For Kristen Smith, biking on snow is everything you think it shouldn’t be: safe, easy, and enjoyable.
“This is our third if not fourth year opening up some ski trails to fat bikes, and it’s been really popular,” says Smith, marketing director of Methow Trails outside Winthrop, Wash. “It’s something truly unique because [people] get to ride on the snow.”
A variation on regular mountain biking, the best way to describe cycling on snow is to equate it to floating, says Smith, thanks to tires that flaunt a hefty 3.8-inch girth (colossal compared to a mountain bike’s standard 2.4-inch tires).
Run at low pressures ideal on snow, the tire’s increased surface area prevents it from digging into the soft terrain or spinning out. Though the frame is heavier and pedaling more laborious, Smith notes steering is easy and braking done without unnecessary sliding. “Pretty much anyone who can ride a bike can do this,” Smith says.
The rising interest in fat bikes—a veritable “fattie phenomenon,” in Smith’s telling—is recent, but the concept has existed for a while.
Conflicting narratives surround the modern fat bike’s inception, but Alaska is widely considered its birthplace, its origins rooted in the Iditarod dog-sled race. Founded in 1973 by Joe Redington Sr., the race commemorates Alaska’s historic Iditarod trail, which spans more than 1,000 miles of back country. In 1987 Redington launched the Iditabike Challenge (now dubbed the Iditarod Trail Invitational), following the development of mountain bikes and the popularization of all-terrain cycling.
As originally conceived, the human-powered race challenged athletes to traverse 210 icy miles on mountain bikes, though the course often forced riders to walk their bikes for long stretches across water overflow and soft snow. The limitations of thin tires on soft terrain spurred a plethora of unconventional modifications for easier ice-cycling; in the most notable, riders began to weld two tire rims together and attach them to a mountain-bike hub to create a wider “footprint.”
Later, the invention of a lightweight wider rim fitted to a standard mountain-bike frame completed the development of the modern fat bike. In 2005 Surly Bikes introduced the first mass-produced fat bike, the Surly Pugsley—and cyclists were granted an all-access pass to any terrain their hearts desired.
Other bicycle manufacturers have since followed suit; Seattle retailers, including REI, Gregg’s Cycle, and Montlake Bicycle Shop, offer models priced between $1,000 and $5,000. Fat-bike rental prices range from $45 to $90 per day.
Despite its sub-zero origins, fat biking is not just for winter roving. Enthusiasts take to beaches and hills year round, as the bike maneuvers on sand and mud as well. Ocean Shores and Long Beach are among the most popular coastal sites; the local Facebook group Northwest Fatbike hosts an annual meet-up at both.
Other fat-bike-friendly locations include four spots in the Methow Trail system, with nearby bike rentals available at Goat’s Beard Mountain Supplies or Methow Cycle and Sport. More than a dozen trail options are accessible with a day or annual pass for $10 and $50 respectively; winter trails—shared with cross-country skiers—open in early December and are groomed regularly.
Following a ridge that overlooks the valley, Gunn Ranch Trail is arguably the most popular fat-biking site, as the route puts visitors right on the crest of the North Cascades. Part of the Methow Trail system, Gunn Ranch is located roughly four hours northeast of Seattle. Pearrygin Lake State Park in the Methow Valley also features groomed trails, and requires only a Discover Pass, starting at $11.
According to Smith, fat bikes pose no risk of damaging natural terrain, noting that skis leave more noticeable marks than the bulbous tires. “You can definitely see where a ski has been, but you can’t tell where a fat bike has been,” Smith says. “In fact, they’re really almost like a groomer in that they help pack the snow even more and flatten it out.” Conditions do matter; Smith advises winter riders to stick to groomed trails, as fat bikes glide best on packed down snow.
In the few years that Methow Trails has welcomed fat bikes, Smith says, their trails see hundreds of riders each season. According to her, many of these riders are rental customers—often families with a mix of riders and skiers.
“We have a lot of people who come over and cross-country ski, but put their kid on a fat bike so now the whole family can go at the same speed,” Smith says. “The kids biking can keep up more than they would Nordic skiing.”
As winter approaches and the Methow Trails become accessible, Smith will continue to point old and new visitors alike to Gunn Ranch Trail and the nearest bike-rental shop.
“If it’s a beautiful sunny day and you’re down in the Methow Valley, then you have to just give it a try,” Smith says. “You will just laugh the whole time you are doing it. It’s amazing.”