A Total Newbie's Guide to Fat Biking
Considering a move back to Eastern Canada, Barry is confronted with the prospect of not riding for 6 months a year or by changing his opinion on fat bikes. This guide is a deep-dive into the world of fat bikes for those that might be fat curious.
Growing up as a fairweather cyclist from Canada has meant that I have gotten used to taking winters off or setting up an indoor trainer and sweating my butt off in front of Zwift. It was only when I moved to Montreal from Tokyo that I realized people actually ride in the snow. I would see bike commuters hammering through fresh snowfall with fat bikes, which I somehow always dismissed in my subconscious. The unconventional lines and oversized dimensions of fat bikes struck me as straight-up ugly. I somehow rationalized that fat bikes were designed for an older demographic or amateurs seeking added stability and traction. These bikes were not for me—or so I thought.
When we moved to British Columbia, I bought a Surly Krampus which opened my eyes in some ways to fat-tired biking (fat and tired biking?!). I spent two seasons riding on the factory 29 x 3” tires. While these aren't exactly in the 'fat' category, these plus-sized tires offered an exhilarating ride. Their size allowed me to bomb through and over anything with confidence. Riding with ultra-low psi and in a low gear, there was scarcely anything I couldn't climb—like a goat. This experience led me to a realization: maybe I've been 'fat-curious' all along. The truth is, I've never actually ridden in conditions that demanded anything over 3”, let alone a tire width of 3.8” or more and my biases were just that, biases. However, that might soon change. My wife and I are seriously contemplating a return to Eastern Canada, where winters are harsh and snowfall is heavy. The thought of going back to Zwift for six months a year is totally disheartening.
A few weeks ago, Salty Beard shared an Impossible Routes video with me that completely changed my perspective on all things fat biking. The video features Jeremiah and Tyler braving a challenging two-day winter journey in Montana coached and cheered on by Jay Petervary. Their adventure encapsulated everything I love about off-road and backcountry cycling: absolute remoteness, battling environmental conditions, gear nerdery, and most importantly, the presence of pretty cool-looking bikes. Watching their adventure, I was struck by the realization that fat biking represents a form of true exploration that I have shut my mind off from, subconsciously.
My approach to understanding new things usually involves research and writing about my discoveries. This guide is the fruit of that labor. It's written with the assumption that the reader has a good grasp of off-road biking and might share my 'fat curiosity,' but lacks any knowledge about what delving into fat biking entails. In the following sections, I've compiled what I've learned, including advice from expert fat bikers and a curated list of bikes to consider. But before diving into the specifics, I'd like to send a huge shout out to our friends at Panorama Cycles and Salsa who helped tremendously in putting this guide together. Alright, let's take a brief look at where fat bikes come from.
From Snowy Trails to Global Phenomenon
The origin of fat bikes is a compelling tale of adaptation, innovation, and a community's passion for development. The genesis of the fat bike can be traced back to the 1980s in Alaska, a time and place where necessity spurred creativity. Cyclists in the region began modifying their bikes to navigate the challenging snowy terrain, a task that often involved welding two or three rims together. This ingenious modification provided better flotation on snow, crucial for traversing Alaska's rugged landscapes. Many of these early riders were pioneers in the early races of the Iditarod, one of the hardest competitions on earth through the frozen Alaskan backcountry. It wasn't until 2005 that the first production fat bike, the Surly Pugsley, hit the market, marking a significant milestone in the evolution of fat bikes. Since the introduction of the Pugsley, the world of fat biking has continued to expand and evolve globally.
The Key Differences
This article is written with the assumption that you, the reader, have some foundational knowledge about adventure bikes. However, the question remains: how does a fat bike truly differ from say, your average mountain hardtail? Let's take a look.
Tire Size & Pressure
What exactly qualifies as a fat bike tire? The answer lies in its width: typically, fat bike tires are 3.8 inches or wider. This is a significant increase from the 2.1-2.6 inch tires commonly found on mountain bikes that usually run at pressures between 20-30 psi. In contrast, fat bike tires range from 3.8 to 5 inches in width and operate at much lower pressures, around 5-10 psi, making them feel like absolute marshmallows. In snowy conditions, riders typically use 3 to 8 psi on 4.5'' to 5'' tires. While it's possible to run these larger tires tubeless, just as with mountain bikes, there is still a weight penalty due to the sheer amount of rubber involved.
Fat bikes are designed to excel in environments where 'regular' bikes might falter. Their wide tires provide exceptional flotation on soft, unstable terrains such as snow, sand, and mud—surfaces where narrower tires would sink. This capability opens up a world of possibilities, allowing fat bike riders to venture into areas that would be challenging or even inaccessible. Whether it's gliding over sandy dunes, plowing through snowy trails, or navigating muddy paths, fat bikes offer a unique and versatile riding experience. They even transform the ride on rocky trails and regular paths, offering a different kind of interaction with the terrain.
Weight, Handling & Speed
Exploring the differences between fat bikes and mountain bikes, weight, handling, and speed emerge as critical factors. Advances in materials have led to lighter fat bikes, some nearing 25 lbs, enhancing maneuverability and ease of handling.
In terms of gearing, fat bikes designed for snow often have smaller chainrings, typically 28T, as opposed to the 32T or 34T on mountain bikes, yet use similar 10-51T/10-52T cassettes. This setup counters the higher resistance of snow, aiding in tougher terrain and uphill climbs. The handling of fat bikes is also adapted to their generally slower speeds. Their geometry is less aggressive, focusing on staying maneuverable and nimble at lower speeds for better control, especially in snowy conditions where stability is key.
How To Choose Your First Fat Bike
When choosing your first fat bike, it's important to recognize that the term "Fat Bike" encompasses a vast range of options, much like the term "Mountain Bike." Both categories represent entire universes filled with various types, options, and styles. Navigating this variety can be overwhelming, especially for those new to fat biking. So, where should you start, and what are the fat bike-specific factors to consider when selecting your bike?
As with any bike, the initial and most crucial question to ask yourself is about the type of riding you plan to do. Are you looking to tackle trails, embark on adventure or bikepacking expeditions, or participate in cross-country racing? This overarching question is vital as it sets the stage for the subsequent decisions you'll need to make. Knowing the primary use of your fat bike will guide you in determining the appropriate bike geometry, materials, and sizes for tires and wheels. Whether you're seeking a bike for leisurely trail rides, long-distance adventures, or competitive racing, aligning these specifications with your riding goals is the key to finding the perfect fat bike for your needs.
The choice of material in fat bike frames not only influences the cost but also significantly affects the bike's handling. Carbon frames, which are found in higher-end fat bikes, are the lightest, enhancing the bike's responsiveness and offsetting the weight of all that additional rubber.
Titanium frames offer a unique blend of lightweight and strength, similar to aluminum, but with the added resilience and durability of steel. This combination results in a frame that is not only corrosion-resistant but also provides a comfortable ride with its natural flex. The handling of titanium frames is often praised for being both responsive and forgiving on rough trails. In contrast, steel frames, which are usually the most affordable option, are the heaviest. This added weight can make the bike feel more grounded and stable, but it also means they can be less nimble and require more effort to maneuver, particularly in challenging terrains.
Fat bikes typically feature 26-inch or 27.5-inch wheels. The 26-inch option is more traditional and offers a lower center of gravity, which is particularly beneficial for maintaining stability on challenging terrains like snow and sand. On the other hand, the slightly larger 27.5-inch wheels provide better rollover capabilities, making them ideal for navigating over uneven surfaces and obstacles. Additionally, the rims of fat bike wheels are notably wider than those on standard mountain bikes, usually ranging from 60mm to 100mm. This width is crucial as it supports the broad tires unique to fat bikes, ensuring a stable base for the tire and enhancing overall performance.
In the realm of fat biking, the Q-factor is a pivotal aspect that warrants careful consideration. Essentially, it refers to the distance between the outer sides of the crank arms. Fat bikes typically feature a wider Q-factor to accommodate their broad tires and rims, ensuring ample clearance and preventing any interference with the rider's feet. This wider stance, however, influences the riding experience, affecting the alignment and comfort of hips, knees, and ankles. It's crucial for riders to be mindful of this when selecting a fat bike, as a Q-factor that is too wide can lead to pedaling inefficiencies and discomfort, particularly on extended rides. Riders transitioning from bikes with a narrower Q-factor might need an adaptation period to get accustomed to the wider stance. Moreover, the choice of pedals can complement the Q-factor, enhancing comfort and efficiency. High-end fat bike models often strive to optimize the Q-factor, balancing the need for tire clearance with a natural, comfortable riding position. For example the Panorama Torngat (listed below) has spindles allowing for an adjustable stance.
Adjustable chain stays, often implemented through sliding dropouts, add a versatile dimension to fat bikes, enhancing adaptability to various riding styles and conditions. These sliding dropouts typically allow for adjustments ranging from 10 to 20mm. This adjustability significantly alters how the bike handles. A shorter chainstay length results in a 'whippier' feel, making the bike more agile and responsive, ideal for maneuvering through tight trails or technical terrains. In contrast, extending the chainstay lengthens the bike's wheelbase, enhancing stability, which is especially beneficial for high-speed descents or when traversing challenging, uneven landscapes. This feature is invaluable as it allows riders to 'change modes' depending on their ride activity. Moreover, it provides the flexibility to easily switch between a summer setup with 29+ wheels for smoother, faster rides and larger, wider wheels for winter conditions, where stability and traction in snow are paramount.
The necessity of suspension on fat bikes is a topic of some debate. Often, the cushioning provided by the 3.8+ inches of fat tires is considered sufficient for most terrains, negating the need for additional suspension. However, for those riders who do seek extra comfort and control, especially on more challenging trails, there are options available. Most fat bike forks are designed with around 100-120mm of travel. There are also a few full-suspension fat bikes like the Trek Farley EX 8, but this seems a bit overkill to us.
Insights From The Pros
We reached out to a global network of experts, including innovative bike designers, intrepid fat bike explorers, and dedicated aficionados. Their experiences and knowledge are invaluable in understanding the depth and diversity of fat biking.
Jill Martindale: Salsa Athlete 🇺🇲
Cold heads, hands, or feet can make or break a good time in the snow. A wool billed cap like the 45NRTH Greazy or Flammekaster are my preferred choices in sub-freezing temps under the helmet, paired with a buff around my neck. I appreciate a cap’s bill for keeping snowflakes out of my face. Wool is an excellent choice because it insulates even when it is wet. I have a variety of wool gloves in different weights so I can adjust based on how cold it is or what kind of a ride I am planning. A range of choices for my hands allows me to choose something like the 45NRTH Nokken for harder efforts, or the Sturmfist 3 or 4 on social rides. You can put pogies on your handlebars and wear a wool liner so your fingers still have their dexterity for taking selfies and helping to navigate trail systems!
While we’re on the topic of handlebars - foam grips like the Wolftooth Fat Paw will insulate your hands from cold handlebars, and carbon bars won’t conduct the cold as much as alloy bars would. When it comes to feet, I leave wiggle room for my toes and pack a set of toe warmers just in case. The Wolvhammers are what I spend most of winter in, though if I’m in temps below 0 for an extended time I’ll wear Wolfgars. A boot dryer is also recommended! Starting out dry is preferred.
Keeping these three points warm, following a layering system with wool material for the rest of my body, and starting the ride out a little chilly (because you’ll quickly warm up!) are what keep me comfortable while riding in snow. Remember that you’ll chill faster if you’re dehydrated or fatigued. Everyone’s layering needs are different, so play around to see what works best for you.
Matt Acker: Salsa Athlete 🇺🇲
Fat bikes can open up a whole new realm of adventure opportunity, especially in the winter. The extra flotation that fat tires provide greatly expands where you can travel by bike. Having high quality tires, wide rims and a tubeless setup greatly improves the experience. Being able to run low air pressure and adapt to a wide range of conditions is important. If you’re riding in areas with plenty of snow a few psi can make the difference between riding and walking.
It’s important to be patient when you first try out riding on snow, ice and loose terrain like sand. I always recommend starting with a fairly firm tire (7-10 psi depending on your setup and weight) and if you’re having trouble with traction or leaving a rut you can slowly let out air pressure until you find the sweet spot. Many quality tire brands such as 45NRTH have a good array of tire designs to accommodate all conditions/terrain. A good bike shop can help you determine if your rim and tire combination is tubeless compatible and set that up for you.
You may want to start out fat biking with flat pedals, especially in more challenging snow/trail conditions, that way it’s easy to dismount and remount the bike when needed. Once you become more comfortable you can add clipping-in to help with pedaling efficiency and balance. The key is to be patient and don’t get frustrated if it takes some time to get used to riding in snowy or slippery conditions.
Part of the fun of fat biking is riding in areas and terrain that would be inaccessible on any other style of bicycle so take the time to appreciate that aspect and look around you. It doesn’t matter how far or fast you go but rather that you got out to enjoy nature!
Nick Tryon: Fat Biker / Former Royal Marine 🏴
I first got into fat biking over 5 years ago. Our winters don't always guarantee snow, especially in the lower regions, but I was inspired by the numerous people on social media and in articles enjoying fat bikes on various terrains. I acquired a second-hand Silverback Scoop, equipped with Bluto’s up front, an SRAM XO 11-speed groupset, matching 4-pot brakes, and 4.8 tires.
The excitement was undeniable on my first ride, which was along a familiar local route. The bike rolled like a 29er, steered like a 26er, and floated over everything. I was instantly hooked, smiling from ear to ear, all doubts forgotten.
I've come to think of a fat bike as a 'soft tail' rather than a 'hard tail' because of the air volume in the rear that adds comfort. However, getting the tire pressure right is crucial; too low and it increases drag, making pedaling hard. It's all about finding the right balance based on the surface and terrain. Over the years, I've experimented with different setups, adding a rigid front and Lauf fork to the Blutos.
Before long, the fat bike became my go-to for bikepacking. The comfort on long rides easily outweighed the bike's extra weight. Speaking of weight, it's mainly in the tires—a single tire can contain as much rubber as two 29er tires, and running tubes adds even more.
The fat bike is a true workhorse, adaptable to almost anything. My love for bikepacking grew alongside my equipment collection. From winter bothy trips to summer bike rafting and even bike park adventures, the fat bike has proven to be the Swiss Army knife of bikes.
Simon Bergeron: Founder of Panorama Cycles 🇨🇦
Embarking on fat biking, whether in summer or winter, offers a distinct and exhilarating exploration experience. Unlike traditional mountain biking, fat bikes excel on diverse terrains, including sand, snow, and rugged landscapes. Their wide tires provide comfort, exceptional grip, and crucially, flotation on softer surfaces. In winter, especially in eastern Canada, groomed trails for fat biking are now common, offering an experience akin to mountain biking but with unique nuances. These trails, smoothed by snow, hide roots and rocks, making for a smoother ride. Riding on these packed snow trails enhances one's mountain biking skills, providing an extraordinary balance challenge on singletracks.
Regarding gear, the essentials vary depending on whether you're on groomed trails or embarking on an adventure. Layered clothing, akin to what's worn for hiking or skiing, is vital for winter fat biking. A mountain bike helmet with a thin hat suffices in mild conditions, while a ski helmet is better for colder days. Handlebar pogies become indispensable in frigid temperatures, allowing for thinner gloves for optimal brake control.
Despite appearances, quality fat bikes can be relatively lightweight, especially when converted to tubeless. This conversion, particularly important for fat bikes with 4.5" tires, reduces the rotating mass significantly. Upgrading to high-end wheels also markedly improves performance.
Planning rides and routes requires familiarity with the terrain, similar to summer biking. In winter, outside of groomed fat bike trails, snow conditions dictate the feasibility of the ride. Fresh, un-compacted snow or thawing conditions can dramatically affect the rideability, making route planning both crucial and challenging.
Steve O’Shaughnessy: Founder of My Back 40 Podcast 🇨🇦
I have been riding fat bikes for about a decade now, and it has become my favourite winter activity. Not only does it set you up for great spring fitness, it helps the long Canadian winters go by a little faster. It’s worthwhile investing some money in a decent fat bike as, due to the nature of the activity and the conditions, you could get many years of enjoyment out of one.
Moisture management is the hardest part of winter riding, and can only be managed by layering your clothing. I use a combination of wool and synthetics. Wool as a base layer. With experience, you’ll learn which layers work depending on how cold it is or how much of a furnace you are. Any winter boot will work. Until recently I wore Keen Summits, which were a fantastic boot for fat biking. Now I wear Blivet Sports Quilo FLT boot. Super light and warm. Hand comfort is best managed using a light glove and pogies. I have Blivet’s pogie/foam grip combo and I haven’t had to wear gloves once this winter. Down to -10C
Make sure you adjust your expectations when you start riding fat bikes. They aren’t always fast. The main point of these bikes is being able to access terrain that a skinny tire bike just can’t access. Think Jeep, not Ferrari.
My biggest piece of advice? Tire pressure is everything and that pressure depends on where you’re riding. It’s a spectrum and your pressures will change depending on whether you’re riding groomers or cutting trail. A little more air on the groomed down to a couple of psi if your trail riding. I will often change my pressure multiple times per ride.
5 Fat Bikes To Kickstart Adventure
Now that we've covered the essentials, let's dive into some exciting options to kickstart your journey. Below is a curated selection of fat bikes that have caught our attention. This list is just the beginning, showcasing a diverse mix of frame materials and options to suit various budgets.
1. Panorama Cycles Torngat Ti
The Torngat Ti from Panorama Cycles, a pioneering titanium fat bike from Quebec, Canada, stands out for its unique adaptability. As the first to offer two crankset spindle lengths, it caters to a range of riding styles, suitable for both trail riding and expeditions. Accommodating tire sizes from 27.5” x 4.5” for softer terrains to 29x2.5”-3” for mountain trails, each configuration is designed for optimal comfort and efficiency. Available for custom assembly as a frameset or a complete bike, the Torngat Ti expertly combines lightweight durability with versatile performance, making it an exceptional choice for all-season terrain exploration.
2. Moots Forager
The Moots Forager, a culmination of over 20 years of expertise in fat bike construction, is designed for versatility and durability in winter conditions. This modern fat bike can handle both fresh powder and hard-pack snow, making it ideal for epic winter rides. It accommodates a 27.5 x 4.5″ tire, ensuring ample clearance even for icy conditions. With contemporary standards like 197 x 12 rear spacing, a 120mm bottom bracket shell, and a 150 x 15 fork, the Forager is built to endure. Its heart lies in a proprietary double butted top and down tube, the largest Moots has ever used, resulting in their strongest, stiffest, and best-tracking fat bike to date. Not just limited to cold terrains, the Forager excels in bike packing and adventure riding, embodying Moots' extensive legacy in fat biking, including the Frosti & Frosthammer models. It's a bike that encourages riders to leave no surface unexplored, offering robust performance for deep winter adventures.
3. Bearclaw Tōwmak
A stellar choice for extreme adventures, the TŌWMAK from Bearclaw Bicycle Co. is a groundbreaking drop-bar fat bike designed for all terrains and seasons. It masterfully combines high-speed, gravel-centric geometry with the robust, adventure-ready capabilities of a fat bike. Perfect for everything from winter training to summer trail riding, TŌWMAK excels in diverse settings, offering stability, power, and responsiveness. Built with a quality titanium frame and BBCo.’s Ultradistance Gravel Friendly Geometry, it's well-suited for multi-day bikepacking or competitive racing. Featuring the lightweight and durable Ti 150 Fat Fork with added storage mounts, TŌWMAK is ready to conquer any challenge.
4. Salsa Beargrease
The Salsa Beargrease tackles the challenge of maintaining speed in snowy conditions. This bike is crafted to excel on groomed snow trails and beyond, featuring 27.5” wheels that sustain momentum, complemented by a lightweight carbon frame and fork. The frame and fork come equipped with bottle and cargo mounts, essential for endurance rides or extended days outdoors. Powered by SRAM’s X01 Eagle components, the Beargrease offers a smooth and efficient ride, ideal for winter racing or year-round trail adventures.Notably adept at climbing, Beargrease's 73-degree seat tube angle ensures a perfect balance between climbing efficiency and rear-wheel traction, crucial for snowy terrains. The large frame's 444 mm reach pairs well with a 68.56-degree head tube angle, providing nimble handling and preventing front wheel wander. As Salsa's premier groomed-trail fat tire race bike, Beargrease combines a carbon frameset with 27.5" wheels for quick coverage of challenging terrains.
5. Otso Voytek 2
Celebrating the essence of versatility, the Voytek 2 from Otso is more than just a fat bike—it's a fat bike with the soul of a mountain bike. Building on the original Voytek's legacy, it features adjustable geometry through Otso's patented Tuning Chip dropout system and the innovative GeoChip head tube system. These allow riders to customize the bike's feel for different terrains and riding styles. Voytek 2 accommodates 26” x 4.6” or 27.5” x 4.5” tires and has a suspension-corrected design, internal cable routing, and a lower standover height. The Voytek 2 boasts a narrow Q factor, enhancing the natural feel of pedaling and efficient power transfer. This adjustability extends to the GeoChip system, allowing changes in the head tube angle and reach, making it adaptable to various snow conditions. Whether you're gliding over deep snow or navigating packed trails, Voytek 2's geometry can be fine-tuned for optimal performance. With this level of customization, it redefines what a fat bike can be.
Throughout my cycling journey, I've always embraced a 'get on, ride, and improvise' approach. This philosophy has generally served me well. Yet, the process of creating this guide has been an eye-opening experience, teaching me more than I ever anticipated. I came in expecting topics like tire pressure and layering to be significant, but the actual numbers, especially the surprisingly low tire pressures, were a revelation. Beyond the technical learning, this journey has been enriched by the wonderful people I've encountered and the incredible stories they've shared.
Now, with a newfound appreciation for fat biking and the realization that exploration isn't confined to just the warmer months, I'm excited about my upcoming move back East. I eagerly anticipate the thrill of leisurely navigating through those snow-laden trails, experiencing the unique charm of winter riding.