As with any extremes in temperatures and conditions, though, this style of bikepacking demands extra respect and consideration. Paying close attention to your pack list and honing your skillset is especially important when embarking on snowy escapades.
So, whether you are new to cycling or camping in winter conditions or want to kick things up a notch this season, read on to discover a few simple tricks that can help make your experience safe, warm(er), and a lot more enjoyable.
Ready to brave those chilly nights under the stars? Get cosy while you can, and let’s dig in.
Get your layers on and be prepared to use them
You have heard us preach the good books of layering before but it is especially crucial for winter bikepacking. Overheating that turns to sweat is just as problematic as not being warm enough, so the more options you give yourself regarding insulation levels, the safer and more comfortable you’ll be.
Remember that several thin layers are always warmer than one thick one, as the air trapped between each one acts as insulation. And for winter endeavours, it is best to avoid cotton. It traps moisture and dries slowly. Wool, meanwhile, is a friend of the winter cyclist. Found in many different weights and knits, it retains its insulation value even when wet. Our advice? Start with a merino wool base layer and build from there. A good rule of thumb is that the further away a material is from your skin, the rougher and tougher it should be. It also needs to be able to breathe, though.
A good-quality waterproof jacket is also vital to keep the worst weather away from your core. To ensure a happy arrival at the camp, also bring along some extra items of warm kit for when you reach your destination. An insulated jacket, long johns, spare socks, and a warm hat should do the trick. Similar to cotton, if you have any down garments or a down sleeping bag, it is critical to keep them dry as wet or damp down loses its thermal efficiency.
Check the forecast – but do not trust it completely
Obviously, you will be preoccupied with the weather forecast leading up to a winter bikepacking trip but always take it with a grain of salt. Remember the figure on your weather app will be based on an urban area, not out in the countryside where it is often several degrees colder.
Localised weather is also a factor you need to account for. A warm sunny afternoon can quickly turn fierce if the sun disappears and the wind picks up. As such, you need to be prepared for everything. Only head out with solid waterproof gear you can count on. Remember, fog and condensation can make you wet too. So do not assume you’re safe just because there is no rain or snow in the forecast.
Consider your shelter carefully
A tent may seem like plenty of protection from the elements if you usually opt for a bivvy bag or lightweight tarp when bikepacking. However, please note that not all waterproof material is created equal. When selecting a humble abode for your overnight winter adventure, a significant factor to consider is the tent fabric’s hydrostatic head (HH). The HH measurement shows how many millimetres high a column of water standing on the fabric would need to be before it would penetrate. To be classed as ‘waterproof’, a material needs to have a HH of at least 1,000 mm. In reality, though, this will not stand up to punishing rain or active snowfall. Some tent fabrics can be as high as 30,000 mm, so do your research and select material appropriate for your local conditions.
Your choice of where to pitch is also vital. Sheltered spots may seem like the natural choice as they provide added protection but you need to consider the forecast wind direction and speed when pitching. A straightforward tip is to avoid raising your tent or shelter entrance directly facing a headwind. Likewise, if winds are high, among trees may not be the safest location to set up camp.
Remember that multi-purpose items are a lifesaver
In terms of clothing, your needs will be similar to what you usually wear on a winter ride. Just be sure to honour the layering system and have something to change into in case moisture becomes an issue. Of course, bring along all bike maintenance and repair equipment in case something unexpected happens. An insulated mat and winter-ready sleeping bag are also a must. If you are not able to build a fire in your destination (more on that below), a liquid gas stove is a good option. When it comes to other items on your pack list, choose wisely.
Plastic bags are handy and can be used as dry bags in a pinch or as vapour barriers when worn on feet. Also, bring along a water bottle that can serve double duty with the addition of a bottle bag or cosy. A quality stainless steel or titanium choice can also be placed directly in the fire to melt snow or boil water. Another helpful item to always bring along is aluminium foil. In addition to cooking food, you can use it to reflect light and heat and cover your cooking vessel while sitting in the fire.
Stock up on lithium batteries
Speaking of lifesavers, avoid being tempted to choose the cheaper option when it comes to powering your winter bikepacking. If you have never thought much about what type of battery you use, now is the time to learn the essential difference between lithium and alkaline. Lithium can operate without failing in a frigid climate, so it’s ideal for outdoor applications. In addition, lithium batteries are lighter than alkaline batteries, so they offer an advantage when used with portable devices, especially appliances used when camping.
Lithium batteries also cost more. Trust us, though, it is worth it. You will not be thinking about the money you saved if your batteries give out on you due to low temperatures.
Learn the basics of winter fire building
A camping fire might feel like a luxury in the summertime, but it will feel like a much bigger deal in sub-zero temps. Best practices still apply, like amassing more wood than you think you need and ensuring you have plenty of the small stuff to get things going.
Even if you are chilly and eager to get things roaring, take the time to prepare your set-up correctly. Start by removing as much loose snow as possible from the area and packing down anything that refuses to budge. Build a level base using a multi-layered lattice structure. This will serve as the base, so your fire can get the oxygen it needs while keeping moisture at bay.
Finally, ensure you are working with dry wood or your efforts will be futile. If everything around seems wet or frozen, it is time to whip out your dependable knife or axe and get splitting. Usually, seasoned wood that feels wet to the touch will be dry on the inside. Our suggestion? Practice building a fire at home before your adventure so you can get some experience batoning wood. This will ensure you have the skill set needed when your night’s source of warmth depends on it.
Now it is time to get out there and enjoy how beautiful your surroundings look under a blanket of snow! Try to take advantage of the fact that you will undoubtedly be moving slower than usual. Take in the winter scenery and acknowledge just how wonderful it is that your bike allows you to experience the full intensity of all four seasons.