I love backcountry skiing and snowboarding. It is my favourite sport in the winter and it has required me to buy some expensive gear and get lots of training. This article is not about the human aspect of backcountry skiing so if you haven’t done this before, then I recommend finding a good guiding service and signing up for avalanche safety courses to get you started. This article is about what to consider when you go with your dog.
I occasionally bring my dog Buffy backcountry skiing. The reason she doesn’t come all of the time is that big objectives or very complex terrain (i.e. big avalanche terrain) is not an appropriate outing for a dog who has zero understanding of avalanche slopes and risk. I cannot think of a worse thing than triggering, even a small slide, and having my dog caught up in it (short of my human partner getting stuck in a slide). So if the risk isn’t low, my dog Buffy stays at home, even if backcountry skiing is her favourite thing ever. No exaggerating, she is obsessed. So please, consider not bringing your pooch into big avalanche terrain, instead look at days out with your dog as a more active form of a dog walk and stay on low angle slopes and in stable conditions.
So if you have somewhere safe to ski with your dog then you can consider trying this activity. But first you have to evaluate if your dog is up for it. I tried backcountry skiing with both of my dogs. Cody came several times one season to see if we could get him hooked but we couldn’t. He was just trying to keep up all day, looking fairly miserable. It was not his cup of tea. He’s far more my skijoring dog than my touring dog. This sport is not for all dogs. Your dog needs to be able to travel through deep snow pretty easily and to not freeze. Some people put on coats on their short haired dogs which can work, but always consider that you might be out there longer than expected. So if your dog has the stamina (or if they don’t but you can carry them in your pack the rest of the way) and the ability to stay warm, then you might be ready to give it a go.
How do you get started for a day out? Well firstly, pack a first aid kit that includes items for your dog such as extra gauze, wraps that clings to itself for pressure, and be ready to carry out your dog if necessary. The most common injury to dogs while backcountry skiing is coming into contact with a ski edge and cutting a paw or leg. So being prepared for this is very important. My dog Buffy has learned to stay clear of our gear, but not all dogs will take this into consideration. Also pack some dog snacks, water, and poop bags to keep your dogs poop off the skin track.
Next up, make sure that your dog has an excellent recall. This is critical. You’re going to be letting them off leash on the way down for sure and if your dog goes after an animal, this can be VERY dangerous to everyone involved. Don’t believe me? A couple years ago in the rockies some people went backcountry skiing with their dogs and the dogs chased a moose for over a half hour. They didn’t catch the moose, the skiers got a hefty fine, and the dogs were ok. However, that moose may have died. Wild animals need calories to stay warm during the winter months and 30 minutes of flight running cut into that moose’s calories and it would have to find enough calories to replace them in order to survive. Dogs should never be left in a position to harass wildlife, so if you do not have a history of a good recall, then work on it with lots of rewards and a long line over the summer and you’ll be ready to go next season.
Now, pick a small objective to try first. You will want to see how your dog handles this and when they are just learning, there will be a learning curve. Buffy’s first few times out, she was too excited on the way up. She would wonder on an off the skin track, playing in the snow. She quickly smartened up though and learned to conserve her energy for the intense down hill sections. Make sure to watch your dog carefully and make sure they are following your line and understanding the game. Most dogs will get this right away, it’s fun, the humans are finally fast!
Finally, my last words on it, make sure your dog is having fun and be safe. This goes for any activity, but not all dogs will love this sport. If your dog looks like Cody did, miserable and relieved to be back at the car, then leave them at home when you go. And always trust your gut for conditions. There was a day two seasons ago where I debated bringing Buffy since it was an area where we would be getting easy small laps, but it wasn’t without risk and it was the first warm day of the season (something that can increase avalanche activity). I left her at home. At the parking lot I saw others with dogs and ran into my neighbour who said he was sad I didn’t have Buffy, which made me question my own decision. Well, on the way up to our first lap, My partner was caught in a an avalanche. He managed to ski out of it and it wasn’t huge, but it was big enough to injure or potentially burry Buffy, who normally would have been on his heels. Always trust your gut and never put your dogs at unnecessary risk.