A complete guide to fat-biking basics

Just because you ride a road or mountain bike doesn’t mean you’ll be fabulous at fat biking. You’ve got to get to know pedaling on snow.

Throw in seriously variable terrain and conditions and, believe me, you’ll want to understand what you’re doing before you head out to the backcountry.

Pick some flat terrain and (ideally) a pleasant day to try your first fat-bike ride. Photo: Courtesy of Snow Mountain Ranch

Get started where it’s flat. That removes one concern right off the bat: climbing. While you’re figuring out fat-biking clothing, balance, mechanics and elements, being in a comfortable introductory environment first will set you up for success.

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I tried my first ride at Snow Mountain Ranch, a year-round YMCA camp just outside Winter Park, Colorado, where I could quickly return to the cross-country cabin should something go awry. Here, anyone can give fat biking a spin for the day or weekend, starting with groomed tracks and moving right on up to gradual climbs.

“The trail conditions are crucial to the quality of your fat-bike experience, so try to ride on groomed or packed trails that are fat-bike friendly,” says on-site Nordic director Bill Pierce, who handles snow-bike rentals and rides his own fat-bike rig regularly. “You’ll have a much more enjoyable experience.”

Freshly fallen or packed snow? The difference will dramatically affect your ride. Photo: Julie Kailus

I couldn’t agree more. With flat light and fresh snow making wayfinding tricky on some singletrack trails I tried, holding a steady line even in the flats was a challenge. Once I realized that getting out of the snow “ruts” made by others actually helped, I relaxed and let the bike do more of the work.

Remember, fat-bike tires are massive treads designed to float up and over snow. That said, proper tire pressure could be the single most important thing those new to the sport have to learn to dial in. Get it wrong and you’re making your job that much harder.

Unlike mountain biking, where you can almost “set it and forget it,” a fat bike’s tire pressure might require an adjustment each ride.

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“The conditions directly relate to tire pressure,” says Pierce. “It’s important to know that if you’re biking on soft, powdery snow, you’ll need a lower tire pressure and will have a slower ride. Firm, packed trails will require a higher tire pressure and ride faster.”

Remember, fat biking is a slower workout. Be prepared mentally and physically. Photo: Courtesy of Snow Mountain Ranch

That was another thing that took some getting used to: going slower in general. If you’re aggro, this may not be the sport for you. Just like running on snow or ice is slower than running on dry trails, so, too, is fat biking. You either learn to go with the flow and know that you’re working incredibly hard or bag it for something speedier.

More basics you’ll want to know before you dig in:

What to wear

“Proper attire is crucial,” Pierce says. “Dress as you would for any other winter outdoor endurance sport or activity; you’ll want layers!” I’m an endurance athlete and I was sweating even on a gentle incline, so heed those body parts that get toasty fast.

If I keep my core warm, I’m good. Plus my hands need to breathe, so I found I didn’t want the big bike mitts you see a lot of riders wearing. My husband, whose extremities are always frigid, needed more wind protection.

Watch the weather and layer like you would for other outdoor endurance sports. Photo: Courtesy of Snow Mountain Ranch

A solid pair of flexible hiking boots on flat pedals will work fine for your first foray, but make sure you have athletic, water-resistant pants, a high winter-weather sock and a neck gaiter. Goggles are nice on a windy, overcast day too.

Tips for control

Again, fat-bike tires — at the right pressure — do a lot of maneuvering for you, but turning more slowly, rather than swiftly overcorrecting, will help with that occasional squirrely feeling on the back wheel.

Ride toward the center of the trail to avoid a major post-hole mishap. Photo: Julie Kailus

Post-holing is a fact of fat biking. When you step off your bike, you will sink into fresh snow, possibly knee deep. To avoid this, simply try to ride toward the center of the singletrack, snowmobile-packed or fully cat-groomed trail. And wear smart foot protection so you don’t get soaked.

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By the end of the weekend, “slow and steady” was my first-timer’s mantra. Once I slowed my racing mind (and body), let the bike do more work and started to see the trees for, well, the trees, I settled in. And I was sold.

One more bike to add to the quiver.

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