As the warm hues and musty ambience of our favorite trails in fall are slowly buried under a blanket of snow, we trade hiking boots for snowshoes, wide brim hats for beanies, and celebratory beers for hot toddies. By the time Thanksgiving hits, most of us have bumped the summer gear to the back of the closet to make way for the gear that will keep us warm, dry, and happily (and safely) adventuring all winter. Additionally, the best prepared among us are signing up for avalanche safety classes and winter adventuring seminars to brush up on seasonal safety. But too few of us do the same for our favorite four-legged adventure companions.
While our pups, in typical fashion, may express that quintessential euphoric excitement throughout any and all winter excursions we may bring them on, there are unique challenges that our furry companions face that—as humans with down coats, thick boots, and a healthy fear of a layer of fresh snow on wet snow—might not even cross our minds. Thus, as the temperature drops, there are some considerations to make that, once woven into your and your dog’s adventure routine, can keep your pup happily and safely adventuring for many winters to come.
Of course, everything that is to follow is contingent upon breed—a dog with short hair will be confronted with an entirely different set of issues than a collie or a retriever. This post primarily serves to address the broad topic of caring for your creature in the wintertime. In the end, you know your buddy best, but the golden rule by which every pet owner should abide: If you think it might be too challenging for your dog, it probably is.
The first thing to suffer when your dog hits the snow: their paws. Dogs sweat between the pads of their paws, and when the moisture contacts snow, it can quickly bond together forming ice balls around the fur between each pad. This is true primarily for dogs with longer fur, but even dogs with short hair can suffer from small frozen crystals that stick to paws and can become extremely painful.
Most everyone on the internet has come across some sort of video in which an enthusiastic dog parent straps booties on their unamused pup for the first time. And nearly as many of those people have abandoned dog booties stuffed into the back of their closets while they find themselves back at square one. While the booties are the most effective way to keep your pup’s paws happy, Musher’s Secret Paw Protection balm is an excellent backup option. Once applied to the paws, the wax repels moisture and all but eliminates painful ice buildup. It can wear off relatively quickly, so toss it into your pack and reapply when needed.
If your pup’s breed is husky, malamute, bernese mountain dog, or the like, disregard. While some dog breeds are well equipped for the snow, most of the most common breeds can’t quite reckon with long excursions in chest-deep snow. While there are many brands advertising dog blankets, coats, sweaters, and just about everything in-between, consider finding a layer of warmth for your dog that is technically useful for you as well.
First, there is simply more gear to bring along on a cold-weather excursion, so finding a coat that also doubles as a pack is key. That way, you won’t bear the extra burden of paw balm, kibbles, and more. Second, search for one that is also a reliable harness with a handle. Especially if your winter excursion is ski touring, being able to snatch your dog by a handle if anything goes wrong is supremely beneficial to ensuring the safety of your dog without compromising your own. This one from Ruffwear can’t quite provide the warmth needed for shorthair dogs, but it hits the mark elsewhere.
Extra Food and Water
If you think you’re working hard on a skin track in fresh snow, imagine how much extra energy your dog is expending. She’s burning calories at an amazing rate, and even if her feeding regimen has always been morning and night, an extra scoop can make a huge difference in not only her ability to keep up, but her recovery. And, if unexpected circumstances arise, having an extra meal on hand can be supremely beneficial in an emergency situation.
Likewise, a summer water strategy (both for you and your pup) can’t always hold up when all the water around you starts to freeze. Backpack-compatible hydration packs are best at keeping water in its liquid form—buying a simple insulated tube like this one from HydraPak can keep it from freezing before it gets to you. Then, teaching your pup to drink from your hydration reservoir (like she drinks from a hose) instead of filling up an icy, messy dog bowl can not only save you from buying and toting around an extra piece of gear, but it also keeps your pup hydrated when she’s working extra hard in the snow.
Backcountry Ski Safety
Backcountry skiing requires excellent communication within the group, a sharp eye for and understanding of terrain and conditions, and fine-tuned safety skills. While this shouldn’t, by any means, preclude you from bringing your dog along on touring missions, understanding which trips are dog friendly and which are not can—in a real sense—mean the difference between life and death. On a similar note, one question that has been hotly contested in mountain town breweries everywhere: Should you put a beacon on your dog when you take her backcountry skiing? The short answer is no.