Done right, backcountry touring with your dog can be the best thing ever. Frolicking in the snow, exploring deep forests and rolling hills with your best friend—sounds pretty idyllic, right? But between cold weather, deep powder, and sharp ski edges, there’s some dangerous stuff out there. Here are our tips for keeping safe next time you go backcountry touring with your dog.
(Need a place to practice? Come to Bluebird Backcountry, Colorado’s first backcountry-only ski area, on select Mondays for Dog Days at Bluebird. All you need is a well-behaved pup and a doggie day pass.)
1. Make sure your dog can handle the cold.
First things first: To go backcountry touring with you, your dog needs to be able to handle the chilly temps. Cold-weather breeds with thick coats are a good bet. Medium- to large-sized athletic breeds with a doggie jacket and/or booties can also do well in the snow. Just keep an eye out for shivers and frozen paws, and have extra layers on hand for your dog just in case.
2. Get your pooch in shape.
Because your pup won’t have the luxury of flotation, he or she will need to be in peak physical condition to post-hole all day and run down the slopes after you. Can your dog go on a five-mile run with you and still have energy for more? Perfect.
3. Brush up on your commands.
Before you head into the backcountry, make sure your pup sticks by your side and returns when called. Downhill skier coming in hot? To avoid an accident, you’ll need a fast response from your pup—even if that means abandoning a squirrel mid-stride. Take an obedience class if you need to, or devote some time to backcountry-specific dog training.
4. Ease into it.
Your dog needs to build comfort and confidence around skis just as you do. Plus, it can take some time to teach your dog to keep some distance from your ski edges, which have been known to cut legs and paws. Cross-country skiing or backcountry touring on gently rolling terrain can be a good place to ease in.
5. Pack a canine emergency kit.
In addition to a doggie jacket and booties, we recommend carrying a water bowl, poop bags, and treats for your dog, as well as a leash for touring or navigating crowded trailheads. You should also bring a small veterinary first-aid kit, and make sure you know how to treat cold-related injuries, lacerations from ski edges, and other common canine injuries. Here’s what we have in our kit:
- An ACE bandages
- Kinesiology tape
- A syringe for flushing wounds
- Extra treats
6. Strategize for safe skiing
Even a well-behaved dog can wear himself out or accidentally run in front of other skiers. While skinning, put high-energy dogs on a leash to ensure they maintain a steady, sustainable pace. On the downhill, try this: Grab your dog at the top of a pitch. Have your partner ski or ride down. Then, let your dog run down to your partner. Once your partner has your dog, head down to meet them.
That way, you never have to worry about dodging your dog, and your dog doesn’t have to worry about unpredictable edges.
7. Listen to your dog.
OK, so your pooch might not be weighing in on snowpack stability or avalanche hazards, but she’ll still communicate her needs and comfort level. If your dog is slowing, shivering, or looking nervous, take a break. Administer water and treats as needed, and call it a day if your dog is too cold or exhausted to continue.
8. Practice good backcountry touring etiquette.
Before you go backcountry touring with your dog, make sure dogs are allowed in the area, and check local leash laws. On the skintrack, keep your dog by your side, and be mindful to pull him or her aside for passing skiers. And, of course, always pick after your pup (and carry that bag with you rather than leaving it beside the trail.)
9. Stay fueled and hydrated.
On touring days, your pup will burn a lot of extra calories, just like you do. Take breaks to offer snacks and water every lap or two.
10. Know when to leave your dog at home.
If you’ve ever been postholing after a storm, you know how exhausting fresh powder can be. Consider giving your dog a day off if there’s deep snow or avalanche danger, or if you’re skiing in unfamiliar terrain for the first time. And, of course, if your dog isn’t responsive enough to stay safe in the backcountry, the best thing for both your safety is to leave him or her at home.
Cover photo by Grant Robbins at The Elevated Alpine.