If you find that biking gets you in touch with your 'inner 5 year old' then you definitely need to get out in the snow as soon as you get the chance. Of course your inner 5 year old will need to be pretty determined, well prepared, and quite hardy, as the conditions can be pretty harsh at times; but extremely rewarding.
There are in essence three types of snow biking, escalating in seriousness and potential reward:
1 - Getting out on the local paths near home for a quick blast and a whoop and hoping your neighbours don't catch you
2 - Getting to your local trail centre
3 - Heading for the hills
Glen Tress - Bit of a surprise winter ride!
Getting out and about locally can be great fun, and very rewarding for a quick blast, but really the adventure comes when you head further afield; trail centres, and the open hillsides are where the real rewards are at. However it's worth remembering that an icy path anywhere can be quite challenging, and here, lower down in the valley is where we'll find the biggest temperature variations - the perfect conditions for some freeze-thaw ice formation. This can make riding higher up where there is snow arguably safer, but being prepared can be even better. Frozen bogs on that muddy trail from the autumn can now be shot across with ease - it can be a great time - just watch out for the ice. Even getting Ic-Spike tyres will leave you needing to take a bit more care than usual, and still thinking about line choice to stay off the previous puddles.
However, that previous un-rewarding bit of fire road now becomes the drifting playground you always wanted and ( with enough snow) some of the consequences of a mishap turn from day-ending to day making as you slide and drift your way around the trails. Worried about your cornering techniques; this becomes a great place to push the traction and deal with the consequences of losing a wheel as you push into corners and play with weighting your front wheel and slide out the back. More than fun this becomes a great way to develop your cornering, and confidence in, lets face it, an environment designed especially for that 5 year old in you. You can even lock up the back wheel and initiate a slide knowing that the worst you are doing is shifting some snow around rather than damaging the trail - it's great.
The trails that you know change their character, with now hidden roots and slidy corners, you enter into a sound damped quiet fantasy land - you'll often be one of the few riders there and the deadening effect of a good snowfall does weird things to the acoustics in a forest.
There are a few things you need to take care of though. A puncture turns from a ride-splitting plain in the bum to finger numbing hot-ache inducing fumble fest (with tears as the circulation comes back), a dropped bolt may never be found again, and there's always the possibility of ice to throw you on the floor without any notice. You need to be well dressed, with more in the bag for mechanical halts, and several pairs of gloves. My preference is to keep my core and head warm, and that helps keep my hands and feet warm, but numb hands are no help at all, whatever you decide to do.
I've had several winters struggling along with clipless pedals; I converted years ago and never looked back (more on another article), but in the winter, a thin insole between my foot and the cleat means that I got hot-aches in my feet and permanently numb feet. I've now invested in some flat shoes (for the winter let's not get carried away now)- , and my life has been transformed! When it gets properly wintry or I go up high you will find me riding in lighter weight walking boots and short ankle gaiters to keep the snow out too.
A kit list begins to look like a winter mountaineering kit list when you consider the terrain and conditions we might be experience - 'idiot loops' on you gloves so they stay tied to your wrists, mittens (Planet X do some awesome lobster mitts that split so you can still use your brakes), numerous pairs of gloves (100% Briskers are recommended cold weather gloves) and even wooly mitts for the very worst conditions. Going up really high then you may even consider an ice axe for short sections of freeze-thaw ice (Nevee) and an early start might need crampons even for icy paths before the mid-day mini-thaw. Maps compasses and spare batteries are also a consideration - in winter never go out only with electronic navigation instruments - a mobile phone can lose 60% of its charge to the cold in easily found winter conditions.
The Ochills in Winter - farm tracks have never been so much fun
Moving out onto hill tracks is a natural progression, but one that needs a bit of thought. I've reflected on a number of occasions on how well I'm prepared for the conditions when I ride past a group of winter hill walkers with their ice axes, big rucksacks, heavy boots etc, and I'm in my shorts, tights and trainers - as ever when you're out on natural trails it's very easy and quick to get over committed - so you need to continually appraise your situation. While letting the 5 year old out, you need to perhaps rein him or her in a bit just so you don't do something daft - an injury or major mechanical out here could be dangerous.
The other peril to watch out for is frozen hubs - a water crossing low down may just be enough to soak an old hub and lead to the Pawls not engaging and turning your pride and joy into an expensive scooter. Bringing your back wheel indoors between rides can be a good idea in continually cold conditions - get it infront of a radiator and make sure it is completely dry before you take it out too - chainless rides are great fun, but not if you have a distance in the valley to do or some climbing.
You'll notice from the Ochills picture that I invested in a pair of snow spike tyres (Schwalbe Ice Spikes) - expensive for a ride or two a year, but they get great traction in the mud down below, and snow up in the hills, and have the advantage of some traction on ice patches and provide a good excuse if you can afford them "well I need to use them now I've bought them!". Of course it is worth remembering that they don't make you stick to ice - just grip a little better! - You can also lower your tyre pressures to help grip. On snow surfaces there are few things to snakebike on, but a tubeless tyre will still leave you feeling a little more comfortable at really low pressures, and it's amazing how much grip you can get on snow with a good agressive tyre.
If you've ever gone for a walk with a collie, you'll have had the experience of the excited dog running off down the track at full pelt, then returning excitedly a few minutes later, then disappearing ahead again continually. This is the experience two of us had trying to ride the Burma Road near Aviemore one winter with a third person who had ice tyres. While we were picking ourselves up again from being dumped on the floor, our spiked companion was up and down the track like a loon. Eventually we had to abandon the trip, blaming the shooting going on in the estate, but really we were just looking for an excuse.
Finally it's worth capping some of the mentions about navigation off. Following a beaten track through snow up a familiar hill on a crisp sunny day is one thing, but drop a cloud on it and bring up the wind to throw spindrift over the trail and you have a completely different ball-game. The wind-chill itself with pelting ice in your face can make it impossible to read anything or look ahead, so a face covering and goggles can be the baseline navigation equipment, but without the ability to pinpoint yourself and locate your destination, this wonderland can rapidly turn into a nightmare - make sure you don't over-reach yoursef, don't rely entirely on electronics, and make sure you can navigate. I have heard many quotes from people saying they were in a white-out - you know when you're in one because not only do the ground and sky merge, but it is so complete that you suddenly find yourself in a white bubble in which nothing else exists (like a sensory deprivation capsule but much colder and windier) and you actually lose your balance as your brain can find nothing to anchor itself on. You don't want to be there if you can't navigate, so check your forecasts, and check your skills if you're going into a fully snow covered environment, and if necessary check the avalanche forecast too (oh yes!) if you are going higher or where accumulations of snow are lying especially if a lot has come down recently.
So nightmare scenario aside - Winter riding can be a great way to build your skills and confidence, can renew your excitement over a well known trail, and can be an adventure in the real sense of the world. It takes a bit of preparation, and maybe a little (more) investment, but has a lot of rewards, not least arriving in the spring warmth all ready to go again, and not feeling like you're starting again when you hit your first hill of the year. And Let's face it piling into snowdrifts will never grow old either...