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Family Fat Biking 101

Where and how to try this ‘fatastic’ sport this winter

Published on: October 16, 2019

kids and parents with their fat bikes

Biking has officially become a four-season sport. Equipped with oversized tires that are kept at low pressure, so-called fat bikes are trail-ready almost anytime, anywhere — including on soft or slippery surfaces such as sand, mud and even snow.

This terrain versatility makes fat biking one of cycling’s fastest-growing trends and a perfect fit for cold-weather family adventures. Fat biking is a great way to explore Washington’s winter landscapes, one that is easy to combine with other snow-time fun — say, a stop to build a snowman or have an impromptu snowball fight. When the next Snowpocalypse hits the Seattle area, biking through the snow will make a simple cruise through town to get a cup of hot cocoa all the more exciting. And planning a trip to a more extensive trail network makes for an active family getaway that is more affordable than resort skiing.

A bike carrier outfitted with ski attachments makes it easy to take the little ones along for the ride, and fat bikes have more recently become available in smaller sizes, making it possible for older kids to ride alongside. The best part? Chances are good that you already know how to do it, even if you’ve never actually biked on snow before.

“Pretty much everyone knows how to ride a bike, so all you need to do is get up and go,” says Erika Halm, outreach and access manager at Methow Trails in Eastern Washington. “It’s just like riding a normal bike, but you’re magically floating on top of the snow.”

family fat biking in the snow

Where to go

Methow Valley

Methow Trails offers the largest cross-country ski system in North America and is a pioneer of fat biking in the lower 48 states. “When we first offered fat biking, we thought we were on the leading edge — but now everyone is doing it,” says Halm. Still, Methow Trails holds its place as the local gold standard. The organization opens about 35 kilometers of routinely groomed trails to fat bikers: some multi-use trails that are shared with skiers and snowshoers, and some trails that are reserved exclusively for cyclists. Daily grooming reports are posted on the organization’s website, so it is easy to make a plan based on current conditions (fat biking becomes more challenging the longer it has been since the trails have been groomed and also more challenging in soft, mushy snow). Some of the trails are even open to dogs, making it possible for the whole crew to tag along.

For those looking for a bigger adventure, Methow Trails partners with Rendezvous Huts to groom trails to make several remote cabins accessible in winter. You can get to one of them — the Grizzly Hut — via fat bike. “I’ve taken my 2-year-old to the huts, and it’s worked out great,” says Halm. “Like anything, you have to be prepared to bring a lot of stuff, but she loves it.”

Outside of the Methow Trails network, Pearrygin Lake State Park, 3 miles northeast of Winthrop, opens about 33 kilometers of trails to fat bikers.

Fat bike rentals are available at Methow Cycle & Sport, Cascades Outdoor Store, Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies and North Cascades Cycle Werks.

Central Cascades

The Leavenworth Ski Hill, operated by the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club (LWSC), is the epicenter of cross-country snow sports in the Central Cascades, and that includes winter cycling. Fat biking is allowed on a portion of the ski hill’s groomed trails from 6–10 p.m. on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings. Five kilometers of these trails are lighted, with an additional two kilometers that you can ride with a bike mount or headlamp. Be sure to check for closures and trail conditions ahead of time on the LWSC website.

In neighboring Wenatchee, Squilchuck State Park also offers several miles of groomed trails that are open to fat bikers. Fat bike rentals are available at Arlberg Sports locations in Leavenworth and Wenatchee.

White Pass

The White Pass Nordic Center, home to 18 kilometers of groomed trails, is one of the most low-key, family-friendly cross-country ski outfits in the Pacific Northwest. Its relatively high elevation also means it gets lots of the fluffy white stuff. The Nordic Center’s rental shop outfits fat bikes, and allows them on their trails when conditions permit (as in, when the bike tires won’t leave a rut in the snow that could interfere with cross-country skiers). Dogs are also allowed on the trails beginning at 3:30 p.m., so it’s another good option when a family wants to include Fido in the fun.

father and son fat biking

Tips and tricks

Find a set of wheels

Be sure to call ahead to make a reservation if you plan to rent a fat bike or chariot. If you have difficulty finding a child-sized fat bike, Patrick Walker, senior marketing manager for the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, suggests asking if the rental business has plus-sized mountain bikes. The tires of plus-sized bikes are 2.8 inches wide, which should be big enough to stay on top of the snow bearing the lighter weight of a child. For adult bikes, the tires need to be at least 3.75 inches wide and filled to a maximum of 6 psi.

Layer up

“Dress as you would for Nordic skiing,” Walker recommends. “Even though it’s cold out, you’re going to be active. But do wear shoes that will keep your feet warm — not your normal biking shoes.” If you are pulling children in a chariot, remember that you will be doing all the work, so bundle them up!

Conditions matter

“Temperature makes a big difference in terms of when to go,” says Walker. As a general rule: the colder, the better. Cold snow will be easier to ride on because it’s firmer; pedaling will take more effort or even become impossible as things warm up and the snow softens.

Know the rules

Just as on a multi-use trail in the summer, cyclists must yield to other trail users (in this case, snowshoers and cross-country skiers). Stay out of groomed classic cross-country tracks if you encounter them because the bike tires will widen the tracks, making it more difficult for skiers. Many groomed trails will close if conditions get too soft; as a general rule, if you leave a rut that is more than an inch deep you should not be riding.

Go for a test run

While riding fat bikes requires the same basic skills as normal cycling, it does have a different feel to it and can take some getting used to. Plus, “Your easiest trail is going to become more challenging when there’s snow on it,” notes Walker. Keep things fun by starting off easy; assess everyone’s abilities and then ramp up to harder trails only when everyone is ready.

That being said, the fun of fat biking usually comes easily — and learning the ropes is often a part of that. “The great thing about riding in snow is if you do topple off, it’s usually just a cause for laughter,” says Halm. “It’s hard to get hurt.”

family fat biking together

Staying local

While the best groomed trails available to fat bikers are a bit of a trek from Seattle, there are also fat biking options that are closer to home. “If you want to ride a fat bike, all you really need to do is get ahold of one,” says Patrick Walker, senior marketing manager for the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. If there are less than 6 inches of snow, you can ride fat bikes anywhere — for example, a good choice could be along the John Wayne Pioneer Trail in Iron Horse State Park, about an hour’s drive from Seattle. If you want to experience the challenge of deeper snow, the snowmobile trails of the Sno-Parks near Snoqualmie Pass could be a good option. If you plan to ride on more than 6 inches of snow, however, you want to make sure you’re traversing a firm, packed surface. Otherwise, you’ll be spending your time pushing your bike rather than riding it. (For a guide to family mountain biking, try this.)

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