Alternative Winter Fatbike Riding Opportunities

Winter presents some new riding opportunities that only appear for a few months out of the year.  Some of these areas may only be available for a short while until the snow gets too deep to ride while others are an option all winter long.  A few of these include frozen bodies of water, so remember, "There is no such thing as "safe ice," and ice seldom freezes uniformly. The terrain can greatly change with icy conditions, and the ice may not be uniform. Please use extreme caution."

Image Credit: Fat-Bike.com

For more detailed information on ice thickness guidelines, traveling on ice and what to do if you fall in visit the Minnesota DNR Ice Safety page.


Backwaters are areas adjacent to a river or creek that have little or no current.  These places are usually formed due to flooding, obstructions such as beaver dams or may be a channel off the main branch of a river or creek.  Once temperatures have remained below freezing for a long enough period to form a good rideable base of ice, backwaters are great places to explore but you will need studded tires until a layer of packable snow comes along.

Some backwaters may be in the woods creating a flat obstacle-scattered experience that can be anything from easy to more technical.  Water levels in some of these areas may have dropped after the ice has formed creating ice shelves that are broken, uneven and off-camber riding surfaces where studded tires will come in handy.   Backwater areas are only accessible by bike during the frozen winter months and give riders a unique view of this outdoor environment and the wildlife that inhabit them.


Beaches alongside creeks, rivers and lakes are fun places to ride during the cold months.  They can be made up of sand, silt, rocks and contain natural obstacles such as logs and boulders to maneuver over or around.  During below freezing temperatures the surface of sandy beaches firms up like concrete but use caution  as freeze-thaw cycles can create an icy surface.  The slippery surface is easily tackled with lower tire pressure and/or the use of studded tires.

Image Credit: Josh Peterson

During winters when lake and river water levels are lower they present extra riding opportunities as more of the beach will be exposed.  Keep in mind that your beach riding adventure may come to an end when reaching private property unless you can avoid it by riding out onto the ice.  With thousands of miles of shoreline here in Minnesota you're bound to find numerous areas to ride.


Small shallow creeks with slow moving water freeze up quickly in the early part of the winter making them a good choice for riding.  In the event that you do go through the ice, wet feet is the most likely outcome.  Studded tires will be needed until there is enough snowpack to go without them.

When riding creeks be aware of changing conditions which can include broken or collapsed ice shelves, glare ice and open water.  Get some riding in before the snow gets too deep making them impassable unless they get regular fatbike traffic packing down a trail.

Deer Trails

Deer are creatures of habit and use the same routes year after year creating natural trails in the woods and adjacent fields.  Most of the time these trails will follow the easiest route in the terrain and are often rideable on a fatbike.  You never know where they'll to take you, it could be a water source, feeding area or an impassible thicket that they use for cover.

Be ready to hike-a-bike, dodge low hanging branches and hop over logs when following deer trails.  The deer will pack them down after every snowfall so they are pretty easy to find in the winter.  Keep a keen eye on your surroundings and chances are you'll see that big buck or a couple of does doing their daily routines.


It's easy for us cyclist to tell when the ice is thick enough to support the weight of a person and their bike, just look for when and where the ice fishermen are out on the lake.  Studs are necessary early on in the season until there is enough snowpack.  When the snow gets deeper out on the lakes ice roads from fishermen and snowmobile tracks pack down the snow making it easier and faster to ride along.

Being out in the open on a lake can be windy and when it's really cold outside this can shorten your ride in a hurry if not wearing the right gear.  An outer windproof shell worn with a baselayer is a great combination for making sure those freezing windchills don't cut right through you.  Goggles or sunglasses protect your eyes from the wind and make it easier to see on sunny days.  Balaclavas, thermal cycling caps and neck gaiters are another great way to stay warm in this potentially windy environment.

Safety is key when fatbiking on lakes so let someone know where you will be riding and when you plan to return.  Carry a pair of ice picks to pull yourself out of the freezing water in the event the ice gives way.  An easy way to find current reports of lake ice thickness during the early winter is to use the Ice Report App.  With this app you'll find information about lake ice thicknesses during the ice fishing season from fishermen from all over the Northern US.  Ice Report is free and available for both Android and IOS.


Water levels are higher in some of these areas with all the rain we've had this fall.  Because of this, some swampy areas will have exposed ice in among the vegetation making for some great riding, but you will need studded tires until there is some snowpack.  Stay away from moving water sections that fill these areas as the ice tends to thin and you may break through.

Swamps can be many acres in size providing a whole new playground for fatbikes that is only available for a short time each year.  The ride may be flat but will show you a side of nature you don't see up close that often.  Not only is the scenery pretty unique, I've also seen plenty of wildlife including coyotes, rabbits and eagles while riding these areas.


After all the forest floor vegetation dies off from a hard frost and below freezing temperatures, some wooded areas are great for bushwhacking on a fatbike.  Look for patches of forest that have little or no underbrush and not too many fallen trees.  These areas are great for skill building exercises like riding rough terrain, hopping logs, keeping balance and finding your line to continue moving.  Hike-a-bike, ducking branches and weaving around brush are common so don't plan on covering a lot of ground too quickly.

Keep an eye out for wildlife as you quietly roll along.  I've noticed more deer before they've noticed me riding in areas where people don't tend to travel.  During hunting season, be aware of  where hunting is allowed and your safest bet is to avoid these areas all together.  Respect private property and do not trespass.

Once you get to know an area of woods try riding it at night for a whole different experience.

IMBA's Best Practices for Riding 
on Natural Terrain 
and in the Backcountry

In the right conditions, a fat bike can be the ultimate winter backcountry travel tool. Frozen conditions and minimal snow coverage (1-5 inches) means access to areas that are impassible during the warmer months. But just because you can ride somewhere doesn't mean you should. Be aware and be prepared. 

  •  Do not trespass! Know whether or not you are on private property. Obey ALL land manager rules. Some land parcels are closed to bikes whether you are riding on a trail or not. 
  • Do not ride through sensitive wildlife habitats. This may be especially important on beaches or in places where animals hibernate. Learn about the area you want to ride in before you ride there. 
  •  Do not disturb wildlife. Many species survive on minimal diets during winter. Stressors or the need to move quickly can deplete their energy stores. 
  • Learn safe ice travel. Riding on frozen water can be extremely dangerous. Is the ice thick enough to support you? Take ice fishing picks and a length of rope when riding on lakes and rivers. 
  • Understand changing conditions. New snowfall or warming temperatures can make the return trip much more difficult. Tire tracks can be covered, hard snow can turn to slush, rivers can start to melt. Always know the forecast and be aware of how changing conditions might alter the safe passage of your route. 
  •  Be prepared. Carry provisions in case you have to stay out longer than planned. 
  • Let people know. Make sure someone else knows where you are going, when you left and when you expect to return. 
  •  Learn to share. Be aware that your tracks might attract other riders. Understand that "your" route might not remain a secret for long.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, gets me get stoked to be back in MN this winter. (I live in Moab, UT most of the year.) I've had a frightening experience when riding on creeks. A thin layer of ice forms on a creek or ditch, then the water level recedes. This leaves about a 2” layer of ice above the water with 3-4” of air in between. Crashing through these scares the $#!+ out of me! I've gone in leg-deep and arm-deep, which can be dangerous if you're off in the back woods far from shelter. I recommend carrying a survival kit with fire-starting equipment, a space bag and plenty of food and water.

    I like this blog!


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