Full face helmet for trail riding?

To cover your face or not: This question raises questions of safety, comfort and politics.

Last weekend, I was riding with a group when one us stacked in some style from a smallish drop off (less than 30 inches). The unlucky individual had a nasty faceplant which cost him a fractured jaw, broken nose and 3 teeth.

It’s not clear whether or not he actually tried to ride the drop or just missed the checkin run. Anyway, although none of us would pidgeon hole ourselves as freeriders, downhillers or XC riders (I reckon we are archetypal trail riders). We’re all wondering about the benefits of full face lids.

Apart from the MET Parachute (which is too narrow for me to get my ears into!), are there any other full face lids that are remotely suitable for the kind of trail riding I think most of do (i.e., pedal all the way up and let rip on the way back down)? I think Giro used to make something called a Switchblade that might have fitted the bill, but everything else looks like it’ll cook my head on the way up.



Hey Don,

Youch! You raise a great question. Let’s get into this:

Elliott Hoover earns elevation at Left Hand Canyon OHV Area, where the other trail users have guns, and they are not afraid of mountain bikers.

No question: Full face helmets provide more protection than half shells. No matter who you are or how you ride, when your face hits the ground you really want that face guard.

High-end full face helmets are pretty light and pretty cool, but they pretty much suck for extended climbing. That’s why almost every pedal-driven rider wears an open face.

If you’re climbing, you don’t want your face covered. If you’re pinning downhills, you should have your face covered. This isn’t a place to compromise. That’s probably why Giro discontinued the Switchblade.

I don’t care how courteous and controlled you are; wearing a full face helmet on a public trail scares the civilians. Equestrians, hikers, even XC riders — they all assume you’re a dangerous daredevil.

A couple years ago I was riding a semi-remote trail on the DH bike, and I was wearing a full face and goggles. I was hauling mail through a rocky section, and I spotted a Lycra rider coming up the hill. No big deal: I carried speed through the rocks, found a piece of good dirt and shut that thing down. Dude, I had 2.5″ sticky tires, 8-inch rotors, 8 inches of suspension and perfect braking technique. There was no skidding. There was no violence. I stopped on the side of the trail with plenty of margin and said an enthusiastic Hello.

Too late. The guy’s eyes were bugging out, and he was beyond panic. The vision of the faceless, high-speed demon was too much for the guy. Never mind that a total nerd was sweating under the mask.

To me, it shakes out like this:

– If you’re riding a populated XC trail, wear an open face helmet. For comfort and for politics.

– If you’re riding a lift or sessioning DH terrain, wear a full face helmet. DH bike = full face.

– If you’re rocking the full face on long climbs, strap it to your handlebar or backpack.

– If your terrain doesn’t have long climbs and descents, stick with an open face helmet.

If you feel safer with your face covered, go for it. Just be ready to be hot on the uphills, and hand $5 bills to everyone you see on the trail.

— Lee

PS: “Archetypal” gets you extra points!

19 replies
  1. Don says:


    Thanks for the response – as well considered and thought provoking as ever. I hadn’t thought about the politics angle, but it’s absolutely true – seeing a rider with body armour, full face helmet and a long travel bike does immediately set certain expectations. Adding a full face helmet to my knee pads, elbow pads and 4″ travel trail bike is going to send some mixed messages (some of which I don’t have the talent to live up to). I guess that it’s only a matter of time before we see more full face helmets on the trails – here’s hoping that the manufacturers can come up with something that can truly be described as “all mountain”. Meanwhile, I’ll have a closer look at the Deviant…


    PS, whatever points were gained for “archetypal” were offset by the other typo – ‘checken run’ for ‘chicken run’. Duh. I shood consintrate more no speling adn les on bikes – NOT! Braaap!

  2. Seb says:

    There are another couple of reasons why I stopped using a full face when I was riding trails on my DH rig:

    1) I couldn’t hear a single word anybody said.
    2) I felt like the face guard was making me breathe the same air over and over.

    Combined with the other reasons already mentioned I ended up keeping my full face purely for racing (and my local trails weren’t too gnarly anyway).

    Lee, what are your thoughts on full face vs open face for 4X? I was all set on running my open face, until I was ordered otherwise by my girlfriend at a recent trip to Chicksands to watch a 4X national round (great track, and great bike park in general. If you make it to the UK Chicksands is a must see). A couple of guys had heavy face plants, and walked away thanks to their full face lids. The conversation went something like this:

    Me: “Ouch, that looked painful.”
    Girlfriend: “You’re definitely getting a new full face when you start racing!”
    Me: “But Brian Lopes races at world cups in an open face…”
    Girlfriend: “I think Brian Lopes may be a little bit better at this than you are…”

    I think she has a point.

  3. Steeliekid says:

    I’ve gone full face based on terrain.

    My reason’s for doing so are directly related to my almost 35yrs of hockey (most on a competitive level). After college, I couldn’t wait to take of the face mask – and when I did, it was awesome – unobstructed view (no bars), seeming better “air”. The downside? The late night visits to the emergency room for stitches. The injuries were never the result of something that I was at fault for or intentional, but more of a freakish accident nature. After a couple of years, I put the cage back on. Life is good. I look at it thusly – yeah, I can rip it up and rarely crash, but one day I’ll blow a small drop (that freak accident thing) and knock out my chicklets and break a nose (like above). Why risk it?

    Can’t breath in the FF? Try rockin an ITECH mask…

  4. Chris says:

    I see many ski race helmets with that very simple bar in front of the chin. It doesn’t look too savage and wouldn’t stop air. And they wouldn’t look scary to hikers because you can still see the rider’s face. It also doesn’t look like it could take a huge hit, but it would save your teeth in all but the gnarliest crashes. Someone needs to bring one out, though I doubt they’d sell as they look poxy.

    How about a Jofa (which was legal for UCI BMX a few years ago but I don’t know if it still is)? Just strap it up for the descents. NOW you are talking serious air blockage.

  5. Pascal says:

    Remember Kamikaze racer Philippe Perakis. Before full face helmets were the norm he would wear a regular cycling helmet but used Oakley goggles with the very old school motocross facemask.

    I’m not familiar with this piece on equipement, but it seems to me it would only protect against abrasion and not really against hard hits. Sure would be easy to pack for the ascents though.

    As for the political factor, Perakis looked like a cyborg with the day-glo mask and first generation Dianese protection suit. Scary!

  6. jimmy says:

    I wear a FF for Downhill or anything nasty. I wear a half-lid for XC and AM. I ALWAYS wear a MOUTHGUARD when I wear the half-lid.

    A fractured jaw and broken nose will heal. Broken teeth will not.

    I had my mouthguard made by my dentist so they are smaller and comfortable to wear. They look like those invisline braces. They are pricey if you have them made by your dentist but it’s better than having a mouth full of chicklets.

  7. jimmy says:

    Covers only the upper. But the lowers does fit into the upper grooves.

    I actually started wearing one after I met a Dentist mtbr. He had one with a GT decal in his. So every time he smiled you see GT on his teeth.

  8. jimmy says:

    Mine turned brown from all the dirt I must have breath in.

    I guess your’s is to keep you from grinding your teeth at night. Check with your dentist. It might double as a mouthguard.

    Forgot to mention that I can talk, drink from my hydration pack and water bottle so it’s no big deal.

  9. Sašo says:

    Why not try a convertible? Some helmets like the Casco Viper MX have a detachable face guard that you can just put on or take off depending on the terrain. The ventilation with the face guard off is just as good as any XC helmet, although it is a bit heavier (it’s a bit more sturdy). The face guard part weighs practically nothing and is small enough to carry in your backpack. Luckily I can’t say anything about how the face guard performs when you hit the deck.

  10. Rodney says:

    My wife fell and fractured her shoulder badly 2 years ago on an XC ride. When she was able to start riding again she decided to wear the whole enchilada – Full Face Helmet (vented), Body Armour (minus the spine protector & kidney belt)to protect the shoulders and Elbow & knee Pads. I was already using elbow guards (after sustaining a fractured elbow years before) and I also took the plunge and donned the whole outfit. We both found it gave us far more confidence especially on gnarly descents and now we wouldn’t think of riding without what is commonly thought of as only Freeride/DH wear.
    The only problem we have is how hot we get riding in the Summer! To alleviate that problem we ride early in the morning, drink more water than before and take rest breaks.
    As far as the polotics goes, we are certainly aware from the looks we get from a lot of XC riders on the trail that they regard us with suspicion or derision, but our friendly attitude breaks the ice with most. The stereotyping in MTB is all a bit silly really – Lycra or Moto gear – does it really matter?

  11. dylan says:

    Its all personal, I have broken my jaw riding with a ff and have had a friend who luckily broke his jaw wearing a shorty,(I say lucky b/c during the CT scan they found out he had cancer) and were able to treat it early on in its life. If your worried about your head protect it. If your not throw it off a rock in a little soup bowl.

  12. Tjaard says:

    The top half of the Deviant has the same venting as Specialized’s Instinct (regular trail) helmet, so it is well vented. The slightly warmer lower part is not a big problem. The big issue is with the faceguard and long visor covering up your face. Still, I have used it on climbs, and it’s doable as long as it’s cool weather. I’m thinking of taking the mesh insert out of the front of the face guard, that might add some air.

  13. Hank says:

    I used to own a Giro switchblade.

    Now I have a Deviant. Pretty similar, except the deviant cannot remove the face guard.

    Not only is the deviant better ventilated than a “real” FullFace, it uses an xc-like retnetion system that puts less padding in contact with your face, and the face guard is long compared to most full faces which helps with the breathing recycled air part.

    I have ridden it on some climbs when accessing killer downhills and it is tolerable.

    It does seem a little less protective than a real full face though.

    I still end up wearing my Zen most of the time (unless shuttling or climbing to access downhils only), due to the heat factor. Especially right now in MA with the high humidity.

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