Fat Tire Bikes: The Ultimate Guide to the Ultimate Off-Roaders

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Have you ever wanted to be able to traverse any terrain on your bike?

Fat tire bikes are the piece of kit designed for this kind of riding freedom! They can traverse just about any terrain you can get two wheels on.

Whether you’re traversing Antarctica, the harsh Alaskan winter, or giant Peruvian sand dunes, fat bikes have got you covered. 

To get going on your all-terrain adventures, you need to make sure you find the right fat bike for you. In this article, we’ll be talking about:

  • What Are Fat Tire Bikes?
  • The Origin And Evolution Of Fat Tire Bikes
  • What Are Fat Bikes Best Suited For?
  • Fat Tire Electric Bikes
  • 8 Things To Consider Before Buying A Fat Bike

Ready to get up to speed on the fattest tires around?

Let’s get started!

Fat Tire Bikes: Title Image

What Are Fat Tire Bikes?

A fat tire bike, or fat bike, is precisely what you would expect – they are bikes with extremely wide tires.

Just how fat are we talking here?

Most modern fat bikes have tires ranging from 4-5 inches (10-12 cm) wide. This allows the bike to be ridden in snow or sand, and over obstacles that might stop even a mountain bike in its tracks. Tree roots, cobblestones, and hiking trails are no match for tires that fat!

The main draw of a fat bike is that it can be ridden just about anywhere. They’ve made their way through deserts, deep snow, and recently even to the South Pole! This could be considered the ultimate proof-of-concept of fat tire bikes. If you can ride across Antarctic ice sheets, you can ride anywhere.

For people who live in very remote regions, for example, back-country Alaska, outback Australia, or the Andes, fat tire bikes can be a necessity. If you need to commute or simply wish to cycle for leisure in such places, a road or mountain bike just won’t cut it. 

Even if you’re not in such an extreme location, but you live somewhere with a restricted riding season, getting a fat bike could allow you to ride year round!

A cyclist on a fat tire bike sits atop a hill overlooking an Antarctic landscape.

The Origin And Evolution Of Fat Tire Bikes

You might be wondering how such bizarre bikes came about. Fat bikes have an interesting origin which actually began with alterations to mountain bikes made by consumers, not manufacturers. 

In the 1980s, mass manufacturing of mountain bikes began. This completely changed the world of cycling. No longer were people bound by asphalt roads and purpose-built cycle tracks. The types of rides people went on were transformed, now able to traverse through country trails, forests, and all kinds of off-road surfaces.

However, there were still limitations. 

The first Iditabike Challenge was held in 1987; a brutal 200-mile ride through the Alaskan backcountry. However, with so much snow, many people had to dismount and walk their bikes through thick snow and shrub. So people were keen to upgrade their equipment for next year. 

A group of innovative bikers decided to widen their contact with the ground by welding together multiple rims, sometimes up to three, on a single hub. This gave a huge amount of further stability and minimized time spent arduously walking their bikes through knee-deep snow.

This was developed further by some individuals removing the two inner rim walls. This allowed for the mounting of a single custom-made tire of up to 3.5 inches. 

Until 2005, these home alterations made up the tiny world of fat bikes. Although they gained some traction (no pun intended), the first mass-manufactured fat bike did not arrive on the scene until the release of the Surly Pugsley in 2005, which featured 2.5-inch tires. 

The fat bike scene has exploded in popularity since 2005, especially in the 2010s. Now the fattest tires can be up to 5 inches – double the width of the tires on the Surly Pugsley!

However, the expansion of the fat tire bike market has led to a large amount of variation, with notable variants including full-suspension fat bikes, carbon fat bikes, and even fat tire e-bikes!

A green fat tire bike sits on a sandy beach.

What Are Fat Tire Bikes Best Suited For?

Fat bikes are extremely versatile and can be used for many different types of adventure. But what are they best suited for? 

Although initially designed for gliding through deep snow or sand, fat bikes can be used pretty much anywhere.

However, there are certain types of rides for which fat tire bikes are best suited, or even require the stability of 4-inch tires. For example, a long ride along a coastline might require a fat bike so that you can ride on the beach or over sand dunes. Or a ride over ice or snow, particularly if you don’t want to be dragging the bike on foot. 

Hiking trails are another door unlocked by fat tires. Obviously, you still can’t go cycling up Everest, but many hiking trails which aren’t too steep and don’t require any equipment or climbing – but still would be inaccessible to a conventional mountain bike – can be traversed by fat bikes.

Think of all the new views you can see while riding!

Close-up of the back wheel of a fat tire e-bike in a snowy landscape.

Fat Tire E-Bikes

Although fat bikes can glide over any terrain, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. The 4-inch tires, low tire pressure, and – sometimes – suspension are great for absorbing little obstacles in your path.

Unfortunately, they’re also great at absorbing your energy. 

For this reason, many people choose to buy an electric fat tire bike. Fat e-bikes, just like any other electric bike, provide you with assistance as you turn the pedals. This doesn’t mean they turn the pedals for you, but it makes it considerably easier so that you can glide up your favorite hiking trails without making you completely exhausted.

This is worth considering if you’re going to purchase a fat bike, even if you’ve never considered electric bikes before.  Fat bikes are going to require a lot more power to move than a regular mountain bike, so you may need that extra oomph from the motor. Or it may just be more enjoyable if you have some assistance. 

Close-up of the cassette of a fat bike.

6 Things To Consider Before Buying A Fat Bike

Fat tire bikes have hugely varying specifications, so it can be difficult to decipher these codes and decide which bike is best for you, especially if you’re new to cycling. But never fear, we have put together this brief guide on things to consider during the research process.

#1. How fat should you go?

This question is certainly subjective, and it depends on what you’re going to use it for and on your personal preferences.

There’s a definite trade-off. The wider the tires, the more comfortable it’s going to be going over rough surfaces, and the more stable over slippery ones. However, the extra friction of the wheels will make it harder on your legs.

So it really does depend on your fat bike plans. If you’re going to be going over extremely uneven and rocky hiking trails, or if you’re brave (or mad) enough to cycle to the South Pole, you’re going to want some pretty hefty tires. Somewhere between 4.5 to 5 inches should do the trick.

But if you have no plans to go to the absolute extremes, and just want the freedom provided by fat bikes, it might be best to go for something around 4-inches or less.

#2. Rim Width

This is a very important question, and the answer is tied to how fat your tires are.

For 4-inch tires, you’re going to want rims of around 2.3-3.2 inches. If you’re going wider, you of course will need wider rims. However, for 5-inch tires, we wouldn’t recommend rims wider than 4 inches.

It’s not, however, exclusively about the width of your tires.

It’s worth considering how easily accessible rims in the size you’re going for are. Some niche sizes are extremely expensive or hard to find and pretty unrepairable in your average bike shop. So definitely double-check with a quick search to check this before you dive in.

#3. Suspension

Fat tires are not a replacement for suspension.

They do very different things and have a wildly different effect on your riding experience. Fat tires do not absorb large bumps in a trail. Their low pressure and wide girth provide huge amounts of additional traction which allows for cycling on things like snow or sand.

Suspension, on the other hand, is there to absorb as much vertical energy as possible. If you go over a large bump, or land from being in the air, the suspension allows for more control and less pain. Fat tires do absorb small obstacles and somewhat uneven ground, but they won’t do this. 

So again, it depends on what you’re going to use it for. If you want to go over snow or sand, then you might not need suspension. If you’re going to fly down rocky slopes or over completely unkempt, uneven trails, go for suspension on your fat tire setup.

#4. Frame Material

Frame material on a fat bike controls one major thing about your setup: its weight.

Unlike on a road or mountain bike, the frame material is not going to give any noticeable difference in the softness of your ride, due to the extremely hefty tires and low tire pressure

So the only things you really need to consider here are weight and price. Carbon is the lightest, but the most expensive. Aluminum is next, and a lot cheaper than carbon. Steel is the heaviest, and around the same price as aluminum, if not a little cheaper.

#5. Brakes

Due to the weight of a fat bike, you’re going to need a lot of stopping power. For this reason, fat bikes are typically equipped with disc brakes

The most effective here are hydraulic disc brakes, but some bikes do have mechanical disc brakes. These have a small advantage in the ability to fix them more easily in the event of a breakdown, which can make them more appealing to long-distance bikepackers. However, you will be compromising on stopping power.

#6. How Much Should you spend?

Like all specialist bikes, fat tire bikes are not cheap. Most models are in the range of $1000-2000, and if you’re looking for a carbon frame with top-quality parts, you’re looking at a lot more. 

Before you go and buy the cheapest fat bike you can find, think about whether a low-cost investment is worth it when you’ll likely need to spend considerable amounts on repairs and upgrades. Although the better models are more expensive, it’s normally worth it and may not work out as that much more over the course of a few years.

A cyclist rides a fat bike along a sandy shoreline at sunset.

Now You’re Equipped with the knowledge of fat bikes…

You can now go out and choose the best one for you!

They are the ultimate off-road bike, unlocking the potential to make a bike route out of almost any terrain. Now you just need to decide on the adventure your new fat bike will accompany you on.

This is easier said than done, however, due to the now infinite possibilities provided by hefty tires!

Want to know more? Check out the guides from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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