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Dogpacking 101: Getting Started

Kevin Callan’s Tips for Winter Camping with Your Dog

Learn pro tips for winter camping with your furry friend, from the legendary Happy Camper, Kevin Callan.

by Kevin Callan aka the Happy Camper

All three of the dogs I’ve had over the years liked to go winter camping with me. But it’s my recent dog, Angel, that likes it the most. She’s the only one that wanted to pull the sled; the others would just ride on top of it. Angel is an odd dog. She’s half border collie and half golden retriever – and she likes to help haul my fright toboggan like a pure bred husky.

I prefer hot tenting while winter camping. So did all my dogs. I haul a canvas tent and wood stove, setting it up each night and keeping cozy warm with the heat of the stove. Cold tenting (using a four-season nylon tent with no heat source inside) has its advantages. You can travel further, faster, and lighter. However, I’ve never been in a hurry to get anywhere in the winter. I just enjoy soaking in what the season has to offer: star lit skies, flaky snow, crisp cold air, and silence…absolute silence. 

There are some disadvantages with winter camping, especially when hot tenting. More camp skills are required. If things go wrong out there in the cold, it could turn deadly. So your first camping trip with your dog shouldn’t be a winter trek at -20 degrees celsius in a snow storm. A mid summer canoe or hiking trip might be a better first time option. 

Gear for winter camping is also more expensive, including items needed for your dog. Good dog gear isn’t always available at pet supply stores. You may need to search online for special order items. A good one is www.sleddogcentral.com to source professional sled dog equipment and information.

Let’s start with the proper harness. Most dogs actually want to work on trip, and most breeds will at least try to pull a sled or toboggan. Make sure your dog has an x-back style harness that fits them properly. You can buy custom harnesses by supplying a manufacturer with specific measurements. When going downhill make sure to loop a length of thick rope to the back end of the sled to hold back the load rather then letting it gain too much speed and run over your dog when going downhill.

A dog jacket is a must have for winter camping. There’s lots of options out there when it comes to quality and warmth. It sounds obvious but the less fur your dog has, the warmer a jacket it will need. My partner’s dog, Oliver, gets the shivers with the slightest cool breeze and has to be dressed up completely for the cold. What’s less obvious is that if you have a male dog, get one with a rear bottom flap. This is needed to protect his penis from the cold wind. Sounds silly, but it’s an important tip. 

Booties aren’t just for sled dogs. All dogs need them. They protect your dog’s feet from the cold snow but also from cuts and scrapes caused by ice. And yes, your dog will hate wearing them at first, and dance around like a untalented ballerina. But they will soon get used them, and thank you for purchasing them.  

You’ll need to create a cozy ground bed inside the tent. Cutting green branches in a Provincial or National park is illegal and unethical. However, if I am traveling in remote Crown land I will layer down a base of balsam boughs, weaving them together like a basket. When in parks I’ll lay down a non-slippery tarp, the rubbery type that truckers use to cover their loads. 

My dog also gets it’s own sleeping system. A square piece of insulation goes first. Piping insulation from the hardware store works great. Next is an inflatable or foam pad. And yes, your dog needs a sleeping bag – unless it’s a tuff working sled dog with a thick coat. All my dogs weren’t huskies and preferred to snuggle inside my down jacket for the night. 

Proper high energy kibble is crucial. The better the food the more warm the dog will be. Canned food might be better but it’s not easy slopping it out of the can in freezing temperatures. 

Last but not least, pack a lot of dog treats. Just like I give treats to my dog at the end of each portage during summer canoe trips, I do the same at the end of each winter sled haul. Giving them lots of treats and praise goes a long way out there. And while you’re at it, do the same for yourself. Munch on a chunk of cheese or dried meat. After all, pet owners and dogs who enjoy the beauty of a wintery landscape deserve all the treats and praise they can get. 

About the author

Kevin Callan  (aka The Happy Camper) is the author of 19 books; his latest being Top 70 Canoe Routes of Ontario. He is an award winning writer and a keynote speaker at outdoor events across North America. Kevin is also a regular guest on several television morning shows and CBC Radio. He has won several film awards, writes a column for Paddling Magazine and Explore Magazine. Kevin was listed one of the top 100 modern day explorers by the Canadian Geographical Society. He was also made Patron Paddler for Paddle Canada.

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