Preparation is Key for Keeping it Fun in the Cold on a Snow Bike
Baby, it’s cold outside; but I want to ride. Those of us living in environments where the earth is white for several months and the pavement shoulder hides under sheets of ice and debris thank the bike gods for giving us fat bikes. You can now pedal in the snow. Fat biking is just biking, but there are some unique equipment considerations before you hit the trails.
What to wear to ride in the snow?
Getting sweaty in cold weather is a recipe for misery, so utilizing clothing layers while carrying additional layers is key. I take off and put on layers several times on a fat bike ride. I start out slightly overdressed on a ride and once I’m warmed up I peel off a layer. Even if it is sunny out, I carry a waterproof jacket and pants. You may find yourself hiking in deep snow or the snow may become slush and soak you. If I am going on an epic ride, over four hours, I carry an extra undershirt (and sports bra) to change into mid-ride if I get sweaty. I ride with a small pack to easily store layers as I need them.
For the coldest weather I layer:
- On top – a thermal top, fleece top, vest (down if it’s really cold), and waterproof jacket with pit zips.
- On bottom – bike tights (full length or bike shorts with leg warmers), calf height winter socks, long johns or fleece leggings, and waterproof bike pants.
- Extras – cap and neck gaiter or balaclava, warm gloves and bar mitts, and fat bike boots (see feet for more detail).
For warm winter days, I layer:
- On top – thermal shirt and a windproof vest.
- On bottom – winter bike pants (windproof on the front) or bike shorts with leg warmers (only on short rides in full sun and temps well above 32).
- Extras – headband, thin gloves, and fat bike boots
Protect Your Extremities
Hands will not be able to shift or brake if they are numb. If your gloves are too bulky you will have trouble feeling your shifters and levers. Bar mitts let you wear thin gloves. Lobster claw style gloves are also good for fat biking. I always carry a packet of Hot Hands (chemical packets that when opened deliver heat for 7 hours) and put them in my gloves over the top (non-palm) side of my hand where they warm the blood going to your fingers. Carrying an extra pair of gloves is a good idea if you are going for a long ride or getting wet is likely.
Feet will get colder than if you were riding on the road in the same temps. Your boots will brush through snow banks on the side of the trail, and post holing through the snow is inevitable. Flat pedals with traction nubs (free ride style, not the plastic ones that came on your kid’s bike) with good winter boots work well. Bike shoes with neoprene covers are okay but most fill full of snow when you hike. Yes, walking in the snow is a normal part of fat biking in the snow so plan for it. If you ride a fat bike regularly in the snow and want to use clipless pedals, investing in fat bike specific bike boots (I wear Bontrager OMW Winter Shoe) is a must. I also carry an extra packet of Hot Hands to put in my bike shoes if my feet get too cold. They warm your toes best under your socks/against your skin right behind the ball of your foot. Consider an extra pair of non-cotton socks for long rides or rides where you know you will get wet.
The head is where we lose the most heat, so find a fleece cap that fits under your helmet. If you are hot, this layer is the quickest to remove and cools you rapidly. I carry a headband if I think I’ll take my cap off so my ears stay warm. I also carry a neck gaiter for extra warmth if the wind or snow picks up.
Eyewear selection can greatly affect how much fun you have too. Ski goggles have lenses that enhance snow definition but can fog. If you fat bike with goggles make sure they vent well with your helmet; if they are made by the same manufacturer they typically will. Yellow lenses work well in the snow unless you will be biking in full sun conditions. For full sun, regular riding sun glasses work fine.
Preparing for a mechanical on a fat bike requires a few special items
To fix a flat on the fat bike’s extra large tires you will need a fat bike specific tube. Some bike shops will sell you a DH (downhill) tube and say it will work. It won’t. Your CO2 cartridge may fill your tire to only 2-3 psi, so carry several, or better yet, carry a hand pump. To have the most fun on your fat bike, adjust your tire pressure to maximize float on the particular snow density; it is nice to have a pump so you can play around with the psi that is right for you and not worry about running out of CO2 cartridges. Tire patch glue often freezes, so carry an extra tube. Tire levers also get brittle and break in the cold; I carry three just in case. Thankfully, flats are pretty rare in the snow.
You will flop your bike into deep snow often. These falls are silly and usually painless, but your derailleur hanger is particularly susceptible to bending. Carry an extra derailleur hanger and the tools to replace it.
Prevention of mechanicals is the best medicine for fat bikes, and that means put your bike away DRY AND LUBED. Components don’t like being wet. A bike put away wet is a rusty bike when you take it out next time (particularly if you ride in an area that salts the roadway).
It gets dark fast in winter; carry lights. I always have a headlamp in my pack in case the ride is longer than I expect. Snow conditions can change quickly, and your out-and-back ride may take twice as long on the return. A flashing front and rear light is great if you will be on trails used by snowmobilers, mushers, skiers, or may find yourself on roads shared with motor vehicles.
Plan your route wisely in winter conditions. If you have a mechanical or other problem, hiking out in the snow will take a whole lot longer than if you are on dirt or pavement. Bring extra clothes, food and lights just in case. Cell phone power is easily drained in cold temps so don’t expect your phone to work. If riding alone, make sure people know where you will be, when you are expected back, and what to do if you don’t return in reasonable time. Choose a ride that is busy, parallels roads, communities, or goes by several trailheads so you have options. If you are exploring remote areas, bring a well-equipped posse of friends.
Fuel your ride
When you are cold you don’t feel thirsty, but you need to drink like on any other ride. A well-hydrated body is better able to thermoregulate. The hose of your hydration pack or a water bottle in a cage may freeze in winter riding. I carry an insulated bottle with hot beverage. Hot tea with electrolytes is nice: green tea with citrus sports drink mix or ginger tea with apple electrolytes are my favorite. I also bring hot soup for long or cold rides. If it is warm out and a hot drink is not what I’m craving, I just add a little snow. In a pinch I have poured my hot drink on frozen components to get me home.
You burn a ton of calories just staying warm, so bring more food than you think you will want. Holiday cookies and leftover ham sandwiches (the meat will stay “refrigerated”) are great, but moist snacks (gels, blocks, bars, fruit, nut butters, etc.) freeze into rocks you won’t want to eat.
Have a hot recovery beverage waiting for you at the end of the ride. I’m a big fan of a Fluids Cinnamon Vanilla Recovery Mix made with hot almond milk to sip while I clean, dry and lube my bike at the trailhead before transporting it home. Hot cocoa is pretty great, too.
My Fat Bike Packing List:
- Small Backpack
- Flat kit: fat tire tube, 3 tire levers, mechanical hand pump with psi gauge
- Multi-tool, duct tape, derailleur hanger
- 2 Thermos (minimum), 300 calories/hr (minimum) snacks
- Hot Hands (3)
- Headlamp and bike lights
- Down coat if I’m going to take a lunch break in the snow
- Gore-Tex/ waterproof jacket and pants
- Extra base layer (top, long johns, sports bra)
- Extra socks
- Extra thin gloves or glove liners
- Neck gaiter or balaclava
- Zip-lock with my phone and map
With a little insight and preparation, you will have a fantastic adventure on a fat bike. I’m pretty sure you will be talking to your local bike shop about adding a fat bike to your bike stable in no time.