We don’t all live in sunny Southern California where it’s a perfect 80 degrees all year. Some of us have to suffer through some cold weather if we want to bike year-round. If you’re one of those people, here are some tips for cold weather MTB riding.

This isn’t necessarily a winter or fat bike riding video. We did one of those last year. If you want to know about how to ride in the snow, go watch that. This is going to cover that shoulder season type of riding — when it’s cold, rainy, icy, and generally miserable outside. We are going to cover some basics like gear, where and when to ride, and how to keep it rubber side down.

Cold Weather MTB When and Where

Cold Weather Action Shot

Let’s start off with when and where to ride. If the trails are dry, ride whenever and wherever you’d like — there’s nothing stopping you. It’s when we get into this freeze/thaw cycle that things get a little trickier. Ideally, you’ll want to be off the trail before the outside temperature gets much above freezing. All the moisture in the dirt will turn to slop and your ride is going to be less fun. If temps are below freezing, the dirt will be hardpack and really grippy. Usually, this means getting up a little earlier, skipping the second cup of coffee, and getting after it so you have time to ride before the thaw. Alternatively, you can head out when temps start to fall again in the evening. It won’t leave you with too much time though. By the time the trails refreeze, it’s usually pretty dark. Either way, use your judgment and try to stick to frozen dirt. 

Where to ride? Unless you have a fat bike or the trails are really packed, riding on snow sucks. It’s not all that grippy, it gets slushy and messy when it warms up, and good luck trying to hit jumps or trail features with any confidence. I’ll usually look for south-facing, lower elevation trails. They’re more likely to be snow and ice-free. If you’re in Northern Utah, some good places to ride are Fruit Loops, Antelope Island, Eagle Mountain, certain parts of Corner Canyon, and the BST. Places with sandy dirt usually hold up well to the freeze/thaw cycle.

Cold Weather Human Gear

Cold Weather MTB Human Gear

Let’s get into the gear you’re going to want. First, we will cover human gear. Knowing what to wear this time of year can be really tricky. I like to pack just about every jacket I own in my bag so I have options at the trailhead. It can be tough to find the right balance, and it’s pretty easy to overdress. Let’s run through a few scenarios and talk about what works best.

 Scenario A: 32-40 degrees and not currently precipitating

I’m still going to wear shorts with knee pads or warmers. I’ll throw on a pair of thick wool socks and my least ventilated summer shoes. On top, I’ll wear a short-sleeve base layer, a lightweight and breathable fleece jacket, and possibly one of those windbreakers that more closely resembles a trash bag than a jacket. I’ll unzip the outer shell on the climbs and zip it back up for the DH. If it’s sunny, I’ll probably ditch the windbreaker. I’ll wear normal gloves too. Usually, that’s just about right to not get sweaty on the ups, while not freezing to death on the downhill. Keep in mind, you want to be cold in the parking lot before you start — you’ll warm up pretty quickly.

Scenario B: 32-40 degrees and precipitating

On top, I’ll for sure be wearing a rain jacket with the usual stuff underneath. I’ll swap the short-sleeve base layer for a long-sleeve one. I’ll also put on lightweight long pants and waterproof shoes. As long as you stay dry, you won’t get cold.

Scenario C: 20-32 degrees

Here’s where things get tricky. You definitely don’t want to sweat on the uphill, or you’ll turn into a popsicle on the DH. But, you don’t want to be underprepared — 20 degrees is pretty cold. If it’s closer to freezing but still dry I’ll wear shorts with just a pair of long johns or full-length tights underneath. You won’t win any style points, but full-length riding pants can get sweaty, especially if it’s sunny. When temps get closer to 20, I’ll bust out the long pants. I opt for light to mid-weight softshell pants. Don’t go fleece lined. Trust me, you’ll regret it. On top, I’ll wear pretty much the same stuff as in Scenario B. I’ll put on my mid-weight, windproof gloves too. I’ll wear waterproof, mid-height shoes and warm wool socks. This is also the time to bust out the hockey infused MTB helmet like the Giro Tyrant. It covers my ears and the goggles keep my face warm. Pro tip: grow a beard. It not only looks cool, but it keeps the wind off your chin.

Scenario D: under 20 degrees

Call me a Californian, but if it’s under 20, I’m probably riding the trainer (gross) or migrating south. Still, I’ve spent a fair share of days riding under 20 degrees. Basically, I’ll wear the same stuff as Scenario C and just suffer a lot more. Every once in a while I’ll put on an insulated mid-layer. But, it’s usually the hands, feet, and ears that begin to be the problem. I’ll wear a headband over my ears, and the thickest socks I have. That solves the hands and feet problem. The hard choice is which gloves to wear. Biking in heavyweight gloves sucks. You have no feel for the bars, brakes, and shifters. Resorting to bar mitts or pogies can keep your hands warm while allowing you to wear lightweight gloves. Just be prepared for odd looks and not being able to do suicide no handers.


Now let’s get into bike gear. I make a few tweaks to the bike to account for changes in trail conditions. First of all, I drop my air pressure a couple of PSI in both tires. I’m a 30 PSI or die kind of guy, until the trail freeze. Spoiler alert – frozen dirt is really hard. It can rattle your hands pretty badly. I might be 100% making it up, but it seems like the rubber compounds in the tires firm up too when it’s really cold. Either way, I like the feel of the lower air pressure when the dirt is frozen.

This one is going to sound weird, but I promise it works. Right when you get to the trailhead, flip your bike upside down. The cold air will thicken the oil inside your suspension and increase friction. By flipping the bike upside down, the oil will flow toward the seals instead of just pooling at the bottom. Also, cruise around the parking lot for a minute bouncing up and down on the bike. You’ll start warming up the oil so your suspension works as intended. 

This is the time of year to break out the wet lube. I hate wet lube in Utah, but what’s worse is riding through puddles and washing all the lube off your chain. Your bike is likely going to need a clean anyway so the little extra mess from the wet lube will be fine.

Cold Weather Riding Tips

Conditions can vary so much during the shoulder months. Not only do they change day to day, but they can also change by the hour. I like to take a little bit of time to warm up, get a feel for the traction levels and overall conditions before I get after it. Keep an eye out for shady spots where icy conditions are likely. Alternatively, keep an eye out for sunny spots where the trails might be thawing quicker. Hitting a soggy jump that’s been melting in the sun can be pretty startling when you’ve been riding frozen dirt all morning. 

Shoulder season riding can be some of the best. Don’t let a little foul weather keep you on the couch.

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