8 Tips for Winter Hiking with Your Dog

Dogs are descendants of wolves, and wolves are synonymous with snow. It’s hard to imagine canis lupus stalking prey without a backdrop of silent winter white.

While some domestic dogs still share many traits with the mighty timberwolf, others are less equipped to handle the elements. I doubt a Bichon Frise finding much enjoyment in getting dumped out of its luxurious leather purse into a pile of powder snow.

Fortunately, in this Golden Age of Adventure Dogs, many companies make products that help even the most domestic of breeds romp around in the cold. Here are some tips to keep your best friend safe and comfortable this winter, whether you’re summiting mountains, snowshoeing through a meadow or walking around the city block.

Protect Those Paws

The toughness of dog footpads varies wildly. Many pups can traverse sharp talus for hours without issue, while others would be bleeding and sore on the same terrain. The same is true of snow and ice, but even sled dogs need vigilant monitoring and occasional paw protection.

Dog booties are almost required gear in winter. Even if your pup doesn’t normally need them, they’re essential for extra-cold days or in an emergency. Get your dog comfortable wearing them at home before hitting the trail, or you might not make it very far. Also remember to check them regularly for proper fit and to ensure snow isn’t sneaking in and freezing around the top opening.

I’m lucky to have a dog that doesn’t need booties too often. I do, however, lather her paws with musher’s wax. When applied thoroughly and liberally, it keeps ice from accumulating on a dog’s fur or between their toes. Balled, clinging snow is a major source of discomfort. Musher’s wax is a strong deterrent to this problem. Two bonus tips: coat the lower legs up the joint as well as between the toes, and don’t apply it right before getting into the car. (Unless waxy pawprints all over your upholstery is your idea of a good time.)

Even with booties and wax, make a habit of regularly checking your dog’s paws, clearing them of ice buildup and observing for any signs of pain or discomfort.

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Have a Plan B

Forecasting winter weather and snow conditions is an inexact science, especially in the mountains. Countless times, I’ve driven two hours to a trailhead in Colorado’s high country only to find temperatures 15 degrees colder or winds three times as strong as predicted.

Dogs are living, breathing beings, prone to good days and bad days. One weekend they might plow through snowdrifts for hours with nary a shiver, and the next they might be picking up their paws and whining before you even get out of the parking lot.

Play it safe. Especially if you’re traveling an hour or more from the car, there’s simply too much that can go wrong in the relentless winter elements to justify pushing your luck. Mistakes in the summer can be a mild inconvenience. Mistakes in the winter can result in major injury, or even death.

Have a backup plan — something shorter, lower, drier, more protected. Sometimes this means scrapping an adventure altogether. Cuddling on the couch and crying into a mug of hot chocolate while watching All Dogs Go to Heaven is preferable to visiting the vet to treat frostbitten paws. Know your dog, observe them carefully and always be willing to turn around if it’s in their best interest.

Keep the Liquid Flowing

No matter how much fun it looks like your dog is having doing it, eating snow isn’t an adequate method of hydration. Snow is mostly air, and getting the necessary liquid would require consuming many mouthfuls. The effort a body has to go through to melt snow saps too much energy and warmth for it to be an effective source of fluids.

Natural streams and lakes are likely solid ice through the winter, as water has the unfortunate habit of freezing when exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Carry plenty of extra water for your dog, as well as yourself, inside your pack and wrapped in an insulating sleeve or your extra clothing layers.

Buy a Go-To Dog Jacket

Dozens and dozens of options exist from many different brands. For winter use, look for a jacket with a shell outer layer or synthetic insulation. (Or, preferably, both.) Hard or soft shell material repels moisture, and synthetic insulation stays warm even when it gets wet. This is important for when your dog is creating World War I-style trenches through neck-deep snow at breakneck speed. Dog jackets are great for warmth, obviously, but they also cut the wind and protect a pup’s belly from clinging snow. With the exception of dogs explicitly bred for frigid conditions, they’re a pretty necessary piece of winter equipment. My border collie, even with her thick undercoat, sports a Ruffwear Powderhound on nearly every snow excursion.

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Choose Treats Carefully

As with human food, some dog treats can become so hard in cold weather that they’re extremely difficult to eat. This might require a bit of trial and error depending on your preferred brands, but identify treats that stay soft and easy to chew even as the temperature dips well below freezing. SuperFood Blend, Power Bones and PureNZ Cords, all from Zuke’s, do the trick for me.

Another tip is to carry your dog’s treat pouch on your person, instead of in a backpack. By storing it in one of your jacket or pants pockets, your body heat keeps the treats from becoming too rigid to chew. This is highly recommended for most human food, as well, unless you enjoy chipping a tooth on your Snickers bar.

Carry an Insulated Pad, Bed or Blanket

No one wants to sit on cold snow for too long. Humans have the luxury of squatting on their backpack or tree stumps or whatever else is convenient for avoiding direct contact with the ground, but dogs don’t usually have such options. Bring along a blanket or foam pad for your pooch to rest on during breaks. Several companies even make lightweight, packable, insulated dog beds. You want your pup to have a warm, comfortable spot to rest, or they might be an icicle before you getting moving again.

Train Them to Ignore Skiers and Snowboarders

Like with mountain bikes in the summer, dogs should be trained to ignore and stay out of the way of riders. Something about skis sets off the herding instinct in many breeds. It’s a scary, fast, foreign method of travel to which many dogs aren’t accustomed, and a frightened pooch can get loud and defensive. I’ve witnessed quite a few wipe outs as a skier rounds a corner only to meet a startled, barking dog. Ski edges are also sharp and moving fast, and they can cause a nasty laceration to an onrushing pup. Use treats and conditioning to ensure your dog is comfortable with skiers and snowboarders, or keep them on a leash in areas popular with those pursuits.

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Be Wary of Lakes, Streams and Avalanche Terrain

Dogs don’t understand hazards in the same was as humans. A partially frozen lake, to them, is just more ground to romp on. Keep a vigilant mental account of your surroundings at all times and have your dog on a leash or under strict voice control in areas that could potentially be dangerous. Don’t let them on a frozen surface unless you’re 100 percent sure it’s safe. Even then, it’s probably best to avoid the ice if at all possible.

The difference between being in the clear and in an avalanche runout zone can be as little as a few meters. Many off-leash dogs wander. Take an avalanche course, know how to travel safely in wintery mountain terrain and keep your pup close when warranted.

Hiking in the snow, with dogs that love it and humans that are prepared, can be exponentially more rewarding than summer trails. If you’re lucky enough to have a powderhound, I hope these tips help you enjoy the backcountry with more comfort and peace of mind.

5 Winter 14ers for Beginners

Often the most difficult aspect of committing to a big endeavor, such as climbing a 14,000-foot mountain in winter, is knowing where to start. It’s a common misconception for summer hikers that winter is off limits, a no-man’s-land of arctic temperatures, sheer ice faces and hourly avalanches. That’s simply not true. I previously wrote a basic overview for exploring the alpine in the so-called offseason, and now I’ll attempt to answer another oft-repeated question: Which peak(s) to try first?

As a disclaimer, none of these routes offer guaranteed safety. It’s imperative for anyone venturing into the winter backcountry to have at least a basic understanding and awareness of avalanche terrain. The stakes are also exponentially higher. More care needs to be given to gear selection, route knowledge, emergency preparedness and other safety precautions. A forced night out in the summer could be uncomfortable. A forced night out in the winter could be fatal.

I chose the following five mountains based on access, minimal avalanche danger, ease of routefinding and general popularity. Many others are doable as relatively safe winter daytrips. These are simply the lowest-hanging fruit.

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1. Quandary Peak

Winter Trailhead: Quandary (same as summer)
Winter Route: East Ridge (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 7 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,500’

When asked what’s the easiest 14er to attempt in the summer, an argument could be made for several different mountains. When the same question is asked for the winter months, there really is only one best answer. It’s Quandary Peak.

Quandary’s standard trailhead is right off Highway 9, which is consistently plowed. No extra effort is needed to reach the summer starting point. It’s also the most popular winter 14er, meaning there likely will be an established snow trench unless you’re climbing immediately after a major storm. Snowshoes are still recommended, but the need to break your own trail is rare. Staying on the ridge nearly negates avalanche danger except in extreme conditions, though venturing out onto the East Face can put you in harm’s way.

In short, if you hug the ridgeline, carry a bit of extra gear, have a good forecast, enjoy minor suffering and go in moderate or better avalanche conditions, Quandary isn’t much more challenging in winter than summer.

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2. Mt. Bierstadt

Winter Trailhead: Roughly 1.75 miles below Guanella Pass at the Guanella Pass Campground (Georgetown side)
Winter Route: West Slopes (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 10.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,800’

The only thing more difficult about Mt. Bierstadt in the winter is about three miles of road walking. The west-facing slopes harboring the summer route are often blown clear by intense winter winds, with lengthy segments of the trail exposed above treeline. Some avalanche danger is possible during part of the approach up the road, as well as while gaining the upper shoulder at around 12,000 feet. In most conditions, a safe line is apparent.

Many people try to save themselves a couple hundred feet of elevation gain by leaving the road early and making a beeline for Bierstadt without visiting the summit of Guanella Pass. I generally advise against this, as it takes you through a soul-sucking patch of willows. In my experience, it’s easier to stick to the road and suck up the minimal extra gain.

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3. Mt. Elbert

Winter Trailhead: South Mt. Elbert
Winter Route: East Ridge
Winter Mileage: 12.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,900’

See the other side of famous Mt. Elbert. The hardest route statistically on this list also comes with perhaps the lowest avalanche danger. Mt. Elbert’s broad and gentle East Ridge seldom gets steep enough to allow a slide. Like many winter routes, it starts with a two-mile stroll along a closed 4WD road before joining the South Mount Elbert Trail. In some seasons, especially early on, all or part of this road can be driven.

Prepare your mind for the upper portions of this hike. It includes several heartbreaking false summits. Combined with the incessant wind that almost always berates Colorado’s highest peak in the winter, this is as much an exercise in mental fortitude as it is physical endurance.

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4. Mt. Sherman

Winter Trailhead: About 2.5 miles short of the standard summer 4WD gate
Winter Route: South Slopes
Winter Mileage: 8.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,100’ to 3,500′, depending on parking area

Be careful on this popular winter peak. Avalanche-safe lines abound, but the danger is insidious. Venturing even a hundred feet in the wrong direction could put you in a slide area. Along with Quandary and Bierstadt, this is probably the most attempted winter route, due to its short length. I personally know at least three parties that have gotten caught in slides on this mountain. Avalanche terrain awareness and careful decision making are essential.

The starting point for this hike varies considerably. I’ve logged four attempts in winter and began from a different staging area each time. In general, plan to start about a mile below the Leavick site. Anything closer is a bonus. Walk the road to just before the summer 4WD gate, then veer right. The terrain here can be confusing and deceptive. Select a cautious line and make your way toward the obvious shallow gully to the right of the Mt. Sherman summit, targeting the broad plateau between Sherman and White Ridge.

It’s important to take this alternate route and not attempt to stay on the standard trail. Gaining the Sheridan-Sherman saddle on the summer path comes with considerable avalanche risk, including a large and reliable cornice.

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5. Pikes Peak

Winter Trailhead: Crags Campground
Standard Winter Route: Northwest Slopes
Winter Mileage: 14 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,300’

It would be hard for 14 miles to feel much shorter. This gentle route maintains an easy grade most of the way, with only a few steep sections. The popularity of the Crags area as a dayhike also means that a trench is a nearly permanent fixture. The upper portion of the hike, above Devil’s Playground, parallels the summit road. Because Pikes stands largely alone, it’s often subjected to blasting winds. Large sections of the wide, obvious trail above treeline were visible every time I’ve done this peak with snow.

In contrast with Mt. Evans, the road up Pikes Peak remains open year-round, weather permitting. It’s hard to express the sheer joy that’s felt while eating a donut and drinking hot chocolate in the confines of a brick shelter after seven miles hiking uphill in a subzero wind chill. It’s also hard to express the willpower that’s necessary to leave that shelter for the seven-mile hike down.