When I launched GRAVELBIKE in 2011, the helmet market was dominated by a handful of big-name companies. And while many of those same brands remain popular, dozens of new companies have emerged, all competing for a piece of what is a hundred-million dollar market (in the US alone). That competition benefits you, the consumer, in the form of more choices, higher quality, and lower prices.
Shopping for a helmet, your number-one criteria should be correct fit. A properly fitting $75 helmet is better than a $200 helmet that fits poorly. One common misconception is that costlier helmets provide more protection than less expensive models. High-end helmets often weigh less and offer improved ventilation, but every helmet–regardless of price–sold through legitimate channels must pass the same certification tests.
My methodology for evaluating these helmets was simple–I wore each one while riding my bicycle. I rode in warm, and not-so-warm weather. I rode on dirt, gravel, and pavement. I rode bikes equipped with drop and upright handlebars, and I rode for recreation and transportation. As you might imagine, the results are subjective, but features such as ease of adjustment, ventilation, and overall fit and comfort became apparent with repeated use.
|Model||Weight||Vents||Sizes (Tested)||MSRP (USD)|
|661 EVO AM CPSC||452 grams||15||XS-S, M-L, (XL-XXL)||$159.99|
|Bern FL-1 Trail||282 grams||18||S, M, (L)||$69.99|
|Nutcase Metroride MIPS||391 grams||6||S-M, (L-XL)||$104.99|
|Specialized Airnet MIPS||351 grams||23||S, M, (L)||$170.00|
|Sweet Protection Bushwhacker II||363 grams||13||S-M, M-L, (L-XL)||$199.95|
661 EVO AM CPSC
Founded in 1999, SixSixOne realized early on that slapping a visor on a road-style helmet wasn’t the best way to design a helmet for trail riding. And although the California-based company made a name for itself with full-face helmets and protective gear, it hasn’t ignored fans of open-face helmets. Billed as the ultimate, all-mountain open-face helmet, SixSixOne’s EVO AM was designed from the ground up to deliver unparalleled protection, comfort, and security.
To meet those lofty requirements, SixSixOne constructed the EVO AM from Contego EPS foam, and spec’d it with a MIPS liner for protection from angled impacts. According to SixSixOne, Contego’s softer foam around the head and harder foam near the outside of the helmet softens blows better than conventional single-density foam. A 360-degree BOA® fit system keeps the SixSixOne in place, and the magnetic Fidlock® buckle allows true, one-handed opening and closure.
SixSixOne has packed a lot of tech into the $150 EVO AM. It’s got the coverage you’d expect for trail riding, but the helmet’s 452-gram weight was noticeable on longer rides. The EVO AM’s straps and BOA retention system were easy to adjust (and didn’t require frequent readjustment), but the two-position visor can’t be adjusted on-the-fly. Sizing the EVO AM can be a bit tricky–my original M-L sample proved to be too small, but the XL-XXL size fit properly with room for a thin skullcap.
Bern FL-1 Trail
If you ride a bike, ski/snowboard, or skate, there’s a good chance that Bern has a helmet for you (no matter what your age). Initially making a name for themselves with street-inspired, all-weather helmets, the Massachusetts-based company now offers dedicated road and MTB helmets. For riders that spend time on- and off-road, Bern’s $69.99 FL-1 Trail delivers style and performance without the premium price tag.
Weighing a scant 281 grams (size large), the FL-1 Trail proves that lightweight helmets don’t have to cost a fortune. Like Bern’s pricier FL-1 XC model ($109.99-$129.99), the FL-1 Trail features in-mold construction and ample ventilation, making it suitable for multiple disciplines (both helmets share the same CPSC and EN1078 certifications). Helping to keep the price down are Bern’s own dial retention system, and a simplified visor.
With 18 vents, the FL-1 is an excellent choice for warm weather riding. Unfortunately, the helmet’s pads are rather basic, and the FL-1’s snug fit left no room for a skull cap or headband. While the FL-1’s visor can’t be adjusted, it’s easily removed without any tools. Bern’s retention system proved to be extremely secure (and was easily adjusted on-the-fly), but the Y-straps’ buckles tended to slip, requiring frequent readjustment.
Nutcase Metroride MIPS
Boring helmets are, well, boring. Not everyone, however, wants a helmet that looks like it was inspired by one of H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creations. Whether you ride for utility or recreation, Oregon-based Nutcase has a helmet that’ll fit your style and look good while protecting your precious grey matter. The company’s Metroride model has been around for a while, but Nutcase recently added a MIPS-equipped version ($104.99) that offers even more protection.
Like Nutcase’s other helmets, the Metroride MIPS has a simple, low-key aesthetic. There’s more to the Metroride than good looks, though. The CPSC-certified Metroride features in-mold construction, a dual-position spin lock retention system, and a snap-in visor. A Fidlock® magnetic buckle and 3M™ reflective straps keep the Nutcase securely fastened, while the padded chinstrap protector offers additional comfort.
While not quite one-size-fits-all, I was initially concerned that the Metroride MIPS’ simplified sizing system (S/M, L/XL) wouldn’t be compatible with my larger-than-average melon. I’m happy to report that the L/XL Metroride fit just fine (with the stock thickness pads, no less). With room for a lightweight skullcap, the Nutcase can easily make the transition from summer to autumn riding. The helmet’s six vents do a good job of keeping you cool at moderate speeds, but strenuous efforts in hot weather found me wishing for some additional ventilation.
Specialized Airnet MIPS
As the largest company represented in this roundup, it should come as no surprise that Specialized has a helmet for practically any two-wheeled discipline (more than 60 models as of this writing). Sitting at the top of the company’s adventure helmet lineup is the $170.00 Airnet MIPS. The Airnet’s name is a clever homage to the leather hairnet helmets of yesteryear. But unlike those oldschool lids that delivered more style than protection, the Airnet MIPS utilizes modern materials and construction to protect your brain from the rotational violence caused by angled impacts.
With a name like Airnet, it probably comes as no surprise that the eponymously named helmet is the most ventilated model in this roundup. But this airy adventure helmet isn’t just about ventilation. According to Specialized’s testing, the Airnet is the company’s third-fastest helmet, bested only by the their TT and Evade models. Peek inside the Airnet and you’ll find a suite of drirelease® Merino wool pads; designed to keep you comfortable, dry, and odor-free. Continuing the Airnet’s creature comforts are straps constructed from lightweight 4X DryLite webbing that won’t stretch out when saturated with sweat.
It may sound like hyperbole, but wearing the Airnet feels like you’re wearing nothing at all. This came as a bit of a surprise, because the 351-gram Airnet isn’t the lightest helmet that I tested. Low weight–while certainly an important component in helmet design–isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to overall functionality. With Specialized’s Airnet MIPS, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. During the past seven years, I’ve worn more helmets than I can remember, but none of them can match the Airflow when it comes to ventilation.
Sweet Protection Bushwhacker II
If the Sweet Protection brand doesn’t ring a bell, don’t feel too bad. Prior to testing the Bushwhacker II helmet, I had never heard of the Norwegian company. Founded in 2000, Sweet Protection’s first product was the Grimnir snowboard helmet. The company began offering cycle helmets in 2011, and the lineup now includes mountain, road, and urban models. Designed for enduro/trail use, the $199.99 Bushwhacker ll features the same in-mold construction and five-piece shell found on Sweet’s more expensive models.
The Bushwhacker’s unique, angular profile isn’t just for looks. Most helmet shells are constructed from a single piece of foam. Sweet’s five-piece shell is formed from–wait for it–five separate pieces of varying thickness, giving the Bushwhacker ll its distinctive appearance. Why use five pieces instead of one? According to Sweet Protection, by using thick and thin pieces, the Bushwhacker II can crumple on impacts that might not otherwise deform a helmet with a conventional one-piece shell.
While I didn’t verify the company’s claims of the five-piece shell’s superior protection, I can tell you that the helmet’s other features performed above my expectations. I would classify the Bushwhacker’s fit as roomy, but certainly not sloppy. There’s room for a skullcap or doo-rag, but the Occigrip retention system kept the helmet securely in place on even the roughest trails. Coverage is good, but some riders may find that the shell’s deep fit interferes with large sunglasses. The shatter-resistant ABS visor is easily adjusted on-the-fly, and ventilation was adequate for all but the hottest weather.
Disclosure: Each of the aforementioned companies provided review samples for this article, but offered no other form of compensation in exchange for editorial coverage.