A visor is a section of plastic attached to the front of the helmet to help prevent pretty much anything you might expect to be out on the trails from getting into your eyes or face. They are very handy things to have, and despite their usefulness, they weigh next to nothing, so you barely notice they are there!
I, personally, always ride with a visor and it is more common to see riders with a visor than without.
The visor adds an extra layer of protection from unexpected twigs or low hanging branches that you don't have enough time (or balance) to take your hands off the bars to push out of the way.
There are so many types of visors out there that I think anyone can find the type and style that suits them best!
Why does a mountain bike helmet need a visor?
Here are a number of scenarios I have experienced and have been thankful that I have a visor on my helmet.
Shield from sun
Picture this. You are riding in a park, full of trees, on a hot and sunny evening. You would think you are pretty much safe from any sunlight reaching you, so you don't have a visor on your helmet. Then all of a sudden, the forest becomes a little less dense, just as you start a steep, gnarly descent, and the sun starts flickering through the trees, right into your eyes.
Having the sun flickering in your eyes certainly makes concentrating on the decent a lot harder, let alone being able to see the trail! Having a visor means for much of the time, the sun will be blocked in these situations. Riding becomes a lot more pleasant when you can see where you are going!
It can also prevent a little more sun reaching your face, keeping you a little more protected from the scorching sun, reducing the chances of sunburn while out riding.
Shield from rain
Similar situation to having the sun in your eyes. The visor takes much of the rain for you, leaving your face and eyes much less exposed, thus allowing you to enjoy your ride that much more!
This is particularly important if you weren't prepared for the rain and aren't wearing any glasses. This leads us to the next point.
Shield from mud and dirt from the rider in front
The visor shields your eyes from any loose flying dirt and mud that may flick up while riding on the trails. This is particularly important if you are following behind someone who will be inevitably flicking up a bit of mud behind them. And as soon as a bit of mud gets in the eye, it hinders the rider's sight potentially for the rest of the ride.
Shield from branches
While out riding narrow single tracks, it is common to have the odd branch or two in your way. While hitting the tracks at a blistering pace, taking your hand off the handlebars on uneven terrain becomes a little unsafe. The visor is there to take the brunt of the force from the overhanging branch when you can't duck under it or avoid it.
Why not just wear glasses?
This is good thinking, as it would likely prevent the sun, mud and rain from getting in your eyes. However, riding the trails with dark tinted glasses makes an often dark, tree-covered park, even darker. This means you may not see that stick you mistook for a shadow, and seeing other objects on the tracks becomes a little more difficult.
It is common for some mountain bikers to wear clear glasses or goggles in conjunction with the visor if they feel the tracks will be extra muddy, dusty or it is raining.
Why doesn't a road bike helmet have a visor?
Helmets are designed to protect your head in the event of a crash. A crash on a road bike is often very different from a crash on a mountain bike, and the helmets are designed so. A visor would be somewhat handy to have on a road bike, but a 'design' crash on a road bike are high-speed slides along the pavement.
A visor would get in the way as the rider slid across the pavement, possibly damaging the rider's neck or head in the process. This is different for a mountain bike crash, as a 'design crash' on a mountain bike is more of a thrown up in the air and come back down kind of crash, rather than a slide across the smooth tarmac. Having a visor in the way is negligible considering there is likely banks or rocks in the way too, and it will break off before any damage occurs to your head.
Not to mention that the aim of road biking is to be as fast as possible, so aerodynamics is key. A visor doesn't exactly help with the aerodynamics too much!
Types of visors
There are many types of visors that you will find on bike helmets. Here are the different types and what kind of helmets you will find them on.
You can get helmets with a visor which do not move up or down. They are attached to the helmet, creating a very sturdy attachment. The visors are typically shorter than adjustable visors as you do not want it to be in your vision while riding.
An adjustable visor is attached at two points on either side of the helmet, which allows the visor to move up and down the front of the helmet. This gives the rider the freedom to block the sun as needed, and then be able to move the visor out of the way when it is not needed.
An adjustable visor is typically longer than a fixed visor as it has the freedom to be moved out of the way when it is not needed and can shield your eyes and face a fair bit more when it is needed.
Many fixed and adjustable visors can be detachable. This means the visor can be attached when it is needed and detached when it is not needed.
This is quite a popular solution for those riders who want to use the same helmet for road cycling and mountain biking. If you are one of these riders, see this post here- Can I use a Road Biking Helmet for Mountain Biking.
While we don't recommend using a mountain bike helmet for road biking or vice versa, this is one option for those who really want to.
The ways a visor is attached to the helmet
There are many ways that visors can be attached to helmets. Some are better than others and here are the most common types and what type of helmets they appear on.
A screw-in visor is what the higher quality mountain bike helmets use. They are durable, can withstand a few branches and a crash, and are typically screwed into a moulded on nut which allows the visor to be adjustable.
A screw-on visor can sometimes be detachable too, which allows it to be taken off and cleaned out in-case the rider manages to get a bit of dirt etc. in there.
A snap-on visor typically doesn't last very long. Usually, this method is used for children's helmets which are expected to be replaced frequently (as the child's head grows, and because children are expected to crash more frequently, leading to the helmet needs replacing more often).
It doesn't take much for the visor to come off, which is good if a child crashes at a slow-pace but the visor gets in the way. But not so good if an adult is tackling a trail and sweeps past a branch which removes the visor involuntarily.
Snap-on helmets are generally found on cheaper helmets which are not recommended for off-road riding.
This style of attachment is generally used for fixed visors. It stops the visor from being able to move up and down the front of the helmet freely.
What length of the visor is best to have on my mountain bike helmet?
Longer is generally better for protection from the sun and branches etc. However, if you have a fixed visor, longer may mean it inhibits your view when climbing, as you are constantly looking up. It is similar to wearing a running cap while out on the trails.
Your vision becomes a bit obstructed once you are looking up, which is why a fixed visor is much shorter, and why we recommend getting a helmet with an adjustable visor.
What happens if the visor on my mountain bike helmet breaks off?If the visor is not purposely made to reattach once it comes off, or if the visor is broken, you can find spare helmet visors online or in a bike store (although they may have to order your particular visor). For example, you can find the Troy Lee Designs A2 replacement visor on Amazon for a reasonably low cost here.
Does having a visor make it unsafe in a crash?
As stated earlier (under 'Why doesn't a road bike helmet have a visor?') having a visor on a mountain bike does not make it unsafe. If anything, it makes it safer. Your eyes and face will be much more protected by having a visor, but in a crash, it will break off before any damage occurs to you, your head or your neck.
For more about breakaway camera mounts, check out our post on the best helmets with built in camera mounts.
Should a visor always be used?
Here at MTB Gear Box, we definitely recommend wearing a visor while out mountain biking for several reasons. It does shield your eyes and face from the sun, dirt, mud and branches.
But also, big brand helmets such as Bell, Giro, Fox and Specialized have put a lot of money and time into researching the optimum design and shaped for the highest level of protection for their riders. And all of their mountain bike helmets will come with a visor.
Mountain bike visors come with the vast majority of mountain bike helmets. Whether you purchase a fixed visor or an adjustable one, you can be sure that the designers of the helmet have put thought into the size of the visor and it will not obstruct your vision 99% of the time. They definitely provide a fair bit protection, and you generally will never notice it is there. They are light, make the helmet look good, and provide very useful when riding into the sun!
If you still need a bit of help in deciding on the type of mountain bike helmet is for you, see our other posts,