Riding on Snow? Sand? All About Fatbikes

Photo: Carlo Pedersoli CC


note: RevoLights' current line doesn't work with fatbikes, we just think they're rad :-)


A fatbike is a bicycle with oversized balloon tires designed to "float" over loose surfaces like sand, snow, and ice. Bicycling itself goes all the way back to the early 19th century, but it took until 2005 for a bike manufacturer to make an off-the-shelf solution available to cyclists who wanted to ride on loose surfaces.

The early days

Enthusiasts, tour operators, and people who live off the grid in harsh environments have been cobbling together fat bikes out of off-the-shelf components since the late 80s. In the early days, enthusiasts welded rims together and cut out the center section to make large enough wheels for their homemade fatbikes. They cut and stitched off-the-shelf tires together to create suitable tires.

They used modified mountain bike frames to carry their custom-fabricated wheels and tires. Although the first fatbikes appeared in 1987, it would be close to 20 years before a manufacturer made these specialized components available to the broader cycling community.


The Surly Pugsley

Minnesota bicycle design company Surly was the first to make fatbike components available to the public. Their Large Marge rims, Endomorph tires, and Pugsley frame made it possible to own a fatbike without knowing anything about welding aluminum and stitching rubber together.

Many of the first fatbikes were single-speed for simplicity's sake. The Pugsley made it possible to bolt a traditional mountain bike groupset to a fatbike. Enthusiasts have ridden the Pugsley across continents, on sandy beaches and dunes, frozen lakes, muddy riverbanks, and snowmobile trails in the dead of winter. It's possible to traverse all types of solid and semi-solid terrain on a fatbike by dropping the tire pressure down to the single digits.


Commercial applications

Where many tour operators needed Jeeps and other heavy 4x4s to give tours over some of the most beautiful terrain on the planet, fatbikes made it possible for them to give tours to enthusiastic cyclists.

The environmental advantages are obvious. Jeeps run on gas, but bicycles run on apples and bananas. Fatbikes have a greatly reduced contact patch compared to Jeeps, too, reducing the amount of sediment displaced when touring. 


Choosing a fatbike

Surly still makes the Pugsley, but a variety of manufacturers have capitalized on Surly's initial success. Now everyone from Carver to Trek makes a fatbike frame or complete bicycle. Prices range from $1599 for the Charge Cooker Maxi, made of steel, to the $5499 carbon-framed Salsa Beargrease.

The entry level bikes at lower price points have all of the terrain-conquering characteristics of the more expensive models, so it's not necessary to spend big bucks to get the fatbike experience.  

Be advised: as soon as you own one you may not be able to stop riding it or fantasizing about taking a cycling trip through Antarctica. 



To check out more unique designs on innovative bikes, check out our blog post on the Oregon Manifest Bike Design Project.