Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

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Bicycle Helmets for Winter

Summary: Winter commuting or riding can usually be done in your normal helmet, but you will probably have to add at least some ear protection. Face protection adds to comfort when the temperature gets well below freezing. Keeping the rest of your body warm helps, too.

You are preparing for winter commuting or riding, and want the best helmet for cold weather. What to buy?

Adapting your helmet

Most riders start with their normal helmet, and adapt it for winter use by adding something underneath for warmth. Covering the ears is the most important step. Normal active riding generates a lot of heat, and the rest of the head can stay warm with only the thinnest covering, but the ears are out in the slipstream and will be frostbitten in very cold weather.

Another strategy is to block the helmet vents with pieces of soft foam. That works for some, but others end the ride with a sweaty head due to lack of ventilation.

Adding an earband is adequate for most winter weather in moderate climates. The thickness of the earband can change the fit of the helmet unless it is one of the thinner fleece types. Some riders compensate for that by wearing a sweatband in summer that is the same thickness as the earband. The sweatband can be pulled down to partially cover the ears when the temperature is in the range that requires some ear cover but not the full warmth of an earband.

A winter helmet?

If you are considering a winter helmet, there are choices. The downhill mountain bike racing helmet models offer great coverage and good impact protection. A number of manufacturers have them, including Bell, Giro, Specialized, Trek, Louis Garneau and many more. (Check our writeup on current helmets for more, with a search for "downhill.")

Most urban commuters don't find the downhill bicycle racing helmet necessary, but they certainly do provide good impact protection and are a good choice.

Keeping Warm

Generally for really cold weather keeping your hands and feet warm is more difficult than the head. As long as your commute permits active cycling and you are not concerned with helmet hair, cold down to about zero Fahrenheit is easily handled with something like a balaclava or ski band. The downhill helmets might be better for very short rides where you don't want to mess with putting on and taking off lots of accessories. They probably will fog your glasses or goggles at traffic lights, but so will the other arrangements at times. My only concern would be for peripheral vision and hearing, neither of which is important for downhill bicycle racers but both of which are needed for urban cycling. We don't have any experience with that. If you do, please email us so we can add your message to this page.

Avoiding falls

Since you should anticipate falls on ice and snow, you might consider ways to minimize falling to be at least as important as the helmet you have on when you do go down. A tricycle or quad is an expensive but effective way of reducing falls. There is a web page with lots of links to manufacturers. Studs or mountain bike tires help somewhat in snow, but don't do much for you when the ruts are icy and you can't make the small turning movements that balance a bicycle. (Forward traction is seldom the issue unless the snow is really deep.) A web search will turn up lots more advice for winter riding from riders in Canada and other cold places.

Riding in the Dark

Winter helmets are used on the shortest days, and often become night-time helmets. We have a page on bicycle lighting, and another page on adding reflectivity to your helmet. They might be good reading.