How to Fat Bike

These mountain bikes rely on super-chunky tires to traverse snow, rocks, and other tough terrain.

You don’t have to wait for snow to melt to get back in a bike saddle. And you don’t need to take up skiing if you want to cruise over snow at top speeds. A fat bike can keep you in the saddle all year-round, including those snowy winter months.

Much like it sounds, fat biking, or fat tire biking, involves riding on snowy roads or trails (or sometimes sand) on a bicycle with extra wide tires that offer plenty of traction and stability on typically slick or unstable surfaces. Tyler Merringer, co-owner of Revolution Cycles, a bike shop in Rossland, British Columbia, Canada, has been riding off-road since the late 80’s, suggests fat biking as a fantastic way to get outside and enjoy winter, even if—especially if—you’re new to the activity.

Don’t consider yourself a mountain biker? No problem. While your first instinct may be to lump fat biking into the same category as mountain biking since both tend to happen on trails instead of paved paths, Merringer says it actually has more in common with road biking as long as you stick to wider groomed trails. That said, if you’re lucky enough to have a trail network like Rossland that uses specialized machinery to groom existing mountain bike singletrack, it can more closely resemble the mountain bike experience.

For example, mountain biking often involves navigating narrow, rocky, uneven trails, which require advanced bike-handling skills. Fat biking, because it’s done on smooth, soft surfaces like snow, means the trickiest part of fat biking will likely be the climbs and descents. So as long as you’re comfortable on a bike, there’s no reason not to give fat biking a go.

Another bonus: ending up on the ground on winter rides isn’t like crashing on dirt trails. Because you’re likely surrounded by snow on all sides, falling often feels more like a slow tilt into a soft bed than a crash (as long as no trees are involved).

Gear up

Before you head to the trail, though, there are a few things you’ll need for a safe and enjoyable ride. You’ll require a fat bike of course, which you can frequently rent from a local bike shop. You can opt for a standard pedal-powered model or an electric fat bike. Then you’ll need all the usual bike safety equipment, including a helmet and first aid kit. It’s not a bad idea to pack the 10 essentials in a backpack, but at the very least you should bring water, snacks, and extra layers.

[ Related: 10 time-tested essentials that can help you survive your next hiking trip ]

After all, since you’ll be riding in the cold, you’ll want to dress in appropriate layers. That includes a moisture-wicking base layer, a cozy mid layer like a puffy jacket or fleece, and a waterproof jacket, all of which you can take off as you warm up when you ride uphill and put back on when you ride back down and aren’t working as hard.

Make sure you wear warm socks and bring gloves, too, ideally windproof varieties. Just don’t try to ride with mittens or you won’t be able to shift or break effectively.

Some fat bikes also come with accessories called pogies, neoprene handlebar-mounted mittens of sorts that let you grip the handlebars and operate shifters and brakes while simultaneously keeping your hands protected from the elements. They allow you to wear thinner gloves, but Merringer and others prefer to ride without them on dynamic singletrack as they’re more likely to get in the way if you take a tumble.

[ Related: Go on a magical winter hike without hating every step ]

A neck gaiter or thin balaclava can be helpful in especially cold weather so you can keep your head covered under your helmet and add a layer of wind protection to your face when cruising downhill.

Finally, check your tire pressure before you set off, which should be around just 5 psi. Typical mountain bike tires stay between 30 and 50 psi under normal conditions. “It sounds counterintuitive,” Merringer explains, “but less pressure is sometimes more efficient as the tire can flatten out more along the surface of the snow, providing more contact with the ground, which means more grip and flotation if the snow is soft.”

Snow conditions are everything

Speaking of snow, fat biking does require a specific set of circumstances and conditions. Namely, the snow you ride on needs to be just right in order to provide the most enjoyable experience.

And since snow is super variable, says Merringer, it can take some trial and error—or asking more experienced cyclists—to discover what conditions make for the best riding.

For example, soft, fresh snow, the kind skiers and snowboarders chase, will provide more resistance as you roll through it, slowing you down and making every pedal stroke more difficult.

On trails that have melted and refrozen because icy, extra slick trails can be dangerous to ride, especially for beginners, as your tires won’t have adequate purchase and you’re likely to slip, slide, and fishtail all over the place unless you’re riding with studded tires. 

Likewise, if temps haven’t been below freezing at least overnight, you’re unlikely to find perfect conditions during the day as snow will be too soft and slushy. If it’s been below freezing at night but warmer during the day, ride in the morning when temps are coldest instead of the afternoon or evening when snow softens. Always stop riding if you realize your tires are leaving ruts in the snow because it will make the trails unrideable for others in the near future.

To find better conditions, Merringer recommends waiting a few days after the latest significant snowfall for a few things to happen. One: to give snow the chance to melt a bit so it hardens into about the same consistency required to make the perfect snowball. If you reach down and grab a handful, it should pack well into a solid ball instead of turning to powder between your fingers.

Two: it’ll give other outdoorists like snowshoers and cross country skiers a chance to tackle the trails first and pack the snow so bikers have a more solid surface to ride on.

One trick Merringer shares to help you figure out if the trail is just right: ride a few yards, stop, and look back to check your tracks. Your tires should leave perfectly clean tire tracks in the snow or no tracks at all.

Finding trails

If you’re new to fat biking or area trails and are unsure of where to find the best spots to ride, a good place to start is often on groomed trails at nordic centers or well-loved trail systems. If that’s not an option, check out apps like Trailforks that map out local trails rated by difficulty. But the best advice and directions often come from local bike shops. Employees, who are frequently cyclists themselves, can likely tell you where you’re going to find the best trails for your skill level and conditions on any given day. 

Local mountain biking Facebook groups, which are often brimming with updates and details about the best places to ride as conditions change, are also a wealth of information.

Once you’ve found the perfect trail and loaded a bike on the back of your car, fasten your helmet, and hit a trailhead near you.