Fat Biking 101

How to ride all year with a new breed of all-terrain bike whose wider tires have opened off-road options—most notably on snow-packed winter trails.

Biking isn’t just for summertime anymore. A new wave of all-terrain fat bikes, whose wider tires have gained popularity by allowing two-wheeled riding in snow, are opening up winter to cycling. Now, countless bike (and trail) options for snow riding are popping up across the country for fat-tire aficionados, letting wheels replace skis or snowshoes as a great way to get in shape and take in the winter scenery.  

“It’s just an awesome way to get some exercise outside in the winter,” says Robert Orr, converted fat biker and two-time finisher of Idaho’s 200K Fat Pursuit Race through Yellowstone.   

With manufacturers and outfitters reporting increased numbers in the category year after year, it’s become one of the most booming segments in the sport, with no signs of letting up. “It’s fun and different,” says Butch Boucher, former president of Colorado bike manufacturer Moots. “The equipment is becoming better than ever and it’s super accessible; five-inch-wide tires work great in the snow.”  

And the extra tire and rim width (care of bike frames featuring wider forks and stays to accommodate them) isn’t only for snow. Fat bikes function well in many off-road realms, where the lower ground pressure favors other unstable terrain like mud and sand, which also opens up new route options for both multi-day bikepackers as well as any riders with coastal beach access. 

Here’s some guidance to get you rolling wide, with tips on how to join the fat bike tribe.  

Places To Ride 

If you live by the beach, make sure to consider the tide schedule (routes and rideable sand might only be an option at low tide). If you live where there’s snow on the ground, look for groomed trails at Nordic centers, singletrack groomed by local bike clubs and even trails groomed by the city. Many snowmobile clubs also groom public forest service roads in the winter, which also work great for fat biking. 

Nordic centers

Many Nordic centers groom and open certain trails to fat bikes with restrictions (and trail fees that often apply).

Ski areas

Many ski areas groom and open certain service roads, trails and slopes to fat bikes with restrictions; use only routes identified by the resort.

City parks

Many cities often allow fat biking at certain city parks and trails; check with your city for options.

Singletrack

These off-road beasts are ready for any mountain bike trail, though are not the most efficient option for traditional, in-season cross-country riding. However, for winter riding, many mountain bike clubs and even retailers across the country groom local singletrack trails for fat biking; check with your local club or retailer on areas open to ride.   

Group of friends riding their fat bike in the snow

Fat Biking Do’s and Don’ts 

Respect all other users on the trail, including winter snowshoers and Nordic skiers to snowmobilers, as well as the land manager and entity responsible for the grooming. Keep in mind a few other do’s and don’ts for fat biking on snowy trails.  

Don’t

Ride groomed trails if you leave a tire rut deeper than 1 inch or cannot ride in a straight line; or, if your bike tires are narrower than 3.7 inches and tire pressure is greater than 10 psi. Also, don’t ride in classic tracks, post-hole on a groomed trail or ride a freshly groomed trail (let it set up first).   

Do

Yield to all other users; ride in control; and ride on the firmest part of the track. And make sure fat bikes are allowed wherever you’re riding; while many trails are fat bike-specific, others—especially certain Nordic, snowshoe and snowmobile trails—might not be.  [Text Wrapping Break]

Do

Adjust your air pressure for the conditions. The softer the snow, the lower air pressure you need. General rule: Go with 3-5 psi for a soft groomed surface and 6-8 psi for hard surface. Note: It’s easier to start higher and let air out than add it back in. 

Helpful Hints

Use flats

Change your clipless pedals out for flats; clipless will get clogged with snow and ice, making them difficult to use. It’s also nice to swing your leg out for balance occasionally on the downhill descent. 

Dress in layers

You’ll get hot climbing and cold descending, so dress in layers that are easy to put on and take off. For your torso, wear a breathable/moisture-wicking base layer with a lightweight/breathable fleece or wool mid-layer, and add a wind shell for the downhill descent. For your legs, traditional bike shorts work with a weather-resistant pair of tights. Bring a thin wool hat or a synthetic neck gaiter/headpiece to insulate under your helmet on the way down. Also, just in case, bring a lightweight puffer and a headlamp.

Protect your fingers and toes

Fat biking in winter can be cold on the hands and feet. Keep them warm by protecting them from the elements. Wear good gloves (not mittens, so you can change gears) or, if it’s really cold, lightweight neoprene pogies, a type of gaiter for your hands that attach to your handlebar. For your feet, wear insulated boots (not sneakers) with warm (non-cotton) socks as well as gaiters for stepping into deep snow; add specialized shoe covers if it’s really cold. 

Lower your distance

You go slower fat biking on snow, so don’t plan on super-long rides. Three to five miles is a good place to start. Also, realize that conditions can change quickly (both the temperature and snow conditions), so plan accordingly.

Be prepared to fall

With narrow trails bordered by softer snow, if your tire gets off the track there’s a good chance you might fall. Don’t worry; it’s all part of the fun and the landing is soft. 

Head out early

As air temps warm, trail conditions soften and the riding becomes harder. Try to ride early when the trails are still frozen and packed; stay in the shade if conditions soften. Any time you head out, be prepared for variable conditions. Also, turn around if the snow has softened and your tire is leaving a rut mark on a groomed trail.

Join the community

Live in a region where there’s snow? Check local listings for fat bike events, from races to fun group rides. “We’re having way more people compete every year,” says Colorado event organizer Kevin Kopischke, whose full-moon rides on Nordic trails draw everyone from hard-core fat tire riders to novices. “People aren’t asking ‘What are those things?’ anymore—everyone knows about them now and wants to try it.” 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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