Powder Hounds: A Dog's Guide to Skiing with Humans

January 21, 2024 Written by: Aiden Doane

Written by: Hanna Holcomb

You’re carving your first turn in fresh, untracked powder and you glance back only to  see your best friend barreling down the slopes after you - carving out their own powder line, tongue flopping in the wind, wide-eyed looking at you, as if saying “Mom/Dad, are you seeing this!?”. 

There’s so much joy in sharing a backcountry adventure with your dog, but there are always inherent risks. Depending on your dog’s breed and physical abilities, there are lots of things to consider before taking them out on their first pow day. 

We chatted with Doctor Taylor Karlin, a veterinarian, with a herding breed mix named Pacha, about their journey into the backcountry. As Steamboat Springs, CO locals, this duo are no strangers to the fun and risk you take when skiing with your pup. Learn more about how they first got started and some of Dr. Karlin’s advice to make sure it’s safe for you and your dog: 

Q: Tell us about you and Pacha!

A: “I’m a veterinarian, I was born in Colorado Springs but I did a lot of moving around growing up. I lived in Maryland and South Carolina, came back to Colorado for college, and then went out to Oregon. Pacha came into my life when I was living in Oregon. He came through my clinic as a rescue on the way to the shelter; he was 10 weeks old and had been in a hoarder situation. I ended up adopting him and getting him through some of his puppyhood traumas. He just turned 3 in November so he’s still a puppy - or still thinks he is! He’s definitely the best thing that’s happened to me.”

Skiing with your dog

Q: How did the idea of backcountry skiing with your dog first come about? What motivated you to pursue it?

A: “I grew up in a really outdoorsy family so skiing became part of my life really early on. I’ve been a big backcountry skier for many years now. When I got him (Pacha), it was an activity I was hoping I could get him into. I definitely let him tell me if it was something that he was interested in, but it was always on the radar - I wanted a dog that could bike with me, hike with me, and could be outdoorsy and would enjoy it. I got really lucky I found one that loves to do those activities. With him (Pacha) having a rough background he’s got a lot of social anxieties; he’s not great in crowds or noisy situations and so one really cool thing about getting him into skiing is that he’s so comfortable on trails and in the backcountry - that’s really the only place where he kind of lets go of those fears and those anxieties and he really enjoys himself.”

Q: How did you assess your dog's readiness and physical condition before introducing them to backcountry skiing? Did you consult with a veterinarian for guidance?

A: “Definitely listened to the veterinarian's advice as to when to start training him, I think that’s huge. With Pacha, I knew his age and also  listened to his abilities. When we’re in our outdoorsy mindset we just want to go, go, go and push our dogs into those situations - sometimes too soon and too early. Listening to the advice of the vet about what breed the dog is and what age we can start to exercise them more, because as much as we love to get puppies out and running around it may not be what’s best for them. It’s important to consult with your vet in general to find out if your dog is ready to take on a higher level of exercise that’s putting a lot more strain on their bodies.”

Pacha skiing

Q: What kind of gear and equipment do you find essential for backcountry skiing with a canine companion?

A: “I carry a first aid kit for humans and I throw in an extra non-adherent pad, gauze, and vet wrap for the dogs. I keep triple antibiotic and cleansing pads too with the human first aid kit. I also carry a Fido Pro Airlift (Dog Emergency Rescue Sling) just in case there's a situation where Pacha really can’t walk out on his own. Any dog that’s over 40 pounds - that’s a lot to carry while you’re skiing. I take that with me pretty much any time I have him with me on a trail. I always bring a jacket, most of the time he doesn’t need it if he’s running around enough but I always keep it with me. I use musher’s wax on his paw pads beforehand. I always have a leash with me in case I need it. I started using Rex Specs a year ago and they’re awesome. For UV protection - especially on sunny days, that snow is so reflective and so bright. Also for the powder and keeping the eyes safe from ice and anything else in the terrain. I use them not only for skiing but for hiking and biking too, where he needs sun protection and protection from dirt spraying in his eyes as well.”

Getting ready to ski.

Q: What did the process of training Pacha to safely ski with you consist of? Were there specific steps you took to teach him?

A: “I started with hiking - just getting him out on trails, getting him fit that way. We would run together, I got him behind a mountain bike so that he was used to following me off leash and I was on something. Once he got fit enough that he was doing fine on that sort of footing, I would just take him out on snow for hikes and for runs too. The first big step was getting him used to moving in snow. Snow is much more challenging for them to run through, especially if it’s deep. Getting him out there and getting him used to the concept of having him run through powder and making it a fun activity for him first. Deep snow can be as high as their bodies and having to jump through it can be a lot; we don’t always think about it especially if we are on skis or snowshoes that are preventing us from sinking into the snow. Months later, I took him out on skis. I first built him up to skiing by cross country skiing. Short, mellow terrain that was pretty flat with low miles so that he got used to being around skis and learning that awareness. Once he was more comfortable with cross country trails, I slowly built up the miles and vertical that we were doing - more actual backcountry trails. We were breaking trail, having to get through deep  snow - but starting slow. 1 to 2 miles and building on that. Maxing out at about 500 feet of vert for his first few sessions. For their first time, you definitely don’t want to take them out on a really big tour. You have to find that balance and get the dog used to it.”

Q: Are there any specific commands you use?

A: “When climbing, if I want him to be ahead of me I’ll tell him “front” or “go”, he knows that he can take off. To keep him behind, I just say “behind” - he’s really good about knowing that he needs to be behind me on the trail. To get him to not be as close to me and give me space on the downhill, I use “off” as a command. Sometimes I’ll use my poles to make him aware of my space/my bubble, so he knows not to get closer to my skis.”

Skiing on the trail.

Q: Were there any challenges that you faced when training Pacha to ski with you?

A: “He always wanted to be right on my heels and didn’t understand the concept of having a ski behind me and having to leave that distance. So he would often step on the back of my skis.”

Q: Can injury occur if dogs are not properly trained when backcountry skiing? What safety measures do you recommend? 

A: “Yes, for sure. The biggest concern is that they can get cut by the edges of skis, so that’s why it’s important to train them to give you that space when you’re going downhill or when you step out of your skis when climbing. Other injuries can include anything orthopedic, like straining muscles and tearing ACLs. Keeping their paw pads warm and comfortable enough is also a concern, as well as just keeping their bodies warm enough. 

There are multiple products out there for their paws, booties provide the most protection from cold but also from ice. I do wish they stayed on better. I like to use mushers wax on the paw pads because it creates somewhat of a barrier and helps prevent some of the snow from building up in their pads. A lot of dogs, especially if they have thick hair, get snowballs that build up and then they’re just uncomfortable.”

Q: What else should you take into consideration when taking your dog backcountry skiing?

A: “The cold is a big factor when having a dog out on trails. If it’s going to be extremely cold out, I’m  going to consider whether it’s a good idea to have a dog out with me in the first place. They’re deep in the snow, they don’t have as much fat insulation, especially on their legs. Even if I have a jacket on him (Pacha), it doesn’t cover everything. Another big consideration I have is the terrain I’m going in. I’ve personally made the decision that I do not want my dog in avalanche terrain. So if what we have planned is going anywhere near avalanche terrain, I’m not going to bring a dog just because that adds so much risk to the situation. Keeping in mind my comfort in the terrain is important - if I know it well, or if it’s new and I’m not as comfortable in it. I need to make sure Pacha is going to be fine and safe there as well. That if any sort of self rescue is needed, not only can I get myself out but that I can get him out as well.”

Q: Can you share any tips or advice for others who are interested in teaching their dogs to backcountry ski?

A: “I think my biggest advice would be just to go slow with it. Be patient with the process, and don’t throw them into stressful or bad situations. Nobody will have fun and they won’t want to do it again. Build them up to more intense touring and terrain. Understand that they can’t do the miles and vertical that we can right off the bat. It can be helpful to go out with other people who have dogs that are already comfortable skiing. If they have a friend who has a dog they take in the backcountry who is experienced, dogs tend to do a really good job of teaching each other. If there's another dog they can learn off of, it’s awesome.”

Q: Can you share about a memorable experience you and Pacha have had on the slopes?

A: “We had a really good day skiing on my last backcountry tour in Oregon. It was just a very easy, short tour. It was the first time I had done it and the first time I had taken him up on that specific mountain, it was called Potato Hill. It was a beautiful day, just the two of us, and it was like we were saying goodbye to this place that we had lived and really enjoyed. It wasn’t any crazy great snow or experience, but I just remember that day being so special and a perfect cap to living in Oregon and getting Pacha, and training him up to be able to be there with me. It was a really good day out together.” 

Q: Do you have any goals or aspirations for further developing Pacha’s backcountry skiing skills? What challenges or adventures do you envision in the future for both of you?

A: “I think my biggest goal with him is to get him out there enjoying it - myself too. I don’t want to push him too hard, I worry about the risks and take those into account more than anything. I would love to train him on avalanche rescue, not to take him into that terrain, but I think it would be a really cool skill to develop. It would be awesome for both of us together to take on learning that and doing that training. He is a dog that just loves to have a dog and is super smart and motivated, so I think it would be a really fun challenge for both of us. He wouldn’t ever be a patrol or avy dog, but it would be a really fun project to take on.” 

If we could sum up Dr. Karlin’s advice: 

  • Start small and slow. Just like us, dogs have to build stamina and confidence in new situations. Your dog may need some time to get used to some groomed paths before they feel confident charging into fresh, deep powder.
  • Have strong commands. Like any backcountry partner, you want to have good communication. With your dog, it’s extra important to have a strong recall and heel command to keep them away from any avalanche-prone slopes, ski/snowboard descent lines, wild animals, and any other skiers and/or dogs you might encounter on your route. You want to keep yourself, your dog, and everyone else as safe as possible. 
  • Make sure you are well-equipped. Depending on the adventure, you might want to consider a jacket, booties, eye goggles, paw ointment/balm, or anything else that will ensure your dog is comfortable. But on every backcountry outing, you always make sure you have a first aid kit. In the case of an emergency, you want to make sure you can get your dog down the slopes safely. 

All in all, the key to success in the backcountry means making sure you are well-equipped, your dog is well-trained, and you both are prepared for anything that might come your way. If you decide to take your dog into the backcountry have fun, be safe, and be sure to tag us in all your adventure photos!

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