How-to: Prepare for a Winter Bike Overnight

For most bicycle tourists, winters are usually spent waiting with increasing impatience for spring to arrive so bicycle traveling can resume. But it doesn't have to be that way. With a little planning and perseverance, the season of ice and snow can be one of the best times to experience a true adventure by bicycle.

For off-road excursions on snowmobile and ski trails, fat-tire bikes such as the Surly Pugsley or Salsa Mukluk are best for traction and flotation on top of the snow. But fat bikes aren't necessary for all winter outings. You can take to the backroads and visit a favorite nearby camping spot. Turn your touring or mountain bike into a winter machine by installing a pair of studded tires and fenders. Studs prevent slippage, and a knobbier tread adds traction in slush and snow. Fenders are crucial for keeping road spray off your body, because if you get wet, you'll be cold. Full cable housing is a nice feature for preventing ice buildup on cables. Be sure to regularly brush snow and slush buildup away from the drivetrain to prevent freeze-up.

My bike-and-bivvy setup from a winter camping trip near Juneau, Alaska.

Pedaling outdoors in the winter requires quite a bit more clothing, obviously. Layering is largely a personal preference, but there are a few universal tips for dressing for winter's chill. Most winter cyclists wear typical bike clothing as a base layer, and then add a fleece or wool mid-layer topped off with a wind-proof and waterproof shell. Clothing made for skiing and other winter sports transfers well to cycling. Look for thin hats and balaclavas that fit under a helmet, and coats with a large hood that can fit over the helmet. Ski gloves and mittens protect hands, and many cyclists use pogies, which are insulated pouches mounted to the handlebars. For feet, it's often easiest to use platform pedals and a pair of winter boots along with wool socks. Be sure to pack extra pairs of socks and a dry base layer to wear around camp. During the winter, access to dry clothing is crucial because layers can become soaked in sweat and won't dry in the cold air.

As for camping, you need to find gear to fit the conditions. A normal three-season tent will usually suffice in all but the coldest or windiest weather. But you will want to err on the warm side with sleeping bags. If temperatures are forecasted in the 20- to 40-degree range, you will want a sleeping bag rated to zero degrees. Temperatures can often fall much lower than forecasted, especially in wind-sheltered areas. A full-length sleeping pad is also necessary to insulate against the frozen ground. Inflatable pads can work, but close-cell foam mattresses are more popular with winter campers because there's no chance of springing a leak, and they also tend to have a higher insulation value at lower weights. As for stoves, isobutane fuel often won't work in lower temperatures, so it's best to carry a stove that uses liquid fuel. A large down coat and extra mittens for camp are also nice to have along. 

Packing all of that extra gear on your bike can be a challenge, but the rewards are greater than you may think: Crystal skies, nights so quiet you can hear animals prowling in the far distance, snow-covered landscapes that glow in the moonlight, the satisfaction that comes with braving the elements, and the simple joy of being alive.

Get more information about bike overnights.


5 responses so far ↓

Nick Gilling - Feb 1, 2012 at 9:16 AM

As someone who has just recently spent their first overnight in January out in the mountains of Wales and not only survived but also very much enjoyed the experience I hope this post encourages more people to give it a go.

Couple of tips from me

A down or synthetic instulated jacket is great not just around camp, but also to boost your sleeping bag's rating.

Find shelter if you can, on my trip it stayed above freezing 10 yards into the trees, outside everything froze solid, yet I still had a view of the stars and the moon through the canopy.

I can't wait to get out again, hopefully it might even snow this winter which would make it even better.

Michael McCoy - Feb 2, 2012 at 11:49 AM

Thanks Nick!

Jay C - Feb 16, 2012 at 3:22 PM

I have followed your winter adventures in AK for years. You are amazing. I am a 60 year old father of a son who lives in Arctic Village, AK and you inspire me to get out and go regardless of the Wx.

Gordon - Feb 16, 2015 at 11:25 AM

Also I find that if you know that you will be close to a water source, then a hot water bottle is nice to have along.

Rich Runser - Jan 23, 2018 at 6:29 PM

Your photos and comments make me yearn for camping out in the Blessed Cold at night.

Jill, are you having a fund raiser in the Anchorage area when you come? Tell it on "Jill Outside where I always look at the photos. If you continue to deny you are a professional quality photographer, you may find your nose growing longer.

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