Kali Viva Helmet AndrewM

Min-Maxing With The Kali Viva Helmet

Words Andrew Major
Photos Andrew Major (Unless Noted)
Date Nov 27, 2018

Ten Tiny Vents

There's a river of sweat pouring down my brow, but to be honest the flow isn't heavier than on any other hot August day. Out of the saddle and hammering, the only thing louder than my heart beat is my breathing. I can't even hear my massive Plus tires as they churn up the steep gravely pitch.

When I'm gassed there is nothing worse than a steep straight climb where the final destination is mockingly in sight and impossibly far away. Actually it's worse when a stronger, fitter, better-looking compatriot is closer to topping the final grind than I am to them.

Leatt DBX 2.0 Helmet AndrewM

Let's say just for a second that appearances matter when it comes to choosing protective gear. Here's me in a regular lid.

Jordie Lunn shot from Kali.com AndrewM

And here's me when I've been shredding gnar in a bucket. Hard As F***. Okay, that's actually Jordie Lunn but you get the point. Photo: Kali

I crest, roll to a stop, and remove my helmet to give my head some air, something I don't normally do. The bright green bucket is amazingly comfortable, but any idiot can see those ten tiny vents allow very little cooling. It breathes better than expected but my expectations were more toque than bandana.

I began looking at the Viva through a Keith Bontrager-esque 'Protection, Price, Venting: Pick Any Two' lens, examining how sacrificing air flow could net all the benefits of Kali's multi-density cone-shaped foam and softer helmet philosophy for 50 USD, but I didn't expect to be so taken with this helmet. This may sound ridiculous but, without even considering price, if I was buying myself a new half-lid tomorrow it would be a bucket, like the Kali Viva.


Even on the hottest days, I've been wearing the Kali Viva almost exclusively for daytime rides since mid-August. This piece started out as a call out; Kali says most bike helmets are too hard but many riders can't or won't spring for a Gucci lid like the 180 USD Kali Interceptor.

Kali Helmets AndrewM

"This multi-density construction allows us to put the harder foam on the outside (light grey cones) to quickly dissipate high-g force impacts, while putting softer foam (dark grey cones) next to your head to cushion any blow. " - Kali

Kali also brings Interceptor-level safety features to the 100 USD Maya 2.0. It also sacrifices venting but not as much as the Viva, but I want even more value. I want maximum protection and fit for my dollar when I'm charging North Shore trails.

Kali Maya

The 100 USD Kali Maya sacrifices less ventilation than the Viva, while providing many of the features and much of the protection of the 180 USD Interceptor.

The features I maximize with the Viva are fit and function while venting takes a back seat to hit that sweet 50 USD price. I thankfully haven't had to test the function in a crash but I can't say enough about how a properly sized bucket maximizes fit.

It's been years since I wore a pad-fit lid, and ditching the retention unit - any retention unit, even my beloved BOA - for the light embrace of all-around pad contact is glorious. And yes, that embrace gets a bit moist and sweaty at times but as I said above - I'm all in.

Kali Viva Helmet AndrewM

It looks like a lot of shell, but the Viva is only 85grams heavier that Kali's airy Interceptor.

Kali Viva Helmet AndrewM

In use passive venting is way better than expected but my expectations were low.

Kali Viva Helmet AndrewM

Visibility is excellent and there is no visor to remove, which I've been getting slagged for with my night riding helmet.

The Soundtrack

We're at the top of a trail called Ned's which for some reason I find so-so on a full suspension bike and love on a hardtail or rigid bike. My friend is doing a slick bit of humblebragging about how little he's been riding and I can tell from the Mick Jagger level swagger that he smells blood. Mine.

It's go time and I'm straddling my rig holding the bucket in both hands. I lift it up to my head and just before it drops on my crown the opening guitar riff to April 29, 1992, starts playing in my head. It's edgy but so smooth, torpid but vicious. Oh yeah, now I'm ready.

I hear what you're saying: "It's just a bloody helmet." I know. Yes, I know. There are no mirrors in the Serengeti but I swear that this bucket takes ten years off my riding. I've been brazenly braving more and somehow crashing less.

Riding speed is all relative but we're normally wheel-to-wheel in terms of descending speed and today I'm dropping my friend at will. I'm not even picking lines, I'm just squatted calmly with my weight between the wheels with my bike floating over the trail.

You may think this is like saying a Brooklyn TMX climbs like a carbon 'cross bike but riding with a bucket just might be making me a better rider.

The Original Slip-Plane

Back to features, the Viva uses Kali's Composite Fusion 3 with triangularly shaped cones of different foam densities. Kali claims this helps with "impact management efficiency" and the notable benefit is that the Viva has a relatively low volume for a skid lid.

What the Viva doesn't have is the Low-Density-Layer (LDL) of the Interceptor or another "Slip-Plane" technology like MIPS. And before I ask you to take a leap of imagination here I'd like to note that I am not an engineer, arm-chair or otherwise, and my personal helmet lab research doesn't go past the 'grab the helmet and see if you can rotate it' level.

Kali Viva Helmet AndrewM

The thin shell, in-molding, and multi-density foam layup make the helmet smaller (lower volume) compared to many buckets.

Fit pads provide a combination of a light 180° pressure fit and friction fit which does a great job of keeping the helmet in one place and doesn't create any pressure points. No hot spots. Ever. Despite the solid fit it took a few rides to get used to wearing a helmet that isn't ratcheted into position.

This got me thinking about MIPS*. Crashing in a bucket, the chin strap keeps the helmet on my head but the shell rotates easily because impact with an immovable object will easily overcome the light pressure and friction fit that keeps it in place.

Put another way, when I ratchet down a regular mountain bike lid isn't this exactly what MIPS does? It allows the shell to move independently of the harness that is essentially hard mounted to my skull. This, of course, had me in giggle fits because some companies were charging as much for a MIPS upgrade on their helmets as the cost of a good bucket lid.

*I'm using MIPS here as the Kleenex of Slip-Planes but feel free to substitute Slip-Plane, Low Friction Layer, LDL, SPIN, etc.

Kali Viva Helmet AndrewM

The fit is adjusted through pad thickness. The helmet stays in place via light 180° friction and pressure from the pads making it very comfortable.

Unsurprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any science to back me up but I think it's a pretty easy experiment to do yourself. Go into your local shop, pop the right size of skid lid on your head, adjust the chain strap, grab it by the vents, and move it around a bit.

I don't think it's far-fetched to claim that the helmet can slide relative to my head and, therefore, reduce rotational motion in an angled impact. I doubt anyone will invest a dime comparing the protection benefits of Low Friction Layers versus just removing the ratcheting retention band and adding some padding. But I wonder if we've drifted some miles from Occam's brain bulwark in the name of a few extra gaps for passive air flow.

Kid Lid

Most of my friends think I'm imagining things but I've noticed a big difference in interactions with other riders since I started wearing a skid lid, or 'kid lid' as I call it. Cruising up the gravel access road of my preferred local mountain I generally say hello to everyone who passes me as well as the few suffering souls that I happen to pass.

Kids and teens are notably more likely to say hey and strike up a conversation. Old dudes on top-end Enduro super-sleds the opposite. Same bike, same clothes, same demeanor, two different lids. It's so freakin' strange. And it brings me back to that question of whether hitting the trails in a brain bucket can actually make you a better rider.

Step one find a 13-year-old kid. Step two, ask them if you're old. Step three, if they say "yes" then throw a few bucks down on a bucket. It can't make you any worse!

I'm really happy with the 50 USD Viva, so if the kid lid fits wear it.

Trending on NSMB


+4 Andrew Major FlipSide IslandLife Metacomet
Velocipedestrian  - Nov. 27, 2018, 12:48 a.m.

Yay, more min-maxing. I didn't realise how much I was enjoying these until I saw this pop up.


Andrew Major  - Nov. 27, 2018, 7:05 a.m.



Skyler  - Nov. 27, 2018, 6:53 a.m.

Even if I were to ignore the $30000 Canadian university education, and deem that a failed investment (which might be close to accurate), I still like to treat my brain as the most expensive thing I own. Thus, saving $50 on brain-insurance is bad economics if you're getting sub-standard insurance.

I'm not claiming that the Kali chamber pot is sub-standard, but rather that helmet reviews are hard because the only things that really matter are comfort (which is different for everyone) and protection (which requires proper 3rd party lab testing at minimum).


+4 chachmonkey Metacomet IslandLife Skyler
Andrew Major  - Nov. 27, 2018, 7:19 a.m.

I think I cover that pretty clearly. The only thing being sacrificed with THIS $50 lid is venting. 

Re. Comfort. Maybe I was overly cheeky in trying to make my point but I think if you haven’t tried a pad-fit lid for a while it’s worth plopping one on your head. 

Re. Testing. In addition to in house testing Kali uses multiple outside labs. As Brad tells it there are different testing philosophies so he likes to see the different results. Brad also designs for other companies, including Leatt, under contract; they take things seriously and are taken seriously.

I linked to a piece I wrote previously re. Kali design philosophy and noted the Viva has an impressive amount of tech, including multi-density-foam for $50. “Safety” is, as you note, a dangerous thing to qualify but if you buy into the idea that many helmets are too hard for the speeds we’re crashing at - in a quest to combine venting, style, and pass gouvernment  testing - which I do - I think it’s easy to make the argument that the features of this lid (and similar buckets) actually make it safer than many helmets costing many times more.

That’s the real win in Min-Maxing, like the other products I mentioned. Getting something better for less.


+2 Andrew Major DanL
Metacomet  - Nov. 27, 2018, 9:09 a.m.

I agree with you here Andrew.   I think this type of helmet is realistically probably much safer than your typical bike helmet for the majority of impacts for a few reasons.  

The rounded shell, the lack of vents, and the deeper fit and increased coverage.    And we are talking about certified helmets here.  Not the soft foam/non-cert skate helmets like a cheaper pro-tec or 888.

It's passing the same certifications and then some.  And beyond that, it doesn't take much to deduce that these characteristics make a safer helmet than one full of holes with shallow coverage and odd peaks and points and a plastic visor hanging off the front. 

I've seen kids smack their heads at the skatepark and be fine, and I've done it myself as well.  The round shape is great at glancing off of objects and sliding, and the deep coverage is great at distributing the force over a much larger area of both head and ground rather than concentrating it to a narrow ring around your head circumference or a single point of contact like any of those peaks and points found on "bike" helmets.  I can think of a lot of skate crashes where I would have hated to be in a bike helmet as they are so hard and don't extend very far down your head, and those points probably would have ripped the helmet off the side of my head as they grab the ground.    From my own experience, crashes and falls happen a lot more frequently in park/pool/DH skateboarding than they ever have on the bike.  

Seems like in an environment full of rocks and sticks and all kinds of pointy branches, we wouldn't want a helmet that's full of holes and barely covers more than the top of our head if safety was the biggest concern, but somehow that's the norm. 

Maybe we'll all end up in moto-trials style helmets for trail riding in a few years.  More coverage than a traditional half shell, smooth and rounded shell that could still be ventilated, flexy visor that shouldn't snag.   Might not look half bad without a visor either.  Like the Pro-Tec full cut.


+1 Andrew Major
Andy Eunson  - Nov. 27, 2018, 9:31 a.m.

I think that’s a really good point about round helmets and fewer vents. Helmets with fins and lumps and stuff are more likely to snag and torque your neck when you hit the dirt. I have snagged vents on low branches and that is not fun. 

I have to say that one of the most comfortable helmets I have had was an Urge with only a few vents and no head clamp deal. The rear straps crossed behind the head and the inner foam kept the helmet in place. I tested it the hard way once too. I needed a ventless helmet for medical reasons (efeudex) and once that was done I didn’t wear that helmet much as it was pretty warm.


+2 Metacomet DanL
Andrew Major  - Nov. 27, 2018, 12:06 p.m.

Hadn’t considered the smooth round shape but that makes perfect sense vs. a uniquely artistically jagged MTB or road lid. 

The coverage is excellent. I was very surprised at the relatively small weight gain considering coverage and lack of cutouts.


+1 Poz
DanL  - Nov. 27, 2018, 5:16 p.m.

I was sort of hoping you were going to min-max the helmet itself by some kind of MacGyvering


+1 Andrew Major
DanL  - Nov. 27, 2018, 11:47 a.m.

and now I'm back to full circle...I was looking at some photos from a while back and laughing at how 'amateur' I looked in my skate helmet when I started riding the North Shore.
And as for grinding up seemingly never ending gravel..ugh...the only thing that matches that is kick board drills in the pool


+1 DanL
Andrew Major  - Nov. 27, 2018, 12:10 p.m.

Years and years ago I road in a chrome-silver Bell DJ lid and then a chrome-pink of the same. I did NOT go looking for pictures when I started writing this. 

I’m sure I look like a dad-to-teenagers trying to look cool - especially when sporting a 50% grey beard but what can you do?!

I actually think years of kickboard drills, beep tests, ‘Hell Week’ and etc in the pool as a kid may be partially to blame for my love of single speeding as an adult.


Luix  - Nov. 28, 2018, 4:36 a.m.

While on the subject of rounder shells and MTB, Bern makes some interesting stuff, really worth a look. They do integrate MIPS in their more sophisticated options, and at a fraction of other brands' offers. Plus they are way more vented than the classic bucket helmets such as this Kali Viva.


+1 Luix
Andrew Major  - Nov. 28, 2018, 8:05 a.m.

To the best of my knowledge all the Bern helmets have a retention system - BOA on the higher price-points and a basic ratchet on the lower ones.

Styling aside (the little cloth brim...), if I’m going to wear a Kid Lid it’ll be pad fit.

The features/$ on their higher priced lids are pretty good - BOA, shape, venting.


+1 Andrew Major
Luix  - Nov. 28, 2018, 9:43 a.m.

Yup, I get your point on padding versus cinching, but I was trailing on the "rounder shape" and "slip-plane equipped" characteristics of the Viva. They do also offer superior venting when compared to the Kali.

Not that they are my cup of tea, but several of my friends use them, and have crashed pretty hard on them, with good results.


+3 Luix grcgrc Velocipedestrian
Andrew Major  - Nov. 28, 2018, 12:11 p.m.

Totally. Flexible peaks (like the new Maya) and rounded shape (Bern) make a lot of sense. If you can get Troy Lee on board they’ll be the fashion in ~6-months.


Luix  - Nov. 28, 2018, 2:51 p.m.

Ahahaha! Darn I wish I could upvote this comment a zillion times!

Thanks a lot for putting these posts together, but also for taking the time to engage with us Drew!


+1 Andrew Major
grcgrc  - Nov. 28, 2018, 11:24 p.m.

While not the usual MTB helmet, I have used a Nutcase helmet for winter riding for years. As the temperature drops into single digits I appreciate the lack of ventilation. My only complaint is the lack of a visor as at times the rain or trail detritus comes over the top of my riding glasses.

Once I need to replace the Nutcase, I will gladly look at a helmet like the Kali Viva.


Chong Xiong  - Jan. 7, 2019, 6:56 a.m.

Can you comment on the fit of this helmet vs. Bell or Giro. I have a round head, Bell fits great... Giro has pressure points on the sides of my head. Thanks.


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