Winter is right around the corner and you’re curious about beginner fat biking.
You’ve seen pictures of riders cruising on snow, sliding around berms like a bobsleigh track, gliding through powder on sunny winter days–looks fun, right?
If you’re wondering what the sport is, how it’s different from summer biking, and how to prepare, this guide’s for you!
It isn’t your typical trail riding–having the right gear and bike, especially when it’s cold, make all the difference.
This article is a basic outline of fat biking. Over winter, Hardtail Canada will release more detailed articles about each of these topics.
Curious About Beginner Fat Biking
How Fat Biking Differs from Summer Biking
Picture perfect fat biking day.
With the right gear and attitude, fat biking is a lot of fun.
But don’t expect fat biking to be anything like summer mountain biking.
It’s different than what you’re used to. The extra layers, extra weight/ sluggishness of the bike, and the lack of traction on snow are what really define it.
Temperature management is a challenge. If you’ve cross country skied, or toured, you’ll know the routine.
There’s a balance between being warm when you’re not moving and keeping cool while you work. Wearing plenty of layers may seem like an obvious choice, but this makes it easy to overheat. If you sweat too much you’ll be that much colder when you stop.
In summer it is easy to pack a mid layer, or a light jacket. In winter the layers are thicker, and there are more of them.
Fat bikes are heavy. Much heavier than a summer bike. Even a rider that doesn’t care about a light bike will notice the difference.
The wheels are bigger and take more effort to pedal. You won’t be as nimble, but floating on giant tires is a cool feeling.
They are simpler and cheaper than your summer bike.
And then there’s the biggest difference of all: snow.
When it’s the middle of winter and there’s a massive snowfall, fat biking is something to look forward to. Not many things you can say that about!
The satisfying crunch of fat tires rolling freshly groomed powder on a sunny winter morning is tough to beat.
But snow brings new challenges.
It’s easier to slide on snow. This isn’t always a bad thing–it makes downhills feel like tobogganing. The fat bike becomes your adult GT. If you fly off the trail you land in soft snow instead of a thorny bush.
But it does make climbing more technical and you might find yourself pushing your bike up shorter, steeper sections you easily pedal up in summer.
On the other hand, sliding around on snow with little consequence is one of the best things about the sport, especially when you’re riding party laps with a group.
If this all sounds sketchy you can easily choose flatter terrain, where sliding is rarely an issue.
Bottom line: fat biking is a fun workout with some good old-fashioned tobogganing thrown in. Fun winter workouts are hard to come by and fat biking is a great alternative to expensive resorts or long days in the backcountry.
You’ll work harder in less time than summer riding. This can be a good thing: riding slower may not feel like much effort, but your body will tell you otherwise.
And this isn’t meant to put you off–it’s a realistic outline of what to expect. If you go in expecting it to be like summer riding, you won’t have much fun and might end your first beginner fat bike ride frustrated.
But, if you approach fat biking with the mindset that you’re having fun rolling around on two wheels in the middle of winter on crunchy snow, it’s a great sport.
And, to top it all off, you’ll maintain your bike fitness. When summer comes back around you’ll be good to go. To learn more, read 5 Ways Fat Biking Makes You a Stronger Rider.
Where to Go Fat Biking
A firm base of packed snow is all you need.
Popular options are your existing bike trails, pathways/ wide hiking trails, and Skate Ski paths.
Keep in mind that all fat bike trails require packed snow–it’s a grunt riding through powder. Some people do this on purpose for the workout and to break trail for other riders, but as a newbie you’ll find it frustrating.
Research fat biking in your area to gain some insight as to where people typically ride in winter.
The best option is to ride trails that are groomed.
The next best is to ride trails that are well packed, either by other fatbikers, snowshoers, or hikers/ trail runners.
Two similar options are double wide hiking trails that see a lot of traffic, or recreational walking paths through your favourite park. These will typically have fewer elevations changes and are a great way to familiarize yourself with the sport.
The last option, and you’ll want to check with your local XC skiing club to confirm it is allowed, is to ride Skate Ski paths. These are wider flat groomed paths usually found alongside Classic Ski tracks.
With all these options it is important to be courteous–don’t damage the trails for others.
Fat biking is still a growing sport and many trail areas and parks are adjusting to this new form of winter traffic.
Be a considerate ambassador for your new sport. Ensure fat biking is viewed positively by those who maintain and develop these trails. For more information, check out Fat Biking Trail Etiquette.
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Why You Need a Fat Bike for Winter Riding
Good luck riding through this on summer tires.
Don’t be tempted to take your summer mountain bike on snow, or try bigger tires on it. You do need fat bike-sized tires.
Fat bikes have wider frames built specifically for wider tires. Wide tires spread your weight and float on snow. Normal bike tires sink, won’t get anywhere, and you’ll be doing a lot of pushing.
Skinny tires also cause ruts, which damage trails.
Many trail networks have minimum tire widths for winter riding–typically 4”. This makes a fat bike mandatory.
Even when you do have a proper fat bike be aware of these conditions which may cause ruts: when it’s warmer and the snow is soft.
Ruts damage the trail for other bikers, and can collapse XC Classic Ski tracks. It is important to note that some fatbike trail networks have XC crossings–if the snow is soft, do the courteous thing and walk your bike over them.
For trail networks that groom existing bike trails for fat biking, ruts from skinny tires get worse over time and make it more difficult for other bikers to ride the trails.
If you take your summer bike out, even if it has 3″ tires, ruts are guaranteed unless you’re biking on ice or extremely packed snow.
So, a fat bike is absolutely essential for winter riding. Even then, you have to be careful when it’s warmer out.
Leave your summer bike at home.
How to Pick Out a Fat Bike
Find a comfortable fat bike then sit back and enjoy the ride.
The great news about fat bikes is that you can get away with cheaper components, and therefore a cheaper bike.
These bikes have also come significantly down in price, which makes fat biking an affordable option for your new winter sport.
My new fat bike this season, Trek Farley 5 2021, was $2000. This may sound steep, but I have no doubts about its ability to last.
I would not have the same confidence in a $2000 summer mountain bike.
That being said, there are many suitable fat bike options at cheaper price points.
Because you rarely travel fast while fat biking there is no need for fancy brakes, suspension, or drive train.
In fact, most fat bikes don’t come with a suspension, just a rigid fork.
You spend most of your time in lower gears, even on smoother groomed trails, and seldom shift into higher gears. If you do get up to speed it better be in a long straight line, otherwise you’ll blow off the trail and end up making snow angels in fluffy powder.
For this reason, high gear ratios are not needed and it isn’t unusual to see fat bikes with 10 speed cassettes.
You can also get away with weaker brakes, because of the slower speeds and lack of steep terrain.
One point to note is that Shimano mineral oil doesn’t stand up as well to the cold as the DOT fluid used in SRAM brakes. Just something to be aware of. Shimano brakes will be OK, but if they do start acting funny, they’re probably just cold.
Many fat bikes come with rigid forks, which is all you really need. The tires run at low enough pressures that they absorb most of the bumps. Packed snow levels off terrain which makes trails smooth, so there aren’t many bumps to worry about anyways.
If you are looking at a fork lean toward the Manitou Mastodon instead of the Rockshox Bluto: the Bluto is not designed for cold weather and I know of many that have failed. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rockshox eventually updates the Bluto to withstand fat biking temperatures.
One important component to watch out for, especially if you are a Sasquatch mountain biker, is a weak rear hub. Fatbike hubs are wider and transfer more torque to freehubs, which increases the chance of failures.
Some bike manufactures do offer brand name hubs, like the legendary DT Swiss 350, on higher end models. A notable exception is Trek’s entry level fatbike: the Farley 5. It comes with their robust Rapid Drive proprietary hub which is also found on their higher spec bikes. I will be trying it out this winter and keep you posted of any major issues.
When choosing a fat bike, unless you really prefer the feel of higher spec components, you don’t need anything fancy. Most entry bikes will be OK. If you are uncertain about spending big cash for studded tires, check out How to Decide if You Need Studded Fat Bike Tires.
What Type of Clothing You'll Need
Toasty lobster-style mitts allow you to brake and shift.
Wear the same clothes you’d wear for cross country skiing or alpine touring.
The basic principles for fat biking are the same: dress in layers so you can easily gear up or down as you build up heat.
You don’t need waterproof gear; water-resistant works just fine. Unless you fall over you likely won’t come in contact with much snow. But it is nice having a layer of protection, especially for your lower legs, when you have to push your bike through those unexpected wind-blown snow drifts.
A base layer, a mid layer, and a hard shell jacket with vents is the dream setup. Wearing a thicker zipped can work too.
I recommend wearing an extra layer, and taking it off if you get too hot. Make sure your pack is big enough for all your layers in case you do overheat. Avoid tying your jacket or layers to yourself or your bike–it only takes one wipeout or snow falling from a tree to get them wet.
You can wear insulated ski pants, but they heat up quick. Thin hard or soft shell pants with long johns are a great option.
What you wear on your hands is personal preference. I wear well insulated gloves with individual fingers for most of my winter riding. I carry a pair of thicker, lobster claw gloves as backup, or use them for colder days.
Another major option for your hands are handlebar mitts, which attach directly to your handlebars and cut down on wind chill. These would be an ideal option if you have naturally colder hands, but I have no experience with them.
Wear well insulated boots with a couple pairs of socks. If you ride clipless you can buy clipless boots, just be aware that they are expensive, snow can pack your cleats, and if you slide it can be difficult to get your foot out in time to balance.
Wearing sunglasses will protect your eyes from cold wind and reduce snow glare. Goggles aren’t necessary.
Temperature management is something that takes time and is based on personal preference, so use these pointers generically. You might be perfectly comfortable fat biking with insulated ski pants in 0C weather, and that’s just fine.
Keep in mind that if you go at a slower pace, or take a lot of breaks, you can get away with wearing more layers.
For more information on what to wear, check out Winter Fat Biking: What to Wear for Comfort.
What to Expect for Your First Beginner Fat Biking Ride
Fat biking is a workout!
Take your time, dress properly, and start with a smaller loop your first time beginner fat biking.
It will take longer than usual and the style of riding will take some getting used to. Avoid committing yourself to a big trail right away.
Bring a large enough backpack to fit your layers, and pack extra clothing and gloves.
Drop your tire pressure. Even with tubes, your pressure should be in the single digits. Fatbike tires have more volume and don’t need as much pressure.
This will give you more traction and make the climbs and corners that much easier.
Don’t go fat biking after a big snow storm: it often takes a couple days for either the groomers or foot traffic to pack the trail down. It is a lot of work to pedal through snow deeper than your tires.
As time goes on you’ll get a better feel for the trails and know when to go out, and when to stay home.
Join a social media fat biking group for your local trails. Riders will often post trail reports, which are a great way to keep track of trail conditions.
In winter, not only do you have to watch snowfall levels, but you have to watch temperature changes. Big freeze/thaw swings can mean ice forming on some sections of the trail, which you’ll want to be wary of.
Have an open mind and be ready to take your time.
And that’s it! Fat biking is slower, and in some ways simpler, than summer biking as long as you dress appropriately and go out in the right conditions.
If you are in the market for a fatbike you better find one quick, they’re already beginning to sell out.
In the future, Hardtail Canada will write specific articles about these, and other fat biking topics.
If you don’t want to miss them, subscribe to the monthly newsletter below.
Thanks for reading!
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