Photo Gallery | Winter Hiking With Dogs...Be Safe & Have Fun!
If you love hiking with your dog, why stop when there’s snow on the ground? The views at the top are breathtakingly beautiful when snow and ice blanket the landscape. While others curl up on the couch, watch the football playoffs and wait patiently for the arrival of spring, don’t hesitate to bundle up and hit the slopes with your furry companion...on foot and paw. But if you do, there are some really important precautions and preparations you’ll need to take and make. Read on....
I’m not a “gear head” by any stretch of the imagination, but once I commit to a sport, hobby or pastime as a lifelong passion, I will go the extra mile to outfit myself and my dogs appropriately for the conditions. When the mercury slips down into the single digits and the windchill factor makes your eyelashes and nostril hairs freeze, you’ll want the proper duds and equipment to ensure a safe and reasonably comfortable hike for you and your four-leggers.
FEET/PAWS: First off, you’ll want to successfully make it to the summit, right? In winter, you will definitely need some special equipment for your feet in order to get there. A deep snow pack may make snow shoes necessary, at least for the bottom portion of your hike. Choose the light-weight aluminum type, which will be easy to strap onto your backpack when you take them off for the steepest top third or so of the trail. If there’s not a lot of snow on the ground in town, you can rest assured that there will be at least some on the mountain, and you can also expect a good amount of ice as well. In some conditions, you can wear your snow shoes all the way up and the metal grips on the bottoms will get you there, and in other conditions you will want a set of decent crampons. Mine are from Eastern Mountain Sports and cost about $60.00 -- well worth the money. These are a more serious crampon than the Yak Traks most of us are familiar with and use for a no-slip grip on city sidewalks, but aren’t quite as intense (and expensive) as true mountaineering spikes. That’s why they are priced somewhere between those two extremes as well. With a minimal snow pack, temps hovering near zero and lots of ice on the trail this past Sunday, we negotiated the terrain with ease wearing just our boots for the first half of our hike of Pleasant Mountain (via Fire Warden’s Trail in Fryeburg) and our crampons for the top half and all the way back down. Perfect!
To protect your dog’s paws, you will definitely want, at a minimum, to purchase a container of Musher’s Secret Wax and a roll or two of sticky gauze and first aid adhesive tape. Some of you may want to consider the winter booties made in a variety of sizes and styles for your dogs’ four paws, but our Labs would NOT want to wear those and it would be more trouble than it’s worth. Even if you DO outfit your dog with booties, you’ll still want the Musher’s Wax and first aid tape in your pack, as those boots have a habit of falling off and getting lost, leaving your dog’s paws exposed to the elements all day. In the car at the trailhead, wrap all four of your dog’s shins securely (but not so tightly that you cut off circulation) between ankle and knee (about 3-6” depending on your dog’s size) with sticky gauze and then use the adhesive tape to hold the gauze in place. You are essentially creating a shin guard to protect your dog’s lower legs from the crusty snow that can cause cuts and abrasions as your dog breaks through the crusted snow while climbing. Next, you’ll want to apply a coat of the Musher’s Wax to your dog’s paws. Musher’s wax has a consistency similar to bag balm, allowing you to get between the paw pads liberally, coating the tough pads but also the tender places between the pads as well as the hair around and over the top of the paw. Essentially, you are sealing your dog’s paws against the snow and ice and providing some waxiness to the hair/fur around the paw so that ice and snow don’t stick. It’s important to wrap the shins FIRST and then apply the wax, as the gauze won’t adhere well on waxy fur. The Musher’s Wax dries in one minute. Place all of the paw/shin protection supplies into your pack in case you need to re-apply during your hike.
Speaking of boots....you’ll want GOOD ones for your own feet. Sorel makes a great boot called the Caribou Wool for about $120.00 with removable wool felt liners that will keep your feet warm to -40 degrees F. They are a good value for your dollar and will last you several seasons of heavy wear and the liners are replaceable if they wear out before the shell of the boot. I've been testing a pair of Keen Brixen boots for women this season and have been really pleased with the warmth and protection they've provided so far. Protect your feet by wearing nylon sock liners and SmartWool socks. The sock liners give your socks something slippery to slide over, preventing friction blisters on your heels. I swear by them. SmartWool socks allow your feet to stay warm while wicking away moisture.
CLOTHING: When hiking, even in very cold temperatures, you will sweat a lot. That moisture needs to go somewhere and will soak your clothing if it’s not breathable and appropriate for the conditions. For this reason you’ll want to dress in layers and add as you go UP in altitude and the temperature goes DOWN. Start with a first layer of silk or Duofold or a synthetic that wicks moisture (polypro, for instance) away from your skin. Follow that with breathable but warm layers like fleece. If you need wind protection, by all means wear that as your top layer, but choose a coat that allows you some ventilation options (like zippers in the underarm area that you can open). This way, you can still get rid of some moisture while staying warm enough. In extreme cold, a down jacket works really well for warmth, but when you get back to the car post-hike you may find that it’s wet with sweat that has not been able to dry due to the cold temps. The same goes for leg wear. Long underwear made of silk, Duofold or polypro can wick moisture away from skin, but your choice of pants over those may keep that moisture in, so choose wisely. On our last hike, I work lightly-insulated bib ski pants over long polypro underwear and while I was warm during the hike, both layers were soaked when I got back to the car and out of the cold. My husband’s choice was superior to mine. He opted for long polypro underwear and Carhartt cotton duct pants over those with gators (from EMS) from shin-to-toe, keeping the snow from soaking and adhering to his lower legs and getting into his boots. His legs were able to breathe and heat/moisture escaped into the air, leaving him dry and comfortable post-hike.
For your dog, the same is true. There are some great jackets out there for dogs who romp hard in the outdoors all winter. My favorites are made by RC Pets and Ruff Wear and have a fleece inner lining for warmth and a nylon outer shell for wind and snow/rain protection. The velcro and clip closures on these coats are sturdy and meant to last, and most designs also have reflective trim to make your dog easy to spot at night. A coat will not only keep your dog’s trunk warm but will also help keep snow from accumulating in their coat, causing snowballs in their fur which can weigh them down and be uncomfortable. At the beginning of your hike, your dog may or may not need to wear a coat, depending on the temperature and conditions. At or near the summit, especially if you are stopping to take photographs or eat/drink something, s/he will definitely appreciate that warmth and barrier against the wind, so stow it in your pack just in case.
FOR YOUR PACK: When the temps dip below freezing, you’ll need to choose and prepare your food and drinks with more care. Start out with warm/hot water in your Nalgene bottle and pack it inside your backpack, closer to your back, rather than securing it on the outside of your pack as many of us do in the warmer months, so that it has less likelihood of freezing. You could also carry your drinks in a thermos, as hot tea or cocoa would be a welcome treat on the windy summit. Fruit and veggies tend to freeze easily in the pack in winter, so consider bringing them to room temperature by storing on the counter overnight before your hike and packing them and your other foods in an insulated lunch bag. When it’s cold out, we tend to think less about drinking and eating, but it’s really important to stay hydrated and energized on a winter hike, as your body is working hard to stay warm AND is physically challenged by the hike itself. Stop often as you ascend for snacks and drinks....both for you AND your dog. We and our dogs enjoy peanut butter sandwiches on our hikes winter hikes. In addition we offer the dogs grain-free, high-protein dog kibble. We also pack water for them and offer it several times along the trail and again on the ride home.
OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT: Many winter hikers use ski poles for extra stability in icy spots while others prefer to have their hands free for hand-and-foot climbing or grabbing onto limbs adjacent to the trail when necessary. We’ve not used ski poles yet but will likely give them a try this season. I am an avid photographer and need my hands free to snap photos along the trail so we’ll see how I manage poles and a camera.
Speaking of your camera, you will find that it reacts differently in the colder temperatures. If you stow it in your pack, you may find that the motor/battery refuses to cooperate due to the cold temps when you reach the summit. If you wear it strapped to your neck and tucked inside your jacket, you may find that your lens fogs up terribly when you take it out to use it, since it’s been in a warm and somewhat damp environment. I’ve found the best solution is to hike with my camera strap around my neck and the body of the camera tucked under my upper arm close to my armpit with the lens sticking out in the cold air. I can hear the motor working in a more labored fashion due to the cold, but the warmth of my armpit seems to be just enough to keep it functioning adequately in near-zero temps, while the lens doesn’t fog up.
BE CAREFUL & SMART: When making your decisions about when and where to hike in winter, and whether or not to take your dogs along, choose the warmest, sunniest days with little to no wind chill expected....at least your first couple of times out. You’ll want to hike mountains you are already familiar with from your hikes in the other three seasons so that you know what to expect and how you and your dogs have managed the terrain in the BEST of circumstances. The goal is to reach the summit in relative comfort while not risking injury, illness or other disaster due to the conditions. Your dogs are relying on you to make the best decision for THEM as well, so keep that in mind. We don’t always take our dogs with us, and there have been times when we have not been able to summit due to unexpectedly icy or difficult conditions for our dogs. If you DO decide to bring your dogs along, be sure you are willing to turn back if they are experiencing any type of discomfort or difficulty due to the terrain, the temperature or other factors. Lastly, when you are headed out on a hike, be sure someone back home knows exactly where you're headed and when you are expected back. By all means, ENJOY yourself this winter! Happy trails....
Ruffwear dog coat: http://www.ems.com/product/index.jsp?productId=4218055&cp=3677338.11359846
Ruff Wear dog boots: http://www.ems.com/product/index.jsp?productId=4232469&cp=3677338.11359846
Keen Brixen women's boot: http://www.zappos.com/keen-brixen-boot-black-purple-heart
Sorel Caribou Wool boot: http://www.ems.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3652993
RC Pets dog coats: http://www.rcpets.com/rcpets/index.php/browse/category/id/RC_Coat#main_panel
Micro spikes: http://www.ems.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3667589