How to Shop for an ATV Helmet

ATV rider in the forest
Westend61 / Getty Images

Depending on the state you live in, odds are a helmet, whether open-face or full-face, is a required piece of equipment for all ATV riders and passengers. Helmets are the single most effective means of preventing head injuries, some of which could result in a permanent disability or even death. That is why choosing the right helmet is so important.

Other Reasons to Wear a Helmet

The helmet you put on your head may be the only thing responsible for saving your life when your own judgment, skill, and luck have failed to keep you from harm. Safety aside, however, there are other compelling reasons for wearing a helmet when you go out riding. A good helmet will:

  • Cut down on ambient wind noise, allowing you to hear other sounds more clearly
  • Protect you from flying insects
  • Keep you more alert by reducing wind fatigue
  • Offer excellent eye protection and allow you to see more clearly
  • Assuming you choose a brightly colored helmet, you'll be easier to spot by other off-roaders

Choosing the Right Style of Helmet

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 off-road/Motocross helmet, consider the following:

Full-face helmets provide excellent protection, thanks to their built-in face shields. In addition, the molding extends over your chin and mouth for added protection.

Open-face helmets are less constrictive, but they provide the least protection and do not protect your chin and mouth area. Though they do come with chin straps, in this case, these are primarily a means of keeping the helmet securely on your head.

Off-road/Motocross helmets are recommended for those who ride ATVs aggressively. These helmets cover most of your face and have a solid piece of molding jutting out over your chin and jaw. Off-road helmets are different from regular full-face helmets in that they provide optimum ventilation (nose, mouth, sides, and top), a flip-up visor that also serves as a face shield, and many other unique features beneficial for rigorous off-road riding.

Basic Helmet Features

It's imperative to buy a helmet that is going to meet a variety of needs. At the very least, look for a helmet with these features:

  1. Plenty of comfort padding (the soft foam-rubber padding that touches your skin)
  2. A good seal around the ear, but not touching the ear itself
  3. A neck roll that nestles against the back of your head and neck
  4. An absence of protruding components inside the helmet, like face shield attachments or strap fasteners
  5. DOT and/or Snell certifications
  6. A liner featuring a good amount of EPS, that hard Styrofoam-type cushioning that 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.
  7. A face shield certified to meet the standards of VESC-8 or ANSI Z-87. (Snell-certified helmets meet even stricter standards.) The face shield should also be easy to open and close should stay in position when raised, and should not distort your view or block your peripheral vision.

New vs. Used

Believe it or not, all helmets have a shelf life. That's because they are made of materials that deteriorate with age. As such, they have a limited lifespan and must be replaced after five years, less if the manufacturer recommends it.

Glues, resins, and other materials used to make the helmet eventually break down as well, which affects the interior liner. This liner will also start to deteriorate over time as it comes into contact with hair oils, body fluids, and/or cosmetics. All this, in addition to normal wear and tear, leads to helmet degradation.

Finally, keep in mind that a helmet is good for only one impact. If you ever dent or crack your helmet for any reason, replace it immediately. All of the safety features become obsolete once a helmet is distressed in any 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).

So the bottom line when purchasing a helmet is to always buy new, never used.

Finding the Right Fit

Most people make the mistake of buying a helmet that's too large, especially when buying youth-size helmets. Many budget-minded parents tend to over-size their children's helmets in order to get an extra year or two of wear. This can be dangerous. Proper fit is absolutely key to maximizing protection, and too large a helmet can defeat its purpose. Likewise, a too-large helmet is likely to be noisy due to increased wind resistance, and it will physically tire you out trying to keep the helmet in place.

To find your correct 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 measured size (helmet sizes are not consistent).

If the helmet feels loose when you shake your head side to side, front to back, or up and down, or if you can pull the helmet on without having to spread the sides a bit, it is too big. Basically, 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. To test this, 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. 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. A full-face helmet should grip your cheeks and jaw as well as the top and sides of your head.

Once you've found the helmet you think fits you best, wear it around the store for 10 or 15 minutes. 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.

Finally, check the helmet's position. People have a tendency to wear a helmet too far back, but they are 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.

If in doubt about any aspect of your helmet's fit, ask a salesperson to advise you.

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 to take your time and try on at least three different helmets from at least two different manufacturers—not every brand of helmet fits 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.

Other Features to Consider

Here are some additional 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 to reduce wind noise
  • Removable/washable nose filter

Ventilation

  • Forehead vents (adjustable or not) for increased airflow
  • 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 and 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, which can make a big difference at the end of a long, grueling ride or race. In fact, 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
  • Meets or exceeds DOT standards, and ideally meets Snell ratings

About Safety Ratings

The Snell rating is a more stringent rating, but it 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, a Snell certification is more than simply a set of high standards—it is based on actual testing of actual helmets.

Since Snell is a top rating, you would think that all helmet manufacturers would get Snell certified. But this isn't always the case. Some are content with meeting the minimum requirements for helmet safety, while others, unfortunately, could care less about the consequences of making an inferior safety product. Instead, they opt for the best "look," or the cheapest price. Still, other manufacturers might have submitted their helmets for testing and failed.

Regardless, ask yourself how much a Snell rating is worth to you and your family.

As for certification by the Department of Transportation (DOT), this rating simply indicates that a manufacturer believes that its helmet meets basic DOT standards, but without any actual testing by DOT. In that sense, DOT ratings are fairly easy to come by, and virtually anybody can make and sell a helmet with a DOT sticker.

Keep in mind, if you purchase a "novelty" helmet without either a Snell or DOT rating, you may look cool but the degree of protection you'll receive in the event of a crash will be minimal. And how cool will you look then?

Other Safety Considerations

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 has to carry the weight of the helmet.