are The Best Reasons To Wear A Helmet

  • By cutting down ambient wind noise, helmets can actually help you hear other sounds better.
  • A full-face helmet can keep you from being distracted when a large insect hits your face.
  • By reducing fatigue from the wind, they keep you more alert.
  • By protecting your eyes from the wind, they allow you to see better.
  • And if you wear a bright-colored one, it will be easier for other offroaders (including bigger 4x4 trucks!) to see and avoid you.

What To Look For In An Offroad Helmet

  1. If possible, opt for an "off-road" or "Motocross" helmet, over a standard motorcycle helmet. Motorcycle helmets will serve the purpose just fine, but you might enjoy some of the unique features that come with helmets made specifically for off-road riding. To help you determine whether you want a "full-face," "open-face," or an "Offroad/Motocross" helmet, consider this:
    • Full Face - provides excellent protection. This helmet comes with a built-in face shield and the molding extends over your chin and mouth for added protection.
    • Open Face - provides the least protection. This helmet does not protect your chin and mouth area, though it comes with a chin strap - primarily as a means of keeping the helmet securely on your head.
    • Offroad/Motocross - the recommended helmet choice for those who ride ATVs aggressively. This helmet covers most of your face and has a solid piece of molding jutting out over your chin and jaw. Off-road helmets are different from the typical full face helmets in that they provide optimum ventilation (nose/mouth/sides/top), as well as a flip-up visor that also serves as a face shield, and many other unique features beneficial for rigorous off-road riding.
  1. Make sure it's comfortable. These things will have the most notable effect on a helmet's comfort level:
    • Plenty of comfort padding (the soft foam-rubber padding that touches your skin)
    • A good seal around the ear (but not touching the ear itself)
    • A neck roll that nestles against the back of your head and neck
    • An absence of protruding components inside (from the face shield attachments or strap fasteners)
  1. Make sure that it's DOT and/or Snell certified.
  2. The more EPS the better, because it's the EPS liner inside the helmet (the hard Styrofoam-type cushion) that actually absorbs the force of an impact. Some helmets just cover the minimum mandated area with EPS; others line the entire shell with it. If your helmet has a chin bar, then the EPS should extend there as well.
  3. If your helmet has a face shield, it should be certified to meet the standards of VESC-8 or ANSI Z-87. (Snell-certified helmets even meet stricter standards.) While face shields today come with many options, these are the most important:
    • The face shield should be easy to open
    • It should stay in position when raised
    • The shield should not distort your view (make straight lines appear curvy or block your peripheral vision)

Is An "Old" Helmet Okay?

There are three things to keep in mind, regarding the shelf life of a helmet:

  • Since helmets are made of materials which deteriorate with age, they have a limited lifespan and must be replaced after five years (less if the manufacturer recommends).
  • Glues, resins and other materials used to make the helmet eventually break down, affecting the interior liner. The inside liner will also start to deteriorate when it comes in contact with hair oils, body fluids and/or cosmetics over time. All this is, in addition to normal wear and tear, leads to helmet degradation.
  • A helmet is good for only one impact. If you should ever dent or crack your helmet, you must get a replacement helmet right away. All of the safety features become obsolete once a helmet has become distressed in some way. Helmets are constructed so that the energy of a blow is managed by the helmet, causing its partial destruction (which may not necessarily be visible to the eye).

    Here are some very important facts regarding ATV helmets. Bet you'll never place your helmet near a paint can, next to your quad's exhaust, or over your handlebars again!

Finding the Right Fit

First, determine the circumference of the widest part of your head (the area one-inch above your eyes and ears) by wrapping a flexible tape measure around it. Then try on a helmet one size smaller and larger than your "size". All helmet sizes are NOT created equal!

For a helmet to be effective, it must feel comfortable on your head. Helmets should fit snugly, but not painfully tight.

How Tight Is Too Tight?

If you can pull the helmet on without having to spread the helmet, it is too big and will not fit right.

A properly fitted helmet might seem tight as you pull it on because the foam components that seal out the wind noise are made to conform to your head. If a helmet pulls on too easily without resistance of such padding, it will probably be noisy and uncomfortable in the long run.

Basically, the helmet should fit snugly so that it is stable when you shake your head side-to-side, front-to-back or up and down. A full-face helmet should grip your cheeks and jaw as well as the top and sides of your head.

Before You Leave The Store

Most retail stores will not exchange a helmet for another size after it’s been worn for any length of time. So be sure take your time, and try on at least 3 different helmets from at least 2 different manufacturers; not every brand of helmet can fit every head size and shape.

Be aware that a helmet may fit and feel one way in the store, yet fit and feel quite differently during riding. So ask if you can take a helmet for a test drive; if not, then try it out at home. Just be clear about the store's return policy.

In sum, there should be very little "play" in the way the helmet sits on your head. In fact, the helmet should not be able to move around on your head without it tugging on your skin a bit.

Bigger Isn't Always Better!

Most people make the mistake of buying a helmet that's too large. Remember this: A loose-fitting helmet is not only dangerous, but may also be noisy due to increased wind resistance, and it will physically tire you out trying to keep the helmet in place.

When it comes to youth-size helmets, many budget-minded parents tend to over-size their child helmet so as to get an extra year or two of use out of it. Proper fit is absolutely key to maximizing protection, and too large a helmet can defeat its purpose.

Try this test:

Wear the one that fits you best inside the store for several minutes (up to 15 minutes if possible). If you can see clearly in all directions, and you aren't physically fatigued by the weight of the helmet or by its looseness or tightness, AND the helmet manages to stay in place when you jump up and down and lean from side to side, then that helmet fits you properly.

How Easily Does It Come Off?

  • NOTE: People often have a tendency to wear a helmet too far back. A helmet is meant to be worn low on the forehead, just above your eyebrows. If you can't see the edge of the brim at the extreme upper range of your vision, the helmet is probably too far back.
  • Try to remove the helmet from your head without undoing the retention system closures. If the helmet comes off or shifts freely over your eyes, then you need to re-adjust and try again.
  • If you can grab the rear lip of the helmet and roll it forward off your head (even with slight pressure), then you need a different helmet; it should not come off.
  • Grab the helmet with both hands and try to move the helmet forward and backward and from side to side. The helmet fits right if your skin moves with the liner of the helmet.

Cool Features to Consider

Here are some of the coolest features you might want to look for in your next ATV helmet:

Exterior

  • Scratch-resistant outer shell
  • Full graphics packages
  • Bright, solid colors (orange, yellow, red, white) stand out more than black or patterned helmets
  • Modern color choices and graphics packages

Interior

  • Snap out cheek pads
  • Replaceable/washable interior lining
  • Molded goggle pads to keep goggles/glasses in place
  • Wrap-around neck roll reduces wind noise
  • Removable/washable nose filter

Ventilation

  • Forehead vents (adjustable or not) for increased air flow
  • Replaceable forehead and chin vents provide increased airflow and reduced wind noise
  • Tinted visors
  • Adjustable interior venting to prevent the face shield from fogging
  • Chin vent to help eliminate shield fogging
  • Unique anti-fog system with adjustable side vents to create a vacuum effect drawing heat and moisture out
  • Built-in neck-roll exhaust vent

Mouth Area

  • No-clog mouthpiece for enhanced flow-through air ventilation
  • Interchangeable mouth guards
  • Mouthpiece vents (adjustable or not)

Visors/Face Shields

  • Replaceable visors/face shields
  • Quick-change face shield mechanism
  • Face shield with a coating that resists scratching
  • Tool-less shield removal
  • UV protection on the face shield
  • Pre-set lever can easily lock the shield in place to prevent it from opening unexpectedly

Miscellaneous

  • Ultra lightweight - the lighter the weight, the better to reduce neck fatigue - at the end of a long, grueling ride or race, an extra two or three pounds of weight on your head can seem like 50!
  • Storage/carrying bag
  • 5+ year warranty - protects you from deterioration of the helmet should it have been on the store shelf too long before you purchased it. ( Helmets do have a shelf life!)
  • Meets or exceeds DOT standards; ideally Snell ratings

Snell Standards

The Snell rating is a more stringent rating, and is completely voluntary, meaning that helmet manufacturers can choose whether or not they wish to meet Snell's advanced safety guidelines. Snell standards are set to levels that only the best, most protective headgear will meet. Moreover, Snell certification is more than simply high "standards", it is based on actual testing of actual helmets.

DOT Standards

The DOT rating simply indicates that a manufacturer believes that its helmet meets the basic DOT standards, without any actual testing on the helmets themselves. In that sense, DOT ratings are fairly easy to come by, and virtually anybody can make and sell a helmet with a DOT sticker. Fortunately, DOT personnel periodically buys helmets and sends them to independent labs for testing to assure that they actually do meet the standard. The results are posted on the NHTSA website in a pass/fail form. You might be surprised to learn that more than half of all helmets recently tested with the DOT sticker on them actually failed DOT's lab tests.

Keep in mind, if you purchase a "novelty" helmet without either of these safety ratings (Snell or DOT), you may look the coolest, however, the degree of protection you'll receive in the event of a crash will be minimal. How cool will you look then?

If They're The "Best", Why Aren't All Helmets Snell Certified?

  • Some helmet manufacturers do not believe that they need such certification to demonstrate that theirs is quality protective headgear.
  • Some are content with meeting the minimum requirements for helmet safety.
  • Some helmet manufacturers try to meet Snell guidelines and just can't make the grade.
  • Some helmet makers could care less about the consequences of making an inferior safety product. Instead, they opt for the best "look," or the cheapest price.

Important Safety Warnings

Before you place your helmet near a paint can, next to your quad's exhaust, or over your handlebars, check out these little-known facts regarding ATV riding helmets and safety:

  • Never store your helmet near gasoline, cleaning fluids, or paint. The fumes can react with the helmet's materials and cause the helmet to decompose.
  • Never place your helmet near a quad's exhaust pipes or hot engine parts. The heat can melt or deform the shock absorbing liner, usually a form of Styrofoam, rendering it useless in an impact.
  • Never hang your helmet on your handlebars. You might not be able to see it when mounting your quad and the shock absorbing liner may compress if it carries the weight of the helmet.

    Source: New Hampshire ATV Club