Taking your dog for a rainy hike or a jaunt in the snow is incredibly fun and a great way to keep them active during the winter. But adventuring with your pup in cold, wet conditions comes with its own specific challenges. Here are a few tricks we’ve learned to keep our dogs comfortable, happy, and healthy on winter hikes.
TEMPERATURE TOLERANCE - Factors like breed, size, age, fur type, activity level, and metabolism determine how well your dog will fare in low temperatures. Monitor your dog in the cold close to home before taking them on any major winter trips. Watch for signs of discomfort like shivering, curling up, refusing to walk, or picking up/licking their paws. You know your dog best, so use your best judgment to decide when it’s appropriate to take them on a trip and when it’s best to leave them at home.
STAY FLEXIBLE - It’s critical to be open to changing plans when adventuring with dogs. If conditions are harsher than you expected, it’s ok to pivot and switch to plan B. Just like us, dogs have good days and bad days - sometimes they’ll excitedly plow through snowdrifts for hours, while other times they’ll whine before the parking lot is even out of sight. Don’t push your luck if things don’t feel safe, especially if you’re venturing more than an hour from your car. It’s better to cut a trip short and head for a more protected hike or the comfort of home than to make a mistake during the winter that could result in serious injury or even death.
PROTECT THE PAWS - Enthusiastic dogs might seem unscathed by walking on snow or ice at first, but it’s best to bring something to put on your dog's paws if they start showing signs of discomfort. Prolonged exposure to cold surfaces can be harmful to your dog’s paw pads and can lead to cracking, blisters, and even hypothermia. Dog boots are a simple solution. Your pooch may walk funny at first, but they’ll soon forget they’re wearing them as soon as something more exciting captures their attention. If boots aren’t your dog’s jam or you’re having a hard time keeping them on your hyper friend’s feet, try Wax instead. Apply the balm generously to the paw pads and between the toes to create a protective barrier and prevent snow buildup. For best results, you should also keep the nails and paw fur trimmed short.
AVOID SNOWBALLS - Some dogs - particularly those with longer or textured fur - are susceptible to snow buildup or ‘snowballs’, which cling to their underside, pits, and paws. As these snowballs grow in size, they get heavy and may pull on the dog's sensitive skin. Packed snow on your pup’s body will make them cold quickly, and ice balls that get lodged between their toes can cause splitting. To prevent this, stop occasionally and check your dog. Crush large snowballs between your fingers to avoid painful hair-pulling, and massage the fur gently to remove as much snow as you can.
AVOID WINTER HAZARDS - It’s best to get familiar with the lay of the land before you take your dog on a winter hike. That way, you’ll know if there are steep drop-offs, frozen lakes, or potential avalanche terrain before you let your dog off leash. If you’re adventuring in a new place with your pup, keep them on a leash or be 100% confident that they’ll follow voice commands for safety. Pockets of loose snow around trees could potentially suffocate a dog if they get stuck in one. To mitigate this risk, keep your dog on a leash or within sight if there’s been heavy, fresh snowfall and there are large trees around, so you can quickly dig them out in an emergency.
WATER - Whether you’re hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing with your dog, they’re bound to be excited and working hard to keep up with you. Make sure your canine companion stays hydrated by offering them water throughout the trip. If you’re really going for it, you can even share a small amount of electrolyte drink mix with your dog.
FOOD & TREATS - Your body burns more calories to stay warm in the winter, and the same goes for dogs. Winter sports are generally considered vigorous exercise, so be sure to bring plenty of snacks to keep both you and your pup consistently fueled. Bring your dog’s bowl and a hearty serving of their food in a resealable bag if you’ll be out during mealtime. We keep an airtight container of our dog’s food in the car during the winter just in case.
SIT PAD - If it’s cold out, your body temperature will drop quickly when you stop moving. It’s a good idea to pack a closed-cell foam sleeping pad or sit pad to insulate you and your dog from the ground when you take breaks. A foam pad is a bit bulky, but they’re lightweight and easy to strap to your pack. You’ll be glad to have it should an emergency arise, especially if there’s snow on the ground.
BAGS - It’s always important to clean up after your dog by picking up waste, but especially so when it’s raining or snowing to keep contaminants from washing into our water systems. If you’re carrying a backpack, a gallon ziplock will help keep smells at bay if you have to pack out poop bags for more than a short distance. If your dog carries a backpack, you could also line one of the pockets with a plastic bag and have them carry out their own poop bags.