I adjust my headlamp. My frozen breath catches the light.
Two excited dogs are barking, shaking my truck. I lay my skis on the trail, pointing the tips toward the woods. I unload the dogs.
I snap the gangline on River and Belle’s harnesses, click my skis into their bindings and secure my poles. My dogs are quiet now; for a brief moment, they stand still at the end of their lines. Their legs are shaking with excitement, waiting for the command.
We’re off. River and Belle slam into their harnesses. The bungee line absorbs some of the jolt. I lean forward and kick off, skate skiing down the trail, propelled by two dogs into the night. Together, the dogs and I reach speeds of more than 30 km/h (about 19 mph).
This is skijoring.
This is what we live for!
Why I Skijor
I live in Canada, where there’s snow six months of the year. I have a pack of rescue dogs who, like me, are high energy. Skijoring is a great way to keep all of us exercised and happy. If we didn’t get out, we would go crazy from cabin fever.
I am an avid skier; my parents taught me to ski as soon as I was able to walk. Even with a few decades of skiing under my belt, however, skijoring offers me a challenge. My dogs push me to ski at a higher level than I would otherwise attempt. Well-trained skijoring dogs don’t want to take a break and aren’t tempted to sit and chat. They want to go!
That’s why I skijor. Try it out yourself and discover your own reasons. Following are some tips to help you on your way.
If you’re considering skijoring, take a realistic look at its two main components: you and your dog. You can, by the way, skijor with any breed of dog. It’s as common to see a house dog as a Husky bounding through the snow with a skier in tow.
Dogs should be at least 30 pounds and a year old, and in good health. Some smaller dogs certainly have the will, but small dogs come with small frames, and skijoring can put undue pressure on their bodies.
Before starting this sport, check in with your vet to be sure your dog’s up for it. Fitness matters for you, too. Take your own physical condition into account. Skijoring can be demanding on the knees and lower back.
If you’re new to skiing, look for a Nordic center and take a few crosscountry lessons. Two basic techniques are used when skiing behind a dog. Which one you use depends on the type of skijoring you intend to do.
Backcountry adventurers will run into deeper snow and the dog (or dogs) will help break the trail. This type of skijoring requires cross-country skis that are wide and have turned-up tips.
Is it speed you’re after? If so, you’ll be skiing on flat, wide, groomed trails using a technique called skate skiing, in which the tips of the skis are kept apart and the tails are kept together, getting the kick by alternately pushing off the skis’ inside edges, much like ice skating. Look for stiff, short skis with almost no turn-up at the front.
Don’t forget the ski wax! Using glide wax on your skis makes it easier to move over the snow. Remember to choose a wax that suits the conditions in which you’ll be skiing.
Another important skill: stopping. Here again, there are two main methods. First, the snowplow, in which you point the tips of your skis toward each other and dig down with your heels. The other quick way to stop is to fall down! Put your skis on and practice falling and getting up again before you attempt skijoring.
Skijoring, like any sport, has its dangers; people and dogs can get hurt. But a few simple safety tips and common sense go a long way toward keeping accidents to a minimum.
Warm up. Use a brisk walk with some quick turns to warm up and cool down.
Know your ability. Stick to trails that are the appropriate length and difficulty for both your and your dog’s skill levels.
Protect your melon. Simple: get a winter sports helmet that fits and wear it.
Brush up on obedience training. Sit, stay, come—your dog should have the basics of obedience down before you go out on the trails. A dog you can communicate with easily means a safer and more fun outing.
Practice. Before you get on your skis, put your dog in the skijoring harness and go for a walk. Your dog needs to know the basics of how to behave in harness before you head out on the trail.
Who doesn’t love shopping for their dogs? Fortunately, when it comes to skijoring, the initial cost is pretty modest. A skijoring harness and a line for your dog and a waist belt for yourself will set you back around $100, although you can, of course, pay more. (Tempting though it may be, don’t try to repurpose your dog’s walking harness, or even a weight-pull harness. They’re not constructed to accommodate the pressures skijoring places on a dog’s body.)
Skijoring harnesses come in all sorts of designs and styles; the most common are X back and H back. No matter what style you choose, it should fit your dog well. A properly fitted harness allows dogs to pull from the shoulders and fits snugly enough not to move up and restrict their airway. (I liken it to putting on a backpack; the harnesses should sit on the shoulder blades.) A proper fit is critical to your dog’s comfort and safety.
Ideally, take your dog with you when you go harness shopping. If that’s not practical, or if you’re ordering online, measure carefully. Each outfitter will have its own sizing and measurement instructions, so be sure to follow them carefully. When shopping for gear online, measure twice, order once!
You and your dog are tethered to one another with a gangline (also called a tugline), which is between 8 and 12 feet long and has a section of bungee in it. The bungee makes the experience more comfortable for both of you by absorbing some of the shock when your dog takes off suddenly at the beginning, or when you fall (which may happen quite often!).
The waist or skijoring belt is worn low; at the front is a quick release attachment for the gangline. A wider belt is preferred because it spreads the pressure over more of your body and eliminates some of the stress on your lower back. A properly designed belt will allow you to use your hips to offset the dog’s pulling force.
Mind Your Manners
To ensure that everyone is safe (and that skijorers continue to be welcome on trails) a few rules need to be observed.
Choose an appropriate trail. Skijoring is a great sport for any nonmotorized, multi-use trail. Do not take your dogs on trails groomed for classic cross-country skiing, as they will likely ruin the double track set in the snow, making it unusable for others.
Keep your distance. Whether it’s another skijoring team, dog walkers or other skiers, no one likes to be tailgated. Be especially careful to give other dogs space; not all dogs are comfortable being chased.
Communicate your passes. If you are overtaking another trail user, the polite thing to do is yell “Trail” and wait until they signal that they’ve heard you by moving to the side.
Pick up after your dog. So basic, so important. Cleaning up after your dog goes a long way to ensure that trails remain open to all dog-related activities.
Skijoring strengthens your bond with your dog. You are literally attached, flying down a trail, releas-ing endorphins and sharing new adventures. It’s also the ultimate in positive reinforcement. Skijoring dogs get to pull, and are rewarded for it—the harder they pull, the faster they go. Skijoring taps into their natural instinct to move.
I’m often asked if training dogs to skijor makes it more difficult to walk them. My experience has been that allowing my dogs to pull in harness actually makes them easier to manage on daily walks. Running off their energy on the trail means they’re calmer, happier and more ready to listen.