Cycling on the snow might sound crazy, but with the right kind of bike, it's a great workout that will have you soaking up the season. The same terrain you use for snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing is a whole new playground atop a fat-tire bike, or "fat bike," as it's commonly called. "This bike looks and moves like a mountain bike," says Amanda Dekan, a senior instructor for the REI Outdoor School. "But a fat bike has thicker tires with deeper grooves and lower air pressure." The extra width gives you better traction, deeper grooves increase surface area for better ground grab, and less pressure lets you glide on top of the snow rather than sink into it.
Fat biking's popularity increased significantly after a winter of scant snowfall in much of the country about two years ago. "People were looking to satisfy their outdoors fix in spite of limited, and also harder, snow," says David Ochs, co-founder of the inaugural Fat Bike World Championships earlier this year in Crested Butte, Colorado. Cycling was the perfect option.
Now mountain gear shops offer fat bikes alongside cross-country skis, and bike shops market them as a way to cycle throughout the year. Even resorts are getting in the fat-bike game, building packages around the experience for guests looking for a fun, accessible way to explore and get active. (Also try: other extreme winter sports that put skiing to shame.)
If you're near a snowy spot, it's easy to get pedaling. Most shops will rent you a bike for $40 to $50 for a half day. They'll also offer you an insulated helmet and "pogies," special mittens that attach to the handlebars. Major plus: When it comes to gear, you probably already have everything you need to pedal like a pro. You'll want to slip into fleece-lined base layers with some breathability and windproof outer layers, Dekan says. Keep your feet warm and dry with thick wool socks and insulated, waterproof snow or cycle boots. (Try these stylish shoes that can double as snow boots .) Here are five more reasons to saddle up on the snow.
1. No Lessons Needed.
A fat bike is much bigger than a cruiser or a road bike, but riding one calls for far fewer rules to follow and techniques to master. "It's a tough workout, but it's also highly intuitive and most people pick it up quickly," Ochs says. Pedal and steer. It's that simple. "Unlike other mountain sports, pretty much anyone can get out there and ride, no matter your level of experience." Beginners: Start off on a fairly flat, wider trail with tightly packed snow. (For extra prep, try these exercises that get you ready for snow sports.)
2. Any Weather Goes.
Rain, snow, wind, or shine, a fat bike will handle like a mini monster truck. Hard-packed trails that haven't seen snowfall in a while are great for fat biking because they'll give off a paved-road feel. But you'll also want to go out after a big powder blast, since that's when ski resorts and parks groom runs for snow-shoers and cross-country skiers, Ochs says.
3. Your Legs Win Big
Because fat biking is a non-weight-bearing activity, it takes the pressure off your knees, allowing the muscles around them to get stronger, says Rebecca Rusch, a world-champion mountain bike competitor from Ketchum, Idaho, who trains on a fat bike during the winter. That means you can get firm, powerful quads without the wear and tear on your knees that other winter sports can bring on.
And unlike when pedaling on a paved road, every on-snow pedal stroke requires more effort (that higher heart rate will earn you a bigger calorie burn) and power from your muscles (which amps up your firming) thanks to the resistance of unstable terrain. "Plus, because your legs are engaged in a push-and-pull effort as they rotate, you get a quad-to-hamstring, butt-to-calves muscle work- out that other snow sports can't match," Rusch says.
4. Flat Abs Come On Fast.
Even when you're cruising along a flat trail on firm, packed snow, you're never really riding on solid ground, so your abs, obliques, and lower back are always on, working to stabilize your entire body. Think of every patch of loose snow or slippery spot that makes you lose some traction as a chance to take your core sculpting into overdrive. "And if you hit the hills, your core has to kick into high gear to help power you up the incline," says Sydney Fox, the co-owner of Breck Bike Guides in Breckenridge, Colorado. "In order to maintain momentum, you'll have to lean forward, which keeps every muscle in your trunk engaged—it's almost like walking on a balance beam."
5. So. Much. Nature.
You can ride anywhere there's snow, and thanks to being on wheels, you'll cover more ground than you would hitting the same route on skis or snowshoes. You can access new vantage points (don't forget your GoPro) and explore areas you'd never be able to reach otherwise, Fox says. Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that feelings of awe—like the kind that come in response to being in nature— can make us think less often about our own problems, interpret those problems as less dramatic, and be more generous to others. You might say an afternoon on a fat bike can make you a better person. (If running is more your style, just make sure you know everything you need before setting out to run in the snow.)