From Balto to the Iditarod, dog sledding has been used for centuries to help people travel in the snow or just have fun and experience the strength and power of canines. But did you know that you can have dogs pull you on skis and experience it yourself near Denver? You can have your dog (if they want to, of course) pull you on skis, like dog sledding. It’s called Skijoring.
Skijoring is a form of Nordic skiing that uses skate skis with dogs attached at the front to pull your weight. Skijoring can be done with a multitude of dog breeds. However, like dog sledding, make sure your pup is large enough and has enough strength to pull you. The sport has been gaining popularity over the years, especially in places like Denver, (a super dog-centric city) due to access and ability of Nordic skiing trails.
If you want to get involved in the ever-growing sport of Skijoring 303 Magazine has gathered a selection of tips and tricks of where to go, how to be prepared and what to expect when you get on those trails.
Before You Go Out
Know how to cross-country ski first. If you do not know how to cross-country ski, you cannot go skijoring. Get yourself a pair of skate skis to practice cross-country skiing on your own. You will not able to control your dog(s) if you cannot properly control yourself on the skis alone.
Learn the best commands and research the sport thoroughly. You can take skijoring lessons from High Country Dogs, start from Cani-cross running or invest in some instructional books like “Mush! Revised: A Beginner’s Manual of Sled Dog Training.”
Prepare yourself for the trail. Give yourself and your pup(s) a pep talk before you head out. Make sure you and your dog are hydrated (bring water for you both), especially at higher altitudes, where hydration can make all of the difference. As always, have someone out with you or let people know where you are. Staying safe is key in all outdoor adventures, especially when you have a rambunctious animal with you.
Imagine an amped-up husky running through the woods after getting loose from the ropes it has been leashed by. That is what happens when you do not have the right gangline or rigging system and it can be extremely problematic and dangerous. The ‘right’ rigging system is considered a towline or gangline. A gangline is a set of ropes and clips that allow your dogs to pull you on skis or on a sled. You can create your own, rent or purchase ganglines from a multitude of websites. The ropes need to be strong enough to withstand the pulling and keep your dogs in the right alignment.
For the person involved in skijoring, a weight-pulling belt is necessary. These belts connect to your rigging system/ganglines and are the central location of where your dogs pull from. Do not rely on your hands or arms to grip the rigging system, you can control the pulling more effectively with your core.
Make sure to have the correct harness to put on your dog. You cannot use any old harness and preferably find a custom-fit one. Harnesses need to be specifically for weight-pulling and need to be fitted to your dog. Do not rely on cheap harnesses from big box stores. An ill-fitting harness can chaff and injure your furry friend. Alpine Outfitters shows you exactly how to measure your dog to get the right fitting harness. The best harnesses should be from specific brands such as Alpine Outfitters, Black Ice Dog Sledding Equipment or other brands tailored to dog sledding and skijoring. You can also find appropriate harnesses on Craigslist, however, make sure to verify the brand and type of the harness to ensure that it is high quality. X-back harnesses and urban mushing harnesses are safest to use when dog sledding and skijoring.
Make sure you have the right gear for you as well. You will need a pair of skate skis and all the fixings such as bindings, nordic ski boots and poles. Wearing the right type of clothing makes a huge difference while skijoring. Wear warm but breathable and moisture-wicking clothing. Layering will allow you to shed clothing and stay comfortable as you get warm because even though you are being pulled by dogs, you will be working up a sweat as well.
Know your dog. If your dog is leash aggressive, dog aggressive, skittish or has behavioral issues, do not bring them on a public trail. There will be other dogs and people on dog-friendly trails and if your dog cannot handle that, do not push them.
Dogs are like humans, they cannot just jump right into a sport. If you are completely new to the world of skijoring then trying Cani-cross can be a great start. Cani-cross is essentially running with your dog, using all of your equipment (sans skis) that you would use while skijoring. Training your dog(s) to run with the equipment using Cani-cross builds endurance and a better understanding of how to respond to your commands. Running Cani-cross also helps you prepare and train for getting on the trail, where you have less control, due to sliding on skis.
If you are a spectator, do not distract the dogs. It can be difficult to train an animal to pull someone on skis or a sled. Dogs get distracted easily and it can take away from their training and possibly end up in a crash. Try to ignore them and move out of the way if you can.
Where To Go
The trails that you can skijor on are few and far between. You will need to be on dog-friendly trails that are also groomed. These trails are marked with signs denoting their dog-friendliness and what level of difficulty you can expect the trails to be. Dog-friendly trails are usually marked as beginner to intermediate trails because they typically share use with classic cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Avoid using trails not marked as dog-friendly.
There are a few locations that are open to dog sledding and skijoring near Denver. The Frisco area (roughly one and a half hours from the city) has a few runs that are dog-friendly and groomed. Nordic Log Lodge near the Frisco Nordic Center has snowshoeing trails that are groomed and ready to roam. Devils Thumb Ranch Resort and Spa also offers rentals of skijoring rigs and miles of trails both dog-friendly and groomed. Try a couple different locations to see what fits you and your pup best.
On The Trail
Take note of the temperature and make sure it is within a safe range to let your dog be out in the cold for a while. Nordic breeds or snowdogs, like huskies, can stand temperatures well under 10 degrees Fahrenheit. However, they need to have some good booties to protect their feet. Dogs with shorter and less dense fur are better suited for warmer weather. Here is a chart for good measure. A good rule of thumb is — if your dog is shivering and acting cold, it is probably too cold.
Bring treats and water, for everyone. Skijoring is a lot of work for both you and your dog(s). Treats can also encourage your dog(s) to obey your commands and reward them for good behavior. Start out slow. Skijor for a short distance for short amounts of time. You and your pup(s) need to get used to skijoring together. Give everyone time to adjust and work out the right amount of pulling. Even if you have been training with Cani-cross, you should still start out in short increments and make your way up to longer distances over time.
Always remember to pick up after yourself. If your dog(s) do their business on the trails, pack it up and pack it out. Do not leave their feces or bags on the trail or on the side of the trail. No one likes to step in dog poop while they are hiking, and they certainly don’t like it when they are snowshoeing or skiing.
Skijoring is a great way to exercise you and your dogs. You can have a ton of fun on the trails whizzing about with a strong dog pulling you. But be warned—it is highly addictive. You will want to keep buying new gear and maybe even eventually want to get a kicksled to start dog sledding. But that’s a tutorial for another article.