Tips for Mountain Biking Off-Road in the Winter

It’s winter, the trails are covered in snow. Is this the end of the biking season? No. It’s the start of the winter biking season! Here are some tips based on my own experience.

Tires

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Regular off-road tires will work well on hard packed snow. They will even work well up to 6” of unpacked snow. The key is to fit the fattest/widest tire possible. I recommend at least a 2.3” wide tire. Skinnier tires tend to sink into the snow. Flotation is the key to off-road winter biking. A fatter tire will have a larger contact patch; resulting in the cyclist’s weight being distributed over a larger area.

Tire thread pattern also matters. Ramped knobs tightly spaced together will result in snow getting packed between the knobs. This in turn will result in a slick tire spinning in the snow, as it’s unable to gain traction.

Look for tire threads with large squarish knobs that are widely spaced apart. They tend to clear the snow off the tire more easily, and the knobs can dig into the packed snow to gain traction.

The thread compound is also important. Due to the below freezing temperatures, the rubber will harden. Avoid soft rubber tires as they tend to become brittle in the colder temperatures. Moreover the knobs are designed to flex, and will have a more difficult time digging into the snow. Hard rubber tires, on the other hand, are better as they maintain their shape in colder temperatures, and their knobs dig into the snow more easily.

Studded Tires

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Studded tires are not required, but highly recommended if the trail is covered in ice. Black ice is the hardest to spot, and can suddenly result in hard wipe outs as both wheels slide out from under you. Crashing hard on ice often results in severe injury such as dislocated shoulders, sprains, or just great discomfort. Even if the trails are 5% ice, and 95% I’d rather have studded tires for peace of mind. It only takes one hard crash on ice to injure yourself.

Having studded tires on both wheels is liberating as a cyclist. I can safely bike on smooth sheets of ice or even frozen bodies of water. There are still limitations, though, as I can’t go too crazy on the ice. Just don’t make sudden sharp turns. However, accelerating and suddenly braking in a straight line is okay.

There are two options for studded tires, home made or commercial. Home made tires are far cheaper. Just go to the hardware store, buy some screws and install them into some old tires. The downside, is the screws quickly wear out and constantly need to be replaced. Commercial studded tires, on the other hand, are more expensive but tend to be lighter. However, cheap studded tires should be avoided. The studs wear out and fall out quickly. Only buy commercial studded tire that use carbide studs. They will last a long time. Recommended brands are either Schwalbe or Nokian. They specialize in making studded tires for communities which cycles all year. In addition, all their studded tires use carbide studs.

If you can only have one studded tire, then put it on the front wheel. A rear tire slipping is okay, as a cyclist can regain control. A front tire slipping is more difficult to regain control.

Studded tires are great, but they are noisy and heavy. If ice is not an issue, then I’ll use regular tires. My general rule of thumb, is if the trails are frequently trafficked by hikers/walkers then there is ice; and, therefore I’ll use studded tires. If the trails are lightly used, then there is snow; and, I’ll use regular tires. If there has been a thawing, followed by an overnight freeze, then there’s ice. Best thing is to learn the trails and freezing pattern.

Tire Pressure

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Tire pressure makes a big difference in the winter. In general the lower the tire pressure the better. It’s a another technique for increasing flotation on the snow, as the lower tire pressure allows the tire to flatten out and have a greater contact area with the ground. This is highly cyclist dependent, but aim for less than 10 psi. That’s about the point I notice a significant improvement in flotation on the snow. Even better flotation is achieved, if the tire pressure can be lowered to 5 psi; but, the tire may become too squirmy.

Of course, there is an increased risk of flattening the tire tube or pinch flatting it at lower pressures. However, the ground is soft and covered in snow. As a result, the odds of getting a flat tube are greatly reduced. First, sharp rocks, and roots, are unlikely as they’re covered in snow. Second, tire impacts with the ground are cushioned, as the snow will give way to the tire. Even when making small drops, the tire tube will be okay. Third, in the winter, cyclist tend to go slower due to the increased friction provided by the snow. Thus further reducing the odds of flattening a tube. I’ve experienced less flats in the winter, then in the summer.

However, certain conditions warrant higher tire pressure.

  • The snow has been packed firmly, and more speed is desired
  • The snow is soft and fresh. It may be easier to cut through it then to float on it.
  • Studded tires on ice. Higher tire pressure is required for the studs to dig into the ice for increased traction.

There is no set rule about tire pressure in the winter, but it can make a big difference depending on snow conditions. If flotation or traction on the snow is a problem, then consider lowering the tire pressure significantly.

Clothing

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Dress warm, but not to the point of sweating. Once the cycling has started, the body will quickly warm up and start sweating if need be. Sweat is a bad thing with too many layers of clothing. It’s okay while you are still exercising. But as soon as you stop, there’s a risk of your sweat freezing in the cold temperatures. Think of it like being wrapped in a wet towel in the freezing temperature.

Anyway, it’s important to keep your hands and feet warm, as they’re first to go numb in cold temperatures. Torso is the last to freeze.

Multiple layers are usually good to have, for quick adjustment to varying temperatures. For the hands, I like to wear thin wind proof skiing glove. On top of that, I may have warmer winter gloves or even military arctic mitts for -15 °C and below. For the feet, I wear winter boots (bike pedals are platforms with studs) with regular socks. Maybe on colder days, I’ll wear wool socks instead. Nothing fancy or expensive as the studs in my pedals tend to tear up the soles of the boots. For the legs, I wear regular free ride bike shorts, with wind proof jogging pants.

The torso depends on the temperature. Normally I just wear a long sleeve cycling jersey and a wind proof lined jacket. The jacket is zippered, and the sleeves are Velcro cuffed to fit around gloves and block the wind.

For the head, I wear a balaclava and bike helmet. The balaclava is thin and designed to fit under ski helmets. I also have a thicker wool helmet just in case.

Platforms vs Clipless

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This is highly subjective and comes down to personal preference.

In general, I prefer platforms for the following reasons. First, putting the foot on the ground is more likely in the winter as the snow and ice are less predictable to bike on. Second, walking is more likely for short distances due to deep snow drifts and fallen trees. Third, it’s cheaper and easier to find good winter boots then it is to find clipless winter boots. In addition, if there’s ice to climb or walk on, it’s difficult with metal pieces on the sole of the boot. Fourth, as temperature drops, metal contracts. It may become more difficult to clip in and out with clipless pedals. Adjustment to the sensitivity of the clipless pedals is required in the extreme colder temperatures.

Either platform or clipless will work in the end. Newer winter cyclist tend to prefer platforms, while the more experienced cyclist may still use clipless.

Handlebar Pogies / Moose Mitts

If accessing the gear shifts is difficult with thick gloves, then consider handlebar pogies or handlebar moose mitts instead. They provide a warm protected shell around the handle bars and allow cyclist to wear thinner gloves.

Hydro Pac

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I ditch mine in the winter and use a knapsack instead. When the temperature is around -10 °C, the water in the Hydro Pac tube quickly freezes to ice. An icy tubes means no water to drink.

Additionally, the pockets and zippers of the Hydro Pac are difficult to access with gloves on. A knapsack provides more room for extra clothing, and the larger zippers makes it easily accessible with gloves on.

As for water, I store them in wide mouth plastic bottles and place them in the main body of the knapsack to prevent freezing.

Specialized Equipment: Fat Bikes

Do I need one? No. But it sure would be nice to have a Fat Bike.

A Fat Bike is a new breed of off-road bikes with at least 4” wide tires. With such high volume tires, they can easily be run at low pressures of 5 psi. As a result, they provide excellent flotation on snow or sand. If there’s a foot of fresh snow, then this is the bike to use.

In addition, they are not limited to winter use. For outback exploring, where there are no trails, they roll over debris. The fat tires have a 26” diameter, but when filled with air they’re equivalent to a 29” volume. As a result, the fat tires and wheels can be swapped out for a 29” wheel set.

Unfortunately, due to the high volume tires, the standover height is increased, making them less ideal for shorter riders. Though, realistically, the shorter riders don’t need the extra flotation that larger and heavier cyclists need on snow.

There’s something fun about high volume tires and it provides the ultimate experience on snow. Heck, with such a large contact patch on the ground, it’s also suitable for ice.

Anyway, examples of Fat Bikes are:

They are definitely a worth while purchase if the trail conditions warrant frequent use.

Specialized Equipment: Ski Attachment for Bikes

Avoid them. They are not practical for off-road mountain biking trails. Rear attachment, like the Ktrack add unnecessary weight which may cause the bike to sink into the snow. Front fork ski attachments are dangerous due to the loss of front brakes. Also they’re difficult to steer on twist backs.

These are more of a niche product suitable for going downhill. In other words, ski slopes.

General Biking Tips

  • Use a lower gear when biking through snow.
  • Try to pedal evenly and smoothly. Sudden jerks can cause the wheel to spin in the snow.
  • Stay on course. Often times the packed snow trail may only be 6” wide. It can look like one giant long skinny, except the landing is softer.
  • Focus on less hilly trails. It’s already difficult climbing small hills covered in loose snow. The steeper hills may result in more walking and less biking.
  • Plan for shorter trail routes. Compared to summer condition, it takes about twice as long in the winter depending on conditions.
  • Look for -5 °C or lower temperatures. Any warmer, and the snow will start melting in direct sunlight. Wet heavy slushy snow is very difficult to float on, or bike through.
  • Front brake is the most important for stopping power on flat land and climbs. Avoid using the front brake downhill as the bike will still continue sliding down the snow. In addition, there’s a risk of the front tire suddenly digging and sinking into the snow, resulting in the cyclist going over the handlebars.
  • Use the rear brake on descents to slow down the bike.

Lastly, remember to have fun and enjoy the snow!