Winter Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking Tips

by wheretheroadforks

Most bicycle tourists and bikepackers make it their goal to cycle far enough south to a warm destination before winter sets in. If you properly prepare for the cold weather, winter can offer some excellent riding. The season is quiet, less crowded, and offers a beautiful atmosphere for cycling. The following tips will help you prepare for winter bicycle touring and bikepacking.

Frosty bike tires

Frosty bike tires

Install Wide or Studded Bicycle Tires

Your narrow road slicks won’t cut it for winter bicycle touring if you expect to encounter winter road conditions. Ice and snow make the roads slippery. Trails tend to get muddy. Wet roads can freeze overnight and make for slippery conditions in the morning.

For better traction during the winter, consider swapping out your touring tires for something wider and knobbier. This will give you the grip that you need to safely control your bike.

If you expect extreme weather or plan to tour long distance on icy roads, studded bicycle tires offer shockingly great traction. Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded tires are an excellent choice for winter touring. 

Tip: If you don’t want to shell out for new winter bike tires, drop your tire pressure a bit when you encounter an icy or snowy section of road. This will help to improve your traction.

Keep your Bike Clean and Well Maintained

During the winter many cities pour salt or chemicals on the roads to help melt snow and ice. This can wreak havoc on your bike and its components. Particularly the drivetrain.

When riding through winter conditions, clean and lube your drivetrain every day. Use a lubricant that is designed for winter use. Treat any scratches in your steel frame with anti-rust spray. Check your cables often to make sure that they remain sealed and functional. Wipe down and inspect your bike often to make sure nothing rusts or corrodes.

Try to stay on top of maintenance during the winter. You don’t want your bike to leave you stranded. This may mean increasing your bike maintenance budget a bit during a winter tour. The cold weather and road conditions make certain parts wear out faster.

Wear A High Visibility Cycling Jacket or Vest

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.

I like the 247 Viz The Reflective Vest. You can wear it over your winter clothing when you’re on the bike then take it off when you’re off the bike and don’t need to be seen.

Tip: While riding particularly dangerous sections of road, or when it’s snowing or raining, run your lights during the day to be seen better. Also, consider mounting a bright colored flag on your rear rack for extra visibility.

Learn How to Ride Your Bike on Snow and Ice

Before hitting the road, take a test ride on a bike path or area without traffic. Find out how your loaded touring bike handles in the snow and ice. Test your brakes to see how fast you can stop. Your braking distance will probably increase. Ride through some deep snow or icy patches to see what it feels like. Learn your limits in a safe environment before riding down an icy highway.

Give Fatbike Touring a Try

These unique bikes feature extra-wide tires between 3.8 and 4.2 inches. They are built to tackle terrain that regular touring bikes can’t handle. This includes snowy trails. The biggest drawback to fatbikes is that they aren’t as efficient due to the wide tires. You won’t cover ground as quickly. For more info, check out this guide to fatbikes from the Adventure Cycling Association.

Fatbikes on a snowy trail

Fatbikes on a snowy trail

Dress Properly with Layers and Breathable Materials

While winter cycling, you must properly regulate your body temperature. You obviously don’t want to get too cold while you’re off the bike. You also don’t want to get too hot and sweat out your clothes while riding hills. If you allow too much sweat to accumulate, you can freeze when you stop riding and cool off.

To keep your body at the optimal temperature, the best practice is to dress in layers with breathable fabrics. That way, you can easily add or remove a piece of clothing as needed. Choose clothing that is breathable and sweat-wicking. Synthetic materials like polyester work well. Wool is another good option if you prefer natural fibers. Avoid cotton clothing.

A good winter cycling layering system includes:

  1. Base layer- Wear this layer against your body. Wool or synthetic thermal long underwear work well.
  2. Mid layer- A fleece or wool sweater works well.
  3. Outer layer- A down puffer jacket works well. This will keep you warm when you’re off the bike.
  4. Rain or wind shell- This is your protection from the snow and rain. You could also use a poncho if you prefer. Whatever you choose, make sure that it offers good ventilation. Rain jackets often trap sweat if they aren’t well designed. Look for jackets with zippers under the armpits for ventilation.

It is incredibly important that you pack breathable clothing. If you sweat too much, while climbing a difficult hill for example, and your clothes get wet, you could freeze when you get off the bike.

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 want to pack a parka as well. 

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.

Use Lights for Increased Visibility

During the winter, the days are short. Chances are, you’ll spend some time riding during the evening when it’s getting dark or early in the morning before the sun comes up. In these cases, you need to have a good set of front and rear lights to alert drivers that you’re on the road.

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. This is a rechargeable headlight. 

Ride Slower During the Winter

While winter cycling, you probably won’t keep the same pace that you’re used to in the summer. You’ll need to slow down to navigate icy road conditions. You’ll also want to ride slower to reduce your body’s production of sweat.

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 ride that might only take you a few days during the summer could take a week during the winter.

Ride Defensively While Winter Bicycle Touring

Road conditions make cycling during the winter a bit more dangerous. Shoulders tend to get covered in slush and debris. Sometimes they are completely unrideable after a plow blocks them with snow. Avoid these sections by riding close to the edge of the road. Sometimes you have to take the lane. That’s okay. Ride in a way that is safe for you and the drivers who are passing you.

Also, remember that cars can’t stop or maneuver as quickly on snowy and icy roads. Take this into consideration while crossing roads and cycling on the road.

Cycling in the road because the shoulder is covered with snow and ice

During the winter, you often have to ride on the road because the shoulder is covered with snow and ice. This requires you to be extra careful of traffic.

Take Shorter Rest 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 stop, 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.

When you make a stop to go indoors, like to buy groceries, for example, take advantage of the heat in the store. Linger for a while to warm up. If the store has a heater, stand near it to warm your gloves and boots.

Tip: When you’re mounting and dismounting your bike after a break, look out for icy patches. Your shoes probably have less traction than your bike tires. It’s easy to slip and fall.

Eat More than Usual While Winter Cycling

Your body burns extra energy to keep itself warm in cold weather. While bicycle touring or bikepacking, you already have a big appetite. You need to eat even more to sustain yourself while winter bicycle touring. Try to eat lots of carbs and fat. These provide the most energy.

You should also plan to increase your food budget for a winter bicycle tour. You’ll probably end up stopping for a hot meal more often as well. This costs more money.

Tip: Store your snacks in your pockets so your body heat can prevent them from getting hard or freezing. Choose foods that aren’t affected by the cold. Some foods become inedible when they freeze.

cycling near a large snow wall during the winter

Stay Well Hydrated While Winter Bicycle Touring

Drinking cold water may not sound too appealing while cycling in the snow. You’re also not getting as hot and sweaty while winter cycling as you’re used to so you may feel the need to drink as much. It’s easy to get dehydrated. Make sure you make yourself drink plenty of water anyway.

To help you get more fluids, consider packing a thermos. This is a luxury item that’s kind of heavy but it makes a cold-weather tour much more pleasant. A quality thermos can keep your beverage hot all day. Sipping on a hot drink throughout the day can help you stay warm and hydrated. 

Tip: Boil extra water whenever you cook a meal and keep it in 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 as well.

Don’t Let Your Water Freeze

If all of your water turns to ice, you’ll have nothing to drink. If you expect the temperature to drop below freezing during the night, take your water bottles into your tent with you and store them in a way that your body temperature will keep the water above freezing. This may mean bringing them into your sleeping bag with you.

Wear a Warm Hat, Gloves, and Warm Socks to Protect Yourself from Frostbite

While cycling in the winter, you 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 frostbite free, you simply have to keep warm. Wear thick socks and good boots to keep your toes warm. Wear a warm knit hat and scarf to keep your face and neck warm. If it’s particularly cold, wear a face mask to protect your cheeks, nose, and chin. Wear thick gloves or mittens to protect your fingers. Alternatively, consider riding with pogies like these Bar Mitts Cold Weather Bike Neoprene Handlebar Mittens.

Protect your Eyes

Snow reflects harmful UV rays into your eyes on sunny days. A snowy landscape is also incredibly bright. Wear good wraparound sunglasses or goggles while winter cycling. Choose a pair of sunglasses or goggles with UV protection and polarization to block glare.

For more info, check out my guide: Tips for Travel with Glasses and Contacts.

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 be prepared for cold weather camping. Your sleeping bag or quilt is your most important piece of camping gear.

Before cycling into a cold climate, check the weather forecast and look up the average low temperatures for the region. Make sure your camping sleep system can keep you warm enough in that weather. There’s nothing worse than enduring a freezing cold and sleepless night in a tent. If the temperature drops too low, you could put yourself in a life-threatening situation if you’re unprepared.

Choose a sleeping bag with a comfort rating around the lowest temperature that you expect to encounter on your winter bicycle tour. Most 4 season sleeping bags come in comfort ratings of 0°, 15°, or 20°.

This temperature represents the lowest temperature where an average sleeper will remain comfortable. For more info, check out this guide about sleeping bag comfort ratings from Backpacker.com.

For most tours, a 20° sleeping bag is probably sufficient. I bought the Kelty Cosmic 20 and have been happy with it. Check out my full review here.

Tip: For winter camping, you may want to consider using a synthetic sleeping bag. Synthetic bags perform better than down if they get wet. A wet sleeping bag could put you in a life-threatening situation if you can’t find a way to dry it out.

winter camping in a tent

If you already have a sleeping bag, but it’s not quite warm enough, there are ways to increase warmth. For example, you can:

  • Use a sleeping bag liner- These go inside of your sleeping bag. They can increase warmth by 5-10 degrees. Fleece liners are usually the warmest. This Coleman Stratus Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner would be a good choice. It can add 12° of warmth to your sleep system.
  • Use a second sleeping bag or quilt- If you have a summer sleeping bag, you can add a second summer bag to increase warmth. You could also lay a quilt over the top of your sleeping bag.
  • Use a bivy sack- This is a liner that goes outside of your sleeping bag. A bivy sack can be used as a stand-alone shelter or with a tarp depending on the style.
  • Use a VBL (vapor barrier liner)- This is a type of sleeping bag liner that you use inside of your sleeping bag. It is made of a non-breathable plastic material that traps water vapor. You wear it against your skin or over your base layer. These are a great tool for increasing sleep system warmth if used properly. For more info, check out this excellent article about VBL’s from Andrew Skurka.

Tip: Never breathe inside of your sleeping bag. The humidity in your breath will collect in the bag. Eventually, your bag will get wet, lose loft, and you’ll get cold.

Use a High R-Value Sleeping Pads for Winter Camping

This piece of gear is as important as your sleeping bag in keeping you warm. Sleeping bags don’t keep the underside of your body warm as the down compress under the weight of your body. Sleeping pad warmth is measured in r-value. The higher the number, the warmer the sleeping pad.

For winter camping, look for a sleeping pad with an R-value of 3-5. 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.

Choose a 4 Season Shelter if You Expect Heavy Snow

3 season tents aren’t designed to hold a heavy snow load. The roof may collapse while you sleep if too much snow builds up. 4 season tents are designed with steep roofs and stronger construction to hold the snow.

Alternatively, you may want to consider 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.

Winter camping in a US military bivy sack

Winter camping in a US military bivy sack

Dry All of Your Clothing and Camping Gear Whenever You Have the Opportunity

Moisture slowly builds up in all of your gear. After a certain point, it is unavoidable. The moisture may come from your sweat, your breath, or the environment. Slowly, your sleeping bag, tent, and clothing will get wet. The more water that builds up, the less effective your gear will be at keeping you warm. Particularly your sleeping bag. Water causes the down 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.

Bring Anything That You Don’t Want to Freeze into Your Tent or Sleeping Bag

Some gear can get damaged by freezing temperatures. Some items can’t be used when frozen. 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- Surprisingly, this can freeze.
    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.
  • Fuel- Some types of fuel won’t burn when they’re too cold.
  • Food- Some foods can’t be eaten when frozen.
  • Water- If your water freezes, you may have to fire up your stove to melt it.

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.

Protect Your Lungs While Winter Cycling

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. Cycling causes you to breath harder, making these conditions worse.

To help your breathing in cold weather, wear a face mask that covers your mouth and nose. These help to retain heat and moisture around your mouth to warm and humidify air as it enters your body. Also, wear a scarf or neck gaiter around your neck to keep your throat warm.

I like this Ergodyne N-Ferno Winter Balaclava Ski Mask, 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. This is a very versatile piece of winter cycling gear. 

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, sleep in a warm bed, and eat a hot meal. Take a rest day 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- Your body will heat up slightly while digesting. This helps you warm your sleeping bag and stay warmer during the night.
  • Avoid alcohol while cycling- Even though it makes you feel warm, it 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- This way, you can use them 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 or push-ups.
  • 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. Be careful not to burn yourself 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.

Final Thoughts: Tips for 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. Cold weather 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.

Do you bicycle tour or bikepack during the winter? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!

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