How to start, things to think about, and where to go!
I love getting outdoors with my Vizslas and when it snows, we still head out. Cross country and backcountry skiing is a really fun way to keep dogs active with you during the winter months. However, there is much more to think about in the winter with dogs, so here’s what we’ve learned.
Winter Hazards for Dogs
While the bugs and bears are sleeping and wildlife is less of a concern in the alpine, there is the looming issue of snow, cold temperatures and avalanches. There is also less sunlight so getting lost becomes much more dangerous when the temperatures dip and there are less people on the trails.
Snow and Cold
You’ll need more gear in the cold (unless you have a winter mountain dog) and snow to protect both your dog and yourself. I find myself bringing lots of layers for everyone, and also sometimes a dog sleeping bag for longer days. Here’s more on clothing and footwear for dogs in the winter. Expect to carry a larger heavier pack than the summer, and keep your dog moving to the car if you start seeing signs of shivering. It’s always a good idea to check on your dog’s paws and body throughout hikes but it’s especially important in the winter.
With deep snowpack, running through especially thick deep snow can be exhausting for dogs and hard on their joints and hips. My dogs know to run on the skin tracks or follow behind in deep snow but some dogs may run beyond what they can sustain because they’re having so much fun. Thick crusty snow that gets punched through can also cut dogs paws and legs. Legs can get very bloody if you end up in these conditions, so ask your dog to stay behind your tracks or turn back if you see their legs raw or bloody.
Even in mild terrain, if there’s enough snow, there are tree wells. A space of loose snow can form around tree trunks and hidden cavities can easily trap and suffocate dogs (as well as people) that fall in. I’ve heard of several dogs lost overnight when they’ve fallen into tree wells and could not get out. This isn’t just for backcountry skiing, but right off the side of cross country trails. Be aware and keep your dogs in sight at all times.
If you’re going into avalanche terrain, make sure you have the training! There are classes available throughout the season and it’s very dangerous to go into terrain without knowledge, gear, and a skilled group of friends. Do not put an avalanche beacon on a dog. In an event a group may be swept away, humans must be first priority and precious time spent digging out a dog instead may mean the life or death of a human. You can put a different beacon on your dog that you can track instead.
When you travel through avalanche terrain, keep your dogs in control, and in line with the pack. A dog running above may trigger an avalanche above a group of humans or may also be caught in an avalanche even if the humans have been able to avoid one. There was recently a dog rescued after 20 minutes buried in an avalanche in Colorado. Please take precautions!
Basic Commands for Skiing with a Dog
There’s a couple things I have taught my Vizslas to do when I ski with them. The first is to get out of my path when I’m going to ski right into them. GO GO GO is the command that I’m right behind and they need to move out of the way. The safest way is to practice this is during running or with cross country skis (something without sharp edges). I just speed up randomly and yell GO GO GO and run them by without hurting them. They learn really quickly to move out when they hear that!
Another important command is to “STAY BACK” and hang out behind your tracks. That can be taught on leash at first, while walking or running. I use STAY BACK often while hiking on leash and need dogs not to pull in technical terrain.
“PASS BY” is something I picked up when I was mushing in the Yukon. When two dog teams pass by each other, they need to ignore each other and keep running. “Pass by” means no greeting, no sniffing, you are passing by dogs and you are working. Again, this is best trained while running.
“STAY CLOSE” and of course full RECALL (“full” meaning the dog comes all the way back and stands by you to be leashed without you stepping forwards) is extremely important when off leash skiing. These should already be in your repertoire but make sure you have these tools before heading out! Lastly, you should be able to leash your dog while on skis at any point (wildlife, dog fight, injury, emergencies, etc) so keep a leash within easy reach.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) pick up after your dog, especially on groomed ski tracks where someone may ski over. The poop also messes up the grooming machines and if this happens too often, dog-friendly becomes no dogs allowed quite quickly!
Keep your dogs away from leashed dogs or dogs in muzzles, and keep your dogs in the car until you’re all set to go. Off leash dogs in parking lots are super dangerous for both parties. Normally the first 5 minutes dogs are out are when they tend to poop and dog-poop filled parking lots are not fun for anyone.
If you’re moving quickly, keep your dogs to the side so they don’t run into anyone else skiing in the opposite direction. Keep your dogs from just standing in the middle of a run, especially on a blind turn, and let dogs play off to the side.
Skijoring, kick sleds
I’ve never tried! I’ve trained my dogs not to pull but I know lots of people that skijor and love this sport. There’s competitions with teams, as well as bikejoring and canicross (running with dogs pulling you). Make sure you have the correct gear (not just a regular harness and leash) and see if there are classes and competitions in your area (some listed below). For even more fun, try kick sleds on tracks! The faster you go, the bigger wipeouts you’ll have, so first start running and teaching commands before you really go for it.
Dog Friendly Cross Country Skiing Trails in Canada
It’s uncommon for dogs to be allowed off leash in cross country ski areas but there are some that do! Some are of these are on-leash, some allow skijoring, and some off leash. Please do your research before going! BC and Alberta have more off leash trails and Ontario and Quebec have more skijoring trails.
- Whistler, BC, Whistler Olympic Park 30kms of dog friendly trails
- Revelstoke, BC, Revelstoke Nordic Club,
- Kelowna, BC, Kelowna Nordic, 23km dog friendly trails
- Calgary, AB Bowness Park
- Caledonia, ON, Caledonia Nordic Ski Club 8kms
- Kananaskis, AB, Mount Shark 15km
- Kamloops, BC, Stake Lake 5km
- Radium Hot Springs, Nipika Mountain Resort
- Calgary, AB, Bragg Creek Trails
- Sundre, AB, Sundre CX-Country Bike N Ski
- Arrowhead, ON – skijoring trails, competitions
- Algonquin Park, ON skijoring and dogsled trails
- Halton, ON, Hilton Falls
- Haliburton, ON, Twin Lakes
Dog Friendly Cross Country Skiing Trails in USA
- Breckenridge, CO, even the gondola is dog friendly!
- Sunny Valley, ID, Super dog friendly
- Bozeman, MT, Hyalite Canyon
- Bozeman, MT Bozeman Creek
- Methow, Valley, WA, there’s a costume ski race with dogs
- White Mountains, NH, Loon Mountain
- White Mountains, NH, Bear Notch Ski Touring Center
- Lake Sakakawea, ND
- Aspen, CO Snowmass Nordic Trail System
- Oxford Maine, Carter’s Ski System
- Davis, WV, White Grass Touring Center
- Pagosa Springs, CO
- Winthrop, WA
- Yellowstone, MT
There’s lots of places to go backcountry skiing with your dog. The terrain opens everything up, and basically you can go anywhere that’s not dog-prohibited. Just make sure that you have all the essentials for yourself as well as a dog.
It gets really expensive and dangerous for winter rescues so make sure you’re self sufficient. At minimum carry a satellite communication device, first aid, and have the training to be out. I really like the Whyld River down dog bags as an emergency bivy/dog bag. The XL sizes can fit both you and your dog inside should you get caught out and it packs in extra small.