Does Your Helmet Actually Fit?

courtesy of SmartPak

Have you ever wondered if you are wearing the right size riding helmet, or stared at the size options for the helmet you’re about to order hoping you are picking the right one? In my years as a barn manager for top riders in several disciplines as well as helping thousands of customers as manager of SmartPak’s retail store in Natick, MA, I have learned and developed some easy methods to measure riders for helmets and to assess helmet fit, which I’m happy to share with you.

A correctly fitting helmet can make a big difference in safety and comfort while you are riding. A helmet that is too small will leave red marks on your forehead, could give you headaches, and may perch on your head. If your helmet is too big it can slide around on your head and may not be effective if you have a fall. The last thing you want to happen on your way to a jump is to have your helmet slide down over your eyes!

Some helmets are adjustable – they can have a dial or other adjustment mechanism that allows you to customize the fit after picking from a small range of sizes (generally S, M, L.) Other helmets come in a wider range of sizes – generally starting at size 6 3/8th and ranging up by 1/8th inch increments to size 8. You’d think the size would be circumference, but it’s actually based on the diameter of your head – hard to measure as I wouldn’t recommend sticking a measuring tape through your skull! Helmets are made from a wide variety of materials, and have evolved tremendously over the past few decades. ASTM and other safety testing standards have given us much safer, more protective helmets, and approved helmets are required for many riding disciplines and in some states for youth under a certain age.

To find out what size helmet you need, you’ll need a few supplies – a soft measuring tape, a size chart, and a friend to help you measure. If you’ve worn helmets before you can get an idea of what size you will be, but various brands and styles of helmet can fit and feel very different.

Sit in a chair and have your friend place the measuring tape around your head about a finger’s width above your eyebrows and ears. It’s important to make sure the measuring tape is as level as possible. I usually measure three or four times to make sure I’m getting a consistent measurement. If you have a lot of hair, pull it back into a low ponytail as close to the base of your neck as possible before measuring. Write down the measurement in both inches and centimeters, as different brands of helmets may have size charts in either standard. You can calculate the diameter using this formula: d= C/π. You should also keep the measurements handy and look at the size chart for each specific brand to ensure you get the right size.

While you’re sitting down, have your friend look down on your head from the top – have them stand on a stool if necessary. They’re looking at the shape of your head, to see if you have a rounder head (fairly even front to back and side to side) or an oval head (longer front to back and more narrow side to side.) Many helmets are designed for one of these two head shapes, so knowing what you are will help you narrow down the choices.

Now that you know your size and head shape, start shopping! Once those helmets arrive, how do you know they fit? Start by prepping your hair. If you have short hair and you don’t use a hairnet, this is easy – no further action needed. If you have long and/or thick hair, this may involve a hairnet and an elastic band. We don’t advise piling your hair on top of your head, as it can adversely affect helmet fit. If you do need to put your hair up, try to get your elastic as low on your neck as possible, below the helmet, and fan your ponytail across your head under the hairnet to distribute the bulk across from ear to ear. Either way, start by trying your helmet on with your hair down.

When you unpack your helmet, save the packaging in case you have to return it, and leave the tags attached. Place the helmet on your head, tilting the front forward and placing your forehead into the helmet just above your eyebrows. Rock the helmet down onto your head until the top of your head nestles into the top of the helmet, and see how it feels. You’re looking for a few things:

• Does it feel tight on the forehead and the back of the skull? If so, you may be an oval shape trying to fit your head into a round shape helmet.
• Does it feel tight near your temples, above your ears on both sides? If so, you may be a round shape trying to fit your head into an oval shape helmet.
• Does the helmet not feel like it’s coming down around your head? If it’s perching on your head, it could be too small, or it could be too shallow for the depth of your head. If you have a long forehead, you may need a deeper helmet.
• Does it feel like an iron vise around your head, threatening to squash your brains? Too small.
• Does it feel like it’s covering your eyebrows and squishing your ears down? The helmet may be too big or too deep for your head.
• Does it snuggle around your head in a delightful manner and make you feel like soft pillows are surrounding your skull? Don’t get excited quite yet – helmets that have very soft padding, while comfortable, can be tricky to fit as they may feel like you have the right size even though they are too large. I generally recommend trying smaller sizes until you get to the pinchy/too tight/headache size, then go up one and you’re usually at the right size.

If you feel like you have a good fit, try moving it around a bit – grab the brim and try moving it up and down. Does the helmet slide over your forehead, or does it grip your forehead and make your eyebrows dance up and down? The eyebrow dance is ideal, as long as the helmet isn’t so tight that it’s giving you a headache. Try tilting the helmet side to side – does it stay pretty centered, or does it easily side down over your ears? You want it to stay centered and not easily tilt in any direction. Finally, try pushing a finger or two inside the helmet behind your ear. If it’s a snug fit, you are looking good. If there’s room to move your fingers around, you may not have the right shape or size. You can put your hair up at this point to make sure the fit is still secure. We do not recommend going up a size to accommodate hair, as this can make the fit unstable and the helmet may not protect you adequately during a fall.

Is it perfect? Great! Don’t forget to adjust the chin strap before you mount up. It should rest gently against your chin and face without being restrictive, and it shouldn’t be too loose, or the helmet could pop off in a fall.

A special note when fitting younger kids to helmets – they may not be used to the pressure of a helmet, and may become distracted by things like color or design. If they complain that they don’t like a helmet without being able to explain why, try to give them a chance to wear it for a period of time (while watching TV always works well.) If they are finding it tolerable after 15 to 20 minutes, check the fit again, focusing on three things:

1. Ask them: “Does it feel like a gentle hug all around your head, or is the hug pinching somewhere?”
2. Can you make their eyebrows dance up and down when you wiggle the brim?
3. If you pull up on the helmet like you are taking it off (without the chinstrap attached) does it feel like there is some suction/pressure as you pull it off?

If these are all positive, you should have a good fit!

The foam padding in helmets can compact over time, especially if the helmet is exposed to heavy amounts of sweat and extended daily wear. Reassess helmet fit periodically and plan to replace your helmet if the fit changes or after any fall where your helmet strikes the ground or a hard object. Cleaning your helmet can help to extend the life (and reduce the stink!) Some helmets have removeable liners that can be hand washed, and there are helmet cleaning sprays and foams available. Helmets should never be placed in a dishwasher or other mechanical cleaning device as this can degrade the materials.