Before you get out on the mountain and barrel down the trails at speeds of 30 mph or more, you need to be safe and that starts with buying a good helmet. If you are out there on the trails you’re going to make a mistake and you are going to fall. Wearing a brain bucket will help protect your noggin.
Not that you should just strap a galvanized pail to your head, you’ll need to get the right type of helmet to stop your grey matter from becoming trail splatter. Bike helmets range in price from $10 to over a hundred. Picking the right one for your budget and activity level is essential. For mountain biking you’ll want something that is lightweight, well ventilated, and tough. Unfortunately, that puts your low end price around 50 bones.
In terms of weight, you’ll just have to try on helmets until you find one that feels right. Generally the price goes up as the weight goes down. Just remember that you could be spending hours a day in your helmet and you’ll want something you can wear for that long.
Choosing the right ventilation configuration can be more difficult because you don’t really get to sweat in it until you’re out on the trail. So just try to find something that seems to breathe well on your head.
Lastly, and most importantly, you want your helmet to be tough— like Dirty Hairy, John Wayne, Madeline Albright’s face tough. For that you need make sure your helmet has a CPSC stamp (Consumer Products Safety Commission) and, preferably, a Snell Foundation certification. If that’s not enough of a guide, Bern, Giro, and Bell consistently make some of the best reviewed helmets in the industry; pick one them and you’re unlikely to go wrong.
There is also a lot of “optional” safety equipment you really should consider, especially if you’re taking on a more difficult trail. You can get protection for just about every part of your body. Upper and lower body armor, gloves, wrist support, neck protection, knee pads, and ankle pads have all been designed and marketed with mountain bikers in mind. At the very least, I would recommend a good set of elbow and knee pads for your first few trails or you’ll be likely to end up with a few more bruises than you left the house with.