When NOT to Bring Your Dog on a Winter Hike
Knowing when not to bring your dog is one of the most important principles when it comes to hiking with your pup. If there’s one thing you take from this post it should be this. There is a point at which you can put both you and your dog in danger by bringing them out into the cold. I can’t make a set-in-stone rule for when the conditions are dangerous to bring your dog with you, but I have some guidelines that I use for Lucy that you can adapt to your pup. And don't forget to check out our post about Lucy's winter hiking gear!
If the ambient temperature at the trailhead is below zero or the wind chill is below -10 degrees she stays home for anything longer than a mile or two. It is simply too cold for her to be outside for long periods of time at this temperature. In this weather we do shorter hikes where there’s easy access to shelter if she needs a break. This could be on a trail or just up and down our road, but we do not ascend or venture further than a few easy miles from the car in these conditions.
If there’s any chance of a storm coming in we stay well below treeline where we would be able to navigate our way out with no visibility. One of my fears is losing Lucy in a whiteout because she can’t see or hear me to recall. She would of course be on a leash if there are low visibility conditions but things happen quickly and without warning, so we stay well below treeline if there is any chance of whiteout. This is not only a rule for Lucy, but I also adopt this for all of my winter hiking especially when I’m solo.
If I need a balaclava to prevent frostbite, we limit our time outside. This is because I have not yet found a way to completely cover Lucy’s face in the bitter cold and dogs can get frostbite too. She also has a very smushy face that freezes her mouth closed when it’s this cold. Once was enough to know that going out in those conditions is not worth it no matter how much fun we have.
If we’re going to have to break out more than 6” of new snow, I usually consider doing a shorter hike. It’s just more difficult for Lucy to get through the fresh powder and it takes up a lot of her energy especially since she has short legs. If you’re going to have to use snowshoes, consider how your dog will fare without them.
Recognizing Your Dog’s Cues: This is the most important aspect of winter hiking with your dog. You need to know how to recognize that your dog is done BEFORE you put them in a bad situation. Last year we attempted to hike Mt. Waumbek ended up having to turn back midway through the hike because she was uncomfortable. We bailed when she started to show signs that she was fatigued and getting too cold. It’s super important to be able to pick up on your dog’s cues and listen to them before they become miserable or get hurt. Here some of Lucy’s signs, but your dog may have a completely different set of cues so get to know them before you overdo it on the trail. And remember, the mountains will always be there!
Dragging their paws or limping/favoring a paw
Licking or chewing on paws
Walking with her head down instead of her usual alert and excited posture
Sitting down and not moving until called or sitting right in front of you
Slower walk instead of her usual peppy, bounding prance (this will happen towards the end of a long hike just because she gets tired, but if we’re still ascending this means it’s time to turn around)
Unmotivated by food
Frozen booties: this one is tough because it often happens throughout the hike, if they’re really bad towards the beginning and she’s licking them a lot it might just be too cold for her feet
Any type of whining or crying that’s not dog/squirrel related
Cold ears (I find this the best way to assess her temperature on the trail since they’re uncovered and exposed to the elements but stay warm when her core is toasty)
I hope some of these tips and tricks that we use will come in handy for your outdoor adventures! Winter hiking is one of our favorite activities, but it's so important to know where to draw the line so it can be enjoyable for both you and your pup. Please feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions or concerns!