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The Cold Weather Bikepacking Guide

Planning & Packing For Your Next Adventure

Snow-filled months are here, and we’ve moved our bikes from their safe spot in the garage to our trainers in the house. While many of us believe winter months to be a no-go for bikepacking, a few not-so-secret tips can help us find ourselves on a cold-weather trip—warm layers, dedication to exploration, and a go-getter attitude are a great start. The hardest part? Picking our favorite gravel paths and backroads to get lost on. 

Planning Your Trip

The first step to any bikepacking trip is (anticipation-filled!) planning. Ride With GPS, Gaia, and Strava are all excellent options for route mapping, and it’s easy to find loops at lower elevations to avoid those snow-packed mountain passes. Sites like Bikepacking.com can serve as a starting point to find routes and include helpful beta like camping and resupply information. This is the time to explore the places that might be too hot to ride in the summer, and revisit routes you’ve done in other seasons to get a new perspective. I’m talking about deserts, valleys, and roads that travel alongside mountain ranges rather than up and over them.

Bike paths in the Midwest, woodsy trails in the East, and gravel backroads in the West are all great starting points for trip planning. Read descriptions, comments, and scope out the route if it’s nearby to make sure it’s rideable with the weather. Plan on the possibility of getting caught in snowy weather, and make sure to get riding outside a few times before the actual trip to gauge how it feels to go the distance in frigid temps. With less daylight in winter months, you’ll have to adjust how far you ride in a given day and set up camp earlier in the evening to stay warm overnight.

What To Pack

Less is more when it comes to packing for that weekend loop in warmer months. In the winter and late fall, it’s a different story—you’ll have to balance having enough layers to stay warm without overpacking. Knickers, gloves, warm socks or booties, and a cycling cap go a long way for riding comfort. Off the bike, you’ll need more insulating layers like a warm beanie, insulated jacket, and thick gloves. A few merino wool pieces also go a long way—like liner gloves to pair with thicker shell gloves, baselayers, and additional layers to sleep in. 

For camping gear, swap out that summer sleeping bag for a winter-rated one to sleep warm. We like a 0-15 degree bag, but this depends on the climate where you ride. You can also add a sleeping bag liner for a bit more warmth without a ton of weight or expense. Even if you cowboy camp in the summer, trading out for a tent in the winter will help you sleep warmer and wake up more refreshed than shivering in a bivy. A few extra creature comforts help in the winter too—like an insulated sleeping pad to prevent heat loss on the cold ground, a lantern to hang in the tent, and a stove for hot drinks in the morning and evening. 

Colder temperatures also demand more fuel. From more snacks to higher-calorie dinners, winter is not the time to skimp on nutrition. If you’ll be riding in especially cold temperatures, make sure that the snacks you bring will be enjoyable even if frozen (looking at you, frozen gummy bears), and pack along some high-fat foods like peanut butter cups for a spike in warmth if you need it. A little bit of your favorite whiskey won’t hurt, either.

How To Pack

More gear can complicate the already precise packing scheme for bikepacking. For some riders, this amount of gear might mean they need to switch it up from seat, frame, and handlebar bags to panniers with a larger payload. The same principles of packing still apply: keep items you’ll need during the day accessible, snacks at the ready, and heavier items stored centered and low on the bike (like in a framebag). If your route has multiple climbs and descents, having accessible extra layers can help you manage your temperature as you ride. Keeping a wind jacket in a pocket and gloves in a stem bag makes them easy to add or shed as you need throughout the day. 

Find Your Refuge

Depending on the conditions and how far out there you want to go, it’s a good idea to have a warm place to catch your breath. This could be anything from a mercantile in Montana to a hot spring in Nevada or a trailside coffee shop in Wisconsin. Treat yourself! You deserve it, and it makes the ride that much better to have a respite to look forward to when you’re 35 miles into a 60-plus mile day. It always pays to have a backup plan, too. If it will be your first foray into winter overnights, scope out motels near the route to have a bailout (warm-up) option if the weather takes a turn. There’s no wrong way to get out in the winter, whether you’ll be on a remote desert loop or taking on a perennial favorite with coffee stops along the way. 

Clara Hatcher is a writer at Backcountry and Competitive Cyclist and an avid gravel rider with a penchant for bikepacking. Follow along @clara.hatcher


Photos by Andrew Charbonneau