Dillon Maxwell, longtime member of the Fort Collins bike community, #steelisreal die hard, and friend of ours, still carries the duck camo Klettersack he got in 2013. We’re feeling especially cooped up this winter, so we tapped him to share his tips on how to bike camp in the winter - without it becoming a sufferfest.
I’m Dillon Maxwell, and this is Winter Bike Camping.
Since 2016, I’ve gone on a group bike camping ride every winter. We’ve ridden different bikes with different set ups, made different meals, brought different gear... and enjoyed ourselves to very different degrees. So that you can skip all the trial and error, I’ve written down what we’ve learned so you, too, can experience the wonderment that is cyclo-camping in winter.
Disclaimer: All of these photos are from 2017-2019; hence the large groups huddled together closely with no masks.
Low Miles, High Vibes
So, first things first: approach this like a party ride, NOT a training ride. Fun should be the focus. The exercise is just an added bonus.
The best way to do this is to choose a destination close to home. Here’s why this is the move:
- You’re hauling a lot of gear (see below.)
- There’s less light in winter, so less time to get there early enough to avoid setting up camp in the dark.
- You’ll sweat less, and therefore freeze less.
- You can finally enjoy close-to-town campgrounds that are usually at capacity in the summer. (Just make sure you find one that’s open year-round.)
- It’s easy to bail if you’re not having fun. This way there’s way less distance between you and your electric blanket and Seinfeld.
This Isn’t the Time to Go Ultralight
Don’t count your ounces for this trip. You’ve already made the wise decision to go somewhere well within your ability level, so don’t worry so much about how much you’re hauling. Sure you’ll be pushing harder at 3pm, but when 3am rolls around you’ll be glad you brought a five pound, zero-degree bag instead of your ultra-compact twenty-degree bag.
On the subject of sleep set up, my advice for staying warm overnight is to put as much between you and the ground as possible. What you bring is a matter of preference of course, but my set up looks like this: tent footprint, Tyvek sheet, closed cell pad (like a Z-Lite), then an air pad, zero-degree bag and a bag liner or reflective blanket.
Say Yes to the Vest
As with any winter recreation, it's all about layers. Be an onion out there.
Wool base layers under a good puffy jacket and good wool socks, warm gloves, and good footwear are key. You’ll need a beanie, and I’d recommend a neck gaiter or neckerchief too. Topo’s Fleece Pants are excellent for overnight in the sleeping bag and for keeping you warm in the morning as you emerge from your little cocoon. Just avoid cotton for the layer against your skin at all costs.
I’ve seen every kind of set up for a ride like this, because just about any bike that can haul your gear comfortably and safely works. I’ve seen people bring Burley trailers packed to the gills, folks riding unloaded bikes while wearing high volume backpacks, guys with cargo bikes, and beyond. Be creative! That’s part of the fun!
Also, before you go, I recommend doing a shakedown ride where you pack your bike as you would for your trip and ride around the block a few times to make sure your setup works.
Cooking in the Cold Sucks, So Don’t Do It
The first few years I did this, I cooked a camp meal like I would while camping in summer. Which was fine, but there was more gloveless fuss and waiting than I wanted. So now I cook my dinner before I leave and just warm it up in the campfire.
Or you can keep it warm while you ride. Bring your favorite soup in a thermos, or pull the real pro-move and use it to keep a pre-made burrito warm. Not only will you get to have a burrito right away, you’ll also be able to flex on your friends. (Part of the fun.)
In the morning, I usually make some coffee (absolutely key, I know space is tight but this is not the place to cut.) Because I set it all up in the tent vestibule the night before, I don’t even have to get out of my sleeping bag to prepare it. But I do have to open the vestibule. Please don’t operate your gas stove in an enclosed space.
It’s choose-your-own adventure for breakfast. Options range from a sad pre-made breakfast burrito, to a sad bowl of oatmeal, to a very depressing protein bar just to hold you over until you roll into a restaurant for a much more uplifting hot breakfast. You just went bike camping in winter, you earned it!
Or, if you went with the Burley trailer set up, you can do this:
No matter what you do or wear, you’re bike camping in winter so there will be times when you’re physically uncomfortable. Knowing that ahead of time and not letting it take you by surprise makes suffering optional.
Above all, shoot for maximum fun. If you’re having a lot of fun, you’ll be distracted from how cold you actually are.
Dillon’s Winter Bike Camping Picks:
- Global 1/4 Zip Sweater - Can’t beat wool for warmth.
- Bike Bag - Great for keeping your snacks and tools accessible. I attach mine to my basket so it doesn’t get in the way of the sleeping bag.
- Watch Cap - Gotta keep the head warm.
- Mountain Socks - Look good, feel good, and warm!
- Fleece Pants - Not only are they cozy, but they have reinforced, water-repellent knees.
- Neck Gaiter Heavyweight - Protect ya neck (and keep it warm)!
- Accessory Bags - can never have enough of these. Makes organizing things so much easier.
- Hip Pack Classic - so glad they brought it back, I’ve been using mine since 2014.