Now's Ultimate Guide to Winter Fat Biking
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part 1 of Now’s Ultimate Guide to Winter Fat Biking. Now without further ado, here’s Part 2.
So you’ve picked out the perfect bike. Maybe it’s a top of the line Otso Voytek, with carbon wheels and a bling kit to make it uniquely yours. Or maybe, it’s a used bike that you got from your buddy just to try it out. Either way, you’re just getting started. For fat biking in the brutal Minnesota winter there are several additional items that we think are absolutely essential to having a great experience on your bike.
Let’s start with the most important part of the bike: Tires. Often overlooked for how big of a difference they can make, your tire choice can make or break your ride. Tread pattern can be important, especially if you’re trying to ride in fresh snow or be at the pointy end of a race. But for most of us our goal is to stay upright, and our biggest enemy is ice. Studded tires are a must have for every fat bike rider for this reason. Without them, hitting a patch of ice can have you on the ground before you know what happened. And with them, your riding options only expand. Studded tires allow you to ride trails that have melted and refrozen into ice luges, as well as the vast network of lakes that we have.
A set of studded tires will set you back about $300-500, but they’re an absolutely necessary item, and they will last you multiple seasons. Most riders install their studded tires once the snow flies and swap them out for their stock tires come spring. When using the tires in the winter, the snowy tracks hardly wear out the rubber, so your studded tires will last you many years of riding. Occasionally you have to replace a stud or two, but that’s it.
When riders are installing their studded tires, another upgrade that they’ll opt for is to set up their tires “tubeless”. Many of you may already be familiar with this technology, but for those of us that are new, here’s the deal. Fat bikes are designed to run at really low tire pressures, somewhere in the range of 2-10 psi. The lower tire pressure lets the tires spread out over the snow giving you a larger surface area to float over the snow. This is absolutely necessary for traction in a lot of circumstances, but in a traditional tubed setup you then run the risk of pinching your tube and no one wants to fix a flat at below freezing temps. Additionally, when your tire and tube are folded up against each other at low pressure, they rub and reduce grip and increase rolling resistance. By removing the tube and replacing it with a liquid latex sealant you solve both those issues. There’s no longer a risk for a pinch or puncture flat, and there’s no tube-to-tire friction occurring.
Both studded tires and setting your bike up tubeless are upgrades we encourage every rider, new and old, to invest in.
Now that the bike is outfitted it’s time to look at the most important piece of the puzzle: you, the rider. Having the right winter gear can make or break your ride. So where to start? Our advice is this: Start with what you have. Most of us have braved the Minnesota winters for many years and have accumulated winter gear over that time. Use what you have and fill in with accessories as needed. Gloves not cutting it? Look into Pogies or some warmer gloves with windstopper materials. Is the wind cutting right through that down jacket? Perhaps a new jacket will help to block the breeze. Whatever it is you need, we’ll have it.
If you’re starting from scratch or just looking for advice, we like to break down your gear into a few categories: Baselayers, Midlayers, and Outerwear.
When you’re thinking about staying warm often we think of big, heavy, bulky jackets, but what is often overlooked is the smallest, lightest layer of them all, the baselayer. A baselayer is designed to wick sweat away from the skin while maintaining its insulating properties even when wet. There are a few ways to accomplish this, but the most popular is with Merino wool. Check out Smartwool's article on the benefits of Merino wool to see why it’s a superior material not just for the cold, but for all weather conditions. Most brands offer a merino baselayer option. Pick one that fits comfortably and falls into your budget and you’ll have a piece that you’ll reach for time and time again.
A midlayer is exactly what it sounds like, the layer between your baselayer and your outerwear. This layer can vary greatly depending on the weather conditions, and you may even opt to ride without one on certain days. Nonetheless it is an important piece to invest in. Oftentimes the midlayer will provide the most insulation of any layer, so you’ll definitely want one on those colder days. As you might have guessed, the mid layer can also be made from Merino wool which will certainly be more expensive, but will pair extremely well if you’re already using a Merino baselayer.
Last but certainly not least is your outerwear. This is the last barrier between you and the elements. It’s important that this layer has some degree of wind and water resistance. If you’re looking for both in a breathable package we recommend looking for a piece made with a Gore-Tex membrane. This layer can be paired with either a baselayer or midlayer, or both depending on the conditions, but of the three this is the one we recommend investing the most in. If you take care of your outerwear it should last for years and can serve as a multipurpose shell for all sorts of winter activities.
To clip in, or not to clip in? That question will determine how you want to approach your riding footwear. A lot of riders choose to start out riding flat pedals for multiple reasons. If they’re new to winter riding they may feel more comfortable getting their feet on and off the pedals faster. This is also a more economical option, as most of us have winter boots that we can use to ride in. If you’re looking to feel more locked into your bike and want to maximize efficiency then you’ll want to look at winter riding boots. They’re heavily insulated and have a spot under the boot for a two-bolt style cleat.
A simpler alternative could be to use a shoe cover to add insulation to your current riding shoes. If you run warm this can be a good way to test the waters of winter riding, but when the temperature drops you’ll probably be reaching for the more heavily insulated boots.
Nothing is worse than having your hands go numb 20 minutes into your ride. If this has happened to you then you know the pain of trying to get circulation back to your hands, not to mention the risk of frostbite. A good pair of gloves are worth the investment. Gloves can be full fingered, or lobster fingered to improve insulation. Full fingered gloves will give you more dexterity, while lobster gloves will improve circulation and are better at retaining the heat you create, keeping your hands and fingers warmer. If you need maximum insulation you may also be interested in pogies. Pogies are a full coverage mit that encases your handlebar to protect your hands from the elements. This can allow you to use lighter weight gloves and have more dexterity to use your shifters and brakes.
Riders have two options for keeping their heads warm. A cap under your summer riding helmet is the most affordable option, but can sometimes lead to a wonky fitting helmet. If you’re going this route we recommend a cap with windstopper material as it’s the only way to truly retain the heat your body is producing, otherwise a strong headwind will cut right through.
If you’re willing to invest in a winter specific helmet, this is the most comfortable way to ride in the winter. A winter riding helmet is more insulated, and comes with ear covers to protect you from the chilling winds. Several helmets also come with adjustable vents to help you control the climate in your helmet. Winter riding helmets will also often come with a clip on the back of the helmet to hold goggle straps if you want full coverage eye protection.
While on the topic of face coverings, for the most brutally cold days you’re going to want to cover as much exposed skin as possible. Frostbite is a serious concern, especially for any front-facing exposed skin. A face covering that’s perforated near the nose and mouth for breathability is the perfect piece to help cover up.