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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Lee

Winter Hiking with Dogs

Updated: Jul 20, 2023


Winter can be a tough time to get outdoors; between the cold temperatures, wind and short days I often feel less than motivated. But, feeling prepared makes it a lot easier to get outside and enjoy the beauty and solitude that winter has to offer. I always say, there is no such thing as bad weather if you have the right gear. This applies to our dogs too! We want them to be comfortable so we can enjoy winter with them by our side. Here are some tips for enjoying winter hiking with your dog


Know Before You Go

Winter hiking can be a whole different ball game to summer hiking in many regions. Fully preparing and familiarizing yourself with your planned hike is very important. I find recent reviews to be very valuable to understand the conditions and pack the right gear. Some important winter considerations are:

  • Are dogs allowed on this trail all year round? Some areas do not allow dogs in the winter or have leash restrictions in the winter to protect the environment and trail.

  • What is the air temperature, what is the wind speed and temperature; what is the resulting overall temperature? My favorite weather forecast for the mountains is https://www.mountain-forecast.com. I usually search by the nearest town and the nearest peak to get a variety of data. This gives you the temperature, wind speed, precipitation and much more.

  • Will there be snow? If yes, how much? Is the trail packed down or will you be breaking the trail? Do you need just boots, or do you need gaiters or microspikes or snowshoes?

  • Avalanche risk. This is extremely important in the winter especially after fresh snowfall, see below for more details.

  • Who will I be sharing the trail with, will there be snowmobiles, skiers, snowboarders?

  • Is it a heavily trafficked area in the winter (very different to summer)? Will there be other people around if something goes wrong?

  • If something goes wrong, do you have a way to communicate with Search and Rescue? Are you prepared to spend a night outside? I can't recommend a SOS device enough, I have the Garmin inReach Mini. This could make the difference of life or death in the winter.

  • Is the hike on a road that isn't maintained in the winter? Could this add mileage or make the hike completely impossible? Is there somewhere safe to park without getting your car stuck? Google Maps and recent reviews on AllTrails or other similar apps are a great way to find this information.

  • Do you have trail maps downloaded in case the trail isn't visible due to snow?


Start Small

Taking it slow and getting your dog comfortable with hiking in the winter will ensure you both have the best time possible. Just like humans, dogs need to build up endurance and tolerance to the cold weather. If your dog spends most of their winter snuggled up on the couch in front of the fire, they will likely get tired quickly running through the snow, especially if they start very enthusiastic and energetic, like most dogs do! A great way to build your dog’s fitness level is to do so gradually; longer neighborhood walks, longer games of fetch and shorter hikes are a great place to start. I also like to start small because there are a lot of winter specific distractions on the trail that you will want to get your dog accustomed to. This means you might be doing a lot of training on your first few outings which is exhausting for both of you. Some of the most common distractions we have trained around in the winter are: snowshoes, backcountry or cross country skiers, snowmobiles, microspikes and poles.


Make sure you are paying attention to your dog’s body language to ensure they aren’t pushing themselves too hard, showing any signs of discomfort or getting too cold. Through short adventures you will not only build up their endurance and cold tolerance but you will learn to recognize their limits. If you ever see signs that they aren’t having a good time, this is your indication to cut your adventure short. Sometimes it is hard for us to cut our outdoor time short if we are having a great day but part of hiking with your dog is making it fun and safe for them as well.


Be Aware

Winter poses a lot of unique conditions and risks to be aware of before heading out on an adventure. Winter conditions are region specific, so checking your local information will be the best place to start your education. The first thing is wildlife. Some animals hibernate in the winter, making them less of a risk, but other animals come down to lower elevations or milder terrain for the winter. It is also helpful to know when mating and raising season is for wildlife because animals tend to pose more of a risk to hikers and their dogs when they have their young with them.


In Colorado, where I am located, our biggest winter environmental risk is avalanches. It is important to understand what avalanche terrain is and what the current avalanche risk is. For the latest avalanche conditions I use avalanche.state.co.us. My favorite resource for checking slope angle is CalTopo. Understanding slope angles and which slopes are at higher risk will help you determine safe hiking locations. Another important aspect of avalanche risk is to consider who you are sharing the trail with. For example, if you are hiking below a slope where people are backcountry skiing or snowboarding, they could trigger a slide that may affect you, hiking below. You may want to consider an avalanche safety course if you live in an area where this is a prevalent risk.


If you hike in areas with very deep snow, tree wells are a scary concept especially if you hike with your dog off leash. Tree well risks happen when snow accumulates around the base of the tree but not under the low hanging branches or around the trunk. The end result is a very deep hole forming around the base of the tree, getting deeper as more snow accumulates. If your dog is running around off trail they may unknowingly encounter these and depending on the snow depth, they may become stuck in the hole surrounded by deep snow. Being aware of your route and surroundings in combination with training your dog to stay on the trail can help avoid this risk.


Another common winter risk is frozen bodies of water, especially with dogs. It is important to be aware and familiar with your route; particularly, does this trail cross or come close to any frozen lakes or streams? If the body of water is frozen or partially-frozen but covered in snow it is possible you or your dog will not recognize it is there. I use the AllTrails app to plan my hikes and I use the map aspect to familiarize myself with any potential hazards or obstacles. Check out Planning an Adventure with Alltrails for more details.


Be Prepared

Regardless of the time of year, you should always be prepared for an emergency when hiking with your dog. In my experience, winter presents a higher risk of injury in your dogs due to ice, deep snow and the cold temperatures. The most common mishap I have been faced with are paw lacerations, because of sharp things hidden under the snow and already dry/cracked paws. The other common injury I hear about in the winter are muscle strains because of leaping through deep snow or slipping on ice. Cold temperatures only hinder the muscles, just like in humans, and make them more susceptible to injury. I carry the Trail Dog Medical Kit on all my hikes. It is a fully stocked dog first aid kit that includes instructions for use. I also always carry the Pack-a-Paw Emergency Rescue Harness in case of injury. I cannot think of anything worse than carrying my dog for many miles after they slice their paw open and refuse to walk; this harness makes that thought a bit more bearable. A collapsible shovel is also a great consideration for tree well scares mentioned above.


If you frequently hike, at any time during the year, I highly recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid Course to be familiar with the basics. This online based course through Survival Med is affordable and convenient.


Invest in a Winter Layer for your Dog

Many dogs, especially those with a double coat or longer hair, may never need a winter jacket. As an owner of two short haired dogs, winter jackets are a must. Going back to tip number 2, it is important to learn your dog’s tolerance level for cold temperatures and the wind chill. If you start with shorter distances and ease into winter hiking you can see if you feel like a jacket is necessary on certain days. The type of jacket you need will also depend on where you are located and what kind of winter climate you experience; this includes: temperatures, wind, rain and snow. Living in Colorado, our most extreme winter condition is the wind; my dogs tend to need their jackets on windy days more than extreme cold days. Below I have reviewed a few winter jackets, all different levels of warmth and waterproofness.


Hurtta Extreme Warmer: This jacket is the ultimate winter jacket for short haired dogs. I have tried many jackets and this is by far the most warm and most waterproof jacket. It doesn’t have any velcro or fleece so it gets the least amount of ice buildup on snowy days and is least affected by wet conditions. It has great chest coverage for snow protection and a reflective interior technology for cold protection.


Voyagers K9 Apparel: This jacket is another very warm option and the easiest to put on which makes it my most used jacket for your average winter day. It does have velcro to secure it in place and has fleece on the chest and neck; these two factors mean it is more affected by snowy/wet conditions. The fleece gets damp and freezes over and the velcro functionality can fail when overly wet.


Euro Dog Design and Ruffwear Fernie Fleece are great options for keeping your dogs warm if you plan to hike in a dry climate without extreme temperatures. They can also both be layered with a waterproof or warmer warmer if needed.


To summarize, wet/fresh snow is much more difficult to protect against. It sticks to a lot of jackets and refreezes which creates ice balls on the jacket. I have yet to find a jacket that isn't subject to this issue in deep snow. Ultimately, my favorite all around/everyday jacket is the Voyager K9, but its biggest downfalls happen in heavy or deep snow, where the Extreme Warmer does much better. So, if you only want one jacket and frequently encounter deep snow, the Extreme Warmer is my recommendation. If you don't see much snow, only cold temperatures, the Voyager K9 would be my top pick!


Take care of their paws

To preface this section, no matter what I have tried in the winter, nothing is perfect. I aim to keep their paws hydrated and healthy all year round and they luckily don’t get cold paws very often!


Booties: One of my dogs has never needed booties, even in extremely cold temperatures. My other dog is subject to very dry paws after snowy hikes which leads to cracking of her paw pads. Using booties and paw wax (see below) during and after hikes help with this issue but booties aren’t perfect especially in deep snow. When hiking in deep snow, snow and ice accumulates around the opening of the bootie and on the velcro straps. Also, she does not have the same grip or balance while wearing booties, so I do take this into account when planning routes if she will need to wear booties. These are the booties that have held up the best overall.


Gaiters: Yes, dog gaiters exist! Made by Backcountry Paws they offer more protection than just a bootie and are a favorite among my friends who have long haired dogs that are susceptible to snowballing of the leg hair. The major perk, other than snowball prevention, is that the bootie is attached to the end, so they can’t fall off in the snow. However in very deep snow the snow will go over the top and accumulate in the legs, making them useless.


Paw Wax: paw wax that can be used as an alternative to booties, my favorite brand is Musher’s Secret. It works by preventing snowballs forming in the paw pads, especially in long haired dogs. It may require multiple applications per hike. I also use this multiple times a week at home as a preventative and recovery treatment for dry and cracked paws.


Bring plenty of water

I am guilty of associating hot summer weather with needing a higher water intake while hiking, because you feel more thirsty when it’s warm. But, just because it is cold outside, doesn’t mean you or your dog need less water while exercising. Here in Colorado it can be extremely dry in the winter which means you definitely need to be conscious about drinking water even when you don’t feel thirsty! My dogs usually eat plenty of snow along the way so I do take this into account, but I always offer them water every few miles as usual.


In the winter the best way to carry water is in an insulated water bottle such as, RTIC, Yeti or HydroFlask. I also carry a collapsible water bowl for them to drink out of. You will want to avoid using a water bladder in the winter because the tube is likely to freeze, making your access to drinking very difficult. Plastic water bottles are also risky in the winter. If you use a wide mouth plastic bottle you will likely be okay but water in a plastic bottle is much more likely to freeze in low temperatures.


*a lot of information discussed here, such as checking the weather/temperature and checking avalanche risk is addressed in Preparing for a Summit Attempt. There are many helpful links in that post that I have included below.


Helpful Links







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