Safety Tips for Hiking With a Dog - Winter Edition

Tired of being cooped up in indoor spaces during the winter months? Winter hiking could be just what you need! This moderate intensity workout helps to improve fitness and uplift one’s mood. Think about picturesque winter trails, cool fresh air, and fewer crowds.

Hiking with a dog during winter is not just fun for us - it also has a wide range of benefits for canine companions that are physically suited to hiking. Just keep these important safety tips in mind when hiking with dogs to make sure you both have the best time! 

We’ll cover everything in this complete guide on hiking with a dog during winter. 

What’s in this Guide?

1. Mind Your Miles

First-timers to winter hiking with dogs often ask, “how many miles can a dog hike?” As with many questions about the physical capacities and limitations of canines, this depends on the dog. 

Dr. Sylvia Berns, DVM, a Medical Director at Sploot, stated that the average number of miles a dog can hike would be around 5 miles. However, she recommends first timers and beginners to only hike for 1-2 miles during winter. 

2. Always Check the Weather & Temperature Forecasts

Different areas of the world have different winter temperature ranges. In Denver, Colorado, for instance, the average winter temperature is around  16°- 54°F. Though many would think that dogs can tolerate the cold better than people can, this is generally not true. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s too cold for people, it’s highly likely that it’s too cold for dogs too. 

For areas that regularly experience freezing-point temperatures during the wintertime, picking the right day for a winter hike is crucial. Furthermore, being aware of weather forecasts and temperature changes through the hike ensures your safety — as well as your dog’s. 

As a general rule, most dogs get uncomfortable at around 32°F. Though larger, healthy dogs with thick coats may be able to endure lower temperatures, it’s always best to be cautious. Individual dogs respond to the cold differently — so watch out for these signs that a dog is starting to get too cold

  • Trembling or shivering
  • Looking unwell or anxious
  • Uncharacteristically slow movements
  • Limping or resistance to walking
  • Constantly lifting up paws and legs from the ground
  • Always resorting to a cramped or hunched posture
  • Desperately trying to stick to a heat source (e.g. to your leg)
  • Whining or barking
A dog happily running around while hiking during the winter — showing that that hiking with dogs gives mental stimulation and exercise for dogs

3. Gear Up Your Dog for Winter Hiking

In the same way that we protect ourselves with winter hiking jackets, sunglasses, and boots, our furry friends need the right gear for hiking during winter. When hiking with dogs during winter, here are a few must-have wearable items you can get for your dog: 

For Bodily Protection

Whether your dog has short or long fur, investing in a winter jacket for dogs is worth it. As we touched on earlier, different dogs respond to the cold in different ways. Whatever your dog’s individual threshold may be to the cold, a winter jacket helps to extend that threshold and provide comfort for your canine trail partner. 

For Paw Protection

Investing in paw protection for a winter hike is highly recommended. Sploot’s Medical Director, Dr. Sylvia Berns, DVM states, “dogs are most sensitive to cold on their paws; so booties could help in withstanding cold weather“

Getting dog booties is one of two options that pet parents have when it comes to protecting their dog’s paws for a winter hike. These little dog shoes may take some getting used to, but they provide protection for both the cold snow and rough terrain.

The second option is to use paw wax. Paw wax is a product used by mushers on their sled dogs. Though paw wax may not protect the dog’s paw from larger sharp elements, it prevents snowballing. 

Note: Snowballing on a dog’s paw occurs when snow latches on to the dog’s fur (in between their toes) — the snow then melts from the dog’s body heat but freezes again to form larger ice balls. 

For Eye Protection

Dog goggles, also known as doggles, provide much-needed eye protection during sunny winter days. When the sun is out during a winter hike, the sun’s rays will reflect off the snow — and though uncommon, this can cause snow blindness in dogs. Dog goggles help prevent this condition.

Side-by-side photos of a dog wearing a winter jacket and a dog wearing goggles, two very important accessories when hiking with dogs

4. Stay on Marked Trails

Going into unknown or poorly marked territories increases the risk of hikers getting lost— certainly something to avoid in harsh winter weather. Therefore, taking the beaten path is the smartest thing to do when hiking during winter. Furthermore, a trail’s reputation as a good winter hiking trail is very important. This is because trails change as winter sets in.

When looking for good and safe winter hiking trails, there are different resources you can look at depending on where you live. For example, All Trails is a national database where you can quickly look up information about different state parks and trails in the United States. All Trails is a great starting point when looking for safe, dog friendly winter trails because on top of curated information, it also features reviews from hikers. 

After narrowing down options from sites like All Trails, check out the corresponding government websites (local & national) for selected parks to get more in-depth information and recent advisories. 

5. Bring Enough Water for You & Your Dog

Even though we usually associate dehydration with hot temperatures, it is just as high a risk on winter hikes. The American Hiking Society explains that the cold dry air of winter strips water faster from our bodies because cold air is generally less humid than warm air. Cold air has a similar effect on dogs — and this is why dogs usually drink more water amidst the low humidity levels of the wintertime. 

When assessing how much water you need for a winter hike, it would be helpful to know how many hours you’ll be hiking. The estimated duration for hiking on a flat or gently sloping trail is 30 minutes per mile. From there, you can calculate the following: 

  • For humans, 1 liter of water is needed per hour of hiking
  • For dogs, AT LEAST 8 ounces of water is needed per hour of hiking — keep in mind that bigger dogs might need more. 

In addition to the above recommendations, make sure that all your water is packed away from the cold to avoid freezing. You would also need a collapsible bowl for Fido’s water.  

6. Bring Enough Food for You & Your Dog

Maintaining enough energy is crucial for staying safe on any hike. winter hiking is great exercise because it makes the body’s systems consume more calories. This means that, all else being equal, you and Fido will get hungry sooner on a winter hike versus a hike during a warmer season. Therefore, it’s important to bring enough food. 

Recommended trail food for humans include the following: 

  • Trail mix
  • Energy bars
  • Granola bars
  • Dried fruits and vegetables
  • Tuna salad pouches

As for Fido, bring the following: 

  • A hearty meal for them that you can serve in a collapsible bowl.
  • A treat pouch with high-energy dog biscuits or dog energy bars

If you plan to make simple home-made dog treats, check out our article on Healthy Human Foods for Dogs for inspiration. 

A black dog relaxing on the snow, ready for a hearty meal, a must-have when hiking with dogs

7. Have a First-Aid Kit Ready

You may already have a standard first aid kit for personal use — but these products are generally not suitable for dogs.

When animals get scrapes, they have a tendency to lick their wounds. Because human ointments, creams, and balms generally weren’t formulated to be safely ingested, they are not suitable for use on dogs. So make sure to stock up on emergency supplies that are canine-friendly. 

To be 100% prepared for the unexpected, people who plan to go hiking with a dog can also purchase an emergency rescue harness for dogs. 

8. Keep Your Dog Harnessed

Many pet parents prefer to have their dogs off leash during a hike — especially when the pup is well trained and used to exploring new areas off leash. That being said, during a winter hike, keeping your dog harnessed is always the safest approach. The consequences of getting lost in winter can be much more dangerous than at more temperate times of the year.

When hiking with a dog during winter, keeping them on a harness prevents them from wandering or poking at areas where they shouldn’t (e.g. deep snow banks, frozen bodies of water.)

The best winter hiking leash to use is a full body harness with a belly strap. The belly strap is an important addition to these types of body harnesses because they enable pet owners to securely lift or pull their dog — whether it’s out of harm’s way or out of a sticky situation. 

Other features to look for in a harness include: 

  • Durable materials for the harness
  • Reflective accents for visibility
  • Adjustable parts to custom-fit the dog
  • A handle on the back of the harness to lift the dog over difficult terrain
A dog wearing a durable harness, one of the must-have items when hiking with dogs

9. Have Post-Hike Doggy Essentials Ready in the Car

What has four legs, is damp, and is invigorated by a winter hike? It’s a post-winter-hike pup! We’ve covered everything you need for a safe and comfortable hike but making sure Fido is comfortable after the hike is just as important. 

Make sure to have the following ready for your dog when you get back to the car: 

  • A towel for drying 
  • A bathrobe to wick off any remaining moisture on your dog’s fur
  • A cozy blanket so that the dog can relax after getting a great workout!

10. Sharpen Your Avalanche Awareness [ Free Course]

If you plan on hiking in a location with a high number of historical avalanche incidents (places like Colorado, Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, and Washington State), gaining avalanche awareness is highly recommended as an added measure of safety. 

One of the most common myths is that an avalanche is only a danger to people who are skiing, snowboarding, or climbing a mountain. However, avalanches have been known to cause harm to hikers too. 

If you’d like to learn more about avalanche safety and awareness, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center offers a FREE avalanche awareness program on their website. It is a great resource for both seasoned hikers who need a refresher — and newbie hikers who need more information. It’s one important step that will help you stay safe while winter hiking with dogs. 

11. Consult Your Vet

Depending on your chosen hiking destination this winter, your dog may require canine vaccinations. This is one of the reasons why it’s always a good idea to consult your vet before going on a winter hike.  

If your dog has not gone on a winter hike before, your vet will also be able to determine whether or not your dog is physically suited to take part in the winter hike that you’ve got planned. Veterinarians consider the following factors when assessing a dog’s suitability for a winter hike: 

  • The size and breed of the dog
  • The age of the dog and any underlying health conditions
  • The dog’s behavior and obedience
  • The difficulty of the hike

It would also be helpful to give information about your hiking plans to get the best veterinary advice. These are a few details that will help guide your discussion with your vet: 

  • Your list of hiking trail options
  • Your intended number of miles for each winter trail
  • The terrain of the winter trail that you’re going to
A consultation with a veterinarian from Sploot Vets, Denver, showing a crucial step before hiking with dogs

Final Thoughts on Hiking With Dogs During Winter

We hope you found this guide on safety tips for winter hiking with dogs helpful. Hiking with a dog during this time of the month requires careful preparation — but it also carries a ton of benefits that make it worth your while.  

If you have specific questions about hiking with your dog during winter, consult your local vet. 

As for Denver pet parents, we’re here to help! Sploot Veterinary Care is a trusted provider of primary and urgent care for dogs/cats in Denver. Our veterinarians can assess if your dog is physically able to hike — and if yes, for how long. They will also give tailor-fit recommendations as you prepare for hiking with a dog.

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