I love to hike in the winter with Chester and Gretel. It’s great exercise and, as far as the views go, it’s my favorite time of year. Chester and Gretel love it too because, while there are likely fewer smells in the snow they’re more intense. It’s very different than hiking in the summer but, if you and your dog are properly prepared, it can be a lot of fun for both of you and you’ll stay warm and safe.
Note: this article was originally provided to me by the folks at Pet Wellness Advisor but I’ve added my own edits and recommendations.
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. For example, young puppies shouldn’t go on long hikes until their growth plates are fully formed. Senior dogs may have sore joints or arthritis that is made worse in cold weather.
To make sure your dog is ready to take on the challenge, here is the most important thing you should do: Plan ahead… way ahead!
Good planning means doing the following:
1. Physically preparing your dog. At a minimum, 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.
2. Acclimating yourself and your dog. 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 challenging terrain by beginning with short hikes in the snow. Over a period of at least a couple of weeks, gradually increase your distance and the difficulty of the terrain. Monitor your dog’s condition – is the dog showing fatigue by panting hard, limping? When you stop to rest, how quickly does your dog recover? Are the paws sore or chapped? If you are not sure, consult your vet again, and consider modifying your hiking plans to accommodate the dog’s abilities.
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. If it’s powder snow, it can be like walking in sand. Plan shorter hikes – at least at first – and understand that your pup 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.
4. Bringing adequate 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). 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 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 forget 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 need to get your dog used to wearing them before you go.
6. Considering a dog jacket. Think about your dog’s coat and the weather you may encounter during the hike. If your dog has a heavy coat naturally suited to cold, windy, wet, winter weather he probably does not need a sweater or other clothing. However, if your dog is a short-haired or smaller breed, the dog may need a sweater or waterproof coat to keep warm on the hike. Again, you will need to condition the dog to wearing anything that it is not used to. Always supervise your dog when it is wearing clothes. You 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 whatever the dog is wearing is not chafing.
7. Staying the course. Be sure to tell someone where you are going and stick to your planned route. In the winter, trails 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 and having a plan. 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 tree wells. 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.
9. Watch for health dangers. Watch for signs of hypothermia, or frostbite, and know what to do about 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 home (and remember, it gets darker in the woods before it gets darker in an urban environment). 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 or your dog is wearing a reflective or lighted collar.