A Bikepacker’s Guide to Mountain Weather Preparation
Shoulder season weather in higher elevations can be dicey, and even dangerous. When bikepacking in these environs, the balance between going light and going too light is a delicate one. Here is our guide, tips, and tricks for planning a bikepacking trip — without tipping the scales — for the variety of conditions that mountains can dish out.
by Logan Watts, Joe Cruz, and Cass Gilbert
We’ve had incredible experiences bikepacking in every kind of landscape, but—like many cyclists—we’re called by the mountains. From steep hypoxic climbs to socked in cloud cover to endless views of an unraveling horizon, mountain terrain embodies the beauty that we crave. The price for that beauty is ever-changing and challenging weather that requires a carefully planned array of gear.
This isn’t advice for arctic and winter snow travel. That’s a different enterprise. The goal here is to be able to confidently head out on trips that sometimes go well above treeline and over high passes. We’re aiming for a fast and light style that keeps us prepared, and we draw inspiration from mountain trekking, even if cycling imposes considerations of its own.
BRING THE RIGHT CLOTHING
1. Don’t leave the pants at home.
Lightweight and packable waterproof shell pants are one of the mainstays of mountain travel. They can be worn with or without tights either as a windblock or against a downpour. We’ve also worn them out of respect and modesty while in town doing a resupply or laundry, which eliminates the need to carry a pair of casual trousers. A minimal pair that is durable will pack small and will dry quickly. We like ones with zippers at the ankles for easy on/off as well as with a way to cinch the bottom to keep the right pant leg out of the chainring.
We’ve also gone on trips with waterproof tights instead of full on trousers. These are great for a long day ride where it is cold and you know you’re likely to get precipitation, but for a multi-week bikepacking trip, they are just not versatile enough.
It’s easy to be skeptical of Gore-tex shorts or ¾ pants, but there is a reason they are popular in the wet conditions of the UK. If a trip is likely to be mostly warm weather but you want some mountain insurance, Gore-tex shorts will provide many of the benefits of the pants but with far better ventilation and excellent packability. Combined with tall-ish merino socks and Gore-tex socks, or worn over tights, this can be a decently warm and weather-worthy option.
Gore Bike Wear Power Trail GORE-TEX® Active Pants
A premium form-fitting pant that moves well and held up the rigors of the Kyrgyzstan alpine. Highly recommended. Weight: ~230g / Price: $199.99 / Buy (Amazon, REI)
Outdoor Research Helium Pants
We love the Helium II jacket so the pants were worth a try. At a fraction of the weight of heavier Gore-tex pants, the Heliums are more of a minimal emergency shell. They do keep the rain off though. Weight: 153g (L) / Price: $119 / Buy (Amazon, REI)
Patagonia Torrentshell Pants
A favorite for their simplicity, fit, and durability. 100% recycled nylon.
Weight: 230g (L) / Price: $99
2. Proper footwear can make or break you.
Wool socks: For the same reasons we like it as an upper base layer — insulating properties even when wet, odor control, and wick dry properties — merino wool makes a great material for socks.
Burly boots: Ultralight cycling shoes are nice and all, but wearing a proper pair of rugged shoes is crucial in mountain environments. Reinforced uppers, lugged tread and padded ankle support all act as insulation and can help keep you warm.
Unless you are in a desert climate, or get really lucky with weather, it’s virtually impossible to keep shoes dry while on a multi-day backcountry trip. And wet feet can wreak havoc. So, let’s approach this topic with the worst case scenario in mind: river crossings. Even a modestly deep crossing—say, just below knee level—can leave you shivering cold in the mountains if you haven’t thought through a strategy. There are several.
Gore-tex socks: Although their value is argued on most outdoor gear forums, we’ve found Gore-tex socks to be invaluable. They can act as an insulating layer between your socks and wet shoes. If the depth of the river crossing is less than the height of your Gore-tex socks, charge through. Wearing your shoes you can select submerged rocks, and you don’t have to think or slow down very much. If the depth of the crossing is higher than the sock, one possibility is taking off all of your socks, putting your shoes back on, crossing, and then quickly putting on your (still dry) wool socks with the Gore-tex socks over them. This will keep them relatively dry from the wet shoes. We like this approach for rocky or rough river bottoms. As an alternative in Kyrgyzstan, Lucas used plastic doggy-doo bags to perform the same task.
Obviously, if you are not tender-footed, you can cross barefoot. Another possibility is making sure that your camp shoes are of the sort that you don’t mind them getting wet. If, for instance, they’re river sandals you can cross in those.
Darn Tough Hiker Micro Cushion
These aren’t cycling specific socks, but they are indeed tough. With well over 2,000 miles on them, Logan’s favorite pair of socks are still going strong. And with the naturally antimicrobial properties of Merino wool, these are hard to beat. Price: $25 / Buy (Amazon, REI)
PEdALED Mido Boots
Joe found this pair of burly boots a worthy investment in the rock-strewn terrain of Kyrgyzstan. Price: $350
Five Ten Guide Tennies
This classic is really an approach shoe. However, Guide Tennies also make an excellent riding shoe paired with aggressive flat pedals. The taller mids make for a little more of a burly riding boot. Price $160 / Buy (Amazon)
Gore Bike Wear Universal Gore-Tex Socks
Minimal, lightweight, elastic, waterproof and breathable socks that make a nice layer between your regular socks and wet shoes. Price: $69.99 / Buy (Amazon)
3. Pamper your hands.
In keeping with the idea that all of the gear you bring should play multiple roles, we recommend keeping your hands warm and dry through a modular approach. Merino liner gloves are a great inner layer that can be worn on their own if it’s chilly and dry out. In addition, Gore-tex mittens are a lightweight and versatile option to put over the liners when the cold rain or snow flurries start. Also, the Gore-tex mitts can be worn without the liners if it’s a warmer rain or if you’re working hard on an climb. We’ve never had any trouble braking or shifting with mittens on. This system is far superior to an insulated Gore-tex glove as we’ve found that those absorb water and never quite get fully dry because of perspiration when worn during warmer temps. Insulated gloves don’t pack as well, either.
Finally, follow Joe’s trick of clipping his Outdoor Research Mt. Baker Mitts on the outside of your front roll for use as feedbags toting snacks and other small items. If the weather goes south and you have to take out whatever you’re carrying in them, keep in mind that you’ll be making room elsewhere in your packing system because you’ll also be putting on your shell and Gore-tex pants.
Outdoor Research Mt. Baker Modular Gore-tex Mitts
Not the lightest Gore-tex mitt that OR makes, but certainly rugged enough for everything the Tian Shan mountains dished out during our trip. Weight: 285g (L) / Price: $140 / Buy (Amazon)
Giro Merino Wool Gloves
A good camp glove or underlayer with the mitts, these Wwol gloves wick moisture and provide a nice touch of warmth. Price: $25 / Buy (Amazon)
45 NRTH Merino Liner Glove
A great hardwearing, chilly weather riding glove when worn by themselves – yet thin enough to use with a camera, with smartphone friendly-digit tips for easy navigation in the cold. Price: $49.99
4. Layer properly.
The usual outdoor principles of layering apply to bikepacking. We have found that slimmer fitting pieces with fewer pockets keeps us from having fabric rattling into headwinds.
Two merino shirts. Against the body, a thin merino layer works well for several reasons: it stays warm when damp with sweat, it will dry well by wicking moisture via body heat, and most importantly, it resists odor. Ideally this base layer will be one that is robust enough and looks good enough to just be your main riding top in warm weather. The second merino top is to change into at camp. This will be your “clean” shirt, and you may also want to change into it during spans in civilization. It may even be called upon as another layer in an emergency. One of your two merino shirts may be long sleeved, but the other should be short sleeved for warm weather.
Merino long-johns. Another important piece for the kit is a lightweight pair of merino long underwear. They can be worn as a nice insulating layer under the shorts, on the bike or off. They also serve well as an additional sleeping layer. Logan carries a single pair of Patagonia Merino Air bottoms, perhaps one of the lightest on the market. Cass really likes wool leggings worn around the ankles, but that fashion apocalypse is probably his and his alone. He also carries two sets of thin merino long johns. One for sleeping, and one for riding in the morning.
An insulating jacket. When the temperatures drop, the next layer to pull on is your insulating upper layer. We prefer the packability of a high tech puff jacket, but a fleece or a wool sweater can be an inexpensive and effective option.
Shell jacket. The outermost layer will typically be a shell jacket. Again, look for one that is pared down and close fitting. We like shells with hoods (when they’re removable, we just leave them on all the time) so as not to have to carry a cap to keep our heads dry in a downpour. Caps also leave the back of your neck exposed and that can be a source of chill. Obviously, the shell jacket can go on without the insulating layer as just a rain or wind block. This is why we prefer a hardshell over a bulkier (and therefore harder to pack) softshell jacket. If conditions are dry, it is sometimes convenient to put the insulating layer on the outside over the shell jacket so that when it warms up you can just take the insulating layer off and pack it away.
Headgear. Options here include a dedicated warm cap that fits under your hood and helmet or a buff that can be turned into a hat or worn as a gaiter. Joe skips both of these, as he’s found that zipping tight the hood on his puff jacket locks in sufficient warmth. Cass never leaves home without a thin fleece wool gaiter — he finds it good to keep the neck warm and colds at bay.
Search and State S3-B Merino Base Layer
The S3-B is a stylish and good fitting base layer that performs well on the bike and looks nice off the bike too. Price: $95
Patagonia Merino Air (bottoms)
We’ve been inpressed with Patagonia’s Merino Air base layers. While they are a little bulkier than others, they are comfortable, very lightweight, and have proven extremely durable as well. Weight: 175g / Price: $129
MontBell Plasma 1000 Alpine Down Parka (new)
While we’ve tested and used their down Anorak (and love it) for some time, Montbell just released the new Alpine Down Parka. At 8.4oz with 2 zip pockets and hood, this one looks unbeatable. Review soon. Weight: 237g / Price: $379
5. Think in your warmest outfit.
It’s useful to think in terms of your warmest outfit. Combining all of these principles above yields what to wear in the worst conditions: On the upper body, a wool short sleeved base layer, a second wool long-sleeved shirt, an insulating layer and finally the shell. The shell hood will be up (as is the insulating layer hood if it has one). Whether you wear the shell hood over or under your helmet is a matter of personal preference, though we’ve found that it can feel a little warmer if worn under the helmet because the helmet straps cinch the fabric around your head.
On the lower body, you will have your underwear or chamois, tights or long-johns, merino socks, Gore-tex socks and hardshell pants.
Hands are in a merino liner glove and shell mitten.
We’ve found that this warmest outfit can get us through days long freezing rain and snow. Don’t forget quality sunglasses for the clear high altitude sky. As Joe Cruz says, “On the coldest moment of the trip, if you aren’t wearing everything you brought, you brought too much.”
Stay Warm At Camp
1. Magic number bag.
We’ve found that a 20° sleeping bag or quilt provides a great balance of warmth and minimalist packability. One can use clothing layers to beef up the rating and sleep comfortably well into the teens. Or conversely, a 20º quilt can be opened up for nights in the 70s.
That said, that same magic number might not work for everyone. The temperature rating system used by sleeping bag manufacturers is not a perfect barometer to judge your own comfort; there are many variables that should be recognized. Consider the R-value of your sleeping pad, personal cold tolerance, and typical cold areas of your body.
2. Check the R rating.
The insulating properties of an inflatable sleeping mat can make a big difference in the performance of your sleeping system. Non-insulated models are definitely the lightest and smallest, and usually weigh in at under a pound. But those are better left for summer camping, or trips in warmer climes. For just a few additional ounces, an insulated pad is usually worth the added effort. A few to note are the Big Agnes Q-Core (R4.6), Therma-a-Rest Neo Air Xtherm (R5.7) and Sea-to-Summit Ultralight Insulated Air Mat (3.3).
3. Not too drafty.
Most tents that bikepackers carry are going to fall in the 3-season variety, save a few open-ended tarp shelters. Due to their weight and bulk, a 4-season shelter is usually not needed in these scenarios. We recommend using a 3-season tent or shelter that keeps drafts to a minimum. This can make a big difference in getting the most out of your sleeping system. Furthermore, there are 3+ season tents now, such as the Big Agnes Slater series.
Big Agnes Fly Creek Tents
Quickly becoming the bikepacking standard, the Fly Creek series offers a great three season shelter with good draft protection during colder weather. Read the Review / Weight (HV UL1): 970g / Price: $399.99 / Buy (Amazon, REI)
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2
If minimal camping is yours style, this 4 season, single skin, floorless Cuben shelter weighs just 500g – plus pole and stakes. But quality, performance and US manufacturing come at a price. Pitch it low for draft prevention, and high for air circulation. Fits two comfortably and will handle anything you throw at it. / Weight: (500g plus pole and stakes) / Price: $695 / Buy (Hyperlite)
Sea-to-Summit Ultralight Insulated Sleeping Mat
We’ve been extremely impressed with the Ultralight Sleeping Mat, and the Insulated version, with an R-value of 3.3 makes a great mountain weather pad. Read the Review / Weight: 480g / Price: $129.95 / Buy (Amazon, REI)
Zpacks Solo Down Sleeping Bag
Zpacks makes some of the lightest gear on the planet. We’ve been impressed by their Solo Down 20° Sleeping Bag, weighing in at only 900g and packing down to the size of a small football. Price: $410.00
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite Max SV
Weighing in under a pound with an R-Value of 3.2, the new NeoAir Xlite Max SV packs a lot of features and comfort into a small package. Stay tuned for a full review. Weight: 490g / Price: $179.95 / Buy (Amazon, REI)
Use what you’ve got.
Here are a few pointers on how to use what you have to maximize warmth and performance.
1. Use your jacket… on your feet.
On a similar note, cold feet can be kept at bay by zipping up your hardshell and slipping it over the feet of your sleeping bag. This added layer helps seal in the warmth at your most vulnerable region.
2. The leg pendulum.
It’s all too often that the morning pack up session results in cold fingers and toes. Once you get the blood going, a nice little trick is to swing your leg fore and aft like a pendulum, leaving your foot muscles loose. This brings blood to your extremities and can chase away numbness.
3. Keep a dry set of clothes.
It’s wise, and comforting, to always keep a completely dry set of gear for camp. And don’t be tempted to use it the next day even if your riding clothes are still damp.
4. Start early.
Weather events tend to happen in the afternoon. To keep to a steady mileage, start pedaling early in the morning. This is often beneficial for river crossings as well as rain and snowmelt is at the least during the night. Furthermore, don’t be shy or sheepish about setting up the tent early in the afternoon if weather goes south.
Food for thought.
And, here are several tips to use your kitchen to keep warm.
1. Cuddle with a Klean Kanteen… or a freeze-dried meal.
We’ve all had numb fingers and toes. And if they get to that state, it’s hard to warm them back up once the cold of night ensues. One trick is to use your stove and hot water. One good solution is to use a camp meal, such as a Mountain House or Good To-Go pack. These meals require the addition of boiling water and a sealed ‘rehydration’ time of between 10 and 20 minutes. As the meal ‘cooks’, sit cross-legged on your sleeping mat with your feet and hands on the bag. The heat of the boiled water will thaw out those digits. A metal Klean Kanteen with a sealed screw top can be used in the same manner.
2. Magical brew.
A hot drink or soup always warms the soul. We like to get the stove going first thing to heat up water while we’re setting up tents. Logan likes Scratch Labs Apples and Cinnamon powdered hydration mix in hot water… with a bit of whiskey. Cass always packs ginger and lemon for tea to ward off evil spirits.
3. Eat just before bedtime.
If you’re a cold sleeper, one method we’ve found to warm up the sleeping bag is to eat just before getting in bed. This might not work for everyone, but a hot meal can certainly jump start the warmth.
If you have any tips or recommendations about cycling in mountain weather, let us know in the comments below.