My Winter Fat Bike Respite and Winter Touring Tips

December 10, 2012

I glanced back, squinting into the blinding snow, to make sure Bill was still riding behind me, the snow was getting heavier and visibility was much worse than when we had started earlier that day.  But there he was, right on my tail with the biggest grin on his face. The riding was wonderfully quiet with a fresh two inches on the ground and piling fast. "This is awesome", I heard him say, as my Surly Nates made fresh tracks.  I couldn't help but laugh. I was a little more concerned than he was about the amount of falling snow, the decreased visibility, the traffic, now reduced to one lane, and the 32 remaining miles we needed to ride that day; 14 of which would be a dirt road with mystery conditions straight into the mountains. It was also the day before Thanksgiving, so a bit more traffic seemed to have descended on the only road that would take us into Wisdom, MT, along with lots of awed and quizzical expressions from the passers-by in their heated cabs. At a quick snack stop Bill informed me, "If I saw people doing this when I was kid, I would have jumped out of the car and never looked back." I laughed, and tried to eat a trail bar with the wind and snow blowing.

One blizzard down, two to go!

This was my Adventure Cycling bicycle respite. (As employees, we receive five days, in addition to holidays and earned time-off, to travel by bicycle, YES! ) And, it was so easily planned while eating pumpkin pie in the cozy chairs of a local coffee shop two weeks earlier. Plus, Bill and I had been bike packing all summer, we were pros (wink, wink, nudge) at planning, finding new routes, and camping, and we had just about gotten our packing time to under one day ...  it takes a lot of time to figure how to pack 5-days worth of sausages and beer in only two seat bags, and one frame bag. Not to mention how to safely strap snow shoes onto a pack and still have access to the emergency puffy coat tucked inside. These things take time! The other distracting element was the shiny new snow bike, on loan from Red Barn Bicycles (an amazing shop in the Bitterroot Valley), the Mukluk III (bright orange and ever so lovely, I would find myself just staring at it, instead of packing it).  All of my Salsa bags minus my frame bag fit on the snow bike, and I even had a new piece of gear from Hans Bagworkspogies!  Hans had graciously provided me with a prototype pair, straight out of the Hans-Q Development Division,  these I knew would save me, not to mention the shiny new -40 snow boots. I was ready ... right?

Pogies, by Hans Bagworks

The Big Hole Valley! We had rented one of the Wisdom Ranger District cabins last year at Twin Lakes, and we wanted to return. This cabin sits at the base of gorgeous narrow valley; surrounded by the 9,000-foot peaks of Beaverhead National Forest. Last year, we skied across the lake which was completely frozen (I knew Bill had visions of snow biking and doing donuts on the lake with the snow bike this year). We added May Creek and Hogan Cabins into the mix, and voila! The trip started taking shape. We predicted a few snow drifts, and were prepared for blizzard-like conditions, after all this was the Big Hole. We knew the 14-mile stretch into Twin Lakes would be the greatest mystery regarding conditions as well as the greatest test* (hence the snow shoes).  Just for fun, this would also be our longest day, at around 50 miles; no sense in getting comfortable ...

Twin Lakes Cabin, Family Portrait

Respite:  A  delay or cessation for a time, especially of anything distressing or trying; an interval of relief (Merriam Webster).  Hmmm, I wonder if I can qualify for another respite after my 'respite', which was sometimes distressful and trying ... okay, I'm kidding,  it was a blast, but the last two days were indeed the hardest and I definitely needed a respite from the respite at the very end. But that's exactly why we started and ended in Jackson, MT ... which has hot springs! Oh yes, and burgers! Actually for me, winter travel is a delight, however, I do require, at the end of the day, a heated place -- preferably a cozy cabin with a fire. I need the end of the day to have some sort of respite from the cold, snow, and wind. I highly recommend trying some winter bike touring by starting out with lower mileage than you usually plan for touring in case things get ugly, and by having a warm destination at the end of the day. In addition to a warm place to sleep, if things get wet or major weather descends, at least you have a safe, dry shelter to push towards and a place to recover.

Bill snoozes at May Creek Cabin

We travelled about 150 miles in six days, I know that doesn't really sound that ambitious, but we encountered three blizzards, arrived in the pitch dark at two out of three cabins, and I hiked-a-bike about four miles when snow was too deep or rutted.**  Being out in the snow at night is beautiful, and fortunately for us the blizzards had cleared and the stars were out as we approached Twin Lakes, the air sparkling with fresh snow.

I stayed warm enough the whole day using the pogies, and putting on rain gear when the snow was heavy. I also took layers off when necessary so as not to overheat or sweat too much. The last couple of miles hiking into Twin Lakes I was wearing only a thin wool base layer and a t-shirt, enjoying the silent night and the beauty of the fresh snow glistening from the light of my head lamp. We also met a lot of cool people, including one family who said that they thought their Thanksgiving was "extreme" because they were driving on the same route into their house for the Thanksgiving weekend. They insisted we stay with them as darkness was descending and snow was piling up, but we were "pretty sure" we could make it to the cabin still about nine miles away. (Okay, I wasn't really that sure.) I definitely made a mental note as of the location of their house in case of an emergency. We did eventually arrive at Twin Lakes around 9:30 that night, started the wood stove, ate some instant soup, and crashed. We stayed two nights at Twin Lakes, where I might add, I used the emergency snow shoes for a wonderful two-hour hike near the stream. Before we knew it, most of the trip was behind us with only one final riding day to return to Jackson (an adventure in itself, involving meeting another lovely family and crossing abut eight miles of cow pasture).

Snowy Landscape at Twin Lakes

Flotation bikes or "fat bikes" are becoming more and more popular, and for winter touring it's the perfect bike. The Mukluk that I used preformed great. I felt very comfortable with the wide tires on snowy and icy roads, as well as in deeper snow, and the bike was very comfortable to both load and ride, and yes, push. It does takes some practice to get the tire pressure just right and to get a sense for conditions and how the bike slides, and thus when to add or subtract pressure to the front or back fatties. Winter isn't just for commuting anymore, touring on a fat bike may not get you there super fast, but it's super fun! 

Here are some thoughts that I had for winter touring after my trip:

  • Keep touring distances lower than you would normally plan to do. Winter and fat bikes can slow you down a bit.
  • Invest in pogies, for winter travel these are key. Thanks Hans!
  • Also, abandon cycling shoes and booties for plain old winter boots, these will be warmer and will make being both on and off the bike easier, especially in snowy conditions. Quality Bicycle Products also recently launched a new brand, 45North, and they are making some cool winter bike boots specifically for winter touring and racing.
  • Travel with several CO2 cartridges (well, you'll need a bit more to inflate the fatties, but less pumping can save time).***
  • If you need to fix a mechanical issue, think about pushing the bike until you find a bit of shelter (even just getting out of the wind is helpful) before you stop and try to fix something so you don't lose a lot of body heat. Basically, staying warm and being safe is more important than fixing your bike. Maybe it's safer to stay moving and to push a few miles into town than to be out trying to sort a mechanical problem or fix a flat. Think about warmth and safety first.
  • I like to stay in cabins in the winter instead of tents. A warm fire at the end of the day and place to dry gear easily is very nice.
  • Take more bicycle lights (and lithium batteries) than you normally do, winter conditions can alter visibility fast. Also, definitely dismount and move way, way over when the snow plow is coming. 
  • I recommend being even more attuned to traffic and road conditions. Cars can slide too and vehicles will also have visibility issues.
  • I also really like the waterproof rain cover for my helmet, keeping snow and rain from seeping into my winter hat. It's super dorky but it sheds snow and rain very well.
  • I also keep important clothing and sleeping gear in dry bags. 

Big Hole sunset, riding to Jackson, MT

*Last year I bonked on this road, but that's another story.

** Yup, you guessed it, only Mo was hike-a-biking, Bill road almost all of it. I tried to stay in his tracks but that was challenging, especially on the uphill portions.

*** Believe it or not we only had one flat, a slow leak, fixed in the comfort of the cabin.

Photos by Mo and Bill.


BIKEPACKER this week was written by Mo Mislivets.


Scott Fitz January 10, 2013, 12:23 PM

So glad to see some FAT Touring going on. You guys rock!

JayP December 11, 2012, 3:29 PM

Great! Can we ride Fitz-Barn in the winter??

Thanks for the Jackson reminder, we want to get there this winter.

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