What is Fat Tire Biking?
Fat tire biking is exactly what it sounds like, riding bikes on oversized tires. The oversized tires serve a purpose, which is to float on top of soft surfaces such as sand or snow. This dichotomy actually nicely divides the two lineages of fat bike development—one took place in Alaska, where bikers tinkered with early mountain bikes to extend their season through the winter. The other occurred in New Mexico, where bikers there were exploring sand dunes and remote desert topography by bike. Both of these factions focused on developing wider tires and rims, which is where fat biking’s namesake originates—in the oversized tires that can range from 4-inches wide to those in excess of 5-inches wide!
Fat bikes are comparable to a traditional mountain bike, with wider rims to accommodate the tires and less of a focus on suspension, as the tires, which are inflated at a much lower PSI than summer mountain bike tires, provide plenty of cushion. Fat tire bikes also tend to run heavier than mountain bikes.
Fat biking is most commonly associated with wintertime riding in the snow—there’s a saying that when the skiing is bad, the fat biking is good. You’re not looking for powder days here, the best conditions are firm, packed snow and cold conditions. Get this, the ideal days are the ones where a crust forms on top of the snow (i.e. the most challenging skiing conditions). Fat bikers love the freedom of being able to go off trail and ride the crust anywhere and everywhere. Icy conditions can be overcome with studded tires, which provide traction on ice, at the cost of added noise. Other wintertime routes include forest service roads, groomed snowmobile trails and the growing network of dedicated fat biking trails. And, of course, for some fat biking is a purely a utilitarian tool for winter commuting.
Dressing for winter fat biking can be challenging. You’ll need layers, just like in Nordic skiing, but also items specific to mountain biking. Expect to dig through all your storage bins to piece together the ideal kit … or you can look to an expert for advice. Adventure athlete and world champion mountain biker Rebecca Rusch shared her gear for fat biking the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350 to 1,000 mile human-powered race to Nome, Alaska.
A fat tire bike is anything that has tires thicker than 4 inches. There’s a wide range of fat bikes available from high-end, expedition-grade performance bikes to fun entry-level bikes for cruising the beach, to e-bikes that also fit within that range. You’ll find bikes that sport rigid suspension or with a front fork for use on rougher terrain. To choose the best bike for you, consider where you want to ride and how often, then go from there. Rebecca uses the Fatback Corvus, a carbon-framed bike designed for winter ultra racing, with studded tires while competing in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Layering is key for fat biking in the winter, choose wool base layers to keep you warm even when you’re working up a sweat—which you will. Add in the same Chamois bike shorts you wear in the summer. Rebecca then layers up with a vest and a softshell jacket and pants, which might just be enough depending on conditions that day. Nordic ski pants also work great; you can make regular ski and snowboard pants work, but you’ll want to roll up or cinch the cuffs to avoid getting caught up in the gears. She adds a final waterproof, breathable jacket and pants, her choice is the North Face Futurelight series, but the key here is waterproof and breathable.
Rebecca’s footwear of choice is the 45NRTH Wolfgar insulated bike boots, these are expedition grade winter biking boots. Other popular options include the Specialized Defroster Trail Shoes, or you can opt to use waterproof hiking or winter boots paired with gaiters if you aren’t concerned with clipping in to your pedals.
You’ll want warm gloves (definitely not mitts) for biking, consider repurposing your ski gloves here. Also bring along another pair of thin gloves for bike repairs or maintenance. Fat bikers have made brilliant strides in pogies (or poagies). These insulated, oversized glove-like soft shells are permanently mounted on your handlebars allowing access to braking and gears with dexterity beyond what’s possible with gloves.
Rebecca pairs either a thick or thin wool hat with a neck gaiter. A ski balaclava would be another great option. She opts for wrapped sunglasses like the Smith Wildcat. The wrapped/oversized sunglasses offer protection from the elements and they also fit with your bike helmet, versus goggles, which tend to fog. As far as bike helmets go, there are winter-specific helmets, but try out your go-to helmet first.
Hydration is always a challenge in the winter, look for an insulated hydration pack, and wear it underneath your layers to utilize body heat.
Fat tire bikes are amazing at getting into remote areas beyond traditional mountain bikes all year-round. If summertime is more your thing, look to fat tire bikes for traveling on sandy beaches and dunes, from casual sunset rides in San Diego to 100-mile adventures up the Oregon coast.
Have UnNew gear of your own to list on Geartrade? Get crackin’! When you sell gear you’re not using, you have more money for gear you’ll love. And don’t forget to tag and share pics of your UnNew gear out there in the wilds. We love to see how it’s doing.
Annie Fast writes about winter sports and outdoor adventures from her home in Bend, Oregon.You can read more about her and her work at anniefast.com