Winter Mountain Biking Suggestions!

With winter finally setting in, and this new awesome blog, I thought it might be good to revisit some things to help deal with winter mountain biking.  I compiled this list last year from my past experiences, some other riders suggestions,  as well as some stuff I saw on the internet, which I typically apply to my own winter riding.  So here is what I came up with, and hope it helps everyone enjoy winter riding!


  • Layer your clothing
    • I think most people understand layering, but for those who do not, it basically means wearing multiple thin layers of clothing instead of a big / heavy winter coat.
    • Performance fabrics (wicking type like Under Armor) are your friend. You want the sweat away from your body, as the wet clothes are what will make you cold.
    • You should be a little cold at the start of the ride. You will warm up, and sweat is your enemy. The air pockets in your clothes provide you the insulation / warmth.  When filled with sweat, you lose this insulation.
    • When it comes to what to wear, everyone is different, and differentDudelayered temperatures dictate how many / types of layers.  Up to 50 degrees I’m still wearing shorts, but on top I’m wearing a short sleeve jersey with a thin smart wool outer long sleeve.  Below 50 I add a pair of tights on my legs, and either wear, or carry if I need it, another long sleeve tech style pullover.  I don’t actually put a soft shell on until around 30 degrees, and even then, only a single long sleeve underneath.  Remember sweat is your enemy.  I also have found a breathable wind proof outer layer helps a lot once it gets below 40.  Make sure it is breathable though.  You want the sweat away from your body.  If you don’t wear a wind proof layer, and you start to sweat, the cold wind hits the wet clothes and you get cold very fast.  With the wind proof layer, you don’t get the cutting wind through the sweat.
  • Fingers and Toes
    • Toes:
      • First thing first, keep your feet & shoes dry – I really suggest a good pair of waterproof biking wintermtbshoesshoes if you are clipless, as these will keep your feet dry when crossing streams. If your riding flats, anything waterproof (i.e. goretex) will work. I know a lot of people who switch to flats and hiking boots in the winter for this reason.  Just keep in mind hiking boots are open at the top, so when traversing deep streams keep your toes down and heals up so the water does not go around the top of the shoe.  At the right, are a few brands of MTB specific winter shoes.  These shoes are tight around the angles and help to keep the water out of the shoe, even at the top.
      • Only where 2 pair of socks if your footwear has room. If the shoes are too tight, you will cut your circulation off, and get cold toes. I typically where a winter bike shoe with one heavy pair of socks, with a toe warmer on my toes, where my winter bike shoe is actually one size larger than my summer shoe to make room for the thicker sock and toe warmer.
      • Shoe covers do work over your standard shoes, as a lot of peopleshoe cover with bottom open suggest. Just don’t get your feet wet. The issue with a shoe cover is that it is open on the bottom for the shoe traction / cleat to come through. If you put your foot in water, you will get wet feet and your feet will freeze along with the water. Shoe covers are an option, only if you don’t have deep streams to cross (i.e. Not Patapsco).
      • Another option for colder days, but not super cold days, is to just duct tape the vents of your shoes closed.  Most shoes are designed for air flow to keep your feet cool during the summer.  Closing these vents with duct tape helps, but does no seal, or insulate you shoe any better.  It does keep the wind out pretty good though.
      • Plastic bags.  Yup I said plastic bags.  People swear by them, and they are good in a pinch to keep your feet dry / wind proof.  People will typically use grocery or bread bags, but any plastic bag that fits plastic bag shoeover your foot works.  You put your sock on, followed by the plastic bag, and then put your shoe on.  You can tape the top of it also, if you choose, or stuff it under tights, etc.  Just keep in mind, like layering noted above, sweat can also be your enemy to cold feet.  The problem with plastic bags are that they trap your sweat in, and in turn can cause cold feet.  I would not utilize plastic bags on long rides for this reason, but for a short ride where you know your feet will get wet, this is a good way to go.
      • Instead of plastic bags you can go with waterproof socks also.  These type of socks basically have a layer of goretex in them.  I honestly have not had any luck utilizing waterproof socks, but others have.  These basically act like the water proof layer in most shoes, but instead of being a part of the shoe, it is a sock.  Just remember these socks really don’t have any insulating value, and will eat up room in your shoe.
    • Fingers:
      • Where the right glove / liner: I have winter biking gloves good dowGIRO_AMBIENT2_BLK_TOPn to 40 degrees (that’s what their packaging says, and they are right). I wear those gloves to 40 degrees. Below that and my fingers are freezing. Below 40 degrees, be prepared with a winter bike / ski / snowboard glove. I have an old pair of Goretex snowboard gloves that came with liners. Depending on conditions, I will wear, or not wear, the liner. The beauty of layers is that you can always take one off if you are too hot.
      • Similar to your toes, make sure your glove is not too tight. I can not wear liners with my 40 degree bike gloves. The gloves get too tight and cut off my circulation, which equals cold hands. This is why I switch to winter gloves.
      • Also similar (and I may be preaching at this point), sweat is your enemy.  Sweat / wet anything equals cold, so pick the correct weight glove for you current weather.
      • While I do not have “bar mitts,” if you don’t like the heavy glove barmittsoption, these work very well and allow for a lighter glove on the inside. In essence these move a mitten onto the handle bar (becomes part of the bike, around your shifters, brakes, and grips). By having this mitten there, you can rock a much lighter glove. I hear these are great!
  • How not to have frozen water/camelback
    • Camelback issues:
      • Unless it is extremely cold out your bag typically is enough insulation to keep the water in the camel back from freezing. That, and the water constantly moving around helps also.
      • Water line from camel back to bite valve. You can buy a special insulator for your specific bladder line and bite valve which will keep the line and bite valve from freezing. The cheaper option is to blow all of the fluid back into the bladder inside your bag (blow through the bite valve). This gets most of the fluid out of the line, but some will still be there and make it’s way to the bite valve, so the next trick is to tuck the end of the line, including bite valve, into your jacket, and let your body heat keep it from freezing.
      • Someone suggested a warm water mix for the camelback and utilizing extremely hot water before leaving. I can see how this would work for a shorter ride. Over a long ride the water will just get cold, but for a short ride, it’s a great idea.
      • Some have suggest electrolyte type solutions (think salt) will help keep the camel back from freezing. From a person who runs straight Gatorade in his pack, I can tell you this does not keep the waterline of bite valve from freezing. Only the tips above have helped.
    • Water bottle users:
      • I use a camel back, but ride with a lot of people who use bottles during the winter. From what I can see, down into the teens the bottles do not freeze 100%. I think it has to do with fluid constantly moving around. I have seen ice crystals in bottles, but overall, the bottle seems to work okay during winter.
  • Tires / Air Pressure:
    • For most people the standard tires you are running are fine. The only instance I would switch would be if you are running a more racing type tire (i.e. Ikons, Racing Ralphs, etc.)snow mtb with smaller type knobs, or your tires knobs are chewed up and just warn down. During fall and winter you will run into things such as leaves, wet leaves, ice, snow, mud spots, and just really hard frozen ground.
      • You need something that can cut through the leaves to the dirt below (something normal is fine, but the race tires just typically sit on top, due to their smaller nobs, which is not good).
      • For snow / hard packed snow, a standard tire aired down is typically okay. You can go a few pounds of air less than normal, as you will typically not be cornering as hard or going as fast. This airing down gets more of the tire traction on the ground.
      • For ice everything sucks. The only suggestion here is to have a tire with siping on the treads (the little slits on the nubs of the tire). Like a car, the sipes bend and help create traction when there is none, but in reality all tires suck on ice, except the specialty snow tires which have studs.  But I will add for 99% of Maryland winters, a studded tire is not needed and overkill.
      • Mud – you shouldn’t be riding. But if you are talking about a puddle, most tires are okay. If it’s more than a puddle, please don’t ride, as it destroys the trail.
      • Frozen ground – you do nothing. Frozen ground is as close as perfect as you will get during winter. Think extremely fast hard packed dirt during the summer. Any standard tire and your normal air pressure will work great and you will have a ball.
      • What about fat bikes you say?  Fat bikes are cool, and I want one, but in MD the trails get packed so fast from hikers and bikers (and some fat bikers) that unless you are the one cutting the fresh track a fat bike tends to be overkill.  I rode in 5″ of snow last year with Ardents.  Was it hard? yup.  Could I peddle up hills? nope.  Could I turn?  only going really slow.  This was the only time over the past two years where it would have been fun to have a fat bike.  Now with all of this stated, I like the biggest / fattest tire I can get, just in case of situations where you get dumped on, plus it’s winter, so you aren’t really trying to go fast anymore, right?

I hope this blog helps everyone be more prepared for the up coming cold!  And I will just leave you with this video from 2 years ago.  It was probably my 4th ride with Kem, Josh, Peter, and the guys, and it was my first ever snow ride (and if you watch it long enough, you’ll see multiple falls, and me run into the ditch on drugs when I hesitate on the skinny bridge).





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