Full Face vs Half Shell Mountain Bike Helmets

Mountain biking is a risky sport, and it’s important to minimize the dangers by wearing the best helmet you can find. While many riders choose half shell mountain bike helmets, others insist on full face helmets. Which one is better? Well, that depends on how you ride. The full face helmet has a chin bar that covers your mouth and lower jaw, and it’s great for preventing injuries while mountain biking. It also has more space for vents to circulate air, so it tends to be cooler.

If you’ve been mountain biking for any significant amount of time you’ve probably noticed that there are a few different styles of bike helmets out there on the trails. You can often find riders rocking anything from airy XC lids that almost look like rock climbing helmets, to burly DH helmets that look like dirt bike helmets, often on the same trail, at the same time.

That’s because, just like with most things in mountain biking, there are multiple methodologies of head protection at play, and everyone has their own preferences. So, to help figure out what style of mountain bike helmet might best suit you, we’ve put together this guide to the whole gamut of mountain bike helmets, from well-vented half shells to burly full-face helmets.

The Main Distinction

Before we get too far into the weeds of what helmet is best for what riding style, it’s worth breaking down the general differences. “Half shell” helmets are what most people would term “regular” bike helmets. They have a plastic outer shell that protects the top of your head and extends down a little way on the sides and back.

The Main Distinction

A “Full Face” mountain bike helmet is any helmet that looks more like a dirt bike or motorcycle helmet. They have full head coverage, with a visor, and chin guard, with a hole at the neck to put the helmet on, and an opening for your eyes and nose.

Generally speaking, half shell helmets are more comfortable and offer better ventilation, especially on warm days. That means they’re better for long trail rides where you’re doing a lot of pedaling. On the other hand, full-face helmets offer much more protection in a crash. So if you’re riding in a bike park, or taking a shuttle to the top, a full face is the obvious choice. They’re not as comfortable to pedal in, but offer a lot more protection if there’s a chance you’re going to crash.

Shades of Grey

Of course, it’s not so simple as “choose a lightweight XC half shell if you pedal a lot, or a DOT certified full face if you like to downhill. Instead, there are a whole host of options that lie on a spectrum between those two extremes, that will probably work better for most riders.

How to Choose

Among half shell helmets, there’s a wide range of the amount of protection and ventilation offered. Not all half-shells are created equal. In general, the level of protection a helmet offers is inversely proportional to the level of comfort and breathability. So helmets that extend further down the sides and back of your head will keep you safer, but won’t be as comfortable on warm days.

How to Choose

However, that’s not a universal truth, how the helmet fits your particular head makes a huge difference. That’s why it’s always a good idea to try on helmets before you buy one, or at least measure your head and read the size chart and any reviews online. A helmet with more coverage that fits your head well will be more comfortable than a lighter, better-vented one that doesn’t fit. So figure out your fit before anything else. Then decide how much coverage and venting you want.

Generally, half-shells designated as “XC” helmets will have less coverage and more vents, while “trail” or “enduro” helmets will offer more coverage at the expense of some breathability. Most riders who earn their turns will do best with a “trail” or “enduro” half-shell that fits them well.

The same goes for full-face helmets, fit is key. And, just like their lighter siblings, there are many different varieties of full-face helmets, all optimized for different riding styles. On the far end of the spectrum, you have DOT-certified full-face helmets that are tested for the rigors of riding dirt bikes. They’ll keep you safe on a mountain bike as well, but are generally heavier and hotter than you want to wear on a human-powered machine.

However, there are plenty of options for riders who want to pedal but also need the protection of a full face. In recent years several brands have come out with “enduro” half-shells that are lighter than MX or DH helmets, and have much better venting. These are great options for anyone who wants a helmet that protects them in the bike park but also is comfortable if they want to ride to the top of their trails too.

Finally, just to make things more complicated, there are now several “convertible” helmets on the market. These helmets have a removable chin bar that allows them to convert from half-shells to full-face helmets on the fly. That way you can bring one helmet on a trip for both XC and bike park laps. Or you can even ride up in the half shell and slip on the chin bar for the descent. If you do a solid mix of trail and park riding, a convertible helmet might be your best bet. Just make sure it fits your head well.

What MTB Helmet? Open Face, Full Face Or Convertible?


Sometimes mountain bike gear gets more confusing than it should be, as experienced riders throw around technical terms and jargon. But when it comes to helmets, it doesn’t need to be confusing. Figure out what fits your head, and where along the spectrum of uphill comfort to downhill protection your preferred riding style places you. Then go out there and ride your bike!

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