When thinking of expedition-oriented fatbikes, the Salsa Mukluk is invariably one of the first that pops into my mind. Not only is Salsa one of the biggest names within the industry, they were one of the originators of the movement. The quality of their products shows this, and it’s exciting to see what the Mukluk series can handle. Fatbikes are still a niche in many places; however, they have hit the mainstream in places where snow covers the ground for a significant portion of the year. Living in one of these places with a long and miserable winter, I was thrust into the scene relatively early. I’ve tried several different fatbikes, from several different companies, but the one that has stood out as a leader in the field is the Salsa Mukluk X7. This bike quickly became one of the favourites in my quiver, and has been used for almost every discipline of riding at some point or another. This is my everyday bike and it has seen a lot of multi-purpose kilometres. It is safe to say that this bike has been pushed to its relative limits, on more than one occasion. The sheer versatility of this bike is impressive and I think that this versatility is the real selling point. The Mukluk series offered by Salsa has undergone a recent shift, and the 2016 version I have is slightly different from the 2017 models. Most notably, Salsa has made a carbon model of the Mukluk and have added several more build-kit options, going all the way up to an X01 build-kit. This certainly helps in terms of adaptability, with an option for almost any budget.
Since this is my personal bike, I’ve made several important upgrades that affect the feel and performance of the bike. Even in its original configuration, the Mukluk X7 worked very well and exceeded my expectations of what was possible on a fatbike platform.
My Salsa Mukluk X7 build details:
- Frame: Mukluk Aluminum, XL
- Fork: Salsa Bearpaw Carbon, 15 x 150mm thru axle
- Shifter: SRAM X5
- Brakes: Shimano Deore XT
- Rear Derailleur: SRAM X7, 10sp
- Cassette: SRAM 1020, 11-36t
- Crankset: SRAM X5, 175mm
- Front Chainring: P3 Chainrings, Elliptical, 34t
- Headset: Cane Creek 10 ZS44/28.6
- Hubs: Salsa Mukluk 3 [R]; Salsa Fat [F]
- Rims: Sunringlé Mulefut SL, 26” x 80mm
- Tires: 45NRTH Dunderbeist [R] and Flowbeist [F]; 26”x4.6”, 120tpi
- Handlebar: Whiskey Parts Co., Paris NO.9, Carbon Flat, 840mm
- Saddle: Tioga Spyder Outland
Weight: 29.8lbs (with Crankbrothers Candy 1 pedals)
There are several things that leap out from this build. First, it’s pretty darn light for having an XL aluminum frame, aluminum hoops, and an aluminum crankset. Second, the drivetrain is relatively cheap. For what it’s worth, the Sram X7 derailleur has held up remarkably well despite being one of their lower-end offerings. Third, the stock configuration is a 2×10 drivetrain set-up, with a Sram X7 front shifter. I opted out of this and converted to a 1x system to both save weight and allow my use of an elliptical chainring. Thankfully, with a broader range of build-kits on the 2017 Mukluk lineup, it is possible to go to a 1x drivetrain directly out of the box. Finally, the current brakes I have are a serious upgrade from the original Sram DB1s. Since this is my go-to bike, it has seen a lot of kilometres – and the brakes only recently failed (seized piston). Up until this point, though, the original brakes worked solidly! Taken together, these upgrades have made the bike a bit better and much more comfortable for me, personally.
For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that this is the first, and only, fatbike that I have ever owned. It will hopefully not be my last, but I haven’t put a significant amount of time on any other fatbike. I have, however, tested many other fatbikes. The Mukluk X7 stands out as being the most intuitive and capable, surpassing even some of the top-end bikes like the Salsa Beargrease.
To me, the Mukluk strikes a nice balance between the many different possible uses of fatbikes. The Mukluk line is generally considered to be the more ‘expedition’-oriented model, with a big open frame, three bottle-cage mounts on the frame itself, and two fork mounts on the Salsa Bearpaw Carbon fork. This bike was meant to be ridden for long distances while packing some serious gear. Despite this, the carbon fork keeps the front end responsive and nimble which makes it an excellent choice for some racing and shorter climbing. The one drawback to the Mukluk line was the heretofore unavailable carbon frame, however, Salsa has listened to its customers and now offers a carbon version. With the newly available carbon frame, the Mukluk line is incredibly versatile: it is lightweight for racing, while still coming with the proper mounts that make it a true-expedition bike. Moreover, the new Mukluks can now take up to a 5” rear tire, thus increasing their appeal for powdery or soft snow conditions.
Riding The Mukluk
When I threw a leg over my first fatbike, I had an overwhelmingly negative opinion of their capabilities. From my initial experience, I thought they were unwieldy, heavy, and un-responsive. They were, I thought, more akin to a tractor than a mountain bike – sluggish, awkward, and awful at turning. This was not the case once I hopped aboard the Mukluk. The Mukluk is nimble and has a progressive geometry that makes it playful in single-track, yet powerful when it opens onto double-track. I’ve ridden (and raced) this bike on some incredibly varied terrain across North America – and it has held up to all the abuse I have thrown at it. From winter-ultra racing in Northern Ontario to descending Pisgah Forest’s infamous Farlow Gap, the Mukluk inspires a remarkable amount of confidence – which is even more impressive for a rigid bike. I will say that it probably wasn’t the best choice for descending Farlow, however, I did pass two people on full trail bikes during my descent. So clearly Salsa got something right!
The one setback to this bike is its relatively sluggish climbing capabilities. Although, I think that this might be a problem endemic to fatbikes more generally. I couldn’t help but notice the relative sluggishness when the climbs became longer. For short, punchy climbs, the Mukluk is a great choice because it is possible to muscle it up before the weight becomes too big of an issue. The 4.6” tyres I’m currently running also give incredible traction for those squirrely, rooty ascents. Nevertheless, all that added traction and weight seems to be counterproductive as the climbs lengthen. This could realistically be solved on board the carbon version, where the weight savings would make the bike climb a little bit better. I can’t speak to this on firsthand experience, but it certainly seems plausible.
Unlike full suspension bikes, hardtails are incredibly simple to set-up. Rigid hardtails are even more simple: just adjust the seat height and saddle position, and go for a rip. This holds true to a certain extent with the Mukluk, however, tyre pressure plays a very important role in ride quality – much more so than with skinny tyred mountain bikes. It takes some time to dial-in a fatbike’s tyre pressure, and it is easy to run a tyre pressure that is inadequate. This can adversely affect ride quality and the bike’s performance. I’ve converted to tubeless so I can run a bit lower pressures and I try to tailor front and rear tyre pressures for specific conditions. I always run the front a bit softer – generally hovering around the 6-7psi range. In the rear, I run a bit more pressure at about 7-8psi (mind you, this is in the winter. In summer conditions, I run maybe 2psi higher in both). The debate on tyre pressure is somewhat finicky, as there are many variables that come into play. Conditions are of course important, but so is rider weight. I’m considered a heavy cyclist, so I will generally run a higher pressure than most of my fatbike compatriots. On top of that, tyre dimensions dictate how a particular tyre will feel at any given psi. A 5” tyre, for example, will feel different than a 4” tyre, when run at the exact same psi. Trial and error is the key here. The 80mm rims give a solid footprint with 4.6” tyres, allowing for very good traction and surprising pedalling efficiency. In winter the 4.6” tyre is good, but for summer I generally opt for a 4” tyre – in either case the 80mm rim seems to strike a good balance for tyre profiles from 3.8” to 5”. From what I’ve found, the wider 100mm rims make narrower tyres perform and feel somewhat odd. Many have also experimented with 27.5+ and 29+ wheels on this bike. I can’t speak to these changes personally, because I was confident in the capabilities of the full fat wheels; however, I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews from people who have made the change. The one caveat, though, is that almost everyone I’ve talked that has done this setup change has said that the ‘feel’ of the bike changes and that the bike handles differently in a 27.5+ or 29+ configuration. This makes intuitive sense, of course, given that 29ers feel and handle a lot differently than 26ers. And while this might be an enticing option for many, I didn’t feel the need to make the transition: I was more than content to ride the wider wheels throughout the summer as well as the winter!
The geometry on the Mukluk is, as I mentioned, quite progressive. The 2017 model has the (claimed) shortest chainstay length possible, while still being able to accommodate a 5” tyre. The adjustable dropouts on the 2016 version though, kept the chainstay length within the 440-457mm range. This is pretty darn short, and gives the bike a playful feel. It is quick to bring the front wheel up – which is great in technical singletrack – and allows quick access to the balance point for manuals (if that’s a selling point to you). The wheelbase for an XL frame maxes out at 1184.2mm (with at short end of 1167.2mm), which is comparable to many modern trail bikes of comparable size. This is in large part due to the incredibly slack head-tube angle, which is a raked-out 68.5 degrees. All of this is given in a package that is fully rigid. Like I said: progressive. From my riding of the Mukluk, the relatively short rear-end keeps it playful, but the slack head-tube angle and longer wheelbase makes it somehow stable. In this sense, the Mukluk again strikes a great balance between two often antithetical characteristics – nimbleness and stability. The nimbleness is felt at slow speeds when navigating tight, twisty, and technical singletrack. The front end can pop up surprisingly quickly, which allows easier navigation of rocks and roots at lower speeds. At higher speeds, on the other hand, the long wheel base of the XL keeps the bike grounded and stable. It inspires confidence and allows for some incredibly fun descents. Indeed, at a Winter Fatbike Race presented by 45nrth, I had the Mukluk up to 62kph (38mph) on a snowy singletrack descent. Granted, this was still a bit scary. But, I doubt many other bikes would inspire the confidence required to get to that point in the first place.
The Mukluk set me in a great pedalling position that allows for a surprisingly powerful pedal stroke. This bike maximizes my energy output and puts me in that oft-elusive ‘power position’. Coupled with this, is the smart cockpit decisions on Salsa’s end. Here, yet again, the Mukluk strikes a delicate balance between two important variables: a racy setup and a leisure setup. The top-tube length of the XL is 645mm, and comes stock with an 80mm stem, with a +7 degree rise. This gives the bike a relaxed feel that is responsive and comfortable. The stock stem sits directly between the longer ‘race’ stems of an XC bike (100+ mm) and the shorter stems found on modern trail bikes (which can be as short as 50mm). I may have a shorter torso compared to other (more proportional) riders, but this cockpit was perfect for me! A longer stem would have tested my flexibility and strained my back and a shorter one would keep me sitting too far upright for any racing or aerodynamic positioning. Similarly, the top-tube length sits directly in a sweetspot for sitting ‘in’ the bike. This balance between numerous variables makes the Mukluk as confident in gnarly technical sections and turns as it does on short, punchy climbs.
The one issue I had with the cockpit setup though, was Salsa’s decision to run a 700mm flat-bar as the stock handlebar. This is a laughably narrow bar for a modern bike, which is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that I’m on an XL frame. I may have a larger wingspan than the average person, but the stock bar just seems to run against the feel the frame’s geometry is trying to achieve. I have since gone to a wider bar.
While I appreciated the stock version of the bike, I have changed lots of the setup to better suit my riding style. Here I wanted to give a run-down of the upgrades I made to the bike in the past two years, and give a brief explanation as to why I chose to stray from the stock build-kit option.
Like I mentioned, I’m a bit disproportioned for a cyclist. At 6’4” and 190lbs, my needs out of a bike are slightly different than the average consumer. For starters, I now run a Whiskey Parts Co. Paris No.9 handlebar that is a whopping 840mm in width. I have found this to be the most comfortable position for my larger wingspan – it helps with control of the bike, and opens my chest and shoulders up. Interestingly, I saw a reduction of back-pain by going to this setup. Being as big as I am means that I am bound to have a different position on the bike than most – my saddle is almost invariably much higher than the stem-cap. This forces me to be in a bit more of an aerodynamic position, which means that the strains on my back are, perhaps, more profound than someone who doesn’t need such a long bloody seatpost.
On another note, I also found that the 2x drivetrain setup wasn’t really fulfilling my needs for racing – by dropping the front derailleur, shifter, and chainring, I was able to drop the weight by a significant amount. This certainly helps for someone my weight – I’m already pushing a lot of weight around and I would prefer to lose weight off my bike! Thankfully, I’m on the fringe of cyclists so most people won’t have to deal with these concerns. Moreover, the 2017 lineup addresses these concerns by offering a wider range of build-kit options!
The Mukluk is the bike that I ride most often and it is the bike that I am always excited to throw a leg over. Whether it be a fatbike gravel epic, or an XC race, or some enduro riding, or winter racing, the Mukluk simply handles whatever is thrown at it. Like I previously mentioned, this bike can take an absolute beating and still perform incredibly well. The Salsa Mukluk is one of the most versatile fatbikes on the market. It is as geared towards fatbike and XC racing as it is towards epic bike-packing adventures. Simply put, this bike can do it all – 12 months of the year. The Mukluk offers confidence and a playful feel in dusty, dry singletrack, while also providing a platform that performs exceptionally well in the winter. Moreover, the updated Mukluk line offers new build-kit options that address my concerns about the ‘feel’ of the bike. The Carbon XO1 Mukluk comes with wider bars, and a 1x setup directly out of the box. Salsa has gotten something very right with this bike – and their new line only serves to further that point. If I had to recommend a particular fatbike, it would hands-down be this one. If you want to race, or just ride some trails at a leisurely pace, or pack the bike up for a month-long expedition, the Mukluk can get you where you need to go.