You’re sick of hanging up the bike all winter and are ready to get outside more during snow season. With the increased popularity of fat biking, there really is no reason to give up biking when the snow starts to fly.
Of course, like any new cycling discipline, it can be tough to know how to get started. You might be wondering: what gear do I need? What do I wear fat biking? Where can I find trails to ride?
We’ll give you answers to all those questions and more in this guide. But rest assured: you’ve got a very fun winter ahead.
But First: What Is A “Fat Bike”?
A fat bike is any bicycle with tires that are are 4-inches or wider–often up 5-inches. These tires can be run at very low pressure and allow you to ride on snow or sand. (In this post, we focus on riding a fat bike in the snow).
More and more mountain bikes are also being offered with plus-size tires. These can be anywhere from 2.6 to 3.2 inches. While you might be able to get away with riding a plus-sized bike if you are very lightweight and if the snow conditions are packed and hard, in general, plus-sized tires aren’t appropriate for fat biking. In fact, many winter trail systems won’t allow tires less than 4 inches wide.
Choosing a Fat Bike
Assuming you don’t already have a fat bike, that’s step number one. We’ve put together a list of our favorite fat bikes for women and what to look for in a fat bike, so start there first:
If you’ve never tried fat biking, you might want to try renting or demoing a fat bike first. Try calling local bike shops to see who might have one, or google “fat bike rentals near me.”
What To Wear Fat Biking
The hardest part of fat biking is knowing what to wear–seriously! This is highly personal and is also dependent on where you are riding. Minnesotans, for instance, really have to bundle up.
The biggest issue that fat bikers run into is overdressing, sweating a bunch, and then nearly freezing to death. For this reason, we recommend wearing layers and figuring out a way to carry those layers when you are ready to strip down. I tend to use my Osprey Raven hydration pack for carrying layers while fat biking, but you could also use a frame bag or seat bag.
Head and Ears
The head is where you lose most of your body heat, so when you’re riding in cold conditions, it’s critical to keep it covered.
In warmer winter weather, a buff or headband over your ears might be plenty. In colder weather, we recommend a thin beanie or even a balaclava.
Remember: layering is the name of the game. It’s not unusual to be cold at the trailhead, hot on the climb, and then FREEZING on the descent. The best way to combat this fluctuation is wearing plenty of layers that you can take off or put on as needed.
I highly recommend merino wool baselayers. If you are riding in warmer weather (i.e. 32 degrees) this might be plenty for most of your ride.
If you are riding in wet or snowy conditions, I like using a breathable but waterproof shell as a top layer. Just remember if it’s NOT wet, a waterproof shell will only cause you to sweat more so avoid it on dry days.
In extreme cold, a puffy down jacket is another good layer. These jackets can compress well so you can stuff them in a bag when you’re not using it.
Winter cycling tights are great for keeping your legs warm. These can come with or without a chamois and are often fleece lined for extra protection.
You might also want to use gaiters if you are going to be on and off the bike a bunch, or if the snow is deep. This will keep your lower legs from getting wet when you put down a foot or dismount the bike.
Finally, if it’s really snowy or wet, we like using a pair of waterproof pants as a top layer. For pant recommendations, read this article on our favorite mountain bike pants.
Keep your feet warm with merino wool socks and a pair of boots. For boots, you can use a regular pair of lace-up snow boots, or if you are ready to invest in something even better, a lot of women in our community swear by the Lake boots for fat biking.
Hands are often the body part that fat bikers struggle with most. But that’s doesn’t have to be the case!
The warmest option are pogies, also known as bar mitts. These will keep your fingers nice and toasty, especially when paired with some chemical hand warmers.
If you’re not quite ready to invest in bar mitts, then consider wearing a nice warm pair of mittens or lobster gloves. While mittens don’t let you brake quite as easily as a regular pair of gloves, you’re usually going slow enough while fat biking that it doesn’t matter.
And if it’s not TOO cold outside (right around freezing), I really like my waterproof Shower’s Pass gloves. These allow for a lot more dexterity than heavier duty options and are great for warmer winter days.
For even more ideas on what to wear, check out this article:
Eye protection while fat biking is important for two reasons: (1) the reflection from the snow can strain your eyes, and (2) if it’s really cold, the skin around your eyes can get painfully cold.
We recommend biking with a pair of sunglasses, or if it is really cold–goggles. Either ski goggles or mountain bike goggles will get the job done.
Ride With Flat Pedals
Even if you’re a devotee to clipless pedals, I highly recommend switching to flat pedals for riding in the snow. Clipless pedals quickly become mucked up with snow, mud, and ice, rendering them useless.
Flat pedals, on the other hand–especially those with metal pins–shed the muck and provide good traction when paired with a pair of boots.
My personal favorite pedals for fat biking are the Race Face Chester pedals. They are affordable, durable, and do a good job of providing traction even with snowy boot bottoms.
- Read Review: Race Face Chester
Keep Your Water From Freezing
It’s important to keep hydrated while fat biking but if it is below freezing, your water is going to freeze using a traditional hydration pack or water bottles.
Options include the following:
- A hydration pack with an insulated reservoir and hose. These are intended for winter use. If you have space, you can also help keep it warmer by wearing your pack underneath your outermost layer.
- Insulated water bottles. Start by filling it with really hot water. This works best on shorter rides; on really long rides or in really cold temps, the bottle will still freeze.
- Put bottles or a reservoir in frame bag, along with some chemical hand warmers.
Experiment With Tire Pressure
You should be riding your fat bike with much lower tire pressure than you are used to riding on your other bikes. Because the tires are so fat, you can run your tires as low as 5 psi.
That said, you should spend some time playing around with tire pressure to figure out what works best for you. This is also highly dependent on the snow conditions you are riding on. Softer snow requires lower tire pressure, while harder pack snow allows you to ride with a higher tire pressure.
The biggest mistake we see new fat bike riders making is riding with their tire pressure too high. If you are leaving a rut, you need to let some tire pressure out. When you look behind you, you should see a track but no rut.
You can learn more about optimizing your tire pressure in this article:
Bring An Emergency Kit
If you are going to be out in the elements for very long or riding away from highly-trafficked areas, you should be prepared to survive in cold conditions.
I recommend carrying the following on longer or more remote fat bike rides:
- A lighter or fire starter
- Space blanket or emergency bivvy
- Chemical toe and hand warmers
- High-calorie bars
- Pocket knife
- Flashlight or bike light
Know Winter Trails Etiquette
In addition to normal trail etiquette–i.e. yield to uphill riders, use a bell to pass, etc–there are a couple of additional “rules” for winter trail etiquette.
First, only ride on trails that have actually been designated for fat biking. While that cross-country ski trail may be tempting, if it’s not explicitly open to bikes, you shouldn’t be riding it.
Also, regardless of whether a trail is “open” to bikes or not, there are certain snow conditions that should keep you from riding. If you are leaving a deep rut, or are having trouble riding a straight line, turn around. Ruts can cause issues for other users.
On groomed cross-country ski trails, stay to the side of the track rather than riding in the middle of it. Also, avoid riding on the classic track as you’ll destroy it for skiers.
Where To Go Fat Biking
If you aren’t already integrated into the local fat bike community, it can be hard to know where to go fat biking.
One of our favorite ways to find winter trails that are open to fat bikes is via the Trailforks apps. They have a winter trails mode that you can turn on. To get instructions, check out this tutorial.
Other ways I’ve found trails is by googling local xc ski areas (not all of these will be open to fat bike so check first) and joining fat bike groups on Facebook.
If you can’t find any trails locally that are groomed for fat biking, grab some snowshoes and a friend. By packing down local singletrack with snowshoes, it will be easier to fat bike later on.
Set Realistic Expectations
Fat biking is a hoot, but it is not like any other type of riding. Expect to go much slower riding on snow that you would on dirt or pavement, and to ride shorter distances.
Especially in the beginning, fat biking can feel like a LOT of work. Take it easy, go for some shorter rides and first, and give yourself time to learn what will essentially feel like a new sport.
Also, don’t feel bad if you have to walk from time to time. Hills can be a lot harder in the snow, and sometimes there are drifts are soft patches that you just can’t ride. Expect to walk more when fat biking than you would normally.
More Help To Get You Thru The Winter With Your Sanity Intact
- 7 Tips For Biking In The Dark
- 5 Tips For Riding Indoors
- How To Get The Most Out Of Your Winter Training With Jen Kates
About The Author
Kristen Bonkoski is the founder and owner of Femme Cyclist.
An avid cyclist for a few decades now, she took to cycling during her late teen years — a time when she needed something to help boost her self-esteem and confidence.
Mission accomplished, the sport has become an important part of her life. Kristen’s favorite disciplines are mountain biking and bike commuting, although you can also find her cranking out a century on her road bike and touring with her husband and son. If it has to do with two wheels, she enjoys doing it.
Kristen is a certified USA Cycling coach, and she runs Rascal Rides, a website about biking with kids.