The most important bit of protective equipment is your helmet and strangely, few mountain bikers ever opt for the increased protection of a full-face structure.
If you are working toward an elevated riding experience which might include black-graded descents, a full-face helmet should certainly be part of your personal protective gear portfolio. The trauma (both physical and psychological) of having a rock or any bit of terrain strike you in the face while crashing, is terrible.
Full-face helmets offer increased shock absorption, with their more complex structures and internal padding. The chin bar not only boosts confidence but also gives a rider 360-degree protection.
The primary issue which has prevented more mountain bikers from adopting full-face helmets have been weight and ventilation, with more riders opting for half-shell or traditional cross-country mountain bike helmets. Designed for ultimate structural safety and protection, the full-face helmet has traditionally been comfortable only for a few short minutes of descending.
Since the mid-2010s there has been a significant change in mountain bike full-face helmet design, with the introduction of convertible helmets. These hybrid full-face helmets have a removable chin bar and can be as comfortable as any half-shell helmet for climbing and general riding.
The hybrid helmets have also altered the design logic employed on fixed chin-bar, full-face helmets improving ergonomics and internal padding architecture.
Better external material blends and energy dissipating internal liners have made all full-face helmets even safer and lighter.
The best full-face mountain bike helmets
Troy Lee Designs possess an enviable reputation for producing premium full-face helmets for downhill obsessed mountain bikers. The company prioritises strength and crash-energy dissipation above all else.
To achieve the best safety rating, without neck-straining structural weight, Troy Lee Designs blended a lot of exotic materials into its latest composite 3D helmet. A top layer of unidirectional carbon provides excellent impact and structural puncture resistance.
Engineers have also added strategically placed Kevlar reinforcement to areas of the helmet which have high-terrain strike probability. It even has considered post-crash safety features, such as the anatomically contoured quick-release cheek pads: which allow for easier helmet removal by emergency personnel.
For those scorching bike park days, you can’t do better than Fox’s Proframe. This is the lightest and most breathable full-face helmet the Californian brand has ever produced.
With no less than 15 intake and 9 vacuum vents, the Proframe has outstanding airflow. It is light too, at only 750g for a size medium. Despite the lightness and excellent ventilation, the Proframe does have downhill racing safety certification.
There’s a MIPS liner inside too, for mitigating rotational energy impacts.
Another composite blended full-face helmet, from an iconic American motocross racing brand. The refocussed 100% company has ventured into mountain bike safety and its Aircraft Carbon is exactly what it claims to be.
Constructed with an aviation-grade Kevlar and composite shell, this is a light but also a tremendously strong helmet. It runs cool too, with a generous array of ventilation ports, totalling 25.
Impressive post-crash treatment features include an integrated compartment which accommodates inflatable emergency release systems and quick-release cheek pads. The Aircraft Carbon is also compatible with most neck braces and has an energy-dissipating MIPS liner.
The Super Air R is Bell’s latest-generation convertible full-face helmet and builds on the reputation it established with the original Super 2R, launched five years ago.
A significant redesign and evolution form the 2R and 3R, this Super Air R features a superior chin-bar attachment system with two latches. It also happens to be 144g lighter than the 3R, too. Ventilation is provided by 18 primary structural vents, while four additional ventilation ports are found in the detachable chin bar.
For riders who use goggle with their helmet, instead of riding glasses, there is a clever rubber grip pad on the back of the Super Air R, to prevent your goggle strap from slipping.
Leatt is a renowned mountain bike and motorcycle protective gear brand, most famous for its neck-brace technology. The DBX 3.0 is its first venture into convertible full-face helmets and a very credible debut technology product.
It has been constructed with 18 breathing ports to provide enough airflow and the chin bar is a solid moulding, which attached and releases via a dual latch system.
Rotational energy calming measures include Leatt’s 3D moulded impact foam, which reduces concussion risk. Leatt has also added Armourgel to the inside of its DBX 3.0, a special polymer material with unique geometry that boosts impact absorption even further.
The Giro Switchblade MIPS combines downhill helmet certification with removable chin-bar convenience.
For those riders who are going to climb to the top of steep drop-ins, and want sufficient security on the way down again, the Switchblade's certification is a big win. Beyond its structural strength, this is also a helmet which plays nice with action cameras, as Giro supplies a special visor mount designed to accommodate recording equipment.
With 20 ventilation ports, the Switchblade stays cool and its internal padding is hydrophilic, which means that it can absorb a lot of moisture before reaching saturation point.
How to choose the best full-face mountain bike helmet
Like all helmets, full-face helmets are judged according to three primary requirements: protection, weight and comfort but their complex nature means there is a glut of other attributes that shouldn't be ignored.
Helmets which have ample cooling vents, by definition, must contain less surface structure. Those vents also create entry points for debris or curiously angled trail features, such as sticks. For riders who spend most of their season in cooler conditions, ventilation is not an issue and they can afford to opt for helmets which have the highest possible protection rating, with airflow a secondary consideration.
If you live and ride (or plan to vacation) in a warm-weather location, ventilation becomes an issue nearly equal to protection and this markedly complicates your full-face helmet choice.
Suppose you are riding a triple-crown downhill bike and using chairlift access, there is absolutely no question: you simply must have a structurally sound full-face helmet with goggle-mount ergonomics.
Riding descents which require a full-face helmet imply that you are going to be riding risky terrain, attempting drops and some jumps, too. For those riders who take the option of a full-face helmet, they realise that crashing is an eventual probability and helmet technology has advanced to a point where post-crash care features are now part of the design.
3. Ancillary protection
To enable medics and emergency response personnel to easily extricate a helmet from an injured rider, designers have made chin pads seamless to remove. Helmet design has also had to evolved with medical care inflation systems, which can stabilise neck injuries, when a rider is being moved.
Committed downhill riders should also regard how compatible their helmets are with neck braces, which are seen as a part of the head-and-neck safety system for extreme or severe technical terrain mountain biking.
4. Eye care compatibility
Eye protection is crucial and with a full-face helmet. Goggles, rather than sunglasses, are best when wearing a full-face helmet as they give superior coverage. Helmets with a considered ergonomic design, which include a groove, grip pad or clip, will keep your goggle straps in place. The last thing you want is the distraction of a goggle strap which starts to annoyingly slip as you bounce through a high-speed rock garden.
5. Hybrid structures
The challenging question arises with detachable chin bar helmets, which are a product solution that can squarely be credited to enduro racing. For the last six years, as enduro bikes have become increasingly more capable, there has been customer demand for a helmet that has the best hybrid attributes of a half shell and full-face.
Competition in the detachable chin bar helmet segment has accelerated innovation and created products with vastly improved ergonomics and protection. Early detachable chin bar helmets featured crude locking mechanisms, which could prove frustrating to fasten and created lingering doubt with some riders whether their convertible full-face helmets were in fact correctly configured.