Mushing Mastered: 7 Lessons From a First-Time Dog Sledder

Dog sledding experiences are growing in popularity. Here’s what to keep in mind if you want to try mushing responsibly.

Mushing Mastered: 7 Lessons From a First-Time Dog Sledder

No previous mushing experience is needed for a trip with Chilly Dogs in Ely, Minnesota.

Photo by Ashlea Halpern

Humans have used dogs for hunting and travel for thousands of years. But only in the past 50 years have high-profile, long-distance dog-sled races like the 998-mile Iditarod in Alaska and the 621-mile Finnmarksløpet in Norway put dog sledding on the radar of nonracers and ushered in opportunities for travelers to try it out recreationally.

As a recent transplant to the Twin Cities, I learned about Ely, Minnesota, a town of 3,387 people about four hours north of St. Paul–Minneapolis, which claims to have the highest concentration of sled dog trip providers per capita on the planet. To give it a go, I hooked up with Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips, a family-run tour operator with more than 90 Alaskan huskies in its crew—most of them retired racing dogs.

Here’s what I learned—and what you need to know before trying it on your next winter adventure.

You can dog sled more places than you may think

Although snow-free mushing outfits do exist in urban areas like Los Angeles, most would-be dog sledders envision themselves bundled in a fur-trimmed parka, whooshing over snow-packed trails and across frozen lakes. Accordingly, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada offer plenty of dog sledding opportunities—but so do China, Japan, Siberia, and Patagonia.

Alaska is the highest-profile state for dog sledding in the United States, but there are many outfitters in the Lower 48, too, including Montana, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Maine, and Vermont.

Many outfitters offer full-day and multiday excursions, but for my first outing, I opted for a more relaxed three-hour package that included a meet-and-greet with the kennel dogs, a detailed training session, and one hour of active trail time. I learned a lot that afternoon about the dogs and the sport, but also got a good sense of whether I could hack a longer, more physically demanding trip. (The answer: Definitely yes!)

Huskies in Lapland, Finland, hang out during a break from a sled ride.

Huskies in Lapland, Finland, hang out during a break from a sled ride.

Photo by BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

No two sled dogs are the same

One of the first things that Jake Hway, owner of Chilly Dogs, said during the orientation was to let go of the idea that all sled dogs should look like “Disney dogs.” He was referencing the 2002 movie Snow Dogs, in which much of the canine cast fulfills traditional husky stereotypes (ice-blue eyes, fluffy silver coat). Sled dogs come in all shapes and sizes, explained Hway. While some kennels only use purebreds such as Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies, or samoyeds, it’s more common to find dogs with mixed genetics, particularly in racing circles. Alaskan huskies are especially popular because they are hardy, fast, high-endurance dogs bred for their athleticism more than their appearance.

If you like your fingers and toes, layer up!

Start with breathable long underwear and wool socks, then add a mid-layer and fleece, plus a heavy parka, snow pants, thickly insulated boots, and bulky overmitts. Ski goggles or sunglasses and a balaclava or musher hat with ear flaps are also recommended. (Many sledding outfits will rent gear to guests if they don’t have their own.) It may sound like overkill considering the dogs are the ones doing all the work, but it’s precisely the drivers’ lack of movement that makes them so vulnerable to the cold.

Be inquisitive

Many tour operators offer a meet-and-greet in the kennel before an outing begins. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the dogs’ life off the trail—what they eat, where they sleep, and how they socialize. Misconceptions about dog sledding are common. Guests with house pets might not understand why sled dogs are kept on chains when kenneled, for instance, or why they sleep outdoors in frigid temperatures.

I wondered all of these things, too, and Hway was patient in explaining the answers. There are several reasons that kennels—including the one in Denali National Park, home of the National Park Service’s only sled dog team—keep the dogs on chains when they’re not running. The right-sized lead is long enough that a dog can move freely in and around its doghouse—it’s long enough to allow a sniff of the neighbors, but easily permits them to retreat into their doghouse if they want to be left alone. Shorter leads also give sled dog owners a chance to assess a dog’s diet and health, by observing the stool within their designated radius.

And unlike the lazy, lap-warming chihuahuas I have at home, Alaskan huskies and other breeds of sled dogs thrive in inhospitable climates. They’re as fit as athletes and can burn thousands of calories in a day. On very cold nights, Hway and his team add extra insulation to their doghouses—only to return on some -30-degree mornings to find that some dogs still chose to sleep outside.

A tour group prepares for a dog sledding outing on the Norris Glacier in Alaska.

A tour group prepares for a dog sledding outing on the Norris Glacier in Alaska.

Photo by Allen.G/Shutterstock

Pay attention during orientation

Most people who book sledding excursions love animals, but there’s more to the sport than cuddling cute dogs. Though short sledding routes travel on hard, ice-packed trails that the dogs know inside and out because they run them every day, any tour operators worth their salt will still walk guests through the basics of operating a sled, which depending on the style also has a “basket” that can carry equipment or another person.

During orientation guests learn how to stand upright on the sled, how to slow the sled down on a hill or when it’s getting too close to the teams in front, and how to stop. Operators may also cover basic directional commands, like “Haw!” (turn left), “Gee!” (turn right), and “Whoa!” (slow down!). This is serious stuff—if guests don’t pay attention, they may flip the sled on a sharp turn or allow the dogs to get tangled in the harnesses, potentially hurting themselves, their passenger in the sled basket, or the animals.

If you’re not comfortable driving the sled on your own, talk to your outfitter about the options available to ride with a guide.

Slow down, see more

While a strong sled team could cover 50 miles in a day, tourists never go that fast. Dogs may race out of the kennel at breakneck speed, but they’ll slow to a comfortable velocity of four to eight miles per hour once they’re on the trail. This tranquil pace allows guests to get comfortable driving the sled and enjoy the scenery. (Note: If you want to take photos, you’ll have to do it while sitting in the basket. Drivers should never take their hands off the sled.)

On multiday trips, operators may teach guests how to build snow shelters or erect tents; others simply park their dogs outside remote yurts, cabins, and even five-star hotels. For a more immersive experience, ask to help feed and harness the dogs.

Do your due diligence

As with any business that deals with animals, there are sledding outfits run by diligent owners who love their dogs and take excellent care of them—and there are ones that aren’t. Enforcement and standard of care vary by country, meaning conscientious travelers must evaluate each operator on a case-by-case basis.

Look at that face! And then be sure to check with your prospective outfitter about responsible animal care practices.

Look at that face! And then be sure to check with your prospective outfitter about responsible animal care practices.

Photo by kiin/Shutterstock

Before booking a trip, scrutinize the reviews and ask a lot of pointed questions. How long have they been mushing? How many people work at the kennel year-round? (Continuity is important when training animals.) Do the dogs receive regular veterinary care? What is the operator’s breeding policy and their end-of-life plan for working dogs? Do they work with local rescues to re-home old or injured dogs?

If a kennel is evasive about answering these questions, there may be a reason. Operators who take the welfare of their dogs seriously will be transparent when questioned—as they have nothing to hide. These are the ones you want to support.

>>Next: Avoid the Lift Lines and Ski Uphill This Season (Yes, Really)

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to AFAR, New York Magazine, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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