The winter days are closing in here in Holland.
The bike paths that were full of cyclists in the summer, many of them on extended tours along the North Sea Cycle Route or around Europe, are now empty.
What a shame. We think winter is one of the best times to go bicycle touring and we’re now preparing our bikes for excursions into the snowy scenery of December and January.
Winter bike touring is about crisp days and stark but beautiful landscapes. It’s a time when you don’t have to worry about pre-booking your hotel or campground. It’s when that hot cup of tea at the end of a day’s ride tastes better than ever.
It’s when we seem to feel every sensation more intensely, from the cold breath we inhale to the warm glow that comes over us when we crawl inside our sleeping bags at night.
Still, no one said it was easy. Winter bike touring requires a certain degree of preparation. Here’s what we recommend you do differently, when bike touring in the cold:
1. CARRY A THERMOS
The hard part about bike touring in the winter is not the riding, it’s the stopping. Once you are off the bike, your body cools down quickly. The last thing you’ll want to be doing is trying to set up a stove with numb fingers, waiting for the water to boil, and doing the dishes afterwards. It’s much better to have thermos full of hot tea or coffee, ready to pour whenever you feel like it.
We bought a Primus flask from a local camping store for winter touring. We fill the thermos before setting out in the morning and the water is still hot at the end of the day; perfect for an instant pick-me-up when we set up camp.
As we cook supper, we boil enough water to fill the thermos again. That means coffee is ready as soon as we wake up, and no one has to fight about who gets out of the tent on a frosty morning to make the first cup!
The only bad thing about carrying a thermos is the extra weight, but it’s a few additional grams we’re willing to lug around for the convenience and pleasure of tea on demand.
2. GET A WARM SLEEPING BAG & MAT
There’s nothing worse than a cold night of shivering in the tent. It’s miserable and even dangerous on freezing winter nights. Make sure you know what temperatures to expect, and get the appropriate sleeping gear to match. If you already have a summer sleeping bag, you may not need a new one. Many camping shops can re-stuff your sleeping bag with extra down, for a fraction of the price of a new one.
The same goes for sleeping mats. Depending on local conditions, you’ll want a 3 or 4 season mat. We use Exped sleeping mats, which are rated down to temperatures around -15°C.
If you already have a good mat but just want to boost its power, buy a thin solid-foam mat (the kind they sell at department stores for a few dollars) to put underneath your current mat. Another way of adding extra insulation is with the reflective car sunshades that go in the windshield. Cut it to size to fit your mat and you’ve got a few extra degrees of warmth for very little money.
Don’t forget long johns and a top to sleep in as well!
3. GLOVES AND A HAT
If there’s one downside to winter touring, it’s the wind that can whip against your body, chilling your hands and head to the bone. Lesson? Get a hat and gloves! When it comes to a hat, get something that covers your ears. Otherwise, you’ll find your ears and joints literally aching with pain on the first big downhill run. As for gloves, if you can afford it the more expensive models are very warm, but thin enough to offer a lot of dexterity (great for when you need to dig into your panniers or set up the tent).
4. WIDE TIRES
Ice and snow make for slippery roads. Even a bit of rain can freeze overnight in the winter and create a sheet of glass by the next morning. Fields and trails are also muddier in winter. That’s why it’s worth investing in wider, more grippy tires to give you better control. Schwalbe even make tires with studs, if you are in a really severe winter climate!
Tom Allen has reviewed Schwalbe’s studded tires for winter touring.
5. LIGHTS & HIGH VISIBILITY GEAR
Winter days are shorter. You will probably want to start cycling before it’s fully light or ride into the dusk at the end of the day. That’s why it’s crucial to have lights on your bike and high visibility gear, like a neon yellow vest. You get some great sunsets in the winter!
6. CHECK THE WEATHER
In the summer, it’s not such a big deal if you get wet. In winter, it’s near impossible to dry out. And let’s not even talk about being stuck in a snowstorm…
Check the weather and if it looks terrible, postpone by a day or two.
7. BUDGET FOR EXTRA FOOD
You burn more calories cycling in the winter. It takes a lot of energy to keep your body warm, and you’re probably carrying extra gear as well (that thermos, the winter sleeping bag…). Do yourself a favour and set aside a bit of extra cash for treats. Your treat might be a hot chocolate from a cafe, or an extra big bar of dark chocolate from the supermarket. It doesn’t really matter, as long as there’s a bit of wiggle room.
What are your experiences with winter bike touring? Please share, by leaving a comment below.
If you want to read more, see the story of a winter bike tour in Holland.