So You Want to Ride Your Bike on Snow

11.19.2008 | 10:54 pm

A Note from Fatty: Today’s guest poster is the author of one of my daily must-read blogs: Jill Homer, of Up in Alaska fame. Jill is a journalist and cyclist in Juneau, Alaska. She completed the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile winter ultra race that follows the famous Iditarod Trail in Alaska. She wrote a book about her experiences, which would make a great Christmas gift for the aspiring winter cyclist. It’s available at I’ve already ordered my copy.

Hi. My name is Jill Homer, also known in Google searches as “Jill in Alaska” and “That Crazy Cold Chick on a Bike.” Thanksgiving is coming up, so I’m writing a guest blog post on today to talk about how thankful we are as cyclists that winter is finally here. I know, I know. It’s been a long summer, and I’m sure that like me, you’ve grown weary of all the dry trails, warm sunny afternoons and daylight. But now that it’s winter, many of you are probably wondering “how can I extract the most enjoyment out of my bicycle?”

The answer is: Snow. I’m not talking about the light dusting on the road during your morning commute. I’m talking about winter off-road riding on trails carved into snow. And since this idea for some reason seems to be an affront to most cyclists’ sensibilities, I am here to impart my vast wisdom about the art of riding a bicycle on snow by answering some common questions.

And just in case you feel the need to question my expertise, I’ll have you know that I have been a winter cyclist in Alaska for three years. That may not seem like a long tenure, but what I lack in experience, I make up for in volume.

1. Where exactly can I ride a bicycle on snow?P1270008.jpg

Snowmobile trails are a great place to start: Wide, well-packed and often extensive, they offer great opportunities to venture out into the woods and weave around snow-laden trees even in the dead of winter. If snowmobilers haven’t yet run over your community, or if you object to riding in the wake of noxious exhaust fumes, hiking trails that are used by snowshoers and cross-country skiers also provide fun, often more technical singletrack for the ambitious snowbiker. If you live in far northern climes, frozen lakes and rivers, dog sled trails and ice roads also are tons of fun.

2. What kind of bike do I need to ride on snow?

You don’t necessarily need a winter-specific bike. Any mountain bike will do. However, those 2-inch tires they put on regular mountain bikes have plenty of disadvantages. Riding “skinny” tires on snow often feels like trying to ice skate through loose powder: You cut in and stop. Fat tires, which can be as wide as 4 inches, spread the weight like a snowshoe and float much better atop powdery surfaces. Plus, those monster truck tires and the fat frames that fit them will always generate plenty of attention (i.e. envy) from fellow winter trail users.

3. What if I can’t afford a winter-specific bike?

The general rule for skinny tire riders is “When in doubt, let air out.” Running regular tires at super-low pressures will help alleviate much of the ice-skate effect. Plus, you’re riding on soft snow, so you don’t have to worry about slashing the sidewalls.

4. Do I need studded tires?P1080013_edited.JPG

The short answer is no, although they don’t hurt. Studded tires work wonders on hard ice, but they don’t do much for snowy trails. Still, glare ice is something all winter cyclists encounter no matter where they ride, so think of studded tires as added insurance.

5. What about downhill riding?

I thought you’d never ask. As an Alaskan, I like to ride to places where I can see Russia, you know, just to check out the scene and make sure Vladimir Putin isn’t doing anything sinister that day. This generally means riding up high in the mountains, getting a great workout and carving some wide tire tracks into the local ski hill. But what goes up must come down, so you want to make sure you have a good set of brakes on your bike. Rim brakes are no good, because rims can ice up and the calipers can get clogged with snow that is wafting off the tires. Disc brakes, preferably mechanical disc brakes, work much better. After that, downhill snow biking is just like any downhill biking: Slide your butt over the back wheel and hold on.

6. Help! My bike is fishtailing out of control and my brakes are already locked up!

When this happens, there’s a good chance you’re already slipping sideways down the mountain. My best advice is to lay the bike down and ride it out. It’s only snow, after all. Be grateful this didn’t happen to you on talus.

7. What do I wear?

Easy: Anything that keeps you warm. The truth is, there’s no standard clothing for winter cycling. I like to tell the youngins that back in the day when I started winter cycling, back in 2005, we wore four pairs of cotton socks and fleece pajama bottoms when it was 10 below and we felt fine, just fine. But I’ve since learned a few truths to keep in mind when choosing your gear:

  • Circulation over insulation: Those four pairs of cotton socks will do nothing for you if your toes are squeezed into a tiny pair of shoes. Frostbite will happen before you realize it because you can’t feel your toes anyway. The best footgear to go with is a comfortable pair of boots a couple sizes too large, a heavy pair of wool or synthetic socks and a liner sock.
  • Breathe, breathe, breathe: If the temperature is below freezing, there’s not much chance of getting wet from precipitation. Sweat, however, can be your worst enemy, and it will freeze in the strangest places (beneath your coat, for instance.) You want to layer up with plenty of breathable base and mid-layers, and make sure your outer layer breathes as well. If you start to feel warm, take something off. Never let yourself sweat too hard, unless you’re interested in conducting an experiment to see which of your layers will freeze solid (Warning: You may become one of those frozen layers.)
  • Happy hands and head: Gloves and hats are very important. Keep your hands and head warm, and the rest of you is likely to follow.

8. What do I drink?

I hear there are many forms of hard alcohol that won’t freeze. But if you’re interested in hydration, the best solution is an insulated water bottle strapped to the bike. Others have all sorts of solutions for Camelbaks, but I’ve never had much success with keeping the hose from freezing.

9. What do I eat?

My favorite foods that don’t freeze: Nuts, chocolate, Pop Tarts, dried cherries, sunflower seeds, and the most perfect food ever invented: Peanut butter cups.

10. This all sounds so awesome! When do I start?

Why not today? After all, if you’re a snow biker, a whole new cycling season is just beginning.


PS from Fatty: Seriously, go buy Jill’s book.


  1. Comment by Jon Rides Bikes | 11.20.2008 | 8:16 am

    I’m sorry Fatty has to deal with so much, BUT, I’m loving the guest posters!! Good idea Elden.

    Jill — very nice intro. I’m not sure Philadelphia will get quite the amount of snow necessary to test out your acquired wisdom, but I’ll give it a shot.

    Dug — well… your sheep deserved it. Sometimes the shepherd has to take a lamb out back, and, you know…

  2. Comment by dug | 11.20.2008 | 8:23 am

    but my question is, what do you do if you DO see a russian wandering around when you get up in the morning?

  3. Comment by Don | 11.20.2008 | 8:32 am

    I want a Pugsley. I don’t know WHY, I certainly don’t “need one”, they are just so cool.

    Jill: Awesome post! I love tooling around in the (nowhere near as deep as Alaska) Cleveland snow! And youre absolutely right! Just drop the PSI as low as you can go and hammer away!
    Further, I agree with Dug, what do you do if…

  4. Comment by Marla | 11.20.2008 | 8:36 am

    Are you all watching the Russians now:) The book is on my Christmas list.

    Pugsleys rule!

  5. Comment by Jeff | 11.20.2008 | 8:39 am

    So that’s why nothing new was posted on “Up In Alaska” this morning!

    Thanks for the advice, Jill – now I have a really good reason to spend money on disc brakes! Yes!

  6. Comment by Jamieson | 11.20.2008 | 8:39 am

    Great post to read as I see some snow starting to come down here in NY.

  7. Comment by TomE | 11.20.2008 | 8:40 am

    I want a set of those fat tires!!!!

  8. Comment by Aaron | 11.20.2008 | 8:41 am

    I also used to ride in the snow when I lived in the NW. Yes, it’s very fun. Even more fun is riding at night in the snow! All that whiteness really lights up with your headlamp. Thanks for the post!

  9. Comment by FliesOnly | 11.20.2008 | 8:44 am

    You’re insane. But then again, the same has been said about me on numerous occasions.

    And where did you get those tires…they are totally assume!?

  10. Comment by Trail Dog Craigers | 11.20.2008 | 8:54 am

    Fatty – hope all is well, great idea with guest posters.

    Jill – Excellent post. This helps me out alot as my riding addiction hasn’t subsided just because the snow has started. Can’t wait to read your book.

  11. Comment by Lizzylou | 11.20.2008 | 8:55 am

    I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen 2″ tires referred to as skinny… I guess that means my tires are emaciated.

  12. Comment by k-berg | 11.20.2008 | 8:56 am

    Well we dont have that much snow here in central PA yet, but did get out in the dusting last night. Any ride is a good ride!

  13. Comment by ann | 11.20.2008 | 8:58 am

    This is an alternature universe, of which I was unaware. An AWESOME alternate universe, but still.

  14. Comment by crazy commuting cyclist | 11.20.2008 | 9:05 am

    I have that book on my Christmas wish list. I have not found any 4 inch wide tires but I do use 2.3 inch and fill them to 40psi and I get by.

  15. Comment by Erin | 11.20.2008 | 9:09 am


    My weeny concern with snow-biking has always been: what happens if you flat? I guess it’s pretty unlikely, but I have visions of trying to fix a flat in below freezing temps with windchill, and my fingers slowly going numb until they’re useless, and getting a chill, and having to hike out, and getting frostbite. Seriously. (Which is why I am lift-serviced ski area weeny). Anyway, what do you do about that?


  16. Comment by MikeonhisBike | 11.20.2008 | 9:10 am

    I’m halfway through Jill’s book and it’s great. Very inspiring. I love those huge tires on the pugsley. It’s like a monster truck version of a bike.


  17. Comment by leroy | 11.20.2008 | 9:39 am

    I knew it!

    Jill is really a superior alien life form marooned on our planet.

    But now, armed with her advice, I am so going to dominate the snow mobile trails in Brooklyn.

    And those hipsters on snow shoes drafting me across the Manhattan Bridge are going to get dropped faster than gerund ending “g”s at a Sarah Palin news conference.

    (Jill — great blog, great post.)

  18. Comment by bikemike | 11.20.2008 | 9:46 am

    most informative, i’m in. we do the exact same here in south Florida. wide tires, gloves, booties, thermal underwear. foods are pretty much the same alhtough the chocolate does seem to melt above 80 degrees.

  19. Comment by Scott | 11.20.2008 | 9:56 am

    Hey, they’re called snowMACHINES, not snowMOBILES, doncha know. Or some such nonsense.

  20. Comment by art | 11.20.2008 | 9:59 am

    Just to be clear, if you’re going to ride on trails used by xc skiers, keep to one side and DO NOT RIDE ON THE TRACKS. It may make your life easier, but try skiing on iced over tire tracks (or worse, the post holes where someone had to walk their bike up a hill) some time.

  21. Comment by Clydesdale | 11.20.2008 | 10:02 am

    2hrs riding at night on fresh snow yesterday!! Suuhweeeet! HID lights reflecting off shimmering snow and no sign of Ivan anywhere!!

    I’m getting a new book!!

  22. Comment by Kristin | 11.20.2008 | 10:17 am

    Hey Jill–

    I only tried to ride on snow once… where I live the snow is lovingly referred to as “Cascade Cement”. It’s super wet, so your tires lose traction very easily, and once you put your foot down, your cleat is instantly packed with wet snow. Do you usually ride flat pedals? Any suggestions?

  23. Comment by KanyonKris | 11.20.2008 | 10:31 am

    Jill – I enjoyed your intro to snowbiking – lots of good tips.

    Upon ordering your book, Amazon notes that it should arrive by Dec. 25. Will it really arrive that late or is that a blanket noticed from Amazon? Looks like buying it from Lulu is the way to go – eBook download instantly or paperback printed in 3-5 days (plus some time for shipping).

  24. Comment by Paul H | 11.20.2008 | 10:57 am

    Looks like a whole lot of fun!

  25. Comment by Jenn | 11.20.2008 | 11:38 am

    How much fun to see you here today, Jill! Great post – now can you teach us how to enjoy cycling in the rain and temperatures in the 30s?

  26. Comment by buckythedonkey | 11.20.2008 | 11:59 am

    What, no plug for FedEx? ;-) Great to see you here, Jill, the ITI was such a great adventure to follow!


  27. Comment by rich | 11.20.2008 | 12:03 pm

    Awesome post Jil!
    Great idea Fatty with the guest bloggers….pretty soon it will be like the johnny carson show where you just host all these really cool bloggers and rake in the big bucks….or not.

  28. Comment by Andy in WV | 11.20.2008 | 12:04 pm

    Camelbak hoses can be kept from freezing by blowing air back into them after drinking…fyi.

  29. Comment by Willie Nelson | 11.20.2008 | 12:23 pm

    Your post is very motivating. I enjoyed it immensely. You answered most of my questions about getting started. However, you didn’t answer my one burning question….. Where can I go here in Florida?

  30. Comment by Chris in PA | 11.20.2008 | 12:34 pm

    Put your bottle in the cage upside down. Ice floats, this ensures the spout isn’t the first part to freeze. Great info, winter is like a whole new game!

  31. Comment by Bitter (formerly known as Lissee) | 11.20.2008 | 12:53 pm

    I’m so glad you mentioned checking in on Russia. lol It reminds me of this.

    If the link doesn’t work, here it is.

  32. Comment by Bandit | 11.20.2008 | 1:05 pm

    “Do you usually ride flat pedals?”

    Kristin – the pics show flat pedals and since she recommends boots a couple sizes too large, it appears that is is m.o.

  33. Comment by The GPC | 11.20.2008 | 1:15 pm


    great tips and riding info but you forgot to mention what rig you are riding. I am planning to take my new 29er out this winter, are you into the 29er trend. Can’t wait until the book comes out!

    Good luck and happy riding (brrrrr!)


  34. Comment by Di | 11.20.2008 | 1:27 pm

    Jill -

    We get about three to four feet of accumulation on my little Peninsula (Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan – branches into Lake Superior). BTW – we can’t see Canada. Well, maybe on a good day. ;-)

    I reserve my winter riding for the roads, which can actually be quite a challenge. Nordic skiing is HUGE, here, so I skate ski most of the time.

    We have a couple people with Pugsleys. A Pugsley is definitely on my wish list. :-D

  35. Comment by Phil | 11.20.2008 | 2:04 pm

    That sounds like fun, too bad it only snows one day a year here in Vancouver. :P

  36. Comment by deprogram | 11.20.2008 | 2:24 pm

    The telemark and split people will kill me if I mess up their nice skin track! Post-holing is one thing, because you are at least hiking up to ride down, but riding a bike?

    I’d expect to catch some flack.

    Snowmobile tracks, on the other hand, should be fine.

  37. Comment by Bill | 11.20.2008 | 2:53 pm


    You rock on your own blog and when filling in for others! Great job!

  38. Comment by Big Mike In Oz | 11.20.2008 | 3:11 pm


    I knew it.

    There is no guest blogger Jill. It’s just Fatty wearing his sister’s underwear.


    May I steer you towards point 9, dear reader? Peanut butter cups! It’s not that they’re not a nifty unfreezable food, but “the most perfect food ever invented” is pushing it. That sounds suspiciously like a turn of phrase one Elden Q. Nelson esq. would flippantly drop into a conversation.

    Maybe I’m off the mark, or maybe I’m a super detective.

  39. Comment by Clydesteve | 11.20.2008 | 3:17 pm

    Ummm, Jill about that elephant in the room… Doesn’t snow cycling involve a lot of pp ppp pppushing?

    Any tips for that part of the fun?

  40. Comment by Mocougfan | 11.20.2008 | 4:58 pm

    Jill’s awesome. I got hooked on her site because of the pics. Now I read for the read. And the pics. So impressive.

  41. Comment by CoolScreenNametoCome | 11.20.2008 | 5:13 pm

    I was planning to take up skate skiing, but this sounds way more fun. Now all I have to do is figure out how to purchase both a pair of twin tips and and a new bike to handle 4″ fatty’s – tires that is.

  42. Comment by Sigga Hjolina | 11.20.2008 | 5:28 pm

    Great post Jill. Even I, the Icelander living and mountain biking in Iceland…well on trails not mountains in winter… benefited from it! I agree with a few people here that xc skiers will not be happy if I make tire tracks on their tracks… being also an xc skier myself. I use studded tires in the winter as we have all sorts of snow/ice combinations on the trails.
    Fatty, I’ve recently stumbled upon your site so HI :o) Greetings from a biker-lady in Iceland.

  43. Comment by Jill | 11.20.2008 | 6:45 pm

    Thanks all. And thanks Elden for the opportunity to post on! It’s always been a dream of mine.

    I wanted to clarify that I don’t advocate poaching groomed cross-country ski trails, especially where Nordic tracks have been set. That certainly won’t make anyone popular. Sometimes I feel like snowbiking is what snowboarding was in 1992, still on the fringe but trying to convince others that bicycles, when used responsibly, will in fact not ruin trails. But right now, at least where I live, there are lots of trails that are multiuse where cyclists can ride. I also ride at the downhill ski area, but only on days that the lifts are closed. (It’s great. I have the groomers all to myself. And unlike skiiers, I’m looking for groomers.)

    As to the bike I use, it’s a 2007 Surly Pugsley. I love it. Love it, love it. The tires are 3.7″ Endomorphs on 65-mm Large Marge rims, also manufactured by Surly.

    As to the shipping of my book, I’ve heard it takes on average about a week. I don’t think it’s on yet. I’m putting it through a more thorough editing process before I ready it to go on that site. But if you’re unsure about the shipping, you can contact me about handling the order.

    Clydesteve, I just thought the p-p-pushing was an added fun bonus. And a huge part of dealing with the uneven conditions of snow riding. That’s why I advocate platform pedals and comfortable boots for walking. :-)

    And Big Mike in Oz, thanks for accusing me of being Elden himself. That I might be able to pass off my writing as his is one of the nicest compliments I’ve been given.

  44. Comment by Mel | 11.20.2008 | 7:15 pm

    While that was an interesting post, all I could think as I progressed through the article was, damn, this woman is nuts! Very impressive that someone would do something like that for kicks :) (not a fan of the cold)

  45. Comment by BotchedExperiment | 11.20.2008 | 8:15 pm

    No snow yet yere in Wyoming, just snowish temperatures. I’ve already committed to buying some studded tires for my 29er single speed.

    I’m really excited, since there are a TON of snowmobile trails around here, but they’re only busy on the weekends. AND there’s even a ski resort that is closed Sunday through Wednesday (thanks for the tip!).

  46. Comment by Bjorn 4Lycra | 11.20.2008 | 9:39 pm

    So from the driest city in the driest state of the driest continent and we are currently experiencing a severe drought what is this stuff called snow?

  47. Comment by Dobovedo | 11.20.2008 | 10:26 pm

    Hilarious intro! “… weary of all the dry trails, warm sunny temps…” LMAO

    We don’t have snow cover for very many days here, but we do get freeze/thaw and icy roads. I bought myself a singlespeed commuter bike and am ordering studded tires so’s I can continue riding to work every day this winter! Embrace the cold!

  48. Comment by Miles Archer | 11.20.2008 | 11:23 pm

    No f’in way. I live in CA. If it’s colder than 40F, i’m skiing, not riding.

    Having said that, getting out on the trails in Anchorage AK in early April is pretty nice even if the tunnels under the streets are still packed with snow.

  49. Pingback by Moronacity » Blog Archive » Alaskan Inspiration | 11.20.2008 | 11:29 pm

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  50. Comment by Kyle | 11.21.2008 | 4:07 am

    Not only do I lOVE Fat Tire Ale, but I love those massive mothers! That looks like a heck of a lot of fun. I have to ask though, where is the Fixed Gear snow bike??!! haha.
    Fatty, I stumbled upon your site thanks to Bike Forums. It was your AMAZING post from 1:23:08 entitled Ask a Cyclist that has now made me a loyal reader. I hope things are looking up for you!! I think about you every day and pray for the best.
    From Kyle in the bitterly Windy City. (no mountains to use sadly:()

  51. Comment by Mike Roadie | 11.21.2008 | 6:06 am

    Snow? Snow? What is this “snow” thing of which you speak???

    —Mike Roadie (Ft Lauderdale, FL)

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  53. Comment by Rob L | 11.21.2008 | 8:54 am

    Great article Jill especially liked your noted special Russia Watch(TM)(R)(C).

    NOw I must wait for snow to fall here in more than trace amounts.

  54. Comment by Kathleen | 11.21.2008 | 9:55 am

    Fantastic! Who knew there were SO many cool (literally) things I could do on a bike. Gotta get your book!

  55. Comment by Chris | 11.24.2008 | 8:22 pm

    Dangit Jill!! The next thing you know all these folks will give up cross-country skiing for the winter and I’ll have no one to pack my trails for me. Anyone who ever wants to winter ride should feel free to stop into Fairbanks, Alaska. I am self proclaiming us the winter cycling capital of the world.

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