Fat biking with toddlers. How to keep the MTB stoke alive through winter.
As winter approaches, we mourn the end of our season shredding dirt trails. Many give the bike a rest and turn to skiing or snowboarding. But if you’re a parent, you’ll know all too well, winter often brings more time spent entertaining little ones indoors. Because let’s face it, you can’t spend all day on the slopes or making snowmen – as much as your little one would love to. Winter days are filled with coloring in, playing with toys, screen time, games – anything to keep them from turning the house upside down, and you from pulling your hair out.
But just because it’s winter time, doesn’t mean you can’t get out and ride together.
In this article, I share how to keep the bike stoke alive by fat biking through the winter months. I've done a fair bit of winter fat biking with my little guy, and we’ve learnt some valuable lessons along the way. Fat biking may involve a bit more work and know-how, but it can be hugely rewarding if you’re prepared correctly.
4 key things to consider for a successful fat bike ride.
- Staying warm (learn how to dress for success)
- Conditions (find out why riding in 0°C or below is best)
- Where to ride (why you should swap soil for snow)
- Tire pressure (your most important piece of bike setup)
Read on to discover how you can maximise your fat-biking-with-kids enjoyment!
1. STAYING WARM
If you can successfully keep your kid warm on your winter fat biking rides, then more than half the battle is won. Before diving into the how-to section for properly layering and dressing your kid, here are a couple of factors that will directly impact how you dress them:
Descents: The coldest part of your outing is typically during the descent. Flat and uphill terrain you travel at a slow pace, especially with fat tires and snow providing resistance. However, as you descend and move faster that cold air can be quite startling and chilling for a youngster. You will want to keep your kid warm enough to endure the cold of the descent and have some extra accessories packed for descending (see more below).
Weather: Checking weather and conditions are important factors for decision making in dressing properly. Check for temperature, wind chill and precipitation (snowfall). The ideal temperature for fat tire snow biking is freezing or below freezing, but always be prepared for colder temperatures. And always check for wind chill. If winds are faster than 10 mph in the winter, we typically skip out on riding. Wind chill with winter fat biking is not fun, especially if your kid is in a head wind on a descent. If it is going to snow then waterproof layers and items like goggles are essential for your ride.
Once you've considered descents and weather, it's time to consider clothing.
Dressing your kid for success
A common question that gets asked is if there really is a correct way to layer in the winter. The answer is yes! There are certain layering principles that I highly recommend families use and apply in all outdoor winter adventures with kids. Layering correctly and understanding the use of different technical fabrics will help you dress your kid for success.
The layering equation
- Base layer: The layer against your skin. You want to use fabrics that will wick away moisture (sweat or even leaky diapers / accidents). Use synthetic materials like nylon, polyester, merino wool, etc. Don’t use cotton fabrics as it sponges up water and is not quick drying. If the layer next to your skin is wet and damp, it is hard for your body to regulate and stay warm. I use either a mid-weight merino wool base layer or a fleece lined polyester base layer.
- Mid layer: The insulating layer. The layer that keeps you warm. Often fleece or puffies (down jackets) are used as mid layers. Fleece is budget friendly and a great option for kids as it is better to layer with an already insulated outer layer. If needed, you can use 1 - 2 fleece mid layers depending on weather, or use a down / synthetic puffy if you need a warmer mid layer. I use a one piece fleece suit. If the temperatures are dipping closer to - 15 C, then I may add an additional fleece mid layer. Really this just depends on how warm your kid’s outer layer is.
- Outer layer: This layer protects the mid and base layers from the elements i.e. wind and snow. The type of outer layer depends on your kid’s activity level, weather and the amount of contact there will be with snow. For winter adventures with kids, often you'll want an insulated, waterproof outer layer.
Keep in mind that with an insulated outer layer (typically snowsuits), you may only need one mid-layer, even on cold days, as it already has built-in insulation. In deciding how many mid-layers or what mid layer to use in conjunction with your kid’s outer layer, you'll need to know two things:
- The temperature rating for your kid’s outer layer. If their snowsuit simply isn’t warm enough for the temperatures, then add another mid-layer or use a warmer mid-layer.
- If their outer layer provides additional insulation in the bum. If your kid’s snow suit doesn’t have additional insulation in the bum, then you may want 2 mid-layers specifically for their bottom half, especially for fat biking. Kids' bums are susceptible to getting cold as they sit on a bike seat in freezing temperatures. and don’t have a way to generate heat (pedaling their legs, like the adult rider). Imagine sitting on a ski lift for an extended amount of time. Your bum would likely be one of the first areas to get cold.
Overall, for fat biking I recommend using an outer layer that is insulated, waterproof (protecting from any snowfall), windproof (keeping kids warm on descents) and has extra insulation in the bum (help kids stay warm while sitting stationary on a seat). I use Reima snowsuits for winter fat biking. Their snowsuits are waterproof, windproof and have additional insulation in the bum. My kiddo’s snow suit is rated for -15 C.
The more layers the better, right?
You'll want to try and dress appropriately for conditions and not overdress, so your child doesn’t end up sweating excessively. If you feel uncertain that your child will be warm enough, then bring an extra mid-layer in your pack. Over time you will learn almost exactly what your child needs to wear and in what temperatures.
Now that you've got the low down on layering, let's look at what else to consider when dressing your little one.
Keeping hands warm
Kids, (especially small kiddos) don’t love wearing thick gloves or mittens, as it restricts their hands and movement. In addition, thick mittens for biking aren’t ideal, as most kids can’t take hold of the handlebars with thick mittens or gloves on. In the past, I've tried to use a warm, but thinner glove that's still allowed our kid to take hold of trail snacks and handlebars – but unfortunately they simply don’t keep his hands warm enough for sustained periods of time. It would prevent us from riding as far or as long.
For winter fat biking (or any cold weather riding), we much prefer pogies. Pogies act as a glove replacement and give your kid more mobility with their hands, as they can pull them out as they please. Pogies attach directly to your handlebars (or your kid’s handlebars) and provide kids with a more secure positioning as they ride. My kid has been using the Kids Ride Shotgun pogies since they launched late 2021, and I highly recommend – they've been an absolute game changer.
I still recommend kids wear a pair of fleece liners inside their pogies, especially on really cold days. My kid usually prefers glove-free hands, but I allow it if the temperatures are 0 C or above.
But most importantly, pogies are ideal for storing trail snacks. My kid prefers that I stick trail snacks inside the pogies, so they're readily available throughout the ride. Snack holders and hand warmers. It’s a win-win for parents! (Just ensure your trail snacks aren’t chocolate, the pogies are so warm inside the chocolate will melt… I learned that one the hard way.)
Keeping feet warm
Use a thick pair of merino wool socks for your kiddo. Then in terms of shoes, a pair of tennis shoes won’t suffice for winter fat biking. Your kid will need some type of winter boot with insulation to keep their feet warm.
Pro tip: When you're home and getting your kid dressed, pay attention to whether their hands and feet are already cold (often they are). Try warming up their feet before putting their socks on. Then in the car stick their snow boots and pogies on your car dashboard and apply heat – then both the boots and pogies will be nice and warm starting out. If kids' hands and feet don’t start out warm and toasty, then they won’t last long out in the cold.
Layering, check. Hands, check. Feet, check. Now let's move on to accessories.
4 must-have accessories
The word accessory may make these items seem like they are negotiable or mere suggestions, but read on to learn why these items are must haves for your rides!
Helmet: No helmet, no ride. I recommend having your kiddo wear a beanie beneath their bike helmet, but only if you can still ensure a nice snug fit of the helmet. If not, then a ski helmet is a great alternative. Ski helmets are designed to be warm and provide insulation while still providing a snug and secure fit.
Fleece neck gaiter: I never leave without a fleece neck gaiter either in my pack or on my kid. This will especially be helpful on the descents. The neck gaiter will block cold winds and keep their face warm.
Goggles: I always carry goggles in my riding pack just in case we need them. My kid will always wear goggles if it is snowing and then often on descents to block cold winds.
- Hand and toe warmers: I don’t leave the house for any winter outing without hand warmers. They can be lifesavers out on the trails. On cold days, you can throw hand warmers in your kid’s pogies, in between their socks and snow boots, in the cuff of their beanie or in pockets of their jackets / layers.
Even after dressing your kid in the warmest of layers, remember that your child is sitting and enjoying your winter fat bike rides, but may not be moving their own body to generate any heat. You may need to stop and have breaks where they can walk around and get their circulation going to generate some body heat.
Now that you're set up for success in terms of dressing your kid, what else do you need to know about winter fat biking with a kiddo? Well for starters, fat biking is best in certain conditions, on specific types of trails, and with the correct pressure in your tires. Let's break that down.
What are ideal fat biking conditions?
Typically you want hard-pack snow and frozen ground. If it has recently snowed, you will want to wait a few days for the snow to settle and get packed down by other traffic i.e. snowmobiles, hikers, snowshoers, etc. A few days of freezing and settling can create ideal fat biking conditions.
Traveling through fresh snow provides more resistance and is more difficult to ride, which is not ideal with a kid in tow. If there's more than a couple inches of new snow on the ground, I typically wait for it to get packed down before venturing out. Even so, trails that have been groomed and packed down following a snow storm will still need some time to freeze and settle.
In terms of temperature, fat biking in freezing or below freezing temperatures is best. Often early mornings are going to be the best in terms of conditions. As the trails or snow begins to warm up the snow gets softer and less firm, which again makes it more difficult to travel through. Frozen and firm snow makes for a great day of fat biking with your little one.
3. WHERE TO RIDE
Swapping the soil for snow covered trails! Here are a few options when it comes to choosing where to ride:
Fat bike specific trails. As fat biking has grown in popularity, many areas offer fat bike specific trails. This means trails will be groomed on a regular basis for fat bike use. Again, after grooming, it’s best to wait for some freezing and snow settling.
Mountain bike trails. You can also fat bike on regular mountain bike trails. However, you will want to wait for the trails to be packed down by either other bikers or snowshoers. I don’t recommend breaking a trail with a kid on your bike, but instead take a turn breaking or packing down your favourite trails on your snowshoes with your kid on your back.
Nordic ski trails. Some groomed nordic ski trails will allow fat bikers, but be courteous of their trails. Stop for skiers. Never ride over their nordic set tracks. Use the correct pressure in your tires, so you don’t rut out their trails.
Closed forest roads or campgrounds. Another great option are snow-covered forest roads or closed mountain campgrounds. These roads often get packed down by snowmobilers, snowshoers and even backcountry skiers. Forest roads will often have more inclines, whereas closed roads within a closed campground may provide more flat and mellow terrain.
Pro tip: Find a fat bike trail conditions Facebook page or group in your area, where trail conditions and updates will get posted regularly.
Recognise the risk of avalanches.
With any winter mountain sport, it's important to recognize the risk of avalanches. Be sure you consider if and when you may be crossing avalanche terrain. If avalanches are prevalent in your area, find out who your local avalanche forecaster is, and follow avalanche forecasts and warnings to stay safe.
4. TIRE PRESSURE
Correct tire pressure is a crucial part of winter fat biking. With fat tires you will run an extremely low PSI.
I never creep above 7 PSI while riding. That’s right, 7 PSI. I highly recommend a pump that will allow you to read such low PSI levels. I love my Specialized Air Tool Comp Floor Pump. At the beginning of my ride, I will pump up my tires to around 10 PSI since likely I will be riding pavement to the trailhead. Then at the trailhead I will adjust my pressure according to conditions. I am so accustomed to adjusting my tire pressure I can do it by touch, but initially you may also want to carry a hand pump with a pressure gauge. I often continue to adjust tire pressure throughout the ride, as the conditions change i.e. it warms up, hit softer or firmer snow.
Your fat bike winter tire pressure guide:
- For hardpack, frozen trails with temperatures below freezing use 4 - 8 PSI.
- For softer trails, freshly groomed, new snow or warmer temperatures use 2 - 5 PSI (or as low as 1 PSI if conditions permit).
- If in either scenario you are leaving ruts in the trails, spinning out, losing traction, or can’t bike in a straight line – then you need to air down.
- If you leave ruts even with airing down, then it’s time to turn around and come back when conditions are better i.e. snow has had time to freeze and settle, air temperature is colder, etc.
- If you are riding in freshly fallen snow, then you are going to leave “ruts” as the snow hasn’t been packed down. But never leave ruts on groomed or already packed down trails.
- Also remember that adding extra weight to your bike - your child. will mean you need to adjust your regular solo riding tire pressure. With more weight, you will need a slightly higher PSI.
Conditions and tire pressure can make or break your winter riding experience. Trust me, breaking trail in deep, fresh snow or trudging up a trail in warm, soft snow with too high of tire pressure, will surely make you think twice about your decision in taking up fat biking. But if you can hit your local trails in the right conditions and with the correct tire pressure you will feel that rush of flow and speed that mountain bikers truly appreciate!
Now you’re ready to hit the snow!
Stop pouting about snow covered trails and get back in the saddle! There's no need to wait for everything to thaw. Simply check the weather, bundle up accordingly, find your nearest stoke-inducing winter trail, air down your fattie tires and keep bike season alive all year long! You won’t regret it!
If you have any fat biking questions or other tips to share, let us know in the comments below. Enjoy the trails!