So you blinked and missed summer and now the first snows have started to fall. Don’t panic or pack your bike away yet though as late fall and winter have some great riding options – they just need a lot more careful planning than the ‘everything is great’ months of July-September.
First up buy a headlamp. Night riding is great fun and extends the season significantly. $50 will get you something half-decent but I’d recommend 800lumens or so if you really want to ‘light it up’! This will obviously cost a little more, but options under $100 exist.
Second up, winter is long and falls into many parts. Fall is typically on/off snow and melt, especially at higher elevations, and options can range from almost everything to very little depending on how much snow fell, how warm it has been since and how tolerant you are of a little bit of snow under your tires. Deep winter is totally different. With the snow sticking and temperatures generally staying near or below freezing the game changes totally and trails that were awful in the late fall come back into play; although the majority of other trails will now be unrideable until the spring melt is over. So winter can be split into two parts: late fall and deep winter.
Late Fall Riding (typically October and November)
Early snow tends to melt off pretty quick and many trails soon return to rideable status if they have the right combination of
- Aspect (i.e. do they face south or west and catch the warm afternoon sun)
- Elevation (obviously lower trails will melt quicker than higher trails)
- Soil type (rocky/sandy trails will be rideable quickly, clay based trails tend to stay greasy longer)
Most of the safe bet options are very similar to the options available in spring and are covered in my article on Spring Riding Tips.
The spring riding tips also covers info on where to find out how much precipitation fell, webcams of Moose (to see roughly where the snow line kicked in), etc. A useful resource is the Trip Planning page on bikepirate.
The main difference between fall and spring is that the snow base hasn’t yet accumulated and the trails would have been generally dry and hard packed before the batch of snow fell. This means you generally won’t be damaging any trails by riding a few cms of snow or encounter those horrible stubbornly sections that refuse to melt in the spring.
Regular tires will grip and roll pretty well through a few cms of snow if the underlying trail is adhesive (ie sandy/rocky) but not if the underlying surface is clay. Think of it like wet soap on either sandpaper or a mirror – capiche?
Safe Bets (can be rideable almost immediately after small snowfalls)
Elbow Valley Trail: with a sunny southerly aspect, sandy/rocky soil and generally low elevations the whole of Elbow Valley trail can be ridden with small amounts of snow and the snow will melt of very quick. A few sections face east so take a little longer to melt but there isn’t yet the snow base to make them unrideable. You may get some puddles on the section near Station Flats but as per the spring recommendation that can be easily avoided by joining the trail at Paddy’s Flats.
Sulphur Springs Loop: low elevations mean this trail will clear snow quickly. A few shaded sections on the upper side may have slushy puddles but there isn’t yet a real base to the snow so they will be very shallow and easily rideable.
Lower west facing MMBTS trails: Lower Family Guy (join at the Billy Dog entrance opposite the Shell well site) generally clears pretty quickly although a few short sections in the trees can hold snow and you may hit a few greasy spots. As it warms up you can join Family Guy at the higher start points and start to consider Billy Dog and Toothless for example. SHAFT is the only trail on the west side that will take a long time to melt (lots of sheltered parts and berms hold snow).
Lower/Mid Pneuma: Did CMBA install under the trail heating on this one? Often you’ll find snow on the side of the trail while the trail itself is 99% clear. Obviously the higher you go the more snow you’ll likely encounter, but it usually melts quickly up to the Shell Well site (from where you can loop onto Family Guy or Billy Dog) and if you don’t mind small amounts of snow you can grind on up to the Race of Spades junction (which is as far as most people ride even in summer!)
Next Up (usually OK after a few warmer days)
Bobcat: Generally faces west so clears OK but can be greasy and as a new trail please give it time to dry out to prevent damage. Access is via Tom Snow/lower Ridgeback and may be used as the climb to access Sugar Moma (or at quiet times ridden as an out-and-back, making sure to yield to uphill traffic on the way back down).
Ridgeback: CMBA have built an awesome trail in Ridgeback and spent many years working out the boggy wrinkles with reroutes and most of it dries out reasonably well (the second section is still prone to big puddles though). Unlike spring you don’t have a high water table and tones of snow melting from above, plus a lot of it faces south or west so catches the sun, however, some parts are very shaded and on poor draining soil so it can be sloppy in parts.
Take a While (need several days of warmer weather)
Upper/East facing MMBTS trails: Race of Spades holds a little snow on the wooden TTFs near the top but generally sees enough traffic to plough a trail into the upper parts and you descend elevation fast so are soon into clear trail. With no real snow pack melting off, puddles are generally less of an issue than in the spring. Special K sees less traffic but again you drop elevation quick and the upper part is rocky (i.e. grippy under small amounts of snow) – more for the brave than most folks! SHAFT takes a long time to clear and T-Dub sadly died in the floods (but may be reborn in 2014). Work has already started to rework the ending to this trail for 2014.
West Bragg Creek: some trails (or sections of trail) clear the snow fairly fast but any loop starting in the West Bragg Creek parking lot will require some north facing slopes and clay soil trails. Especially greasy trails are Strange Brew, Boundary Ridge and parts of Ranger Summit. Everything changes once the snowpack starts to build and temperatures stay below freezing (see later) but generally West Bragg Creek is a bad bet in the late fall when the snow comes and goes (same as it is in spring).
Powderface Creek and beyond: many of these trails saw significant damage in the floods so at time of writing most of the options west of Prairie Creek require some route-finding and hike-a-biking. If the snowfalls have been minimal then the likes of Elbow Loop can be great fun and very scenic but factor in a lot more time than usual and remember the mountains get more snow and are a lot higher in elevation.
Deep Winter Riding
The vast majority will now be into ski mode (why else would you live around here?). However, apparently some people don’t ski and might be looking to escape cabin fever and for others the long patches of mediocre skiing usually offer the option to get the bike back out. First up, buy some decent clothing. Skiers will know this but basically multiple layers for the body, good gloves (ski gloves work great), good shoes (you can buy booties to place over regular shoes but a good pair of Gortex type winter riding shoes are much better) and ear/head warmer (or wear your ski helmet!). You’re going to be riding sub-zero so ideally pack camelbacks under your top layer and blow back into the tube after each suck to stop them freezing up. Another good tip is to pack a small thermo of coffee in your backpack to enjoy at one of the great view points and keep your main water supply from freezing.
Now, you need to consider tires.
- do you think you’ll be riding a lot over winter, even in fresh powder (ie you don’t like skiing!?), do you want more riding options and do you have enough $$ and room for another bike? Yes to all of these then buy a fat bike. You can try before you buy. Bike Bike (Calgary) and Smack Cycles (Bragg Creek) both offer fat bike rentals.
- do you want to just ride occasionally (when the skiing is crap) or don’t want the expense of a fat bike? Just buy some studded tires (about $200) and your good to go. I like the Schwable Ice Spiker pros – 2.35” and set up really easily tubeless for low psi, flat free riding (-10C is not a good time to fix a pinch flat!). Kenda also offers the Klondike in a skinny, standard and wide format.
- are you a strong rider with good pedal stroke and fairly happy to just ride a few days here and there? Put on the fattest, grippiest tires you have and pay close attention to the weather and trail report info.
#1 Rule: Cold is Good!
OK, sounds weird and below about -15C even I call it a day but once the snow pack has started to build you really want to be riding packed snow not slush and that means cold is good. Part of cold being good means you have to reverse the whole aspect issue of a trail. South or west facing trails will melt in the sun and turn into a greasy slushy mess pretty quick where as north or east facing trails (ideally shaded) stay frozen even if the air temperature drifts marginally into the positive. The larger float of a fat tire helps with warmer temperatures to some extent but for studded tires you want it cold – they are useless much above zero. For sure DO NOT ride deep snow in a Chinook. That nice packed surface that held you below freezing is now a slush-fest at +10C and you’ll be walking (and leaving a huge mess behind that will freeze back in and screw up the trail for everyone else). Remember: ride cold, ride bold!
#2 Rule: Traffic is Good!
Again the total opposite of what you want for all other seasons but in winter you generally want trails that see higher traffic and have had the snow packed down. Hard core fat bike fans can ignore this although even on a fat bike its tough to clean a steep climb in deep fresh snow. Trails that see a lot of snow shoe traffic are great. In fact if you like certain trails then get out and snow shoe them post a dump and voila they are rideable! Strange Brew can be almost snow free one day, deep powder the next day and then snow shoe packed and rideable a few days after that.
Photo taken in January at Barruch’s corner – Strange Brew. Following photo taken a few days later.
So what’s on offer? Well that depends mostly on your attitude. The most popular option last winter was Ranger Summit-Strange Brew as it’s protected from the sun and sees a lot of snow shoe and other traffic. Some of the local gnomes have even been known to buff up the berms.
Other West Bragg Creek trails can be potential options but be aware that Braggin Rights faces south and becomes a greasy mess in the sun, even below zero, so stick to the South side unless the snow has completely melted off that trail. Other options are Sulphur Springs Loop (sees decent amount of traffic). Fat bike riders seem to like Powderface-Prairie Creek via the link but Prairie Creek saw some flood damage so that may not work this year.
Traffic of the oil, gas and logging truck type plow Moose Mountain, Canyon Creek and for last/this winter some of Bragg Creek’s logging roads which make those good options to kick up the mileage and potentially offer easier climbs to the trails.
#3 Rule. Spring is Bad!
Please enjoy the winter riding but please be respectful when winter is over and the spring melt is in full swing. If you ride early in the day the trails may have refrozen overnight and be good to ride but don’t be a douche and ride wet trails, especially the newer ones that can’t handle the abuse. Check the weather forecast for temperature and either get up early or get the road bike out. Please respect the huge amount of volunteer time and money that helped build the trails and realize when it is time to switch from winter mode to spring mode. Of course any month can see a few days of spring then back to winter so be flexible and ride on the COLD days or refer to the spring riding article for trails that open up early to spring riding.
Sorry to repeat but DO NOT ride during a Chinook (a few days of spring in the middle of January/February) – you’ll be walking in deep slush and leaving a huge mess that will refreeze in and ruin the riding for everyone else until either a big dump of snow covers your mess or the trail fully melts.
Most riding areas in other parts of Canada/the world have seasonal closures in the spring. For now the trail societies rely on people using common sense and decency – let’s try and keep it that way as no one wants to be putting logs across trails to close them off but that is preferable to trails being trashed during the melt and needing huge amounts of maintenance.
Please add your comments or additional info if you think it will help others and help ensure respectful use of the trails. A respectful rider is a happy rider – keep the karma!!
Useful link: Trip Planning page
The Moose Mountain and West Bragg Creek trails are built and maintained by volunteers. As well as riding with respect for their huge and ongoing effort please ensure to ‘give-back’ either with a monetary donation or better yet some volunteer hours. By volunteering your time you’ll get to meet other riders, hear about new projects/best rides and most importantly feel that inner glow from knowing you did your bit to help – every trail rides better when you know you helped build or improve it!
~ Guest post by Trevor Warne
Trevor moved to Canada from the UK in 2008 and settled in Bragg Creek due to the fantastic access to year-round recreation opportunities in Kananaskis Country; also a great place to raise a family! To keep the karma going, Trevor volunteers his time to help the GBCTA build and maintain the great network of new trails in West Bragg Creek.