Which Type of Helmet is Best for Adventure Bike Riding?

After your adventure bike, the second most expensive purchase will probably be a good helmet. Between a full face helmet, dual sport helmet or motocross helmet, how do you choose the one that is best for you?

The most suitable type of motorcycle helmet depends on the type of riding. Full face street helmets are quieter and more aerodynamic, while motocross helmets are lighter, and offer greater visibility and ventilation. Dual sport helmets are a compromise between street and motocross helmets, with the ability to wear motocross goggles.

If you often ride off-road and in dusty conditions, but also tour long distance on the highways, the first prize would be to get a street helmet and a motocross helmet. Getting two helmets is expensive and you can still only take one helmet on that overland adventure bike trip.

So which helmet should you get for adventure riding?

The best helmet for adventure bike riding

Adventure motorcycle riders often ride in a variety of different terrain, from highways at high speeds, to dusty trails and rocky hills. You might even have to battle a 600 lbs bike in the soft sand. These different conditions demand different qualities from your most important piece of safety gear. Your helmet.

If you intend to spend 90% of your time racing your adventure bike on the tarred mountain twisties, a full face street helmet is your best bet. If, on the other hand, you plan to hit the dirt trails as soon as possible and are having dirt in your face for breakfast each day, a dirt bike helmet with motocross goggles will keep your head cooler and your eyes mud-free for longer.

But what if you plan to ride across country on the pavement for three days, before turning off the beaten track to spend a few weeks in the desert? That’s what adventure bikes were designed for, isn’t it? Well then you will need the best of both worlds. That is where dual sport helmets come in. While they can do some of the jobs of both full face and motocross helmets, they aren’t always the best at all of it.

Let’s have a look at each type of helmet individually, before making the final decision. For the helmets we use, see this page.

Full face street helmets

Street and sport bike riders wear full face helmets. They are the most aerodynamic of all the helmet types which makes a big difference at highway speeds. The low drag coefficient results in less wind resistance against your head. This reduces the strain on your neck muscles, especially if you are not sitting behind a tall screen.

Motorcyclist with full face street helmet
Full face helmets are ideal for highway riding at speed

Full face helmets have less ventilation than dual-sport helmets since street riders usually keep moving at a decent pace allowing more air into the small vents. Less ventilation gaps also results in a quieter, and therefore more comfortable helmet. Bad weather is kept out, but heat is kept in. The riders also has a more limited field of view due to the size of the face shield (or ‘visor’ to some of you).

As a result of restricted ventilation and a smaller face opening, fogging up can be an issue. This is worse it you ride slowly, in dirt for instance, in the early morning. And the lack of a peak (the baseball cap-like thing on top) may have you squint to see the road ahead in the hours after sunrise or before sunset. Some street helmets do have tinted visors to reduce the glare.

I usually ride with sunglasses underneath mine. Not just to keep the sun out, but to keep my eyes bug-free when riding with an open face shield at very low speeds in the dirt.

Some of the better helmets, like my Arai Quantum-X has much better vents than the cheaper brands. On my old Zeus dual-sport helmet the vents didn’t make any difference, whether they are open or closed. There is nothing like the cool air flowing over the top of your hot head when you open the vents on a good quality helmet.

Motocross helmets

Motocross (MX) helmets, also known as dirt bike helmets, are often lighter and have much bigger face openings. This allows for much better ventilation, which is critical if you are battling a dirt bike in the sand or over jumps. It also provides for much better visibility of obstacles in front of your wheel or in your peripheral vision.

Motocross helmet
Dirt bike helmets offer the best ventilation for hot conditions

You will, however, need MX goggles as there is no face shield. They don’t fog up like face-shields, as they do not cover your mouth or nose and they keep all the dust (and bugs) out of your eyes. The visibility and fresh air can be very beneficial if you are wrestling an overweight BMW R 1250 GS Adventure with three months’ worth of camping gear in the sand of the Namibian desert.

This is all good if you have a tall windscreen, or of you don’t plan on doing much highway riding. The large peak of an MX helmet will have you struggling to keep your head still in the wind and the noise will drive you nuts. At least it will keep the sun out of your eyes.

Dual-sport helmets

The dual sport helmet fits somewhere between a full face street helmet and a motocross helmet. It has a peak (also known as a ‘visor’ to some others) similar to that of an MX helmet. This keeps the sun out of your eyes on late morning or early afternoon rides. I’ve found that even riding into the sunset, the peak can be effective at keeping the sun out by tilting your head slightly. With my full face helmet I have to shield my eyes with my left hand in similar conditions.

Apart from the peak, dual sport helmets share a larger opening to allow for more ventilation. Most are big enough to fit MX goggles if you wish, not something that is possible on a street helmet. Unlike a dirt bike helmet, a dual sport lid has a face shield just like a full face helmet. This is especially convenient for riders who wear prescription glasses. They tend to fog up less behind a face shield than a pair goggles. A dual sport helmet will be quieter than a dirt bike helmet if you close the face shield, but not as quiet as a full face helmet.

The peak will catch the wind if you are not tucked in behind a tall windscreen. This should not be a problem on most modern adventure bikes that have large touring screens. If your bike is not equipped with a substantial windscreen, make sure the specific model of dual sport helmet you are looking at has adequate wind ducts so it doesn’t become a parachute. Dual sport helmets are also a lot noisier than a street helmet as a result of the vibration and the wind rushing through the peak.

If you ride equal amounts of fast highway and rough dirt roads, where the going will get tough enough to slow you right down, a dual sport is the best (or only) compromise between a full face and an MX helmet. At least they look damn cool on an adventure bike!

Modular helmets

Both full face and dual sport helmets are available in a modular design whereby the front chin section can be flipped up to reveal your face. While you are not meant to ride like this, it is very useful to chat with a fellow biker at a robot or to get some cool fresh air when standing still. Poorly built modular helmets can be a safety risk, as they can come apart in a fall. Good quality helmets, like the Nolan N100-5 flip-up has a 100% record so far for their chin guards staying locked and closed during crash testing.

Summary of the different types of motorcycle helmets

The most suitable type of helmet mostly depends on the type of riding you intend to do. If you plan on spending many long hours on the freeway at the national speed limit, with limited about of dirt riding, just get the best quality full face you can afford.

If you are going to tow your adventure bike to the desert to save your tires and your backside, a dirt bike helmet with MX goggles might be best. For a round the world trip, where you are planning on riding lots of both tarmac and gravel roads, a good dual sport helmet is your best bet.

Full faceDual sportMotocross
Drag coefficientGoodOkayPoor
Sound proofingGoodOkayPoor
Goggle compatibilityNoYesYes
Coolness factorOkayGoodGood
Comparative strengths and weaknesses of the different types of helmets

As you can see, none of the helmets tick all of the boxes and having one of each would be awesome. But rather than getting a poor quality model of each type, just get the very best you can afford of the one that suits your riding needs best.

I took my pick and settled for a road helmet many years ago. While I don’t ride many street bikes anymore, at the time I did a lot of road testing for a sports magazine. My Arai full face will last many years to come, so until I have the cash for a replacement, I will ride my street helmet on any bike and in any condition.

What do adventure riders say?

I searched some adventure motorcycle rider forums and it seems like the perfect all-rounder helmet is harder to find that I thought. Let’s see what the people say.

Dual sport helmets

@PeterW (AdvRider Forum) says that you’ll know the difference between a full face and dual sport helmet if you ride from dawn to dusk on dirt roads. Cold, early morning, foggy visors (he’s referring to the face shield in case you wondered) are cleared by the airflow and the peak stops the sun flickering through the trees from blinding you.

During the heat of the day, great airflow through the helmet prevents overheating of the rider and fogged up visors from all the sweat. By evening time you can still (barely) see thanks to the duckbill keeping the sun off the dust covered face shield. Noise is the only real price you pay, but it is worth it.

Another rider is less impressed with his Hornet dual sport helmet, declaring that “It sucks as a street lid with all the noise and drag. It sucks as an off-road helmet with the HEAT and weight” (@Brian-M – AdvRider Forum), while another likes his dual sport lid for the extra room in front of the mouth guard. Especially when he’s riding “full throttle” on the trails. Street helmets are shaped much closer to your mouth area, while MX helmets are much more roomier. A dual sport falls somewhere in between.

“I like my DS lid because the visor keeps the sun out of my eyes and reduces glare. It allows me to see the road surface much clearer than with a traditional street helmet.”

@mudcat – advrider forum

Some also reported vibration coming from the peak when the wind is at a certain angle.

Full face helmets

On his way to the annual Wilddogs Adventure Riding Bash, @Cloudgazer wore his full face and was thankful for not having a peak. He recalls that the wind felt as if it would have twisted a dual sport helmet right off his head. Even so, he has been on a trip where he needed to use MX goggles and was thankfully wearing a dual sport helmet at the time to accommodate them. His conclusion is that if you ride a dual sport bike, you may as well have a dual sport helmet.

“The street helmet becomes a problem if you get into tougher conditions where the riding becomes strenuous and it gets hot, or if you are riding with others and it starts to get dusty”

@Thinc2 – AdvRider Forum

This rider started to get infections in his eyes from little pieces of dust that kept accumulating and so he eventually switched over to a lid with goggles.

To summarize the experiences from many riders: There is nothing like a perfect helmet for all conditions. It is always going to be a compromise.

Final thoughts

It seems like there is no such thing as a perfect helmet that excel at both highway dashing and trail bashing. It reminds me of adventure bikes themselves. They are not as good as street or touring bikes on the long tarmac miles, and not as nimble and light as dirt or enduro bikes in the sand. But they are a great compromise.

I currently ride with a full face helmet. The reason: I already own it. Check out my recommended gear page to find out more about the helmets we use and some cheaper alternatives I’d recommend.

If you are going to ride on the tarmac 80% of the time, get a street lid. If the bias is heavily towards dirt, get an MX helmet and goggles. For anything in between, just get the best dual sport helmet you can afford.

Related questions

Should I Wear a Neck Brace Adventure Riding?

While the research on the effectiveness of neck braces is inconclusive, there are numerous anecdotal accounts of how a neck brace has saved the life of someone who took a great fall. The brace works by preventing your neck from hyper-extending when landing on your head, and transferring the force to your shoulders. To find out more, read my post HERE.

Francois Steyn

I've been riding motorcycles since I was in school and have traveled thousands of miles on various bikes through more than 10 countries. For more info, check out my about page: https://www.adventurebiketroop.com/about-us/

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