Types of Motorcycle Helmets
There are six types of motorcycle helmets:
- Full face
- Modular (AKA Flip-up)
- Open face (AKA ¾ helmet)
- Half helmet (AKA brain bucket)
- Off-road (AKA motocross helmet)
- Dual-sport (AKA crossover, ADV, hybrid, enduro)
That’s quite the confusing crew, with more aliases than the cast of a James Bond film. If you need help with one type, just click on category above to navigate ahead.
For each genre, we've written a short blurb on the pros, cons, and what to look for when buying. This section closes with a few comments on racing helmets.
Full Face Helmets
When you picture a motorcycle helmet, this is probably what you have in mind. Full faces cover the top, back and front of your head. Except for the eye port of course, which is important for a little safety feature called being able to see. As opposed to 3/4 and half helmets, full faces have a chin bar. And since 45% of helmet impacts occur in this area, it’s a handy feature.
Riding position is hugely important for full face helmets. Sport riders are often hunched over, which demands complimentary ergonomics from a helmet. On sportier helmets, the chin bar will be higher, and the eye port should be angled slightly towards the top of the helmet. Also, ventilation ducts will be placed near the top of the head to draw the most air in a tuck position. Sporty full faces are also slippery against the wind, and have special aerodynamics to prevent helmet lifting at high speeds.
For those with a more upright position – tourers, cruisers or ADV riders – a full face helmet should have a slightly different shape. The chin bar will extend a little lower, the eye port will be angled straight out, and there will be more frontal air ducts. These touring and casual helmets also focus on comfort and soundproofing. Sometimes, they come with add-ons that would make a techie wet himself: Mp3, Bluetooth, rider-to-rider comms, etc.
The problem with full faces is ventilation. If you have the visor closed – and anyone who has taken a wasp to the eye at 100 km/h will have the visor closed – the helmet is basically a sealed bubble. So, you should look for something that is well ventilated to prevent your hair from spontaneously combusting. Moisture wicking, removable and machine-washable padding is also a plus, because no one likes to put their head in a smelly bucket. Of course, in Canada, the warmth from a full face’s coverage is often a good thing. When the mercury drops, you’ll be glad for it.
With full face helmets, there’s also the whole visor issue to consider. Depending on how much sun you see, the UV protection rating could be important. You should also pay attention to lens colors – they’re for more than just looking cool! If you ride primarily in very bright conditions, a mirrored or dark colored lens will protect from glare. And if you live under perpetual cloud cover – like some West and East coasters – a rose or yellow colored lens will help enhance definition. Clear lenses are perfect for anyone who does a bit of night riding, while jet-black lenses should be used with caution. Trust me, a blackout visor is only cool until you enter a slightly dim tunnel and smash into the wall.
One other visor issue has to do with fogging. And believe it or not, there are more factors at play than just your sweaty head. Anti-fogging lenses are a good – but not foolproof – solution. To further minimize fogging, find a helmet with a built-in breath box. This directs your exhalations away from the visor. You could also find a model that is compatible with the pinlock system. The pinlock system involves putting a second lens behind the regular face shield, effectively creating a double-paned barrier that prevents fogging.
Modular Helmets (AKA Flip-up)
These are the Optimus Primes of helmets. And by that, I mean that the chin bar flips up (or is removed entirely) to turn a full face helmet into an open face helmet. Maybe that’s not as impressive as alien robots. But hey, this is real life.
Modular helmets are popular with adventure and sport touring riders. The versatility is great for anyone who occasionally wants to grab a bite to eat, smoke a cigarette, consult a map or talk to a friend. With a modular helmet, you can flip up the chin bar and accomplish all these tasks without taking your lid off. Neat, eh?
It is worth noting that – for the majority of modular helmets – it is not recommended to ride in the open face position. That’s because, on most models, the chin bar flips onto the top of the helmet. This is great for rest stops, but it’s neither aerodynamic nor safe while riding. Besides, it looks totally geeky and conehead-ish.
Modular helmets are inherently less safe than standard full faces. That’s because the flip-up mechanism introduces a hinge to an otherwise solid structure, subsequently weakening the helmet. However, modular helmets are still much safer than open face or half helmets. While there are a few sporty modular helmets, most are geared towards a casual riding style. That is, most of them work best in an upright or near-upright riding position.
Open Face Helmets (AKA ¾)
Open face helmets are extremely popular among cruisers and scooter riders. The ¾ structure has an inherently vintage feel, and matches well with stylish street-going motorcycles.
When compared to full faces, open face helmets are structurally equal in terms of safety. That is, the shells often use the same composites and padding for impact resistance. However, as is readily apparent from the name itself, open face helmets provide less coverage. Notably, there is no chin bar and – in many cases – there is no face shield either. So, an open face helmet will cover the top, back and sides of your head, but not your face.
The benefit of an open face helmet is the airy feel. However, this can also be a problem in rainy or dusty weather. If your helmet has a flip-down visor, you might still need a bandana to protect your chin. Alternately, you could grow an enormous beard to solve the problem. If your helmet does not have any eye protection, there are a few options. In sunny weather, you can get away with wearing glasses. If the conditions get rough, most riders opt for goggles. Many helmet manufacturers will offer snap-on eye protection that is specially designed to work with their helmets.
Half Helmets (AKA brain buckets)
Half helmets are the most minimal of lids. They cover your head, normally from the top of your forehead to about halfway down the back of your head. They’re extremely popular with cruiser and vintage riders, with a particular following in the Harley-Davidson category. That said, they’ve seen some popularity with naked bikes as well – Ducati Monsters, BMW S1000Rs, Kawasaki Z1000s – anything with a streetfighter style.
Half helmets are normally DOT approved, making them legal on Canadian roads. That said, they lack in safety features. Half helmets have the minimal required coverage and – even on the top of the head – the impact resistance is often substandard.
Of course, only you can know which concessions are appropriate when it comes to safety. And if you’re cool with a half helmet, you’ll certainly have no problem looking it. Brain buckets capture that iconic image of motorcycling freedom. Plus, the air flow and lightness is like no other. If you require facial protection, riders will often use sunglasses, goggles and bandannas. Some helmets – like the Bell Rogue – come with a detachable muzzle to eliminate the need for a bandanna.
Off-road Helmets (AKA motocross)
Off-road helmets are distinguished from regular full faces by their sun peaks and pronounced, angular chin bars. Dirt riding demands a high physicality from the rider, and it’s often done in warmer weather. So, motocross helmets are designed to minimize weight and maximize ventilation.
You wouldn’t want to do much highway riding with an off-road helmet. At high speeds, the minimal soundproofing can make traffic and wind noise annoying. Plus, the sun peak will turn your head into a kite if you go too fast. For plunking around in the back woods, however, off-road helmets are perfect.
Motocross helmets are designed to be used with goggles – they do not have built-in face shields. That’s because goggles provide superior airflow, and they can be used with tear-offs in extremely dirty conditions. The sun peak lives up to its name – it protects your eyes from the sun. Plus, it also guards against mile-high roost falling from above.
For off-road racers, a carbon-fibre or advanced composite helmet would be a great choice. These save on weight without compromising in terms of safety. Racers should also look for an even higher standard of ventilation. If you wear body armour or a neck brace, it’s also worth finding a race-inspired helmet that will interface with these systems.
As usual, certain helmets fit certain head shapes. See our fitment section for more help with this. With off-road helmets, you’ll find that certain helmets fit certain goggle shapes as well. Having an eye port that matches the frame of your goggles can make a huge difference when it comes to keeping dust and rain out of your eyes. If you’re buying from a helmet manufacturer that also produces goggles – like Thor or Fox – check to see if they specify a goggle to match.
Dual-Sport Helmets (AKA crossover, ADV, hybrid, enduro)
Dual-Sport helmets fall somewhere between off-road and full face styles. Like motocross helmets, they have a sun peak and excellent ventilation. However, they also provide a little more warmth and soundproofing for on-road riding. And most obviously, they have a built-in visor and a truncated chin bar.
Dual-Sport helmets are all about versatility. If you’ve read the full face and off-road sections, all you need to know is that hybrid helmets fall squarely in between. Generally, they are ventilated like an off-road helmet, but not as much. They are soundproofed like a full face helmet, but not as much. Etcetera.
The sun peaks on dual sport helmets are aerodynamically designed to resist lifting at highway speeds. The visors are normally made so that, when flipped all the way up, the rider is able to use goggles instead. The technological intricacies go on, and they’re all geared for multipurpose use. If you’re actively seeking out both on-road and off-road terrain, a dual-sport helmet is a no-brainer.
A Few Notes on Racing Helmets
In the extreme environment of track racing, you won’t be jamming to your Mp3 player or calling your mother on the Bluetooth. So, don’t expect to find any of these weighty extras on a race helmet. Instead, you’ll find a trimmed down lid that focuses on three key areas: vision, safety and weight.
Since racing motorcycles don’t have mirrors, periphery vision is crucial for keeping an eye on competitors. Most racing helmets will have wide eye ports to accommodate this. On-road versions will often have thicker face shields as well, which increases durability in case of a high speed slide. These shields will also have a locking mechanism, which ensures that your helmet doesn't flip open at an inconvenient time.
Racing helmets have the utmost in safety features. Expect to find emergency removable padding, which allows medical personnel to take your helmet off without yanking on your neck. You will also find a Snell or ECE safety rating. Depending on where you race, one of these may be required. Be sure to check your particular criteria for race entry, and choose a helmet accordingly.
Lastly, racing helmets are very lightweight. Normally, manufacturers use space-age composites to achieve this effect. They also skimp on things like soundproofing, since most racers will wear ear plugs anyway. Racing helmets are also designed to fit with the speed hump on your leathers. A good interface between helmet and hump reduces drag by preventing vortices from forming behind your head.