following basic winter fat bike etiquette is straight forward and keeps trails in great shape
Fat Bike,  Trails

Winter Fat Bike Etiquette: The Basics

Riding your bike on snow is a fun and exhilarating experience. And fat biking is booming in popularity. As a result, trail associations all over North America and beyond have started grooming and maintaining ever-growing networks of winter trails. It’s essentially a new sport, and with a new sport comes a new set of guidelines for making sure everyone on the trails has an enjoyable experience. Some would call it etiquette. Nothing will interrupt a great fat bike ride like coming across a section of trail that someone has torn up and made unrideable by being unaware of, or unwilling to practice, some simple fat bike etiquette.

Let’s keep the trails in great shape for everyone

Grooming and maintaining fat bike trails is time-intensive. And like many singletrack trails in wet weather, they can be very easily damaged — adding to the workload of volunteer groomers. 

There are a lot of fat bike trails that aren’t groomed at all and that have minimal or no oversight from a trail organization. They rely on good Samaritans to do things like packing the trail with snowshoes. This makes it even more important for riders to voluntarily follow some basic guidelines for keeping the trails in good condition.

By following just a few guidelines, riders can keep the trails in good shape and ready for everyone to ride.

How to avoid the stink-eye from other riders!

Each trail organization may have different etiquette governing their winter fat bike trail systems. But most seem to have some of these etiquette basics in common: 

    • Use fat tires
    • Try to walk beside the trail
    • Keep tire pressure low
    • Stay away if it’s too warm
    • Yield to uphill traffic
    • Ride it, don’t slide it

Use FAT tires

Sounds simple, right? As the term fat biking suggests, fat tires are recommended when riding in winter conditions. Most trail organizations recommend, or even require, that riders use at least 3.7” (or wider) tires. This is because the larger tires spread out the weight of the bike and rider. The width helps you float better on top of the snow and leave behind less ruts. 

ruts can make winter fat bike trails difficult to navigate
Most winter fat bike etiquette revolves around minimizing ruts. Ruts can make snowy trails difficult to navigate, and without the addition of new snow they can last a very long time. (Luke Marshall/RideSphere)

The idea behind this rule is to try and deter people from riding snow-covered trails on regular mountain bike tires. These tires can leave deep ruts that will degrade the experience for other riders. In my opinion, this is the most important of all the winter fat bike etiquette recommendations covered in this article.

Depending on the conditions where you ride and the type of riding you’ll be doing, studded fat bike tires can be beneficial or even essential. Check out our article, “Who Needs Studded Fat Bike Tires Anyway?!” to see if studded tires are right for you!

Keep tire pressure low

Related to using large-width tires is keeping the tire pressure low: low pressure increases float and reduces ruts. The larger the tire you have, the lower the pressure you can use. Low pressures allow the tire to flatten slightly and spread your weight over a larger surface area.

Personally, using 4.8” tires, I find 4-6 psi (depending on conditions) to be a good range: 4 psi for softer conditions and 6 for firm conditions.

following basic winter fat bike etiquette can keep fragile trails in great shape for everyone
Low pressure can help tires float on top of the snow, which will help avoid leaving behind ruts in soft conditions. (Luke Marshall/RideSphere)

Stay away if it’s too warm

Once temperatures warm up above freezing and the snow begins to soften, even wide tires can begin to leave ruts. If the forecast for the day is well above freezing, it’s likely best to stay away, or, if possible, ride early in the morning before temperatures start to rise. 

Ruts left in soft, melting snow are bad enough, but they get much worse when the temperatures fall and the snow/ice refreezes. Once this happens, those ruts are there to stay until the next significant snowfall comes along to cover them up.

Ride it, don’t slide it

This is a good rule to follow all year long, whether on a fat bike or just a regular mountain bike. “Ride it, don’t slide it” refers to avoiding locking up your back tire, usually while descending a steep and/or technical section of trail. On snow, this can leave ruts behind even if you are using wide tires with low pressure. If the trail happens to be bi-directional, these ruts can make climbing that section very difficult for other riders. Not to mention the fact that it can make the descent even more technical and, as a worst case scenario, impossible for the next person to descend.

To avoid sliding, try to use both front and rear brakes to control your descent. As long as both wheels are turning, even slowly, you should stay on top of the snow and leave that section of trail in great shape for the next person!

Yield to uphill traffic

This is basic etiquette that is used all year round in any singletrack riding situation. The idea behind yielding to uphill traffic is that if the person climbing has to stop, it’s harder for them to get started again than it is for the person descending.

In my opinion, it is especially important to follow this rule when fat biking biking. Getting started on a climb once you are stopped can be very difficult, if not impossible, when you are riding on snow. And, as we’ll see in the next section, walking your fat bike up climbs can present its own set of issues.

Try to walk beside the trail

If you do end up off your bike on a climb, try and walk off to the side of the trail. It’s no problem to have your bike on the trail as you push it up the hill. However, footprints can damage otherwise nice tread and make the climb even more difficult for the next rider.

This isn’t always the easiest rule to follow. Sometimes the snow beside the trail is very deep and impractical for walking on/in. In other cases, trees might be tight to the trail and not allow enough room to walk off the trail. Use your best judgement and try to put yourself in the next riders’ shoes. Would you want to attempt a climb that’s been torn up by someone’s footprints?

Back to basics

These are basic rules that most trail organizations with some form of groomed trails follow. Each organization may have its own additional rules. For example, if there are XC ski trails as part of the trail system, they may be off-limits to fat bikes. Or you may be required to keep off of any track setting that exists. It’s worth taking a look at each area’s website before you go.

Having said that, follow the basic etiquette outlined above and you’ll be well on your way to keeping winter fat bike trails in great shape for everyone. Another excellent way to keep winter fat bike trails riding great is by riding on them. So get out there and do your part!

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