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Winter hiking: 9 safety tips to enjoy the outdoors with your dog

    winter hiking with dogs at Saltese Uplands in Liberty Lake, WA

    Is anyone else out there planning to turn (all) the computers off for a few days over the holidays? 

    I sure am, especially since Santa already delivered my present — a Lowepro backpack.  

    It’s been a big year and I’m hoping to head out for some winter hiking with my dog. 

    Not some. Lots. 

    Like several days in a row of just me, Bella and the woods. And probably a camera. 

    Off goes the desktop. The Chromebook. The tablet. The pho … ah, OK … maybe not the phone.  

    How about I just turn some notifications off? 

    Safety first while winter hiking 

    Winter hiking is different. You can’t just pile into the car with your boots and a water bottle and think you’re going to have a helluva time. 

    Well, any hiking should never be that easy. You should always remember the essentials, like extra water, extra clothes and a friend or family member equipped with a description of your day, where you’re going and when you’ll be home. Especially if you’re hiking solo. 

    And when you’re winter hiking with your dog, you have to take care to remember her needs — even if her breed is meant to live outside in the Italian Alps.  

    Bella on a snow day at Dishman Hills

    About this time last year, I wrote an article for the Outdoors section of The Spokesman-Review, interviewing world-class skijoring athlete Dan Hanks about this very topic. He filled me in on some basics and I’ve added a few more. 

    Here’s how to keep you and your dog safe while winter hiking: 

    1. Start slow 

    Even if you’re used to hitting the trails with your dog for 8 or 9 miles, hiking in the snow is just different. Some of those muscles you forgot you had kick in, especially if you’re post-holing, and you can tire out.  

    Same goes for your dog. If she’s punching her paws through snow and trudging up hills with you, it’s a whole new workout for her, too.  

    Take your time and start with a couple of miles then call it a day. Warm up (heh, see what I did there?) to winter hiking with some shorter distances for the first handful of outings. 

    “If you push too hard,” Hank told me, “you can impair (your dog’s) trust and they won’t want to do the activity. So it’s important to build up to longer hikes or skis.” 

    2. Run ’em on empty 

    It’s tempting to pack some snacks for your dog, because we all start to feel the pangs of hunger with all that calorie burn during winter hiking. 

    Feeding your dog while she’s being active, though, can put her at risk for bloat and torsion (and trust me, you don’t want to spend a weekend worrying about that and then paying the vet bill … $3,500 for Shep in 2013). 

    Hanks cited research from one veterinarian, Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, a senior research nutritionist for Purina and professor of nutrition at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Reynolds says the optimal time to feed a dog is 24 hours before a big adventure or race and then again when the day is done – but only after the dog has cooled down.  

    Hanks follows this protocol but gives dogs that need an energy boost some maltodextrin, the active ingredient in runners’ gels. 

    “It’s like Gatorade for dogs,” he says. “We often think dogs need the same things we do. Like for a half-marathon we need to take sugar in but their digestive process works a lot differently than ours. Most animals don’t perform physically until they need to eat.” 

    3. Protect their dew claws 

    This is one of the more interesting points Hanks made to me while we were chatting about winter hiking with dogs. He lives in Winthrop, a gorgeous, quiet area of Washington state’s Okanogan, and his favorite trails are often spotted with red droplets of blood. 

    He knows it’s because dogs are tearing their dew claws on ice-covered snow, the delicate toes ripping away as they punch through the hard surface. He uses horse wrap on his sled dogs’ legs, wrapping the adhesive strip from the “ankle” to well past the dew claw.  

    I invested in a couple of rolls of sport tape off Amazon. I even found it in my brand color, orange. 

    cover your dog's dew claws with self-adhesive sport wrap while winter hiking

    4. And the pads, too 

    Because his dogs are world-class athletes, Hanks pays attention to the condition of their paws. He knows which dogs are prone to dry pads, cracking and other common afflictions. 

    He sees some folks running out to get booties to keep their dogs “safe” while winter hiking but Hanks cautions against boots with harder, rubber- or plastic-soled boots. 

    “A dog’s foot is meant to spread on contact with the ground, much like ours,” he says. “The rubber soles prevent that from happening, so using those boots can lead to injury.” 

    Hanks recommends booties made from soft cordura fabric for protection from snow and ice. You can get them by the hundreds here, keeping spare in your backpack or pockets — but don’t put them next to your poop bags, you wouldn’t want to mix them up. 

    If you aren’t into the idea of booties, pick up some diaper rash ointment, like Desitin. The zinc-based salve gives a thin layer of protection from ice nicks and can prevent ice balls from building up on the hair in between your dog’s pads. 

    Yeah. I felt weird hanging out in the baby section of Fred Meyer. Uncomfortable even.  

    5. Keep ’em warm, if necessary 

    Bella comes with her own sweater.  

    A lot of dogs don’t, like this pitty in a sweater:

    pitbull dressed for winter hiking

    Double-coated dogs — you know, the ones that make you run through five vacuum cleaners over their lifetimes but they’re so worth it — don’t have to worry about staying warm. Livestock guardian dogs, like the Maremmano-Abruzzese and the Great Pyrenees, and many other breeds are meant for working and sleeping outdoors in all weather. 

    Their undercoat protects them not only from freezing cold temperatures but also sun exposure. Shep loved it when the mercury dropped to 40-below (same for Celsius and Fahrenheit) and he’d stay out all friggin’ day long, no matter how much I begged him to get in the truck. 

    Other dogs can develop an undercoat if you get them used to it but Hanks says it’s OK to add a sweater to your dog accessories for winter hiking. 

    6. Stay alert 

    Bears might be hibernating for the cold winter months but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stay alert for wildlife, like deer, moose and bobcats. It’s also a good idea to keep out for two-legged beasts who may not be quite so nice. And off-leash dogs. 

    Keep your head on a swivel and leave the ear buds at home.  

    Besides, the outdoors sound different in winter. The cold makes everything sound a little more crisp, a little more bright. Enjoy it.  

    7. And connected 

    Hey, you know I’m all about staying on leash. It’s a safety thing. You know where your dog is at all times and there is no such thing as 100 percent voice recall.  

    The last thing I want is for Bella to run into a deer or moose and get hooved when she’s just trying to figure out WTF that long-legged wood rat is. 

    Plus it’s the law in state and city parks, including conservancy areas like Dishman Hills and Saltese Uplands (yeah, I’m looking at you Jerk Guy a couple weeks ago who called out “don’t worry, he’s friendly). 

    8. Be visible 

    It’s easy to stand out during winter hiking. Unless you’re wearing white against the snow, of course. Bad choice for humans, just a natural look for dogs like Bella.

    If you’re hiking in North Idaho where they have extended hunting seasons for small game, it’s always a good idea to sport some very bright orange. 

    For you and your dog, even if he isn’t all white. 

    It’s also a good idea to be spotted by other hikers … and, well, search and rescue if you get lost or injured. 

    9. Wear layers 

    This one’s for you, not your dog. 

    I don’t know about you but I have this wicked internal furnace that lights up when I start doing physical activity, especially winter hiking for some reason. I can “dress for the weather,” hearing my mother’s voice from my youth in my head, but sure as shit, I get a couple of miles in and I start heating up. 

    Layering — something I learned on chinook days in Calgary where the temperature can swing from 20-below to 20-above in a few hours — is vital. They start coming off as Bella and I trot the trails and the furnace kicks in.  

    Overheating is no fun, at any time of year. If you’re snowshoeing and you see some crazy chick wearing a tank top, it could be me. 

    BONUS TIP: Massages aren’t just for two-legged beasts 

    Ah yeah, those muscles you haven’t used in months have kicked in. You make an appointment for a rubdown and you book it out the door. 

    Leaving your best fur friend standing there with a big ol’ WTF on her face. 

    Make an appointment for your adventure buddy with Peaceful Paws Massage or learn how to DIY. 

    “When they’re punching through the snow, it puts a lot of strain on the shoulders,” Hanks says.  

    All around the circle 

    Get outside.  

    We’re heading out to Rocks of Sharon tomorrow morning. It’s supposed to be snowing and I can’t wait.  

    We’re going to be safe about it. Always.  

    Safety is on the hook for this week’s topic on the blog circle. Let’s go check out how everyone is keeping their dogs safe for the holidays. 

    Start by heading to the United Kingdom to check out Jemma Martin from JM Pet Photography in Suffolk, sharing her 5 top tips to keep your pets safe and happy during this festive period.

    When you get to the bottom of Jemma’s post, click the next link in the circle and then keep going until you find yourself back here to safety tips for winter hiking. That’s when you know you’re home. 

    Right where you belong. 

    And if you’re ready to start talking about a snow session for you and your dog, let’s get you on my calendar for 2022.


    Dogs. Adventure. Outdoors. These words set Angela's heart afire. Angela Schneider, an award-winning writer and dog photographer, documents the story of you and your dog and the adventures you take together. Your portraits will be a statement piece in your home, art that will make your friends and family beg to hear its story.

    3 thoughts on “Winter hiking: 9 safety tips to enjoy the outdoors with your dog”

    1. So much good info! Are you doing overnight hikes in the snow or going on a new hike every day? Overnight sounds way too scary – and COLD. brrrr I’ve never hiked in the snow, that sounds brutal though!

    2. Ah, dog on SNOWY rock! Awesome tips – I don’t get many opportunities to worry about snow around here, but we do head out to the woods quite often and I’m always on alert for the ever present wild boar, nothing you want to run into on a hike! Earbuds are always left at home!

      1. Eek! Wild boar! Oh my goodness. I’m not sure I’d know what to do. Most of the ungulates we run into around here want to mind their own business. And we’re happy to let them.

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