A lot of bikepackers hang up their cycling and camping gear over winter, expecting not to bring them out again until spring. However, bikepacking in winter is definitely possible and even has some great benefits. Take a look at the tips below to learn how to take on your first winter bikepacking trip!
Tip #1 – Make sure your gear is rated to lower temperatures
Camping gear is often rated to certain temperatures. However, just to be confusing, each piece of gear uses a different scale.
Tents are described by the number of seasons they are designed for. For example, a “3-season” tent is supposedly suitable for spring, summer and autumn camping but not winter camping. While these may be suitable for warmer winter bikepacking trips, you may want to look out for a “4-season tent” which is suitable for winter as well (just watch out, they will be heavier and bulkier).
Sleeping bags are the easiest to understand, with most sleeping bags coming with a temperature rating. Pay close attention though, as sleeping bags often advertise a “comfort rating” and a “safety rating”. A safety rating of 50°F means that you should be safe sleeping in the bag down to that temperature (i.e. you should not get hypothermia sleeping in the sleeping bag at any temperature above 50°F).
On the other hand, a comfort rating is a temperature at which the bag might start to feel cold. For example, a comfort rating of 50°F means that you should not feel cold sleeping in the sleeping bag at any temperature above 50°F, but you might feel cold below this.
Sleeping mats have their insulation and warmth measured by something called an R-value. Make sure to get a sleeping mat with a higher R-value if you plan to be camping in very cold temperatures. At a minimum you will want to aim for an R-value of above 3, however, in worse conditions, you will want a mat with a rating higher than this.
Tip #2 – Learn to ride a bike in the snow
During winter, your chance of getting caught out in the snow is much higher. Making sure you know the best way to ride on this type of terrain is really important.
As well as knowing how to ride a bike in the snow and ice, you also need to be aware of the damage that cycling in these conditions can do to your bike. The freeze-thaw cycle on bikes can take its toll, reducing the lifespan of your bike and its individual components.
As well as this, the salt used on roads and paths to limit ice formation can also damage your bike, getting into key areas of the bike and damaging them.
Tip #3 – Get a waterproof phone case
Many phones these days are waterproof, however, not all of them are. If you plan to be using your phone a lot on your trip (for example as a GPS), consider getting a waterproof case if it is not already waterproof.
Tip #4 – Get some lithium batteries
While lithium batteries (like these on Amazon) are more expensive, they are much less likely to fail or lose power in the cold. While this might seem inconsequential, certain bits of gear like GPS devices often use batteries and being stuck with a dead GPS can be as dangerous as it is annoying. On this same note, make sure to take a few spares.
Tip #5 – Keep your electronics warm
As electronics get cold, the charge in their batteries drains more quickly and the batteries may stop working completely. Keeping any essential electronics such as a GPS, phone or emergency communicator at the bottom of your bag overnight (or somewhere else warm), can help to prevent this.
Tip #6 – Adjust your bike
Before setting off on your trip, make sure to adjust your bike to the climate and terrain you will be cycling in.
The first change you want to consider is your tires. If you expect to ride on a lot of snow or ice, then getting some wider and grippier tires will be safer.
On top of this, you can also look to adjust your gearing. Cycling in the cold is physically harder than cycling in the warm (cold air is denser), so having a lower range of gears can make your trip easier.
In very cold weather, consider swapping out your dropper seatpost for a normal one, or instead locking it into a set position. These types of seatpost can struggle in the cold, getting stuck and not moving as well as they should. If you are adamant you want to keep your dropper seatpost then make sure it is well-greased and lubricated before you set off and throughout your trip.
Finally, make sure your bike is clean and recently serviced. Having a mechanical issue on a trip in winter is much worse than in normal summer months. In winter, you will cool down much more quickly when stuck fixing a broken bike, which can be uncomfortable or even dangerous.
Tip #7 – Pack lots of layers
While the normal advice on bikepacking trips is to “be bold and start cold”, this isn’t always the case with bikepacking in winter, which can be terrible if you don’t have enough layers on.
When you head out on a bikepacking trip, make sure you have enough layers so that you can quickly and easily adjust what you’re wearing to adjust for how hot or cold you are feeling. This also includes layers for your extremities (such as your head, feet and hands).
|Layer of clothing||Example gear|
|Underwear||Underwear (Try out merino wool)|
Socks (Consider some waterproof ones)
|Base Layer||Wool base layers|
|Inner Layer||Cotton Jersey|
|Outer Layer||Waterproof coat WITH A HOOD|
Heavy-duty shoes or boots
Waterproof cycling shoes
Waterproof neoprene overshoes
With all these layers, I’d also advise looking at the hiking or camping options available rather than cycle-specific brands. This will give you more options and can often be cheaper.
Tip #8 – Pack logically
While you should always take account of the order that you will need your gear when packing for a bikepacking trip, it is essential on a bikepacking trip in winter.
If you haven’t planned your packing in advance, you might find that your rainjacket is at the bottom of your saddle bag as you get hit by a thunderstorm, or that you have to chuck your sleeping bag onto the wet ground so you can access the tent you need first.
Not only this, you need to ensure that you know exactly where everything is packed. Remember that cold hands can make opening bags harder, so having to open multiple bags to find a specific piece of gear can end up taking a considerable amount of time.
Tip #9 – Take hot food and drink
While I’m a big advocate for taking cold food on most overnight or short bikepacking trips (to save you the hassle of packing a stove) when on a winter trip I always take warm food.
After a long day of cycling in the cold and wet, having a warm meal or cup of tea at camp can be the difference between a fun and a terrible trip.
I’d advise taking a dehydrated meal, which can be easily cooked with boiling water, and in an emergency can be eaten with normal cold water (being able to light a fire in winter isn’t guaranteed). As another precaution you can take a flask of boiled water with you, this can be used to make your dehydrated meal if you don’t have the gear to boil water or if for any reason you aren’t able to.
Tip #10 – Learn to cook in the cold
Many bikepackers like using butane cookers for bikepacking trips, however, these do not work well at temperatures below freezing (32°F/0°C).
If you expect to be bikepacking in these conditions I’d suggest packing white gas in place of butane, or using an alcohol stove or wood fire instead.
No matter which method you choose, make sure to pack multiple methods of starting your fire. For example a lighter and a fire starter.
Tip #11 – Prepare for dangerous situations
While all of us hope our trips won’t have any issues, you should prepare for worst-case situations before you leave, especially in winter.
First Aid Kit
Make sure you take an in-date first aid kit with you. You should know what’s in there before you need it and you should know how to use all the items inside (otherwise what’s the point of taking them)? Including but not limited to, bandages, wound dressings, gloves and cling film (to help manage burns).
You can take a look at the video above from St John Ambulance on a basic first aid kit.
As well as a first aid kit you will want to take a survival kit with you if you are cycling in poor weather. This should include items such as a survival blanket (which again you should know how to use), a torch and a whistle.
Being caught out in the cold can be deadly, and if you expect to be isolated on your bikepacking trip, then you should know how to make a fire to keep yourself warm.
You can see this video here from the US Navy on how to start an emergency or survival fire.
Make sure that you have a list of emergency contacts saved into your phone before you leave, most importantly the number for emergency services in the country you are bikepacking in. Also set an “In Case of Emergency” (ICE) contact in your phone, as this can be used by emergency services to contact your next of kin.
Finally, make sure to set a check-in time with a friend or family member so they know that they should raise the alarm if they do not hear from you.
Tip #12 – Keep your hands warm
While you already know to wear lots of layers, making sure your hands stay warm on any cycling or bikepacking trip is a skill in itself.
First of all, make sure to wear a pair of gloves, and in particularly cold situations two pairs. If you don’t have a second pair of gloves you can use the latex gloves in your first aid kit underneath your main pair of gloves. These trap a layer of moisture and help your hands to feel warmer.
When it comes to glove selection, this will depend on the climate you are cycling, but in general avoid overly tight gloves which can be less effective, and try to find a pair with sealed cuffs.
During the day
Before you set out, you can try putting another layer of handlebar tape on your bike. This helps to add another layer of insulation to the handlebars and can help your hands to feel warmer, it can also be easier to grip with cold hands.
Some riders suggest using handlebar mittens, which are particularly effective at protecting your hands from the wind, however, these may get in the way of any handlebar bags.
Finally, when riding along or taking breaks, try swinging your arms around to help keep the blood supply going to your fingers.
The best overnight trick I use to keep my hands warm is my reusable hand warmers. These come with me on every bikepacking or camping trip. They can be used inside your gloves, held in your hand or just chucked into your sleeping bag before bed.
I’d suggest getting a reusable set, not only are these better for the planet but can save you weight and packing space on your trip. Simply putting the hand warmers in boiling water recharges them and means you can use the same pair for a whole trip, rather than having to pack multiple sets. I use these hand warmers found on amazon.
As well as this, try to keep your fingers moving overnight, moving them around every so often to help them stay warm and get the blood flow going. This is especially important to do before you set out in the morning as it is easier to keep your hands warm than it is to warm them up again.
Finally, if you are not sleeping in them, try to keep your gloves somewhere warm overnight (for example the bottom of your bag or in between your legs), this way they can be nice and toasty when you put them on in the morning.
Tip #13 – Prevent your water from freezing
During winter, water in your bottles can freeze. These are a couple of steps you can take to try and avoid this:
- Fill the bottles up with lukewarm water when you leave camp each morning.
- Occasionally shake the bottles to mix the water and slow down the freezing process
- Pack the bottles upside down into your bottle cages, this means that if your water does freeze, you will still have access to your drinking nozzle.
- Get water bottle insulators
- Get a metal Klean Kanteen (like these on amazon) that can be put onto the fire with water inside and help to melt snow.
- Keep the water closer to your body as you cycle e.g. Frame bag or backpack
Tip #14 – Avoid the alcohol
While having a nice strong drink as you get into camp can help you feel warmer, it won’t actually warm up you. This can be dangerous as your body might not realise how cold it is, which can put you at risk of hypothermia.
As well as this, alcohol can get to temperatures far below freezing, and drinking something this cold can result in cold burns as you drink it.
Tip #15 – Protect your contact lenses
While it won’t affect everyone, those who use glasses or contact lenses should plan a system before they leave. Your contact lens fluid needs to remain warm and unfrozen, as do your contact themselves. This is challenging but possible (hint, keep the solution and lenses close to your body so that your body heat keeps them warm).
If you use glasses, be prepared for reduced visibility in heavy rain with the raindrops on your glasses.
Tip #16 – Know where you are going to sleep
While the excitement of searching for a late-night camping spot can be great on a summer evening, it is far less fun in the middle of winter when it’s raining. I’d advise planning out in more detail where you plan to sleep each night.
Remember that most campsites close for winter, so try to call up ahead and check if your planned campsite is still open, or otherwise you might be stuck wild camping. When picking an actual tent spot, aim for one that will catch the morning sun as this can help to dry out any wet gear.
Also, don’t forget about alternative sleeping options such as an AirB&B, hotel, B&B, Hostel or Bothy. Credit card bikepacking is a thing for a reason, and can make a trip much more enjoyable.
Tip #17 – Go with a buddy
Setting out with a friend or riding partner can make a bikepacking trip in winter much more plausible. Not only can the second person help to carry more warm gear, but a tent is much warmer with two people.
As another bonus, having a second person around to complain about your trip can make dealing with the cold and wet more bearable.
Tip #18 – Get waterproof bikepacking bags
Some people have to learn the hard way that not all bikepacking bags are waterproof. Make sure before you set out that you know which of your bags are waterproof and which aren’t.
If you don’t have any (or enough) waterproof bikepacking bags, remember that you can use a dry bag inside a bikepacking bag to keep the gear inside dry. This isn’t quite as good as having a waterproof bikepacking bag, as the outer bag can still absorb a lot of water and get a lot heavier, but they come as a very close second.
Tip #19 – Keep your dry kit and wet kit separate
One of the main tricks for staying warm and comfortable on a bikepacking trip in winter is to have a clothing routine sorted. Staying all day in the same wet clothes is a recipe for getting sick and having to cancel the rest of your trip. What you need to do is find a way that you can change into warm clothes when you get to camp.
The simplest way to do this is to have a set of camp clothes and a set of cycling clothes. Once you get to camp and you’ve set up your tent (and finished everything else you need to be in the rain to do), dry yourself off with a towel and switch into your dry set of clothes. Try to keep these two sets separate, either in different bags or separate dry bags.
As you take these wet clothes off, try to pack them somewhere warm (I use the bottom of my longest bag). The clothes will dry off more quickly if they’re warm and can be easier to put on in the morning.
Tip #20 – Use a Nalgene bottle
Nalgene bottles can hold hot water. This can be a great way to warm yourself up overnight in your tent. As you are finishing cooking for the night or are getting into your sleeping bag, heat up a litre of water on your campfire or stove. Then pour this water into the Nalgene bottle and place this inside your sleeping bag (make sure the lid is on tight…).
This can help to keep you warm as you sleep, but also means you have a vaguely hot drink in the morning that can help you to warm yourself before getting out of your tent. Take a look at Nalgene bottles on amazon.
Tip #21 – Keep your tent ventilated
While it might sound a bit counterintuitive, overnight you should try to keep your tent well-ventilated with fresh air. A lot of hiking or bikepacking tents come with ventilation slits that can be propped open to allow for this.
Circulating air in your tent helps to stop condensation from forming on the inside of the tent, which in cold weather can freeze and make your tent feel much colder
Obviously, don’t do this at the expense of more water getting inside your tent if the wind is blowing heavily and it is raining.
Tip #22 – Make sure you are fit enough
Cycling in winter is harder than cycling in summer.
|Why is cycling harder in winter?|
|Cold air is harder to breathe|
|Tires are less supple and less flexible|
|Cold air is denser, increasing air resistance by up to 3%|
|Cold muscles don’t work as well and are more prone to injury|
|Having to wear more layers is heavier|
|Cold bearings and grease are stiffer and harder to turn|
|The body uses more energy to keep warm|
To adjust for this, you need to make sure you are fit enough for the route you have planned. This means you either need to adjust your route to a shorter one, or increase your riding ability and fitness. Take a look at my article here to learn about training for bikepacking trips.
Tip #23 – Take a proper toolkit
As we’ve already established, being stuck in the snow, rain or cold with a broken bike can be uncomfortable at best, and dangerous at worst. This also goes for having to push a bike back to civilisation if you are unable to fix a mechanical problem.
Make sure that you pack a decent toolkit for your winter bikepacking trips, this should include all your normal bike maintenance tools as well as a leatherman-style tool with pliers. These can come in very handy when making “on the fly” bike fixes in cold weather, as your cold hands may not be able to grip onto the bike parts as well as they normally can.
As well as this, consider taking a larger bike pump than you normally do. Saving a few minutes pumping up a flat tire can be worth the extra weight and size of a slightly bigger pump. You can take a look at my favourite bikepacking pumps here.
Tip #24 – Take bike lights
While you should take bike lights on all bikepacking trips (even if you don’t plan to be cycling at night), these are essential for winter trips. Not only this, but you want to make sure that the lights you take are much brighter than those you take for summer trips.
In winter, the front light especially will be used to guide your path. Days are shorter and so you will find that the sun disappears much more quickly than you are used to, often leaving you cycling for portions of your trip in the dusk or dark. You want a light that is bright enough that you can see hazards in the path in front of you (such as tree trunks, rocks or black ice).
Your rear light should be bright enough that cars and other road users can easily see you in snow, rain, mist or hail.
Tip #25 – Take something to keep you entertained
With shorter winter days, you may well be spending more time at camp than you do in summer. If you are anything like me, then you’ll find yourself feeling miserable and cold when stuck at camp for long periods with nothing to do.
I’d suggest taking something to keep you entertained and distracted from the cold. For example, you could try taking an:
- Card Game
Tip #26 – Take a lightweight camping chair
The ground also gets cold on winter nights. Having something to sit on, for example, a camping chair or sitting mat can help to insulate you from this. Newer camping chairs, like the Helinox chair zero, weigh as little as 500g and pack down very well. It also stops you from getting a wet bum in your dry camp clothes. You can take a look at the Helinox chair zero here on amazon.
If you are planning a solo trip in a small tent, you may well find that sitting on your sleeping mat offers this same benefit.
Tip #27 – Adjust your route
Given the weather is likely to be worse on winter bikepacking trips, you should prepare for the cycling conditions also being worse. Because of this, you might want to adjust the types of routes you plan when bikepacking in winter. Things to look for include:
- A safe route
- A place with mobile phone service
- Somewhere you can be in contact with civilisation quickly
- Shorter routes (especially if you are not experienced with winter bikepacking)
- Places with better cycling terrain
If you don’t like the idea of bikepacking in winter, remember that you can go further afield during winter and enjoy all the benefits of summer bikepacking year-round.
|Winter Bikepacking Country Ideas||Winter Bikepacking Route Ideas|
|Puerto Rico||Tombstone Hustle|
|Peru||Chesapeake and Ohio Cana|
|Costa Rica||Sky Islands Odyssey|
Tip #28 – Take a pee bottle
A pee bottle to use inside the tent is extremely useful in the cold! Having to get up in the middle of the night and get out of your tent can lose any heat you’ve managed to gain in your time inside the tent.
Using a bottle is also much better than holding on for a whole night, where the effort of holding in your pee can use up energy and body heat. Not only this, but it saves you from getting your dry clothes wet if it is raining.
While this tip is generally easier for men, women can also try using a portable female urinal (like this one on amazon) to give themselves this option.
Tip #29 – Stay warm once you stop riding
Conserving the warmth you’ve gained on your days riding is an important skill for winter bikepacking. It’s much easier to stay warm than it is to get warm again.
This means that as you get to camp, you should get a set of warm clothes on as soon as you can.
It also means planning your trips outside the tent and trying to limit the number of times you need to go back out into the cold and wet.
Just as you do when you are cycling, try to keep multiple layers on inside the tent, using a down coat, multiple pairs of socks or even gloves to stay warm.
Tip #30 – Check the forecast
Before setting out on a winter bikepacking trip, make sure to check the weather. This way if it is worse than you expected, you can rearrange the trip, or at least adjust the gear you are taking with you.
Obviously, you can’t trust the weather forecast completely, so no matter what the forecast says, make sure to pack enough gear so that you can survive in worse conditions (always take a raincoat!)
As well as looking at general weather forecasts, localised weather is also a factor. For example, if you set up camp at the bottom of a sunny valley, you’re likely to wake up in a freezing blanket of fog.
Finally, make sure to look at the “feels like” temperature as well as the actual temperature. This will take into account rain and wind chill. Remember that riding on a bike will feel even colder than these temperatures.
Riding at a certain speed is the same as being hit by the wind at that speed. For example, cycling at 15mph is equivalent to being hit by a 15 mph wind. This will feel much colder (the wind molecules carry away your body heat) and can make a huge difference to a trip.
Take a look at the chart below to work out how much of a difference the wind speed will have on your temperature.
Tip #31 – Take a test ride
My final piece of advice is to make sure you have a practice run at bikepacking in winter before you set out on a longer trip.
Dial in and test your sleep system/routine in your back garden. You can even try doing this with a set of damp/wet clothes to work out your clothing system at the same time.
It is also worth testing out your ability to cycle in winter conditions before setting out on a longer trip. Find somewhere close to home with terrain similar to that of your planned bikepacking trip. Take a fully loaded bike and try cycling. This should test your handling, specifically how the different conditions affect your fully loaded bike.
As you can see, bikepacking in winter needs a lot of adjustments, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! While I personally prefer bikepacking in summer, winter trips can help you scratch that bikepacking itch when you aren’t normally able to go!