Bikepacking - Winter Tips (for Scottish weather!)
Updated: Feb 18, 2021
I've done a fair few winter trips now. Some where the weather has been kind and others... not so!
Check out my kit list blog for a general summer list - as I'll only talk about different things I take here.
I keep the same bags (see my bag choice blog) but change a bit of kit. I will use Schwalbe Winter Ice Spiker tyres if the ground is icy.
Firstly - me on the bike. I have Raynauld's (poor circulation so my hands and feet get painfully cold) and my hEDS means that my temperature regulation isn't great and if I get hot it is followed by getting crazily cold - so I have to be careful with clothing.
Also - I HATE BEING COLD. It ruins my trip and I get grumpy lol. I'd rather carry extra and be toasty warm and smug than carry less and feel the cold. I am in this game to enjoy myself not see how much I can suffer!
However - whoever you are and however you feel the cold - the most important tip is - NEVER GET TOO WARM. Once you sweat you are in trouble. Your clothing is damp and that will suck all the warmth from you. Layers are the key.
I wear merino layers generally, but I do have a couple of microfleeces that I use. (That I bought before I knew about the issues of microparticles etc) I also love my synthetic primaloft gilet. These I layer under a pro (3 layer) Goretex mountaineering jacket that has zip pits. The jacket may go on and off every mile or so depending on my body temperature. But that is better than getting sweaty in sub-zero temperatures.
Other items I carry for warmth are mountaineering gloves or pogies from AcpePac from the fab guys at TerraVenture. Ski googles are also useful for bitterly cold days and driving snow.
If I suspect I am going to do a lot of hike-a-bike then it's off with the 5tens and on with the B2 mountaineering boots that I'll team will full length trousers and waterproofs or gaiters. Alternatively, its primaloft 5tens and Sealskin cold weather waterproof socks. (disclaimer - I am not sure why but they do not appear to be waterproof for me! I've yet to find any that are but other people swear by them! But - they do keep my feet warm even if wet!)
Me - at camp - I carry a down jacket for camp. You will find arguments for and against down as a layer as it is not good at insulating once it is wet - but I generally don't ride in mine unless it is to get warm after a stop or I overheat. So it is usually just for camp and as I stop cold it is the best weight/size ration for warmth for me. In mid summer in wet conditions I tend to swap it out for a synthetic down jacket.
I also carry a bobble hat, merino balaclava, goretex wearproof over trousers to sit in (to help stop windchill, merino leggings and hiking trousers.
Shelter choice - I love a winter bivvi and it's my first choice of shelter. I find the bivvi adds a bit of warmth and you can use bikes to set up the tarp if trees aren't suitable. I only set up the tarp if I need to for snow or to work as a wind break. I take a bivvi ground mat - either an old plastic emergency bivvi or a piece of nonwoven roofing vapour barrier (as we had some spare!) It is useful to sit on and roll everything up on in the morning.
I have used our Big Agnes Copper Spur UL Bikepacking Tent too - it copes well and does the job... but just isn't as fun!! (Our is an older version of the link)
Sleeping Warm - I use a Criterion Quantum 450 rated to comfort -10. I SLEEP VERY COLD! So I add +5'C to any comfort level. I also use a liner... not a traditional liner as I have tried them all and they do not add the promised temps for me - so I use an OMM Raid bag as a liner. This makes a noticeable difference to me and packs as small as the most expensive liner I tried! A liner also helps to keep your main bag clean and I can wash the synthetic OMM Raid. I use it as a liner in summer too for multi-day trips with a lighter weight bag. Sometimes I just use the OMM Raid with my main bag unzipped as a blanket over the top if very warm.
A thermal rated sleeping mat IS A MUST. If not, no matter how good your bag is, you loose all your body heat to the ground. I use a Thermarest NeoAir XTherm. It has been noted that they are noisy - I wake to turn anyway so it makes no difference to me and I've not had complaints from adventure buddies....
I sleep in my camp clothes but I take off my down jacket and put it over my thighs. This is my coldest part sleeping - as is often with women - so makes a big difference. I also sleep with merino or thin fleece gloves on, thick warm wool socks, balaclava and my bobble hat. Some say you need to sleep with no clothes on to get the benefit of your sleeping beg. I invite you to try this and report back... I can categorically say that it does not work for me!!
I use a Nalgene Lock Top water bottle that doubles up as a hot water bottle overnight. This is a game changer!! Pop it into your sleeping bag before you go for your last night warm up walk and it's pure bliss to get into a warm bag. I use my warm cycling gloves as a bit of insultation and it's still warm in the morning to make the breakfast with (remember the rest of your water may freeze overnight)
Finally - eat well - have a warm meal and a hot drink and go for a walk/jump about/get warm before getting into your sleeping bag - a sleeping bag only holds the heat you already have - it will not get a cold person warm!
Other tips -
- Keep electrics in your sleeping bag or they will discharge in the cold.
- If your socks are wet put them in a dry bag and put them in your sleeping bag - or they will freeze solid.
- Wet shoes will freeze too - I will put mine in my empty bikepacking bags to try to stop this. If you pull your trainers off without undoing laces - undo them - or they are really tough to undo when frozen!
- Use winter gas for your stove or it may not work. A full gas bottle works far better than a half empty one. Some stoves are designed to warm the gas and invert the can to help (My MSR Windpro II does this) but if the gas is still sluggish then pop a hand warmer under it to help.
- Carry extra handwarmers (the single use type) for emergency use. I also carry about a days worth of extra calories if, god forbid, I get stuck anywhere.
- If appropriate, I will often take my Vargo titanium firebox grill and some suitable fuel for a small 'Leave No Trace' fire. It's great to have a focus point on a long cold night!
- You will require more calories than normal - pack the extra food. But maybe not chocolate as that can freeze solid!
- If really cold, when cycling keep your water bottle wrapped up in something and in a bag to stop it freezing. Or take a flask to keep water in too.
Most of all - PLAN WELL & STAY SAFE. Leave a route card and safe back times with someone. Plan a short trip to begin with in case you've got it all horribly wrong so you can bug out if needed. (My first winter trip was a nightmare - I was cold and miserable all night - I will write it up one day!) And finally - don't underestimate how harsh Scottish winters can be. You are better to try a few nights locally than risk a remote, challenging trip before you have full confidence in your kit.
If you have any questions or queries please do contact me!
I do guide winter trips - but it requires more specialised kit so is dependant upon what the client has or what they are able to hire.