Shine a light: a beginner's guide to night mountain biking

Natalie Rix runs Women on Wheels YEG, a local mountain biking group that encourages women of all levels of experience to get out on the trails.

Edmonton has 152 kilometres worth of trails to bike in the winter

The thrill of the nighttime ride

4 years ago
Women on Wheels' Natalie Rix offers tips about winter mountain biking in the dark and offers key tips. 1:04

Cold wind blasts against Natalie Rix's face as she whips around a corner on a single-track mountain bike trail. Bright lights illuminate the trail as she pedals on, hopping over roots.

While some cyclists are putting their bikes away for winter, some members of Edmonton's mountain biking community are gearing up for a different side of the sport: fall and winter night riding.

Rix runs Women on Wheels YEG, a local mountain biking group that encourages women of all levels of experience to get out on the trails. She organizes group rides on Edmonton's trails several times a month, in every season.

"Night riding in the fall is beautiful. The colours, the crunch of the leaves, the wind," Rix said. "Winter biking, it's not even that dark because the snow helps to light up the way. And it's just so much fun."

Rix and I took our bikes to the Old Timers Cabin trail network on Nov. 1 — and she offered a few tips for night biking on the trails this season.

CBC Radio Active's Emily Rendell-Watson took to the trails on her bike to try winter night riding. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)

Safety is key

One of the biggest differences between mountain biking during the day and at night is the need for extra safety considerations. Rix said riders should have both a handlebar light and a helmet light.

"The handlebar light is going to light up the trail in front of you and the helmet light will help you see other things on the side of the trail so you don't get caught off guard," she said.

Rix said the handlebar light should be at least 500 lumens and the helmet light should be at least 200 lumens. (The higher the lumen rating, the brighter a light source appears.)

Dressing in layers is also important. Winter boots, a good wind shell and wool socks are a must. Ski goggles are also a smart addition.

But Rix said riding on a cold winter day or night isn't really that bad.

"On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and it's –20 C, it's so beautiful and bright you almost forget [the temperature]," she said.

Any mountain bike with two-to-three inch tires works for riding the trails at night before snow falls. But for winter biking, Rix recommends a fat bike with three-to-five inch tires. Some riders even use studs.

Rix encourages people who want to try winter mountain biking to rent a fat bike first. The oversized tires make them easier to ride on snow and other slippery terrain.

Never ride alone

Rix also suggests to ride the trail during the day first, and to never ride alone.

"I've done it, and I've crashed. Riding in a group is ideal, three people or more. Lights on everyone helps. A rear red light helps you judge your distance between you and the next rider," Rix said.

The trails are slick, but with thicker tires, riders should be able to keep their balance. (Emily-Rendell Watson/CBC)

Blythe Evans bought her first fat bike last November and rode all last season. She said the snow adds a whole new element of difficulty when the roots are covered and everything is slippery.

"There's lots of sliding and giggling. It's not necessarily about being technical or putting on kilometres, it's about getting out and having fun. We laugh a whole lot," Evans said.

Rix's favourite trails are in the Old Timers Cabin network.

"The trails are great for beginners up to the advanced rider depending on how fast you go," she said. "It's great at night because the trails change completely."

She said other areas to ride are the trails below McNally High School towards Capilano. "There is some excellent single track through there — really great for the intermediate rider," she said, adding that all 152 kilometres of single-track trails in Edmonton are fun to ride.

The experienced riders never ride alone. (Emily-Rendell Watson/CBC)

Rix recommends riders also look up Trailforks, an app that uses GPS to search for trails near them in the city. The app colours trails by difficulty — green for beginners, blue for intermediate and black for advanced riders.

Gaining popularity

Rix said the fall and winter night biking community has been growing steadily, especially with the popularity of fat biking.

"Tonight we passed a couple people a couple times at least," she said. "A couple of years ago we wouldn't have seen anyone. Usually the night and winter riding would be reserved for commuters but with the inception of fat bikes and riding the white powder it's grown a lot."

For Rix, it's not only a mode of transportation.

"It's a mental break. I ride because my soul comes alive when I'm on a bike. Hands down it makes me happy," she said.

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the afternoon crew on Twitter @CBCRadioActive.


Emily Rendell-Watson is an Edmonton-based journalist who shares stories for web, radio and television. She joined CBC Edmonton in 2017. You can reach her at emily.rendell-watson@cbc.ca.