The fat bike has made cycling a year round activity for me and several others who live in the Upper Midwest. Riding in the snow is a great workout and it is a whole lot more fun than riding a trainer or cross-county skiing.
Below are some tips and tricks that I have learned while riding my fat bike in the cold and snow.
Tire Pressure: In the snow I am usually running the tires around 5 or 6 psi. If conditions are really soft I may take it down to 4 psi and give up some handling for the extra float. I still have the stock Big Fat Larry tires on my Moonlander. These tires do pretty good, but after watching guys who have the Surly Bud and Lou tires I can see that the extra tread, especially on the side wall is a benefit. I may have to drop the money on a set of these next winter. If you do start spinning while climbing in the snow, shifting your weight as far back on the saddle as you can will really help keep the fat tire hooked up.
Staying Warm: I am sure by now everyone knows to dress in layers and avoid wearing cotton. With winter cycling it is a fine line between being cold and being soaked in sweat. Everyone is different and it will take several rides in different temperature and wind conditions for you to get your clothing dialed in. I like to start out feeling fairly cold, with the exception of my hands and feet. Pedaling a fat bike through the snow is hard work and it usually doesn’t take long to warm up. I find it hard to not get at least a little sweaty at some point during a ride. So fast drying moisture wicking clothing is best.
I like to wear a fleece vest because while you are moving it lets the cool air flow through and then when you stop it helps keep your core warm. Under this I wear several other different long sleeve layer combinations depending on the weather. It is also important to think about what might happen if you have a flat or mechanical problem out on the trail. I always carry a light weight jacket in my frame bag or backpack that I can throw on in an emergency. Look at how far you will be getting from your vehicle and plan your extra clothing accordingly.
Gloves: I have always found it difficult to keep my hands and feet at the right temperature. I recently started using the Outdoor Research Highcamp 3 Finger Gloves and they have been working really well even in temps down to the low double digits. I picked these over the other options because I typically ride with my index fingers on the break levelers and these were the only mitts that kept just this finger free. They also come with removable liners that add extra warmth. I like to use the liners at the start of rides and then remove them later to keep my hands from overheating. I chose to go with the lobster style gloves over Bar Mitts so I could also use them for winter camping and snowboarding. I have friends that use full finger riding gloves and Bar Mitts and this seems to work really well too.
Boots: In the winter flat pedals and boots are really the only way to go. In the snow it is very likely that you will have to get off and do some hike-a-fat-bike. Even groomed trails tend to have sections that get drifted over. I usually ride in my summer hiking boots with heavy weight Smartwool Socks. This setup seems to work well on shorter rides around 2 hours or less. I have to admit that I am still trying to find a system that works for me on longer outings. My Gore-Tex lined boots do not seem to breath well enough to allow all the moisture out that builds up over time. Wool is supposed to insulate well even when wet, but doesn’t seem to be enough to keep my feet warm. I have been looking for an inexpensive lightweight insulated boot, but I haven’t found anything I really like yet. I may have to pony up the big money for a pair of the 45NRTH Wölvhammers. If you have found something that works well for your feet please let us know in the comments below.
Headgear: For winter riding I wear a Giro Feature Helmet with a Smartwool beanie hatt. I chose the Giro Feature because it has fewer vents than most cycling helmets and the back drops down lower so that you can wear it with goggles if needed. When it gets a little warmer I use a lightweight headband under my helmet to just cover my ears and let my head breath more.
I recently bought my daughters Bern Helmets with the interchangeable summer and winter liners. If I was just starting to look for a helmet now, I would probably go this route. For the price of one good helmet, you get something that can be used for fat biking, snowboarding and summer trail riding.
Other Winter Essentials: For really cold and windy weather a you will want a balaclava and ski goggles to keep your face completely covered. Look for a balaclava with enough stretch so you can pull it down under your chin as you warm up. To keep your fingers and toes warm on long cold days the hand and foot warmer packs work really well. I am partial to the Grabber Brand warmers because they are based near our home in Michigan.
Water: When fat biking in the winter you want to make sure that you still drink plenty of water. Sweat evaporates fast in the cool dry air and it can be hard to gauge how much fluid you are actually loosing. To keep my bottles from freezing I start with water that is a little warmer than room temperature. If possible put the bottles upside down in the cage. This helps keep the cap from freezing on to the bottle. The squeeze valve will still freeze, but at least you can stop and unscrew the top and get a drink. When it gets really cold I put small 16oz Nalgene bottle in my vest pocket to keep it warm. I do not often wear my hydration pack in the winter, but the trick to keeping your tube and bite valve from freezing is to blow the water back up into the bladder after taking a drink.
Winter Trail Etiquette: Fat bikers are the new kids on the winter trails and we need to be careful how and when we ride. IMBA recently published a list of Fat Bike (Winter Mountain Biking) Best Practices. The one that I would like to highlight is that you should stay off from groomed trails if you are leaving a rut that is deeper than 1 inch. When deep ruts refreeze it is really hard to fix them with the grooming equipment. Trail coordinators spend a lot of time and money grooming so please respect their work. See the rest of the list at the link above.
If you have any other good winter tips please share them in the comments below.