Beginner’s Guide to Winter Bikepacking

Guest Post by Derek Edwards

Bikepacking in winter is a great way to get outside, get some fresh air, and get moving. It allows you to explore familiar places in a whole new way.  Yes, winter camping does take a little know-how. But it’s not that much harder than heading out in milder weather, and there are plenty of advantages. The great outdoors looks different under a blanket of snow, and since fewer people tend to go out when it’s cold, you’ll have plenty of elbow room on the trail.

Stay Safe

With any outdoor adventure, safety is your first priority. Make sure that someone knows where you’re going and how long you’re planning to be gone. Have a way to track your location, and to communicate, too. If you’re going to have cell phone service, great! But bring along a GPS if you’re going to be outside of cell service for any amount of time.

You also should do a little bit of research on the weather for the duration of your trip. Preparing beforehand can go a long way toward having a safe, fun bikepacking trip.

The right bikepacking gear

Keeping cozy with camping gear isn’t that hard, as long as you know what you’re looking for. Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings. If you want a warm, solid night’s rest, you’ll want to choose a sleeping bag that’s rated for the lowest temperature you expect to encounter on any given night of camping.

Tents come with several temperature ratings, but one you’ll encounter often is “three-season” or “four-season.” Despite the name, three-season tents are great for most winter camping. Four-season tents are extreme-weather tents that you probably won’t need unless you’re mountain climbing or heading into incredibly harsh climates.

Bring an insulated sleeping mat and a tent floor to put some space between your body and the frozen ground. To help keep your tent warm, make sure that your tent is sized appropriately for the number of people in it. Sleeping solo in a four-person tent is going to give you a cold night. Another tip is to keep as much gear as possible in your tent, to help insulate it. The more gear you pack into your tent, the less room there is for cold air.

Bring big tires

Backpackers have to consider all sorts of gear for warmth. They need to bring warm clothing, make sure that their tent is rated for the weather, make sure their sleeping bag is rated for the temperature, and more.

Winter bikepackers have to do all of those things and make sure that their bike can handle the snow. For most beginning bikepackers, a modern cross-country hardtail can do the trick. For winter bikepacking, though, a fat bike can make a huge difference. If you want to ride in the snow, you’ll want clearance for 5” tires, and that may mean upgrading to a larger frame. You don’t need to go all out on a high-end bike. But you do want traction, and you want room to carry everything you’re toting for your trip. As long as you have those things, you should be more than fine.

Dress in layers

When you first set out, you’re probably going to be cold. When it’s early in the day, the sun’s low, and your body hasn’t had a chance to warm up yet. But as the day wears on, you’ll start to get warmer. Usually, the temperature starts rising until midday. On top of that, you’re working up a sweat as you bike down the trail.

When you dress in layers, you can just start to remove things as you warm up over the course of the day. This is important because it keeps you from overheating. But it’s also important because it helps reduce the amount you sweat.

But who cares how much you sweat? After all, nobody’s around, right? The problem is that sweat is meant to help your body cool off. And if the sun starts setting while you have damp skin and sweat-soaked clothes, you’re going to get very chilly, very quickly.

The best way to handle a long day of winter bikepacking is to show up in plenty of layers, removing them as you start feeling warm, and then putting things back on as the day starts cooling off. It may feel like a hassle, but it’s nowhere near as much trouble as an uncomfortably hot day followed by a bitingly cold night.

What your layers are made of is just as important as having the layers around. Your outer layer is particularly important, and a thick, rough wool is best as an outer layer most of the time. Using a windbreaker or waterproof jacket for your outer layer is great for fending off wind and rain, but you should stay aware of your body temperature. Synthetics trap body heat, but they also trap moisture. Another fabric to avoid is cotton. Cotton can be great for blocking wind, but again, it dries very slowly, and getting wet kills its ability to insulate.

Keep covered

Layering up isn’t the only thing you’ll need to do to stay cozy on the trail. You’ll want to stay covered—both for warmth and for sun protection. (You need to block out the sun, even when it’s cold. Sunlight reflecting off snow can leave a surprising sunburn if you’re not ready for it.)

As always, having the right gear is of utmost importance. Wear a warm cap that covers your ears, but still leaves room for a helmet. And while it’s not true that most of your body heat escapes your head, your body heat will escape anything that isn’t covered. If that happens to be your head, you’re going to get cold!

Wear lightweight gloves, and go ahead and get bike pogies. If you aren’t familiar, pogies look like gloves that attach to your handlebars. They’ll wrap around your brake levers, shifters, and your hands. They look a little unconventional, but they can do a lot to protect your hands from the wind as you’re zipping around the trails.

Finally, you want to make sure you’re wearing boots that are heavy enough, too.

Know how to start a fire

Being handy with fire is always a valuable skill on the trail, but in cold weather it’s absolutely essential. Fires are important for warmth as well as cooking, and they can also help boil and purify water (or snow) that you come across on the trail.

Building a fire in winter presents some challenges. You want to make sure that the wood you find is small and dry enough to actually catch, which can be difficult in the lasting damp of a snowfall. Start by having tinder with you at all times. One great, easy-to-make fire starter consists of dryer lint packed with melted wax. You can make these in a cardboard egg carton, and break them off individually to pack them. You should also keep several ways to get a fire going on you, including a flint-and-steel set. The more ways that you have to start a fire, the better off you are—and most firestarters don’t take up much pack space.

You’ll need a little bit of planning beforehand, and you may need a piece or two of warmer gear to go winter bikepacking. But if you’re willing to put the time in before you go, nothing beats a warm fire and a hot drink at a snow-covered campsite.

Derek Edwards is an adventurist, outdoorsman, and writer. Follow his blog to keep track of all his adventures and the tips and tricks he learns along the way.

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