We recently announced a 3-part series on an introduction to winter fatbike ultras. Part 2 will dig deep into the logistics of packing what you need as well as staying warm and dry during the long, cold, dark hours of a winter fatbike ultra race.
Winter fatbike ultras aren't for everyone. They require critical planning, training, and mitigation of serious risks. The Nxrth is partnering with Jamison Swift, Co-Founder of the St. Croix 40 to present a 3-part series on winter fatbike ultras. We'll walk through:
Who should consider winter fatbike ultras
What risks you need to be aware of
How to pack your gear
How to stay warm and dry
Food and water planning
PART 2 OF 3: LOGISTICS
Once you’ve decided that winter ultras are something you want to take on, the logistical challenges begin. Gear prep can be daunting, but take advantage of groups like the Arrowhead Dream Team and other blogs, to learn from what others have done, and then start using your gear on training rides. Spending a night in your bivy sack, in your backyard, is a pretty standard rite of passage for folks in this arena.
How to Pack & Carry Your Gear
There are a couple key things to remember when planning out how to pack your gear. First, you need to decide the best method for loading up your bike. Some people prefer a full rack and pannier system, whereas others go with the more traditional bikepacking seat bag. This is completely personal preference, and dependent on the equipment and connection points you have on your bike. There is no right or wrong choice, it’s about what you’re the most comfortable with.
Either way you choose (or some variation in-between), there are some key things to remember when planning to pack your gear.
Don’t pack things too tight. Remember that your hands will be cold and tired and won’t be functioning at 100% capacity. If your sleeping bag and bivy sack are compressed too tightly, you may find yourself in a dangerous situation of being unable to remove your gear from your bags because you can’t use your hands well.
Put the most important gear where you can get to it quickly. Weather conditions can change, and you need to be able to adapt. Know where your emergency layers are and make sure you can get to them within seconds.
Balance your weight. You’re going to be pedaling for a long time, sometimes in challenging snow conditions. Don’t make life rougher than it needs to be by putting too much weight on the back or on one side.
Think about food. You will need to eat quite a bit during these events. Figure out the best way to get calories stored in an easily accessible spot on your rig. Remember that your body is a furnace, and that furnace needs fuel. If you get behind on calories you’re going to get colder quicker.
How to Stay Warm and Dry
Biking presents unique challenges for staying warm and dry during an ultra. Unlike being on foot, you’re not getting nearly as much circulation to your extremities when pedaling, and this can lead to fingers and toes getting a lot colder than the rest of your body. It’s important to spend a lot of time practicing in the cold with different layers of socks, gloves, and chemical warmers to figure out what’s the best solution for you. Additionally, pogies and over-boots can be great options to help manage heat in the extremities. Stuffing a chemical warmer into an overboot or a pogie can be a great way to get additional warmth to these areas.
Sometimes you will need to walk your bike. Either because of hills or pedaling fatigue, walking your bike is sometimes the only option to keep forward momentum going. But it can also be a great way to get blood flowing to areas like your toes that might not have moved or flexed in hours.
Walking your bike can also get your heart rate up which pushes more blood throughout the body as a whole. However, it’s important to be careful to not sweat too much or you can end up spending time being wet in the freezing cold.
Moisture is a huge enemy in winter ultras. Sweating can lead to hypothermia as the moisture on your body freezes and doesn’t evaporate. Learning how to layer appropriately and how to vent your layers to allow sweat to evaporate is a key skill. There’s no set formula for how to do this, as every single person sweats differently. Coming up with a good layering technique requires trial and error, and many participants will pack a dry layer to change into as needed.
How to Pace Yourself
Winter ultra events have winners, but 99% of the people there aren’t trying to ‘compete’ in the traditional sense. It’s about overcoming the challenge and being self-sufficient. Keep in mind the length of the race and be realistic about what speed will be sustainable for you. One of the worst things that you can do is burn yourself out too quickly and then find yourself in the middle of the woods with no energy, dozens of miles from help. Having a realistic pacing plan will help you pedal longer, and it’ll keep you moving more consistently throughout the event. You’ll feel stronger in the later stages of the race, and you’ll be less likely to face the dreaded bonk.
Remember that winter ultras are in remote areas. Don’t take risks just to shave a few minutes off your overall time
How to Plan Your Food and Water
Fuel is key for endurance sports, and winter ultras are no different. However, there are a couple key differences with eating in winter that you need to be aware of. First, remember that food will freeze, and so you need to make sure you have types of food that won’t turn rock hard in the cold. Some foods, like chocolate candies, thaw quickly as soon as you put them in your mouth. Others, like sandwiches, can be more challenging unless they’re cut into small pieces ahead of time so they can be popped in your mouth to thaw over time. Everyone’s diet is different, so pick some foods you think you might enjoy on the trail and then set them out in the snow for a while. Then go outside and see what worked and what didn’t.
Second, remember that you have access to a stove and water in your equipment. There’s nothing stopping you from pulling over on the side of the trail and cooking a warm camp meal. This is a great option if you’re planning to bivy for a few hours to get some sleep. You can tuck into your shelter while your water boils and the meal cooks, and then fill your belly with food before getting some rest.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Everyone will experience things differently, so as with all advice, practice, practice, practice. Go out and see what works for you BEFORE you need to rely on your skills. Sleeping in your backyard, boiling water for a camp meal, testing your foods - these are all things that you should master before attempting a winter ultra. The organizers of these events expect people to show up prepared and ready for the challenge.
Don’t disappoint them by getting yourself into a situation that you could have avoided by being prepared.
And of course, remember you’re out there to challenge yourself, and hopefully have fun. Winter is a beautiful time of year and learning to enjoy it will unlock incredible beauty that you might never have known existed.