There are few things Karluk loves more than his ball, dinner, snuggling on a rainy day, or harassing the neighbor's cat...but there is one thing he loves most of all: SNOW! He loves snow in all of its forms; wet snow, powdery snow, old crusty freeze thaw snow and even corn snow. I think it all harks back to his puppyhood. When he was just 6 months old, Portland received a wallop of snow that dropped over 18" at our house. He played in it relentlessly for days and from there on out he has become the proverbial powder hound who will whimper and cry at the first sign of the white stuff.
Now as I write this, most of the US is getting hammered with one storm after another while all of us in the PNW are left doing snow dances and wondering if we'll have enough snow to even call this a winter in the Cascade Mountains. So since Karluk and I can't enjoy the snow ourselves, I thought I would share some ways that you and your dog can enjoy the snow and stay comfortable.
1. Dog pads
Keep your dog's pads safe and comfortable. This is crucial to having a good day in the snow, and can be the number one day-ender. To keep K-dog's pads safe, we use various things depending in the snow conditions. Vaseline and bag balm prevent the snow from sticking to his pads and foot hair which leads to the dreaded snow balls. When this technique proves ineffective, then I switch to booties. 90% of the time we use the Ruffwear Summit Trex model but if it gets too deep, we transfer to the high-top Polar Trex.
2. Keep them warm
Just like us humans, your dog is probably comfortable when moving through the winter conditions, but when you stop, cold will set in and your dog can catch a chill just like us. I always bring a warm dog coat to put on Karluk when we stop (either his K-9 Over Coat or Quinzee). Even if he is wearing his Cloud Chaser during high aerobic activity, having a warm fleece or puffy helps him stay warm during breaks and at night. The old line “why does a dog need a coat, they have fur” might be true if you have a husky that lives in Alaska, but I have a lab mix who spends most of his day in a nice warm house sleeping on the coach, and yes, he gets cold in the winter.
3. Drink lots of fluids
Nothing dehydrates you worse than a long day in cold air. With each breath, you expel precious moisture. Pair that with elevation and high levels of activity and you are setting your and your pup up for dehydration. In the winter, I always carry water for Karluk inside my pack in a wide mouth bottle to prevent freezing. If I put the bottle on the outside, I turn it upside down so that any ice that forms will float up and prevent the cap from freezing. A good rule of thumb for us is 1 quart of water for every 5 miles for each of us.
4. Stay fueled up
When out in the cold, your dog will burn more calories. If you are just going out for a day, some standard treats of jerky and dry treats will probably work. I also suggest feeding them a lunch during your break for some extra calories and warmth while out there. In the cold weather, I also like to supplement Karluk’s standard trail food of TurboPUP bars with peanut butter, olive oil, and cheese. These items are high in fat allowing Karluk to have a slow burn for sustained heat and energy.
5. Keep your dog controlled
Besides the fact that having your dog under control at all times is just good backcountry practice and the polite thing to do, it also has far reaching safety implications. I personally have total verbal command over Karluk, which came from years of obedience training both on and off trail. If you cannot have complete control of your dog (i.e, total recall by voice), then you need to leash your dog while out in the backcountry. But ok, enough of the soap box--let’s talk why!
Avalanches are easily started by your dog, and can be fatal to you, your dog and others trail users. Most hiking trails become snowshoe and ski trails come the winter, however when you start hiking on a trail that is benched out on a steep slope you are entering the danger zone. Having your dog run loose above you or below you will increase your risks and could easily lead to your dog setting off a major avalanche.
6. Watch out for sharps
Most of the time your dog is out with you in winter, the risk of a deep and potentially fatal cut goes up. Ski edges, crampons, ice axes, and snowshoes (the crampons on the binding) are all potential hazards for your dog. So how do you prevent a bad accident?
Skiing: When we ski together, I always try to keep Karluk either directly ahead of me or behind me when ascending. When we switch to downhill mode, I ski as fast as possible, keeping well in front of Karluk the whole time. I stop every few hundred yards so he can catch up, therefore preventing the risk of a cut from my ski edge.
Snowshoeing: I have trained Karluk to be second in line when we go with a group or to hike behind me. When we work through the snow, he stays in my tracks and avoids being stepped on or caught in a crampon. Sometime towards the end of the day he’ll walk on the back of my shoes to avoid having to step into the deep snow.
Mountaineering: This activity poses many risks--the biggest one you can cause, though, is stepping on your dog with your crampon, so being aware at all times where your foot placement is in relation to you dog is paramount. Basically, don’t step on your dog, OK?
7. Bring a foam pad
This lightweight pad can be deployed on the snow during the day for you both to rest on during a break, and then used at night in camp. Bonus: it’s warmer than an air mattress in the snow and safer, as it can’t pop and leave you shivering on the snow.
I personally like my Gossamer Gear Thin Lite Pad.
8. Line your dog’s pack
Even in the snow, the gear in your dog’s pack can get wet, so to prevent this I line my dog’s pack with turkey oven roasting bags. These bags are light, cheap, and strong, so even melting snow won’t wet your dog’s extra layers.
9. Bring a rubber toy
Bring a toy to play with at camp! Karluk recommends the chuck-it orange rubber tennis balls. They are bright and easier to find in the snow and their rubber surface doesn’t soak up slobber and snowmelt.
10. Have fun!
This is the best tip I can give, no matter what activity you choose to do with your dog. Keep it fun!
Now get out there and enjoy your time outdoors together!