Winter Biking Survival Guide!


As Fat Biking is becoming more and more popular, here are some tips for riding in snow, regardless of the bike you choose.

Adjust Tire pressure.

The most important factor for gaining traction in the snow is tire pressure. A fat bike specific low pressure gauge is a great investment. Fat bikes run tire pressures of less than 5 PSI. This allows for some built in shock absorption, as well as more surface area that is in contact with the ground. This rule is also in effect with (skinny) bikes in snow. You will get roughly 50% better traction if you decrease your pressure by about 50%. You won’t need to worry about a blown tube, as the speeds you will be traveling at are low and everything that could pop a tire is padded by a layer of snow.

Ride with Flat pedals.

Once you stop and place your foot in the snow or hike-a-bike (which you will do), you will have a hard time getting your cleat back into your pedal. Ride with flats! This also allows you to wear hiking boots (high top, waterproof) and can save you from buying specific winter riding boots.

Sliding is Normal.

You slide around a lot when you ride in deeper snow. It’s a bit like ice skating. When you start out it feels weird. Many trails are somewhat concave and curve up on the sides so when you are riding in powder, once you get too high on the side of the trail you will slide back into the center (the low). Kind of like driving a car in ruts on the highway. Your bike will just always want to settle at the low point of the trail. Obviously you will want to try and ride in the center from the start, but sometimes you just can’t tell. This takes some getting used to but it becomes comfortable quickly. Try and look up. Don’t stare down at the ground. You will have better balance if you look ahead to where you are going.

Stay Seated.

Similar to how a 2WD pickup needs weight in the bed to gain traction in snow, your rear wheel drive bike needs weight in back to retain traction as well. When climbing a hill, you need to keep your weight back. Don’t attempt to stand unless it’s a quick punch over a rock or something.

Spin, Don’t Hammer.

Important for traction. If you tend to hammer when you ride, you are going to be spinning out often (losing traction). Best to keep revolutions steady with consistent pressure along your pedal rotation. When approaching a short hill try and gain some speed and maintain that speed up the hill.

Be Sure to Hydrate.

One of the top reasons for frost bite is dehydration. So make sure you are well hydrated before heading out into the cold. A hydration bladder with an insulated hose will keep the water flowing in freezing temps. Also, filling your pack with warm water is a good trick for winter riding.

Riding in Powder.

Tires get good traction in new powder which is deposited on hard ground or over a packed surface. Powder is light and fluffy after a storm, but over time it will get saturated, and feels like riding through wet cement. You really only have a couple of days to hit trails after a storm with the perfect powder. One of biggest problems with riding skinny bikes in powder is they leave skinny tire-width wide paths which are as deep as the snow. Fat bikes make nice wide tracks in powder.

Riding on Packed Snow.

Packed snow riding is pretty straight forward. Riding on packed snow is the most similar to riding in dirt, but it’s still slippery. Make sure that the trail is wide enough.

Riding in Clumpy or Slushy Snow.

Fat bikes are best for this stuff, but if you aren’t in powder or packed snow, it’s a challenge even on a fat bike. You can ride any bike through 4″ or so of muck, but it’s going to be very slow and quite slippery. The faster you can go through muck, the better you are going to fair.

Riding on Frozen ground.

When the trails get wet or snow thaws, things turn to mud quickly. You can avoid creating ruts in mud by riding early in the day while the ground is still frozen. Ice crystals on dirt create actually a fairly tacky surface to ride on. Snow that has melted and turned to ice is a different story. If the ground is uneven or tracked out, it’s going to be a losing battle.

Riding on Ice.

Best idea when riding on ice is to ride with studded tires. Needless to say, riding on ice is tricky and dangerous. You can lose traction within a split second. Don’t go too fast in ice. Be especially careful when riding fast around corners where there are trees. You can easily slide off the trail with no warning and tag a tree. Avoid trails with a lot of ups and downs when riding in ice.

Crusty Snow.

If snow is old and has melted a little in the afternoon – it often hardens into crust overnight. Sometimes you can get lucky at high elevations and the crust is so thick you can ride on it. A more common scenario is that you need to ride through some top crust. That won’t be too much of a problem if your bike doesn’t sink too far. If you instead sink 2-4″, this becomes a real test of will power. You will be riding at 2-3 mph in granny gear as if you were riding up a steep hill. This is all about maintaining momentum. If you stop at all you can’t start again as the crust is too hard to break. You will have to back up a couple feet in your track get momentum from there.

Wear the right gear.

As with any winter sport, wearing the right gear for winter biking is a must if.

Winter riding boots are probably the most important thing you can wear in the snow. Hiking boots that are high top and waterproof also can work – but they typically are not made for below freezing weather. Not only will your feet be battling the cold, but you will be walking your bike at times through the snow.

Good gloves. You don’t want something too bulky, but you DO want something insulated, and waterproof. It’s helpful to get something which will group a couple fingers together.

Headwear that will cover your ears and provide warmth is key. If you plan to ride with a normal bike helmet you will need something more substantial to cover your head and ears. Even a face mask is needed at times.

Pants. Choose a good pair of water-resistant pants that are breathable. Legs tend to get wet riding through the snow. Depending on how cold it is (or your tolerance) you can also choose a good set of thermal running tights and a pair of shorts.

Upper body. Again, this all depends on how cold and wet it is. But remember the golden rule – Layer, layer, layer. Starting off a little chilly is better than overheating after you get warmed up.

Source information (edited):

Credit: Central Wisconsin Offroad Cycling Coalition (CWOCC)