The biggest challenge with winter fat biking is how to stay warm. No matter how beautiful the terrain or how great your partners are, if you are cold you will not have fun. Bulky winter clothing will make you feel like Stay Puff on a bike, making it futile to move your arms and legs. You will be exercising, and sweating. Wet clothing invites Jack Frost to nip at more than your nose. And you need to keep the snow out without becoming a mobile greenhouse. It’s no wonder this is a conundrum for most cyclists who want to bike in the snow!
Don’t give up on riding in the snow. I can help! I’ve been riding and racing fat bikes since fat tires were 3.2’s (but ride 4.8’s now). I’ve developed and fine-tuned a clothing strategy that gives me confidence when I head out for a fat bike ride in winter that I’ll return home happy, without frostbite, and boasting tales.
1.) Layers are key. Raid your alpine ski gear. I have found wool next to my skin is best to wick moisture away. Over that, synthetic materials are fine, but avoid cotton. Be able to add or remove layers as needed and have a way to carry them (jersey pockets fill up fast).
2.) Outer layers are chosen by the conditions. Wind-stopper material when it’s windy, Gore-Tex or rain gear if it’s wet, wind jacket/vest if it’s nice out.
3.) Use your head . You lose or retain a lot of heat here depending on what is covering your noggin. I bring a fleece headband, skull cap, and a fleece hat with me and adjust this layer before any other.
4.) Cold hands can’t break or shift gears. If there is too much bulk on your hands you won’t be able to do these things either. Investing in bar mitts is a must. These are neoprene pouches that attach to your handlebars, encase your cockpit and allow you to easily slide your hands inside wearing only a thin glove. When it’s really cold, I wear a thin glove liner with a winter riding glove or lobster claw glove over it. This way I can remove one or the other to prevent my hands from getting wet.
5.) Feet suffer reduced circulation when cycling. When you are cold, your body reduces blood flow to your extremities, and extra socks may squish your feet reducing circulation to your toes even more. I have found a good pair of winter riding boots are essential as they will keep the snow out and have insulation so you don’t have to cram six pairs of socks in. Booties and shoe covers are notorious for coming off when you have to hike your bike in the snow and filling up with snow that then melts in your shoe.
Apparel Strategies by Climate
1.) Cool Climate is where the temperature is in the 30’s factoring in wind chill. If it’s sunny, expect to take layers off. If there is precipitation or it’s overcast, bring extra layers for “Cold Climate” riding.
- Headband or thin beanie
- Wool base layer or long sleeve jersey or jersey with fleece lined arms
- Wind-stopper jacket with removable sleeves
- Thin gloves and bar mitts or thin and thick gloves
- Winter riding tights or bike shorts with fleece lined legs
- Winter riding boot with a thin wool sock
2.) Cold Climate is where the temperature is in the upper teens to 20’s with wind chill. This is the temperature zone most cyclists will fat bike in.
- Thin beanie or fleece lined hat
- Sunglasses or goggles if it’s windy
- Wool base layer AND a long sleeve jersey
- Winter riding jacket
- Winter riding gloves in bar mitts or thin gloves with ski gloves over them
- Fleece lined winter riding pants (or Nordic pants work well) over bike shorts
- Winter Riding boot with 2 thin wool socks
3.) Frigid Climate is where you must be smart about exposure. Temperatures with wind chill are in the single digits or lower teens. When I ride in these conditions I make sure I can get back to a warming hut in 30 minutes or less, just in case the conditions worsen or I have a mechanical that leaves me walking.
- Fleece lined hat, neck gaiter and nose cover
- Wool base layer and a thick thermal layer
- Winter riding jacket (and a Gore-Tex shell if it’s windy or there is accumulating snow)
- Glove liners, winter riding gloves and bar mitts.
- Winter riding tights AND heavy winter pants
- Winter riding boots with a thin wool sock AND a thick wool sock.
4.) Abominable Winter Climate is where mythological beasts roam and eat snowman snacks. I’m headed to Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies next week to partake in Frosty’s Fat Bike Festival. I’ve been strategizing how to ride in negative digit temperatures and will report back with my findings; stay tuned!
1.) Wind can make temperatures drop 20 degrees or more. It can literally suck the warmth right out of you.
- Add wind stopper outer layers on your hands, chest and front of legs. If possible find windproof layers for the front of your body but allow moisture to escape from your backside. Most Nordic and cycling specific apparel is made this way.
- Protect ANY exposed skin. A balaclava or two neck gators (one cut to 4” width) work well to let you breathe and cover most of your face. I cover the delicate skin around my nasal passages and mouth with Joshua Tree Skin Care Winter Stick but Dermatome works too.
2.) Snow is tricky because it may slow down your pace as it accumulates, and when it piles up on your shoulders it melts.
- If it’s so cold the snow won’t melt with body heat or is a very light snow, wind stopper outer layers are generally adequate.
- If it’s wet snow or quickly accumulating, you may need a rain or Gore-Tex jacket and possibly rain pants.
- Carry extra gloves and socks. If your extremities get wet, you will be miserable.
- Sweating is part of exercising, but making sure the moisture does not get trapped next to your skin can make all the difference from enjoying your ride or counting the seconds to get home.
- Adjust your layers as soon as you start sweating. Outer layers with pit-zips are great and half zip jerseys can fine tune your thermal zone.
- If your next-to-skin layer is saturated, take it off! Be able to carry extra layers and layers you may want to remove. An extra pair of socks, glove liners and base layer top are always in my pack.
4.) Long Rides present extra challenges. The conditions will shift while you are riding.
- Carry a variety of extra layers and outwear
- A down coat to put on while not riding is envy provoking
- Don’t ride solo.
- Carry “emergency” supplies such as extra food, extra layers, and a full tool kit.
Stay warm like you have Inuit smarts, but remember that fat biking is silly fun. Get out there and experiment! You’ll have loads to brag about when you get back from your snow cycling adventures. Maybe you’ll even get your friends to stop moping and get off their trainers!