Most bicycle tourists and bikepackers make it their goal to cycle south to a warm destination before winter arrives. If you properly prepare for cold weather, bicycle touring or bikepacking during the winter doesn’t have to be miserable. In fact, winter can offer some excellent cycling. The season is less crowded and the air is crisp. Snow can create a magical atmosphere. This guide outlines 25 winter bicycle touring and bikepacking tips to help stay warm, dry, and safe in the cold weather. We’ll cover clothing, bike accessories, emergency gear, bike maintenance, and more.
Choose the Right Tires
The ideal tires for your winter tour or bikepacking trip depend on the road conditions you expect to encounter. If you expect mostly slush or powdery snow, standard touring tires work fine. Skinny tires can cut through slush and shallow snow better than mountain bike tires. This allows your tires to make more contact with the road underneath, increasing traction. Most touring tires have enough tread to handle a bit of ice as well.
If you expect icy road conditions or compact snow, consider installing studded bike tires. These have dozens or hundreds of small metal studs sticking out of the knobs. These studs dig into the ice as you ride so your tires don’t slide around under you. Studded tires offer excellent traction, even when the road is a glare of ice. They also work great when the snow has thawed into slush and re-frozen into ruts. Side studs allow you to climb out of slippery ruts without your wheel getting stuck. For serious winter touring, studs are a necessity.
If you plan to ride over deep snow, consider swapping out your skinny tires for wide, high-volume tires. These distribute the weight of the bike over more surface area so you can float over the snow. Narrow tires sink into the snow and get caught up. If you plan to ride off-road through deep snow, a fat bike may be ideal. These were invented for riding over deep snow.
Reduce Your Tire Pressure While Riding on Snow or Ice
If you find that you need more traction, try dropping your tire pressure around 10 psi when you encounter an icy, slushy, wet, or snowy section of road. Reducing the air pressure makes the tires softer so they can deform more at the contact patch. This allows more of the tread to contact the ground, which increases friction. This, in turn, increases traction.
When you reduce your tire pressure, make sure you don’t reduce it too much. You want to leave enough air so your tires don’t bottom out and hit the rim if you hit a bump or chunk of ice. Rim strikes can cause pinch flats and even damage your rims.
Winterize Your Bike
A few simple changes you can make to your bike to prepare it for winter touring or bikepacking include:
- Replace the heavy grease in your hubs and pedals with lighter grease. This reduces drag.
- Apply some polish to your bike’s frame and wheels during the winter. This prevents snow from sticking to it, which helps keep your bike lighter. Snow and ice buildup can add a lot of unnecessary weight, which slows you down.
- Swap out your trigger shifters for thumb shifters. These are much easier to operate when you’re wearing bulky mittens. Alternatively, install some pogies on your handlebar ends.
- Consider swapping out your clipless pedals and shoes for flat peddles and winter boots. These will keep your feet warmer.
- Reduce your tire pressure. This increases traction and allows you to float over obstacles.
Keep Your Bike Clean and Well Maintained
During the winter months, many cities pour salt or other de-icing chemicals on the roads to help melt snow and ice. Some cities also dump sand and gravel on the roads to give vehicles extra traction.
Unfortunately, de-icing chemicals and sand can wreak havoc on your bike. Salt can cause components to corrode. Sand can get stuck on your chain and other moving parts and cause abrasion. This can cause premature wear and tear. Winter is hard on bikes.
When touring or bikepacking in winter conditions, clean and lube your drivetrain every day. Particularly if you’ve ridden on roads that have been treated with salt, de-icing chemicals, or sand. Use a heavy-duty chain lubricant that is designed for winter use.
If you ride a steel-framed bike, treat any scratches with anti-rust spray. Wipe down and inspect your bike often to make sure nothing rusts or corrodes. Check your cables often to make sure that they remain sealed and functional. You don’t want your brake cables to freeze up while you’re descending an icy hill.
You’ll also want to stay on top of maintenance during the winter. You don’t want your bike to fail you and leave you stranded in the cold. This may mean increasing your bike maintenance budget a bit during a winter tour. If your chain is questionable, go ahead and replace it early. The cold weather and road conditions make certain parts wear out faster.
Layer your Clothing and Wear Breathable Materials
While bicycle touring or bikepacking during the winter, you must dress properly to regulate your body temperature. You want to wear clothing that will keep you warm, both on the bike and off. At the same time, you don’t want to get too hot while you ride. Your clothing must also offer good ventilation so sweat can evaporate away.
While touring, you will sweat. Even when the weather is below freezing. If your clothes are too warm, you’ll sweat excessively. If your clothes don’t ventilate properly, the sweat will accumulate and your clothing will become saturated.
When you take a break from riding, your body temperature drops, your wet clothing cools, and the sweat begins evaporating. At this point, you’ll get very cold. In extremely cold weather, your sweat can literally freeze.
To keep your body at the optimal temperature, the best practice is to dress in layers. This way, you can easily add or remove a piece of clothing as needed to regulate your body temperature.
For winter bicycle touring and bikepacking, choose clothing that is made from breathable, sweat-wicking, and quick-drying materials. These materials pull sweat away from your body so it can easily and quickly evaporate away. Synthetic materials like polyester work well. Merino wool is another good option if you prefer natural fibers. These fabrics are ideal because they can provide some insulation, even when wet.
Avoid cotton clothing. Cotton takes forever to dry. It also doesn’t provide insulation when wet.
A good winter bicycle touring and bikepacking layering system includes:
- Base layer- You wear this layer directly against your skin. Ideally, your base layer should be warm, sweat-wicking, and quick-drying. Merino wool or synthetic thermal long underwear work well. If it’s just a bit chilly, you can get away with just a long sleeve base layer shirt. If it’s really cold, you’ll want to wear a base layer under your pants as well.
- Mid layer- This layer provides extra insulation. A fleece or wool sweater works well. These materials offer good ventilation and dry quickly when they get wet. The colder the weather, the thicker the mid-layer you’ll want to wear. You’ll remove this layer when you get too hot.
- Outer layer- This layer protects you from the snow and cold wind while you ride. It should be waterproof and windproof. If the weather is mild, you could get away with a rain shell or poncho. If it’s cold, you’ll want to wear an insulated waterproof jacket and insulated waterproof pants. When choosing a waterproof outer layer, make sure it has good ventilation. Rain jackets often trap sweat if they aren’t well designed. Look for jackets with zippers under the armpits, adjustable cuffs, and a full front zipper. These features greatly increase ventilation.
The above layering system can keep you comfortable down to around 20°F (around -7°C). If you’re traveling through an extremely cold climate, you may need to pack a winter parka as well.
You’ll also want to think about what you’re going to wear when you’re off the bike. You will get cold when you stop riding and during the cold mornings and evenings.
Consider packing a down or synthetic stuffed jacket to wear when you’re not riding. These jackets weigh very little, compress down small, and provide lots of warmth. For bicycle touring and bikepacking, synthetic filling is ideal because it dries faster than down and can insulate when wet.
For more info on winter clothing and insulation, check out my guide: Down Vs Fleece Vs Wool: My Pros and Cons List. This guide outlines the different uses for each material.
Learn How to Ride Your Bike Safely on Snow and Ice
Before hitting the road, take your bike for a test ride on a bike path or in an empty parking lot. Find out how your loaded touring bike handles when riding on snow and ice.
Test your brakes to see how fast you can stop. Your braking distance increases when the road is slippery because your tires can’t get as much grip. Ride through some deep snow and over icy patches to see what it feels like. Ride into ruts and test your handling. Test how hard you can corner before your tires begin to slip.
You want to learn your limits in a safe environment before riding down an icy highway. If you fall in the snow, you won’t hurt yourself or damage your bike. If you slip while riding in traffic, you could seriously injure yourself. By learning how to handle your bike in slippery conditions, you lower the risk of falling.
Protect Your Extrmeities and Face From the Cold
When your core temperature drops, your fingers, toes, nose, and ears will be the first parts of your body to start getting cold. These extremities don’t have much blood flow. Windchill can also come into play. Cold air flows over your hands, feet, and face and removes heat quickly.
Cycling with freezing extremities gets uncomfortable quickly. Your fingers also lose dexterity when they’re cold. This makes it more difficult to manipulate your brakes and shifters. You can’t control the bike as accurately when you’re cold.
While winter touring, you also put yourself at risk of developing frostbite. This condition occurs when your skin or tissue freezes. The windchill of cycling through the cold air removes heat from exposed parts of your body, increasing the risk. Frostbite can cause permanent damage. It is most common on the fingers, toes, ears, nose, and cheeks because these areas have little blood flow.
To stay comfortable and frostbite-free, you simply have to wear warm and protective clothing.
Wear insulated cycling gloves or mittens to keep your fingers warm. Ideally, your gloves should be waterproof and windproof. They should also offer good grip and allow for good hand dexterity so you can safely control the bike.
Alternatively, consider riding with ‘pogies.’ These are large insulated mittens that attach to your handlebars. I like these Rockbros Bike Handlebar Mittens.
Wear thick wool socks and quality boots to keep your toes warm. If it’s really cold, wear plastic bags between your socks and boots. These create a vapor barrier and prevent sweat from evaporating. You’ll lose less heat this way.
Alternatively, consider wearing shoe covers. These are insulated waterproof and windproof covers that attach over your cycling shoes. They attach with zippers and hook and loop. I like these Fizik Winter Shoe Covers.
To protect your ears, wear a warm knit hat under your helmet. Wear a scarf to keep your neck warm. If it’s particularly cold, consider wearing a face mask to protect your cheeks, nose, and chin. These areas are susceptible to frostbite.
Slow Down During the Winter
While touring or bikepacking during the winter, you probably won’t be able to maintain the same pace that you’re used to. You’ll need to slow down to navigate icy and snowy roads safely. You can’t bomb down an icy hill at 30mph.
While riding, you’ll want to pay attention to your speed, road grades, curves, road surfaces, sun and shade, and temperature. In the evenings, wet roads can freeze into a glare of ice. A sunny road could be perfectly dry. You could turn a corner onto a shady road and hit a dangerous patch of ice. By slowing down, you can stay more aware of the conditions and ride more safely.
This means you won’t cover as much ground as quickly as you’re used to. Take this into consideration when planning your route and stops along the way. A tour that might only take you a few days during the summer could take a week during the winter.
Regulate your Body Temperature by Controling your Exertion and Adding or Removing Clothing
You want to reduce your body’s production of sweat as much as you can. At the same time, you want to keep your core body temperature warm enough that you stay comfortable. If you allow yourself to get too cold, it can be hard to warm up again. If you get too hot, you can simply remove an item of clothing, slow down, or take a break for a minute.
While touring or bikepacking during the winter, don’t over-exert yourself or you will soak your clothing with sweat and freeze. Also, pay attention to windchill, elevation, sunlight and shade, and the time of day. If you gain a lot of elevation, the temperature might drop. If you ride in the sun, you might overheat. During the evening and morning, the temperature will be lower.
You’ll want to anticipate these temperature changes and choose your clothing appropriately. Stop to add or remove clothing as needed. You can also increase or decrease your cycling intensity to help regulate your body temperature. If you get cold, pedal harder to warm up.
Take Shorter Breaks
In the cold, your body temperature drops surprisingly quickly when you stop exerting yourself. To stay warm, limit your breaks to just a few minutes.
If you need to take a longer break, wait until you’re at a point where you’re just about to start up an incline. That way, when you get going again, you’ll warm up quickly. Also, try to find a sunny spot to stop. Never stop at the top of a long shady hill or you’ll freeze when you start riding again.
When you make a stop to go indoors, like to buy groceries or eat in a restaurant, take advantage of the heat when you’re indoors. Linger for a while to warm up. If the business has a heater, stand near it to warm your gloves and boots.
When you’re mounting and dismounting your bike after a break, look out for icy patches on the ground. Your shoes probably have less traction than your bike tires. It’s easy to slip and fall. Particularly while mounting a heavy-loaded touring bike.
Protect Your Lungs
Breathing cold dry air can cause irritation to your airway and lungs. You may experience coughing, a burning sensation, chest tightness, or shortness of breath when breathing cold air. Cycling causes you to breathe harder, making these conditions worse.
To improve your breathing in cold weather, wear a face mask or neck warmer that covers your mouth and nose. These help to retain heat and moisture around your mouth. This warms and humidifies the air as it enters your body, making it easier to breathe.
Also, wear a scarf or gaiter around your neck to keep your throat warm. This also helps to warm air before it enters your lungs. As an added benefit, you’ll lose body heat more slowly with insulation around your neck.
I like this AstroAI Ski Mask Balaclava. You can wear it over your mouth and nose when needed, then pull it down and wear it as a neck gaiter when you don’t need the extra protection. It’s also a hat. It is thin enough to fit under your helmet or with glasses or goggles. This is a very versatile piece of winter cycling gear.
Install Fenders on your Bike
Fenders are pretty much a necessity for winter bicycle touring and bikepacking. Without fenders, your spinning tires spray slush, dirt, and de-icing chemicals onto you, your bike, and your panniers or bikepacking bags while you ride.
A good set of fenders will keep you and your gear dry and clean. They will also extend the life of your drivetrain by protecting it from corrosive salt and chemicals and abrasive dirt. The fenders direct much of this filth right back onto the road.
Protect your Eyes
On sunny days, the bright snow can reflect harmful UV rays into your eyes. Powerful UV rays can actually burn your eyes. You may experience eye pain, blurry vision, and sensitivity to light if you don’t protect your eyes properly. This condition is known as snow blindness. You may simply find the bright landscape uncomfortable to look at.
To avoid snow blindness and discomfort, wear good wraparound sunglasses while riding. Choose a pair of sunglasses with UV protection and polarization to block glare. If it’s extremely cold or windy, consider wearing goggles instead of sunglasses. If it’s extremely bright out, consider choosing a pair of glasses or goggles with a blue tint. These can help to reduce glare and improve contrast.
For more info, check out my guide: Tips for Travel with Glasses and Contacts.
It can also be helpful to consider the position of the sun when planning your route. This is particularly important when touring in the far north or during the mornings and evenings when the sun is low on the horizon. Think about where the sun will be in the sky.
Ideally, you want to avoid having to cycle into the sun when it’s shining directly into your eyes. This reduces your visibility and the visibility of drivers. It’s hard to see what’s ahead of you when the sun is shining in your eyes.
Use Lights for Increased Visibility
During the winter, the days are short. Chances are, you’ll have to spend some time riding during the evening when it’s getting dark. It’s easy to get caught in the dark because days are short and it gets dark quickly in the winter. In northern countries, it may start getting dark at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Overcast days are also common during the winter.
You need to have a good set of front and rear lights so drivers can see you. While riding particularly dangerous sections of road, or when it’s snowing or raining, run your lights during the day to be seen better. Your headlight also needs to be bright enough to light up the road so you can see icy patches, ruts, and other obstacles ahead.
When choosing bike lights for winter touring and bikepacking, look for models that are waterproof. Your lights will get snowed on, rained on, and splashed with slush.
Also, keeping mind that batteries don’t like cold weather. Use lithium batteries rather than alkaline. Lithium batteries are less affected by the cold. Test your lights frequently and recharge them whenever you have the opportunity.
I like the Bright Eyes Bike Headlight. It is fully waterproof which makes it perfect for use in snowy winter weather. This light also includes a headlamp harness. It is also rechargeable. A rear light is included as well.
If you plan to tour long-term during the winter, you may want to consider installing a dynamo hub on your bike. These generate electricity as you ride. You can use this electricity to power a bright headlight.
This way, you never have to worry about charging or replacing batteries in your lights. Dynamo hubs are reliable and long-lasting. As an added benefit, you can use the dynamo hub to charge your small electronic devices such as your phone, GPS, and camera.
Tip: Wear A High Visibility Cycling Jacket for extra visibility
Drivers don’t expect to see cyclists out riding during the winter. As a result, they won’t be keeping an eye out as they do during the summer. To be seen, wear a high visibility jacket or vest at all times while riding. Alternatively, consider mounting a bright-colored flag on your bike for extra visibility.
It’s also a good idea to use a cycling mirror so you can keep an eye on the road behind you. If a vehicle looks like it’s going to pass too close you can move out of the way or bail.
Ride Defensively While Winter Bicycle Touring
Road conditions make cycling during the winter a bit more dangerous. Road shoulders get covered in slush, ice, and debris. Sometimes they become completely unrideable after a plow blocks them with a snow berm.
Avoid dangerous shoulders by riding further from the edge of the road or on the road. Sometimes you have to take the lane during the winter. That’s okay. It’s better to force drivers to go around you than risk slipping into the road. You want to ride in a way that is safe for you and the drivers who are passing you. As an added benefit, aking the lane reduces your likelihood of getting splashed with slush and dirt as vehicles pass.
Also, remember that cars can’t stop or maneuver as quickly on slippery roads. Take this into consideration while crossing intersections and cycling on the road. Give drivers extra braking distance. Give yourself extra braking distance as well because you can’t stop as quickly either.
Eat More than Usual While Winter Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking
Your body burns extra energy to keep your core warm when you’re out in the cold. While bicycle touring or bikepacking, you already have a big appetite because you burn massive amounts of energy. You need to eat even more to sustain yourself during the winter. Try to eat lots of carbs and fat. These are the most energy-dense foods.
You should also plan to increase your food budget during a winter bicycle tour or bikepacking trip. You’ll need to eat more to sustain yourself. Chances are, you’ll end up stopping for a hot meal more often as well. You need a break from the cold once in a while. Eating in restaurants costs more money.
It’s also important to consider food storage during the winter. Some foods can freeze and become inedible. Some foods get too hard when they’re cold. Store your snacks in your pockets so your body heat can prevent them from freezing or getting hard. Choose foods that aren’t affected by the cold. If you plan to cook, bring plenty of fuel. It takes a bit more energy to bring water to a boil or cook in freezing temperatures.
Choose Your Route Carefully
During the winter, you have to be a bit more careful about choosing your route. Some areas simply become inaccessible during the winter. If the snow is too deep, you can’t ride a fully loaded bike, even if you ride a fat bike. You’ll just sink in and get caught up.
When bikepacking, look for trails that are groomed and regularly traveled. When riding bicycle touring, choose routes that are plowed or maintained. By choosing your route carefully, you’ll avoid having to spend half a day pushing your bike through snow.
Some roads become dangerous during the winter. For example, a plow can block the shoulder with a big snow berm, forcing you to ride on the road. You don’t want to find yourself cycling down a busy highway. Some poorly maintained roads become extremely slippery and unsafe to ride. During the winter, try to choose a route without too much traffic to stay safe.
Stay Well Hydrated
During the winter, it’s easier to get dehydrated than it is in hot weather. There are a couple of reasons for this. You don’t notice your sweat as much because you’re wearing more clothing. Your thirst also naturally decreases when you’re cold. Drinking cold water on a cold winter day also isn’t too appealing. This all makes it easy to get dehydrated during the winter.
While touring or bikepacking during the winter, make sure you drink plenty of water anyway. Even if you have to force yourself to hydrate or schedule hydration stops.
In most cases, 2 liters of water storage is sufficient during the winter. particularly when cycling through a snowy area. You can always melt snow for water if you need to.
To help you stay warm and hydrated, consider packing a thermos. Fill it with your favorite hot beverage whenever you get the chance. You can easily make, tea, hot chocolate, or even some type of broth at camp. You can also buy hot beverages at cafes and transfer them into your thermos.
Sip on your hot drink throughout the day. A quality thermos can keep your beverage hot all day. Sipping on a hot drink throughout the day can help you stay hydrated. It can also help you warm up from the inside. This is a luxury item that’s kind of heavy but it makes a cold-weather tour much more pleasant. I think the extra weight is worth it.
Tip: Boil extra water whenever you cook a meal and pour it into your thermos. That way, you’re always prepared to make your favorite hot beverage. I usually make myself a hot tea in the evening and coffee in the morning. Hot chocolate or hot apple cider makes for a nice treat once in a while as well.
Don’t Let Your Water Freeze
If you’re touring in below-freezing weather, you’ll have to take some precautions to prevent your drinking water from freezing. If all of your water turns to ice, you’ll have nothing to drink.
During the day, you can place thermal wraps on your water bottles. You could also use an insulated bottle. When you’re moving, the motion of the bike can agitate the water to prevent it from freezing. If it’s really cold, use a water bladder in a backpack or store your water bottles in your jersey. Your body heat will prevent the water from freezing.
If you expect the temperature to drop below freezing during the night, take your water bottles into your tent with you. When the weather is just below freezing, your body heat should keep the inside of the tent warm enough to prevent your water from turning to ice. When the weather is well below freezing, you may have to bring your water bottles into your sleeping bag with you.
Tip: Consider carrying a single-wall metal water bottle with a wide mouth. You can throw this in a campfire or put it on your camp stove to melt ice if your water freezes. The wide mouth makes the bottle easy to fill with snow and ice if you need to melt snow to drink. This Klean Kanteen Wide Mouth Stainless Steel Water Bottle would work well.
Dry All of Your Clothing and Camping Gear Whenever You Have the Opportunity
Moisture slowly builds up in your clothing and camping gear. Over the course of a few days, your sleeping bag and clothing will get wet. It’s unavoidable. This moisture can come from sweat, your breath, and the environment.
The more moisture that builds up, the less effective your gear becomes at keeping you warm. Particularly your sleeping bag. Water causes the down insulation to clump, reducing loft.
Whenever you have a sunny day or stay in a hotel room, hang all of your clothing and camping gear out to dry. This will restore loft to your gear and help to keep you warmer. Ideally, you’ll want to do this every 2-4 days depending on the weather.
Pack Your Gear Stragetically
While packing, think about what gear you’ll need to access while you’re riding. Pack gear that you use frequently in easy-to-access locations. Pack gear that you only need at camp at the bottom of your panniers or bikepacking bags.
For example, you might pack snacks, an extra layer of clothing, your gloves, your wallet, lights, etc. in the top of your bags or even in your jacket pockets. You can stuff your sleeping bag, tent, groundsheet, and other camping gear in the bottom of your luggage.
This is important during the winter because your fingers don’t have as much dexterity when they’re cold. You don’t want to have to stand in the cold digging through your gear and fiddling with a bunch of straps.
Choose the Right Luggage for Winter Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking
Make sure your luggage offers enough space for all of your winter clothing and camping gear. During the winter, you’ll need to carry extra clothes to keep you warm. You’ll also need an extra warm sleeping bag, a winter sleeping pad, and a 4 season shelter. Winter clothing and camping gear are much bulkier and heavier than 3 season gear. Take this into consideration when choosing your luggage.
For winter touring, panniers are often preferable to bikepacking bags because they are more voluminous. A standard set of panniers and racks offers 65-90 liters of storage space while a standard bikepacking setup might only offer 40-55 liters of space. Panniers are often easier to pack and unpack as well due to the rectangular shape of the bags. Of course, bikepacking bags are still an option.
Also, consider the closure system on your bags. Straps and buckles can be a bit harder to use when your fingers are cold. Particularly compression straps. Choose bags that open and close easily with zippers or hook and loop fasteners instead. You’ll also want to choose waterproof luggage so your gear doesn’t get wet if it snows.
Give Fatbike Touring a Try
These unique bikes feature extra-wide tires that measure between 3.8 and 5 inches wide. The wide tires distribute the weight of the bike and rider over more surface area so you don’t sink in. This allows you to ‘float’ over the top of the snow. Fat bikes can handle terrain that a regular touring bike or mountain bike can’t handle. This includes snowy trails and deep ruts.
The biggest drawback to fat bikes is that they are inefficient. The wide tires create a lot of rolling resistance and drag. You won’t be able to cover as much ground as quickly on a fat bike.
For more info, check out my guide to fat bikes.
Pack Extra Tools and Spares
During the winter, it’s particularly important for you to be able to repair your bike if something fails. You don’t want to get stranded in the cold. You’ll want to pack a complete set of tools and spare parts while winter bicycle touring or bikepacking.
Be sure to carry at least 2 extra tubes. In the cold, it can be faster and easier to swap out a tube rather than patch a tube. Patch your punctured tube later on while you’re sitting by a warm campfire.
Rather than carrying a multi-tool, consider carrying individual tools. Pack individual wrenches in the appropriate sizes, a chain breaker, and a couple of screwdrivers. Individual tools are better during the winter because they’re easier to use when your hands are cold and when you’re wearing gloves. They have larger handles that make them easier to manipulate. Small multi-tools are hard to use when your hands are numb.
Pack Some Emergency Gear
While winter bicycle touring or bikepacking, you expose yourself to dangerous and extreme conditions. It’s a good idea to pack some emergency gear including:
- First aid kit- Pack bandages, antibiotic ointment, pain relievers, sunscreen, anti-diarrheal medicine, sunscreen, an elastic bandage, moisturizer, etc. You need to be able to patch yourself up if you fall and scrape yourself or start feeling sick.
- Mylar emergency blanket- These trap radiated body heat so it can’t escape into the environment. This can keep you alive in an emergency situation. For example, if your sleeping bag gets soaked, you can wrap yourself in your emergency blanket and survive the night. These Swiss Safe Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets would work well.
- Knife/Multi-tool- A good multi-tool has an almost infinite number of uses. Choose a model with a knife, saw, scissors, and screwdriver You can use the knife for cutting food, rope, tape. The saw can come in handy for cutting firewood. The screwdriver can help with repairs.
- Fire starting kit- Carry a lighter and a book of matches as a backup. Carry some bits of paper to use as a fire starter. For emergencies, you might consider carrying a ferro rod.
- Sewing kit- Pack thread, needles, safety pins, and a small pair of scissors or nail clippers. You can use your sewing kit to repair your panniers or bikepacking bags, tent, sleeping bag, or clothing if they get torn.
- Water filter or treatment tablets- These come in handy if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t get clean water. I carry a Sawyer Mini water filter. Read my full review here.
- Whistle- You can use this to call for help if you get lost or stranded.
- Compass- This can help you navigate if you get lost. Even if you don’t know how to use a compass to navigate, it can be helpful to know which way is north.
- Extra gear- Duct tape, zip ties, electrical tape, cordage, etc. can all come in handy when repairing gear or making a shelter.
Make Sure your Sleeping Bag is Warm Enough for Winter Camping
If you plan to camp while winter bicycle touring or bikepacking, you need to prepare for cold weather. Your sleeping bag or quilt is your most important piece of camping gear. It needs to be warm enough for the conditions you expect.
Before your tour, check the weather forecast and look up the average low temperatures for the region you’re riding in. Make sure your sleep system can keep you warm enough in those weather conditions. There’s nothing worse than having to endure a freezing cold and sleepless night. If the temperature drops too low, you could put yourself in a life-threatening situation.
To be safe, choose a sleeping bag with a comfort rating that is 10-20° F below the lowest temperature that you expect to encounter on your winter bicycle tour. F0r example, if you expect a low of 20°F, go with a 0-10°F rated bag. Most 4 season sleeping bags come in comfort ratings of 0°, 15°, or 20° F. Below freezing bags are also available if you’re camping in extremely cold weather.
The temperature rating represents the lowest temperature where an average sleeper will remain comfortable. These ratings are standardized so you can directly compare sleeping bags. For more info, check out this guide about sleeping bag comfort ratings from Backpacker.com.
Tip: For winter camping, consider using a synthetic sleeping bag rather than down. The reason is that synthetic insulation performs better than down when wet. A wet down sleeping bag could put you in a life-threatening situation if you can’t find a way to dry it out. If you’re camping in cold, dry weather, down may be preferable
Use a High R-Value Sleeping Pad for Winter Camping
Your sleeping pad is almost as important as your sleeping bag when it comes to keeping you warm. Sleeping bags don’t insulate the underside of your body because the down compress under your bodyweight. Compressed down can’t provide insulation. You need a sleeping pad to prevent heat loss to the ground.
Sleeping pad warmth is measured in r-value. This measures the sleeping pad’s heat flow resistance. The higher the number, the warmer the sleeping pad. For winter camping, look for a sleeping pad with an R-value of at least 5.
To help you choose a pad, check out my inflatable vs foam sleeping pad pros and cons list.
If you already have a summer sleeping pad, you can pair it with a cheap foam sleeping pad to increase the r-value. An inflatable pad on top of a foam pad gives you enough insulation for winter camping. To calculate the r-value of multiple pads, simply add them up. An inflatable pad with an r-value of 3 paired with a foam pad with an r-value of 2 gives you an r-value of 5.
Tip: consider carrying an insulated reflective tarp to use as a groundsheet or under your sleeping pad. This can reflect back some of your body heat. This way, you lose less heat to the ground. You can also drape the tarp around yourself for extra insulation while sitting around camp or use it as a shelter.
Choose an Appropriate Shelter for Winter Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking
You need to choose a shelter that will keep you warm and dry. Your shelter also needs to be tough enough to survive the extreme condition that you’re going to be using it in. The ideal shelter for winter bicycle touring and bikepacking depends on the conditions you expect to camp in.
For mild winter conditions, a 3 season tent works fine. Most models can handle a couple of inches of snow and can survive winds up to 15-20 mph. If you need extra protection, you can often tuck into the trees if you’re cycling in a forested area. If too much snow builds up, shake the tent off.
You can also use a tarp or floorless tent for winter camping if you prefer. You don’t need bug netting during the winter. The benefit of going floorless is that you don’t have to worry about tracking snow into your tent.
If you expect heavy snowfall or high winds, you’ll need a 4 season shelter. These feature strong poles and heavy fabric so they can remain standing under a heavy snow load or in gusty winds.
4 season tents also offer a bit more warmth. They have less mesh and the rainfly often goes all the way to the ground to keep drafts and snow out. The thicker material also traps more heat.
Alternatively, you may want to consider using a 4 season bivy sack for winter camping. These lightweight shelters offer more warmth than a tent and are designed for camping in alpine conditions. A popular winter camping option is the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy.
To help you decide on a winter bicycle touring or bikepacking shelter, check out my guide Bivy Sack Vs. Tent: My Pros and Cons List.
For extreme conditions, you may want to consider using a hot tent and portable wood stove. The stove keeps the tent warm and dry, even in below-freezing conditions.
Choose the Right Camp Stove and Fuel for Winter Use
If you plan to cook during your bicycle tour or bikepacking trip, you’ll want to choose a stove and fuel that can work in cold weather. For winter camping, choose a stove that can burn white gas and propane. Both of these burn well in the cold.
Some fuels become nearly impossible to light when they get too cold. The reason is that they condense and put off very little vapor, making them difficult to light. Alcohol and butane stoves should be avoided in the winter for this reason. If you decide to use butane, put the canister in your pocket to warm it up before you use it.
If you’re cycling through a cold, dry region with plenty of dry biomass around, a wood stove or campfire can be a good option. You can cook your food and warm yourself by the fire. You’ll want to check local regulations before burning wood.
Plan Your Meals
While winter bicycle touring and bikepacking, try to plan simple meals that don’t require much preparation or cleanup. Dehydrated meals that only require boiling water are ideal.
Another option is to pre-prepare foods at home that you can just heat up at camp. For example, you could pre-slice veggies or even pre-cook whole meals and seal them up in plastic bags.
Cooking foods on a stick or wrapped in aluminum foil over an open fire is also a good option because no cleanup is required. No-cook meals also work well. Sandwiches, energy bars, jerky, nuts, cooked meats, salad, and beans can make simple meals. You can add extra calories to your meals by adding butter, rendered fat, or olive oil.
These simple meals are better during the winter because preparation and cleanup are easier. You don’t have to fumble around preparing food with frozen fingers. You don’t have to deal with scrubbing frozen food out of a dirty pan with cold water.
One nice thing about winter touring and bikepacking is that you can pack foods that need to be refrigerated. The outside air is as cold or colder than a refrigerator. For example, you can bring cheese, yogurt, milk, meat, pre-cut fruits and veggies, pre-cooked foods, etc.
Of course, if it’s too cold, you’ll have to deal with your food freezing. You’ll need to take this into consideration as well. Only pack foods that either don’t freeze, that you can eat frozen, or that you can thaw out.
Bring Anything That You Don’t Want to Get too Cold or Freeze into Your Tent or Sleeping Bag
Some gear can get damaged by freezing temperatures. Some items can’t be used when frozen. To prevent these items from getting too cold, take them into your tent or sleeping bag. Examples include:
- Water filter- It can crack and break if water freezes inside of it. Put your water filter in a plastic bag so it doesn’t leak in your sleeping bag.
- Toothpaste- Some varieties can freeze ifit they get cold enough. If you expect below freezign weather, pack toothpaste tablets.
- Contact lens solution- It can freeze solid.
- batteries- They discharge quickly in cold weather. You don’t want to miss out on an epic photo because the cold caused your phone to die. Buy lithium batteries instead of alkaline. They are less affected by cold.
- Fuel- Some types of fuel are hard to light when they get too cold.
- Food- Some foods can’t be eaten when frozen. For example, energy bars can freeze solid.
- Drinking water- If your water freezes, you may have to fire up your stove to melt it.
- Cell phone- If the batter gets too cold, it wil die and you won’t be able to use your phone. To prevent this, carry your phone in your pocket. Try to keep your phone fully charged.
If the temperature is just slightly below freezing, your body heat will probably keep the inside of your tent above freezing. If you expect extremely cold weather, you may want to bring some of the above items inside of your sleeping bag with you to prevent them from freezing. Wrap them up in a bag or a piece of clothing and place them by your feet to keep them warm.
Accept The Kindness and Help of Others During the Winter
Cold weather tends to bring people together. While winter bicycle touring or bikepacking, you may find that people offer you food, water, or a ride. They may just stop to ask if you need anything.
Don’t be afraid to accept the kindness of others. During the winter, we’re all struggling to stay warm and stay alive. In a way, it’s a survival situation. People tend to help each other out more in the winter.
Treat Yourself Once in a While
You can only endure so much time out in the cold before you start to feel too cold and miserable. Remember, winter bicycle touring or bikepacking is supposed to be fun.
At least once every few days, stay in a hotel or hostel and take a hot shower and sleep in a warm bed. Stop at a restaurant and treat yourself to a hot meal once in a while. Grab a hot coffee or hot chocolate while you’re at it. Take a rest day or two if you need to. Otherwise, you’ll just burn out. Cold weather is draining.
A Few More Winter Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking Tips:
- Eat a snack before going to bed- Digestion raises your body temperatures slightly. This helps you warm your sleeping bag and stay warmer during the night.
- Avoid alcohol while cycling- Even though it makes you feel warm, drinking alcohol actually expands your blood vessels, allowing more heat to leave your body. After the buzz wears off, you’ll feel colder than you were before. Wait until you’re in a warm restaurant or hotel to drink.
- Tie loops of cord to your zippers- Do this on both your clothing and luggage. This way, you can use the zippers without removing your gloves or mittens.
- Do a bit of exercise before going to sleep- This increases your body temperature to help you warm up your sleeping bag faster. Don’t exercise to the point that you begin to sweat. Just do a couple of jumping jacks, squats, or lunges.
- Make a hot water bottle- After cooking your dinner, pour the leftover water into a bottle and bring it into your sleeping bag to help it warm up. A single wall metal bottle works well for this. Be careful not to burn yourself, melt your sleeping bag, or spill water in your sleeping bag.
- Stop drinking an hour before going to bed and go to the bathroom before getting in your tent- Avoid having to get up in the night to use the bathroom. If it’s cold enough, you may never get warmed up again. If you must get up to use the restroom, stay in your tent and use a bottle.
Final Thoughts About Winter Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking
Winter can be a surprisingly peaceful time to go for a bike tour. Trails are empty, it’s quiet, and the winter provides a new and unique and beautiful atmosphere for cycling.
Of course, you need to properly prepare for the weather. Cold temperatures and snow add a whole other level of difficulty to bicycle touring and bikepacking. Hopefully, this guide makes the planning process a bit easier and the ride a bit more comfortable.
For more tips, check out my guide to cold weather cycling!
Do you go bicycle touring or bikepacking during the winter? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!
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