The return of autumn and winter might mean colder, wetter weather and less daylight but it doesn't mean bikepacking adventures need to stop – some of my most memorable adventures have been through the winter months. Planning and being ready for what the conditions might throw at you is vital for a successful and enjoyable trip, so here are some tips.
Shelter type and location
bikepacking bothy shelter.jpg, by Matthew Page
During autumn and winter, I favour a tent over more minimal shelter such as a bivvy bag or lightweight tarp. However, a big factor to consider is the hydrostatic head (HH) of the tent fabric – not all waterproof material is created equal. The HH measurement shows how many millimetres high a column of water standing on the fabric would need to be before it would penetrate. To be classed as 'waterproof' a fabric needs to have a HH of least 1000mm, but in reality, this will not stand up to British weather and some tent fabrics can be as high as 30,000mm.
Your choice of where to pitch is also vital. Sheltered spots will obviously offer more protection, but consider the forecast wind direction and speed when pitching. One simple tip is not to pitch with your tent or shelter entrance directly facing into a headwind. Pitching in the middle of a woodland or forest might seem like a good idea, but if winds are forecast to be high, think twice, as among trees may not be the safest location.
It's also worth looking at locations of bothies as they can offer indoor shelter in some beautiful locations all over the country, with the added bonus that they tend to be quieter outside of summer. Check out the Mountain Bothies Association and other organisations that manage bothy shelters. If using one, ensure you follow the code and leave it clean, tidy, and exactly how you found it.
Clothing - Staying dry & keeping warm
During autumn and winter the chance of getting wet while riding increases, added to which it will be more difficult to dry any kit that does get wet. I personally take a spare item of clothing for each day's riding, for those areas where warmth is essential, for example, base layers, gloves and socks. A good-quality waterproof jacket is also vital to keep the worst of the weather away from your core.
As well as this, take some extra items of warm kit for arrival at camp, such as an insulated jacket, long johns, spare socks to sleep in, and a buff or warm hat. If you have any down garments, or a down sleeping bag, it is imperative that you keep them dry as wet or damp down loses its thermal efficiency. If you can't be certain of keeping your kit dry, consider using synthetic garments instead. Although it will usually be heavier, synthetic down maintains its thermal insulating power when damp. And remember, moisture doesn't only come from the outside (rain) but also from the inside (perspiration). If you are likely to ride in a thermal jacket, a synthetic garment might be better for this reason.
Dexshell Ultralite Gloves review 2021 5.jpg, by Jim Clarkson
If getting wet is almost guaranteed then consider neoprene garments, especially in slightly warmer (nearer 10 degrees) temperatures. I particularly find neoprene gloves good, although as the temperature drops further, windchill has a big effect and can make exposed neoprene cold.
Check the forecast, but don't trust the forecast
bikepacking frosty trail.jpg, by Matthew Page
The British obsession with the weather is likely because it's so changeable, and this has huge relevance for cycling and bikepacking. While weather prediction has improved, it would be naïve to completely trust a forecast. Temperatures are best taken with a pinch of salt, and remember the figure will be based on an urban area, not out in the countryside where it can often be several degrees colder.
Localised weather is also a factor, something I learnt for myself when I pitched at the bottom of a sunny valley, and woke up in the morning freezing, with all the warmth replaced by a thick blanket of fog. As for rainfall, always be prepared and take good waterproofs: getting wet is the fastest way to suffer from the cold. In warmer summer conditions it is less of a factor but in the winter, keep as dry as you can.
Wind chill is a very important consideration and one that can be hard to judge. There is no official calculation for wind chill, but the Met Office use "feels like" temperature, which aims to be accurate with wind and humidity factored in. An example of the effect is at 2-degrees Celsius and a wind speed of 25mph; the "feels like" temperature would be -5, which is a significant drop. Wind speed is also why we get colder, faster when wet, so it's crucial to stay dry.
Elevation has an effect on temperature too. As a basic guide, it will drop by 1-degree for every 100 metres of elevation. So, if you're planning a big trip into the hills, ensure you think about how far you'll ascend and the highest point on the ride.
Forecasting might be improving, but not all forecasts will agree, so it is worth checking multiple sources for an overview. More straightforward forecasts, such as the BBC, will provide the basics, whereas more in-depth forecasts will give hourly changes and more detailed information. Useful forecasts to check, all of which have apps include the Met Office, XC Weather and Windy which is great to see the wind direction and any changes. If you are heading to any higher parts, such as the Brecon Beacons, Peak District, or large parts of Scotland, a valuable site is the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS).
As weather forecasts continue to improve more sites, including Komoot with its weather service can help give a better indication of how the weather might change on different sections of the planned route. It also has useful functions including exactly when it is likely to be dark and when lights will be needed
Cooking & food
Decathlon - Intro to Bikepacking Cooking-4.jpg, by Rachael Wight
It may seem obvious, but some form of heating and a way to warm food can help turn an otherwise miserable trip into a pleasant one. Being able to make a hot tea or soup or to heat up some food after arriving and pitching up will help put a smile on your face.
If you struggle with the cold, getting a few reusable hand warmers may be worthwhile, and you can use the time boiling water for a drink or food to reset the gel packs, which will save fuel and time.
Always make sure that you have enough fuel for your stove, and also enough water-carrying capacity. Before arriving at your camp find somewhere to top up all bottles and any collapsable containers you might have.
bikepacking winter extras.jpg, by Matthew Page
Winter bikepacking adventures shouldn't cost the earth, but there are a few products that might be worth getting to keep you warm.
Survival shelter – Not the foil blanket type (although they are also of some use) but the type designed to fully cover you. If the weather turns and you're nowhere near the indoors or your camp, jumping inside a survival shelter, even for a few minutes, will make a huge difference. Some brands offer two- or four-person shelters – they might seem heavy and bulky, especially the four-person type, but once you're inside one getting instantly warmer you'll be very grateful.
Reusable heat packs – Cheap and effective, often simply called 'hand warmers', these are usually a liquid within a casing. There's a small metal disk that, when clicked, turns the liquid to solid so it emits heat. They stay warm for a while and can be reset back to liquid by placing in boiling water for several minutes.
bikepacking weather view.jpg, by Matthew Page
Sleeping outdoors in the winter anywhere around the UK will mean a cold night, and the further north and the higher elevation you are, the lower temperatures can be. A good sleeping system offering minimal heat loss is important to keep you warm and alive.
Some brands, including Exped and Thermarest, offer winter-specific sleeping mats with extra insulating properties. Compare R-values to see how effective they might be at insulating your body from the ground.
Decathlon - Intro to Bikepacking Sleeping mat bag bivvy-2.jpg, by Rachael Wight
A sleeping bag is the most popular for bikepacking, but there are other options, including half-bags, quilts, and hybrid bag/quilts. If you already have one sleeping bag for spring/summer, consider using this along with an extra layer, such as a quilt, or simply extra clothing, as this can be cheaper than buying a winter sleeping bag.
Test night out
bikepacking tent winter sleep.jpg, by Matthew Page
If you have a suitable location at or near home, consider having a night out in similar forecast conditions to see if the overall setup that you have planned works well, or if there is anything that needs improving. This is something I've done many times in all seasons, either to test the limits of summer kit to see if it can be used in the colder months or simply to test new kit.
This can also be a great way to test your mental strength. With a warm, comfortable bed and all the food comforts you might want close by, how strong is your mental fortitude?
What about fires?
DON'T. Making a fire might seem like a great way to keep warm, but the advice on making fires is for all year round. Unless you have permission from the landowner and a designated area to make a fire – not just a few stones around some wood but a specifically created area such as a pit or a stove within a bothy, don't start a fire. Even in damp conditions lighting a fire can be dangerous to the area and wildlife, not to mention being illegal – so don't do it.
So there you have it! Cold weather bikepacking is totally doable when you're well prepared. With Matt's expertise in this field, we're pretty confident that by heeding his advice, there's no reason why bikepacking shouldn't be a year-round affair.