Motorcycle helmets can be confusing to buy, but thanks to the internet and a compulsion for over-researching every purchase, I've broken it down to some basic buying advice.
The most important thing: As long as you buy something from a reputable brand (Icon, Arai, Shoei, Schuberth) that has a DOT certification sticker, you'll have something that can save your life. (The usefulness of safety ratings from , and there's loads of literature and forum debates over their validity.)
One nonnegotiable feature, for me: The helmet's got to be full-face. A in motorcycle crashes happen around your face. I can't stand to even think about teeth and asphalt being near each other.
The minimum you'll spend on a certified full-face helmet is around $200. Spending more than that gets you comfort in the form of reduced weight, aerodynamics, noise insulation, and ventilation. I've owned a few $200 helmets and done road trips with four-figure carbon-fiber masterpieces, but I find the $500 mark to be about the most you can spend before getting into unnecessary features. Besides, I'd rather save some money for a .
Brand choice will be partially informed by your head shape. Just as some clothing manufacturers fit certain body types better, some companies' helmet shapes will feel custom-molded while others can create pressure points around your head—irritating for a commute, and intolerable on a road trip. Figuring out which one works for your head makes it worth getting out to a retail shop so you can try on different brands.
After years riding with the , a fantastic helmet for $180, I finally had money to spend on better gear and tried on a Shoei RF-1200 at a friend's recommendation. Compared even to the Icon, it felt like resting inside a cloud. No hot spots.
Furthermore, Shoei's visor system is completely stable. Visors on other helmets I've tried will pop out of the side if you open it overzealously. And the RF-1200 uses this thing called a Pinlock system, which holds the visor at any of the five angles you leave it. Here in New York, there is a law against riding without glasses or with your visor up. (I know because I've had to pay a fine for it.) So when it's hot out, being able to keep the visor open a crack makes a huge difference for keeping cool.
The shape is expertly aerodynamic, and quiet at highway speeds. Road noise and wind resistance that would wear me out early on other helmets is reduced in the RF-1200. Apparently, part of this comes from the foam around the ears, which is noise-deadening.
The final push was when I saw a Shoei-advocate friend pick up another company's helmet, and flex it with his hands. That helmet creaked. He did the same to the Shoei. It stayed in place, evidence of the design's overall solidity, which you notice every time you pull it on or open the visor.
I'm due to replace it in about two years. Once a helmet hits age five, the glue holding it all together loses adhesion and hurts its ability to absorb impact. If you've got an old helmet, or if you're in a crash, swap it for a new one. Whichever one comes first for me, I know which one I'm getting.