Hiking with your dog in winter is a great way to get exercise in the colder months.
Hiking in the winter is very different than hiking with your dog in the summer though. There are more dangers and dangers specific to the season.
However, if you and your dog are properly prepared and up-to-date on safety tips, winter hiking with your dog can be a lot of fun for both of you.
To make sure your dog is ready to take on the challenge, here is the most important thing you should do.
Plan ahead when hiking in winter… way ahead!
Good planning means doing the following 10 things:
1) Physically Preparing Your Dog for Winter Hiking
Before you head out on any hike – whether it be in the winter or summer – you need to make sure your dog is physically up to it.
Senior dogs may have sore joints or arthritis that is made worse in cold weather.
Be aware of “weekend warrior” syndrome with any dog. We tend to be more sedentary in the winter so heading out once a week for a physically challenging hike can be too much for a dog.
Make sure your dog is getting the right amount of exercise and is basically fit before taking it on a big hike.
If you want to turn your dog into an athlete, consider further physical training using these conditioning exercises.
If you can’t stick to regular exercise several times a week, consider going on shorter and easier hikes than you would in the summer.
Enduring the cold, and hiking with your dog through deep, powdery snow, already makes a hike more challenging for a dog.
2) Acclimating Yourself and Your Dog to the Colder Temperatures
Some dog breeds are naturally equipped for long hike in the cold weather. Most are not.
Acclimate yourself and your dog to the cold and by beginning venturing out in the cold around home if you can.
Monitor your dog’s condition:
- Is your dog showing fatigue by panting hard or limping?
- When you stop to rest, how quickly does your dog recover?
- Is your dog shivering?
- Check your dog’s paws – are they sore or tender to the touch? Are they chapped or scraped from the snow and ice?
If you are not sure, consult your vet again, and consider modifying your hiking plans to accommodate the dog’s abilities.
How cold is too cold to hike with dogs?
Remember, sometimes it’s just too cold to hike with your dog. It’s probably better to leave them at home on those days.
For my small dogs, it’s too cold to hike with them when it’s under about 15 degrees Fahrenheit (F).
For larger dogs that generate more body heat, they can tolerate temperatures a bit colder than that.
Of course, I recognize that it’s never too cold for some dogs. Some sled dog breeds can be comfortable down to -10 degrees F when they are working hard.
3) Having Realistic Expectations
Hiking in the snow is a lot harder than walking on pavement or hiking in the summer.
Your dog will use extra energy to keep their core body temperature up.
Walking in snow can take more effort, too. For dogs in deep, powdery snow, it can feel like in deep mud or sand.
Plan shorter hikes – at least at first – and understand that your dog may be ready to turn back before you expect.
A good rule-of-thumb is to start with hikes one-third to one-half the distance of the ones you do in warmer, dryer weather.
Over a period of at least a couple of weeks, gradually increase your distance and the difficulty of the terrain.
4) Bringing the right Winter-Hiking Supplies
Outfit yourself and your dog for the conditions and the terrain.
You will likely carry a backpack. Does the dog need one, too?
Consider how much time your hike will take and how much gear you will need to keep you both comfortable for that length of time.
For example, you will need to carry enough water and food for both of you (water sources will likely be covered in snow or frozen). Don’t forget the dog bowl too.
Depending on whether you are going to hike in very cold temperatures, through snow and ice, or around bodies of water, you may want to carry towels to get as much as the water off your dog as you can to reduce the likelihood of icicles forming.
You may want to carry an extra dog coat or sweater in case one gets soaked and, if your dog will be wearing boots, you may want to carry a spare in case one falls off.
I highly recommend bringing an extra pair of dry socks for you (actually, I never hike without them no matter what season it is).
Also, don’t leave home without a first aid kit and the 10 Essentials.
5) Considering Dog Boots
Does your dog need winter boots to protect its paws from ice, snow, rocks or other harsh conditions?
If your dog will use boots for the hike but is not accustomed to wearing them, you’ll need to get your dog used to wearing them before you go.
Training your dog to comfortably wear dog boots can take weeks so be sure to start training for these well before you head out on your first winter hike.
If you don’t think your dog needs boots, or you can find any to fit them (like in the case of small Dachshunds), protect their feet with a paw balm like Musher’s Secret instead.
6) Considering a Dog Jacket
Think about your dog’s coat type/length and the weather you may encounter during the hike.
If your dog has a heavy coat naturally suited to cold, windy, wet, winter weather they probably don’t need a sweater or other clothing.
However, if your dog is a short-haired or smaller breed, your dog may need a sweater or waterproof coat to keep warm on the hike.
Again, you will need to condition the dog to wear anything that it is not used to.
Be sure to start getting your dog used to wearing and walking in a jacket before you head out for your first winter hike.
Always supervise your dog when it is wearing clothes. You’ll need to be ready to step in if the dog gets wet or tangled up in the clothing.
You’ll also need to check that your dog’s jacket or harness is not chafing their neck, sides, legs or armpits.
7) Staying the Course
Be sure to tell someone where you are going and stick to your planned route.
In the winter, trails typically look very different than they do in the summer.
Oftentimes, they take a different route to the destination completely.
Make sure you are familiar with the winter route and don’t wander too far from it.
8) Being Aware of General Hazards
General winter hiking hazards include getting stuck in an unexpected snow storm, avalanches, slipping on ice, falling through snow bridges or ice or falling in a deadly tree well.
Check the weather and avalanche conditions before you go.
Use good judgment if you encounter trail hazards such as ice or deep snow pockets or drifts.
And don’t let your dog wander too close to the base of trees or they could get trapped in a hole or tree well.
9) Watching for Health Dangers
Watch your dog for signs of hypothermia, or frostbite, and know what to do about it.
One of the other biggest winter hiking dangers for your dog is dehydration.
Yes, I know it sounds silly because it’s not hot out but it’s a real risk.
Your dog is working hard in the winter though and “perspiring” water vapor even if you can’t see it.
10) Planning Your Time Accurately
There are fewer daylight hours in winter.
Unless you are adequately prepared to camp overnight, you need to time your hike so it doesn’t get dark before you get back to your transportation (and remember, it gets darker in the woods before it gets darker in an urban environment).
Unless I’m prepared to hike in the dark – mentally, with clothes that are warm enough, and a head lamp – I plan to end my hike at least 30 minutes before the sun goes down.
Accidents happen though, even with the best planning. If you get lost or for some reason are late getting back, you may have to walk along a road in the dark.
You will be easier to spot if you are wearing reflective clothing, a headlamp, or your dog is wearing a reflective or lighted collar.
Following these safety tips while snowshoeing or hiking with your dog in winter will help keep your dog healthy, and both of you happy.