Would you trust your life to a $20 helmet?

Helmet Buying – Expensive Vs Cheap Head Protection

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When it comes to safety gear for any sort of adventure activity, it makes sense to go for absolute quality. After all, saving a penny or two isn’t going to be very beneficial if you become too deceased to reap any benefit from the savings!

And nowhere is quality more important than when it comes to protecting your noggin, so a good helmet is a must for every cyclist.

But being BudgetBikepacking.com, I have to ask the question: does higher price necessarily equate to higher quality and greater safety?

I’ve always used what I consider to be mid-high priced helmets and have never had any complaints with them. Though that’s mainly due to the fact that they’ve never really had anything to do.

That was until one fateful day in 2017 when a daring pedestrian decided to blindly step onto the road in front of me.

My quick reactions meant that the pedestrian was fine. However, those reactions also put me directly in the path of a number of moving cars. That did not work out so fine.

Should I be pleased with my US$120 Limar helmet for saving my life, or should I be outraged that it didn’t prevent a fairly severe concussion? Would a more expensive helmet have saved my life AND prevented concussion? Would a cheaper helmet have neither prevented the concussion NOR saved my life?

Ultimately, I can only speculate and surmise. But having since researched that question a fair bit, I have an inkling that neither a cheaper nor more expensive helmet would have made much of a difference at all.

So how much should you spend on a helmet?

As with all cycling gear, you should get the best that you can afford in your circumstances.

You may have done fairly well for yourself and are able to go out and spend $500+ on the lightest helmet in the world.

Or you may want a trusted mid range piece in the $100-200 price bracket like the Giro Chronicle or the Bell Sixer, which both feature MIPS – a fancy slip-plane system inside the helmet, designed to reduce rotational forces that can result from certain impacts.

If money is more of an object, then budget friendly options around the $50 mark like offerings from TeamObsidian or Giro may fit the bill.

Though if you require absolute, bargain bin, budget prices, you still have plenty of options for decent helmets…

$20, $10, they’re actually viable prices for genuinely safe options. But, how?

How can a $20 helmet possibly compare to a $200 helmet?

It’s actually quite simple. 

Law.

All helmets are required to meet particular standards in order to be sold in a particular country or area, be it a $200 helmet or $20 helmet. So if you buy a helmet online from a reputable source, and that helmet says that it has CPSC (USA) or CE/EN1078 (Europe) certification, then that helmet should provide a reasonable level of protection in a crash.

Just a quick note for riders in Australia and New Zealand that down under has its own AS/NZS 2063:2008 standard. Helmets sold online are rarely going to have this certification, so in the eyes of the law, you will be riding without a helmet! So do bare that in mind when choosing your next head shield.

But... How?

Sometimes trusted helmet brands will release their own budget lines. With these helmets there is usually a noticeable difference in style and weight when compared to their higher priced lines. 

Then there are the budget options available on Amazon and AliExpress from brands you will likely never have heard of. These budget helmet manufacturers are quick to make use of all of the technological advances brought about by the big boys in the industry.

Picture this:

Company A from Italy may spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on R&D for their helmets, and that cost will be reflected in the $200 price tag on the final product.

Company B from China takes the final product of Company A, copies the various design elements, and copies the materials.

Company B now has a decently designed helmet that they will have made to meet certification standards in Europe and/or the USA.  

They may have created an inferior helmet to that of Company A, but they will sell that helmet at 1/10 the price.

When it comes to being involved in a crash scenario, there will likely be some variance in actual effectiveness of the two helmets. But studies seem to show that the difference would actually be fairly small to negligibly small.

Testing conducted by researchers at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab shows that price doesn’t always equate to a safer helmet. There appears to be a general trend of higher priced helmets scoring better, but there is also a huge variance in price vs very little variance in safety score. The $10 Bell Reflex received a score similar to that of the $250 Specialized S-Works Evade II!

And testing by the folks at Helmets.org shows even less difference between low and high priced helmets.

So the helmet from Company A costs 10 times as much as the helmet from Company B, but offers, let’s say, a 10% improvement in potential safety if ever needed. Then in terms of “effectiveness” as a metric, I can’t help but think that company B’s helmet has to be the smarter choice if money is at all a factor.  

Essentially, if the helmet has attained a relevant certification standard (CPSC, CE, AS/NZS 2063:2008, etc), then it’s safe enough for use.

Why would anyone buy an expensive helmet?

When it comes to safety, simply meeting the standard may not be good enough for you, and that makes sense. You want to buy from a brand you know and trust. 

Though other arguments often used  in favor of higher priced helmets are that they are going to use better construction methods, be lighter in weight, provide better ventilation, be more aerodynamic and be more comfortable.

I don’t buy into any of that reasoning. As mentioned in the previous section, manufacturers can, and do, copy the exact form of an elite priced helmet, making it fit just as well as the original, with comparable weight, ventilation and aerodynamics. Molded in shell construction is also common on even the cheapest helmets nowadays.

When it comes to the element of longevity. You might think that an expensive helmet would be a smart long term investment. It may be incredibly well constructed from the finest materials, but regardless of price, the plastic and foam that make up the majority of a helmet will degrade.

It is generally recommended that helmets are replaced every five years, so regardless of how much you spend, a helmet will never be a ‘buy it for life’ purchase. 

One thing that more expensive helmets do tend to offer, however, is a greater range of sizes, so it may be easier finding the right fit. If your head size is anything other than ‘small’, ‘medium’ or ‘large’, then you may have trouble finding the perfect fit when going budget!

One other area where I do see value in buying, not just a high priced helmet, but any high priced, top quality, cycling gear, is in supporting the industry. 

If you have the money to do so, then I say support the cycling industry innovators so that they can keep producing the technology that will trickle down and benefit all riders.

What should you be looking for in a helmet?

So if any helmet that meets the certification standard is acceptable, then what should you be looking for in a helmet?

You should be looking for the same things you look for in any item that you wear:

Fit, comfort, quality and style.

The most important thing is to find a helmet that fits well so that it will be positioned correctly should the unfortunate happen. Click here if you need a refresher on how to fit a helmet.

Aside from quality, these things are all down to personal taste and head size/shape, so it’s going to be a matter of either trying on different helmets in store, or taking a gamble on an online offering.

As for quality, being CPSC and/or CE compliant offers a base level of quality. A little bit of research and review reading online will then clue you up on whether a particular helmet could be the one for you.     

Now, there is one final intangible aspect that you should take into consideration if you are thinking about buying a budget helmet. That is the sense of safety and reassurance that you get from your helmet.

If you simply don’t feel safe with a budget helmet, then don’t get one. Splash out on a pricier one that won’t leave any grey clouds hanging over your mind which might in any way dampen your riding experience.

Conclusion

BudgetBikepacking.com may have a slight bias here in recommending a budget approach to helmet buying. But I would say that, regardless of their obvious importance as a safety measure, it simply isn’t necessary to spend big bucks to get sufficient protection.

Ultimately what you need to look out for is that your helmet is certified to at least CPSC and/or CE standard. That it fits correctly. And finally, that you are completely comfortable in it – both physically and mentally. 

In the BudgetBikepacking.com spirit, I’ll be hanging up my current mid-range priced helmet for a while in order to long term quality test a $16 helmet off AliExpress. Check out the initial review for that here, and keep an eye out for updates on how it holds up to the rigors of bikepacking.

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