Fat Bike Buyer's Guide: Get the Skinny - Appalachian Mountain Club

Fat Bike Buyer’s Guide: Get the Skinny

May 29, 2018
fat bike buyer's guide
Jeff Moser on Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0Follow our fat bike buyer’s guide and you’ll be pedaling through sand (and snow and dirt) in no time.

Fat bikes are hard to miss. Their giant balloon tires stand out like circular blimps and make other bikes look positively waifish in comparison. For a species of bicycle that barely existed a decade ago, fat bikes have since become one of the hottest (fattest?) new trends in the industry. So is a fat bike right for you? Here’s what you need to know about these powerful, specialized machines.

WHAT IS A FAT BIKE?

A fat bike’s defining feature is its oversized, extra-wide tires, which range in width from roughly 3.8 inches to 5 inches. By comparison, the average mountain bike tire is around 2.25 inches wide. To accommodate those tires, the frame and fork on a fat bike are significantly wider than on a typical mountain bike. (The design affects additional components, including the pedals, which are farther apart than on other bikes.)

These giant tires allow fat bikes to go where other bikes can’t, including snowy, sandy, and muddy terrain, where even wide-tire mountain bikes would sink in. Fat bikes also handle rough, rocky, and root-laced terrain more comfortably than most mountain bikes, in part because the tires use much lower pressure than other bikes. For the cyclist, that provides a cushioning effect and helps smooth out the ride over rough ground. Wide tires also provide excellent stability for control and balance, a plus for novice backcountry riders.

A LOW-PRESSURE SYSTEM

The optimum pressure for fat-bike tires varies by terrain, and serious fat bikers make routine air adjustments. As little as 6 to 8 pounds per square inch (psi) works well for loose conditions, such as dry sand and unpacked snow, while pressures up to 25 psi are best for hard surfaces, such as asphalt and hard-packed trails. It’s worth investing in a low-pressure air gauge for accuracy, as a difference of only a few psi can have a noticeable effect on performance.

That smooth, low-pressure ride comes with a trade-off, however. Fat bikes easily weigh 40 pounds or more, primarily because the tires, rims, and tubes are so much heavier than those on traditional bikes. Super-sized tires also mean a lot more rubber—and rolling resistance—makes contact with the ground.

It all adds up to more pedaling, and more effort, no matter what terrain you’re riding on. These are not bikes for fast, efficient riding on smooth roads or for long distances.

PAYING MORE TO GET LESS

The number of fat bikes on the market has increased dramatically in just the past few years. Prices have dropped accordingly, with entry-level options now starting around $750 and many solid, year-round models falling in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. Most come with tire widths of around 4 inches, a good, all-purpose size that provides ample flotation over snow and cushioning on summer trails. (Wider tires are available, but these are overkill for uses other than deep snow and sand.)

The major drawback of the cheaper rides is weight. These bikes usually have steel frames and tend to be very heavy as a result, as much as 45 pounds or more, which can make for an exhausting outing. If you don’t want to pedal a tank, higher-end options feature lighter aluminum or composite frames and top out around 35 pounds. Expect to pay well north of $2,000 for anything in this category.

As you shop, keep in mind that a fat bike is a specialized bike. So, if you’re interested in riding through the winter on snow- and ice-covered routes; or you’d like a smoother, more stable ride on mountain bike trails in the summer; or you’re dreaming of riding on sandy beaches and deserts, then a fat bike might be right for you.


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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.