Snowshoeing with a Dog: A Guide for Humans and Their Companions

Snowshoeing is one of my favourite winter activities to do with my dog. There’s nothing quite like breaking a trail through fresh powder in a forest blanketed with snow. If you’ve never tried snowshoeing or are looking to introduce your dog to snowshoeing, this post will help you get started! First, I’ll introduce you to snowshoeing basics and then I’ll give you some tips for making it fun and safe for your dog.

SNOWSHOE TIPS FOR HUMANS

What are Snowshoes?

Snowshoes are a traditional way of travelling through deep snow. In Canada, First Nations invented many unique styles of snowshoes specific to their culture, terrain, and the raw materials available to them.1 New forms of transportation, like snowmobiles, have replaced the need for snowshoes as a primary mode of transportation. But, snowshoes remain popular as a form of recreation, whether that’s for snowy walks or helping snowboarders reach new heights.

How Do They Work?

Snowshoes work by spreading a person’s weight over a larger surface. Think of a snowshoe hare whose big feet allow it to move easily over snow. Snowshoes work in the same way. They allow us to float on top of the snow instead of sinking to the bottom. That said, my first time snowshoeing, I was shocked at how far you actually sink into the snow. It’s only when you compare walking in deep snow with and without snowshoes that you come to appreciate how much work they are doing.

Renting and Snowshoe Classes

If this is your first time snowshoeing, I recommend looking for a place to rent snowshoes near you. That way, you can give them a go before deciding whether to invest in them or not. You might even get the opportunity to try out different styles. In my area, the local library lends out snowshoes for free.

In addition to renting, many local outfitters and outdoor groups have introductory snowshoe classes. These courses will teach you all the basics and you’ll get to meet some cool people in the process.

If these things aren’t available in your area, don’t fret! Snowshoeing is simple enough to begin on your own.

Getting Started

Most modern snowshoes strap easily onto hiking boots. You can pick up a pair of snowshoes for around $60-80 at many sports and outdoor stores. More expensive snowshoes are usually more durable, weigh less, have better comfort, and more features.2 But, a cheap pair will do just fine.

The most important thing is to choose snowshoes that fit and can support your weight. You’ll find weight recommendations printed on product tags and store associates can also help you find snowshoes that fit.

Some snowshoers like to use poles to help with balance and slopes. Snowshoe poles are like hiking poles, but with “snow baskets” that prevent them from sinking too far into the ground.

Types of Snowshoes

Snowshoes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In his podcast Canadian Bushcraft, Caleb Musgrave explains how First Nations adapt their snowshoes to local terrain.3 In the Great Lakes region, plains, and prairies, long and narrow snowshoes help distribute weight to maximize flotation. In the Boreal forest, Ontario, and Quebec, shorter and rounder snowshoes compromise flotation, but favour manoeuvrability to deal with thick brush, young understory, and sloping valleys.

Understanding how snowshoe shape and style affect walking in the snow will help you pick out the best snowshoes for your area and activity. Today, the most common snowshoe shape is the beaver tail. It’s an all-purpose shape that allows for good manoeuvrability and has average flotation. But, you can still find all types of snowshoes including more traditional styles.

Traditional vs Modern Snowshoes

Traditional snowshoes are handcrafted from wood and hide. They are beautiful and work great, but are harder to find than modern styles. Traditional snowshoes need regular care and maintenance to keep them waterproof, but they are much easier to repair than modern snowshoes – especially out in the field. They also come in more varied shapes and styles so you can decide whether to prioritize flotation or manoeuvrability.

Modern snowshoes are made from aluminum, steel, plastic, and other synthetic materials. They don’t need much maintenance, but are very difficult to repair if they break. Many modern snowshoes have built in steel crampons and traction bars that help prevent slippage. Some also have heel lifts to make walking uphill more comfortable.

SNOWSHOEING WITH YOUR DOG

Is My Dog Okay to Snowshoe?

Let’s jump into snowshoeing with dogs! The first step is accessing whether your dog is a good fit for snowshoeing. In general, medium and large breed dogs that can handle the cold, do best as snowshoe companions. That said, you can buy winter dog coats and boots that will help insulate your pet and extend the time they can be outside comfortably.

If your dog does well in cold weather, enjoys the snow, is physically fit, and has no preexisting injuries or medical problems, then they will probably love snowshoeing! When in doubt, consult your veterinarian.

Introducing Your Dog to Snowshoeing

My dog was still a puppy when I introduced him to snowshoeing. He was very curious and excited about my snowshoes and I had to discourage him from nipping at them. With time and patience he grew accustomed to them. Try not to get frustrated with your dog if they are being overly exuberant about this new activity – they are just excited to be doing something new with you!

Start with a Short Distance

Walking in deep snow will be harder for your dog than for you. Your dog won’t have the advantage of snowshoes. Begin with short snowshoe trips and increase distance over time. This allows you to gauge your dog’s stamina and ability to trek through the deep snow. It will also build up their strength and confidence.

You Might Face Plant

My dog occasionally steps on my snowshoes and causes me to lose my balance. Once or twice this has led to me face planting in the snow. For this reason, when we snowshoe, I prefer that my dog walks ahead of me rather than behind or to my side. Try out different walking positions to see what works best for you.

Hopefully you never face plant. But, if it does happen, you’ll have a soft snowy landing. Try to laugh it off. It might take your dog some time to navigate around and avoid your snowshoes.

On Leash or Off?

It goes without saying, that you should obey local trail regulations when it comes to deciding whether to walk your dog on or off leash.

Almost all of my snowshoeing is done with my dog off-leash. It’s uncomplicated for both of us and makes it easier for my dog to navigate through the snow. Even where off-leash dog walking is permitted, I bring a leash in case we run into other people, dogs, or wildlife. A good recall helps tremendously with off-leash walking.

Try a Hands-Free Leash

For those of you who are going to be snowshoeing with your dogs on leash, I recommend a hands-free leash. These leashes clip to a waist belt and free up your hands. Going hands-free is especially useful if you will be using snowshoe poles. If your dog tends to pull on a leash, a gentle leader (head halter) will help tremendously.

Preventing and Healing Sore Paws

If you notice your dog lifting his paws uncomfortably, this could be due to snow buildup between paw pads. Removing any built up snow may resolve the problem. It might also be that the ground is too cold or your dog has developed cracks and cuts from the snow and ice. This can cause pain and bleeding and the best remedy is to get your dog some rest.

Dog shoes can help prevent cuts and scratches and protect your dog from cold feet. If your dogs paws are already looking rough, apply some protective wax. My favourite paw wax is Dr. Maggie Paw Protector, it makes my dog’s paws buttery soft and doesn’t bother his stomach when he licks his feet. The Ontario SPCA and Humane Society also has a DIY balm that can help.

Watch for Signs of Hypothermia

Just like humans, dogs are susceptible to hypothermia. It’s something to be aware of and watch for. Signs of hypothermia in dogs include shivering, sluggishness, dilated pupils, depression, rapid breathing followed by progressively slower and shallower breath, and loss of consciousness.4 If your dog exhibits these signs, get them inside as soon as possible.

According to the American Kennel Club, “small dogs, senior dogs, puppies, and short-coated dogs are at a higher risk of rapid loss of body heat.” Check out the AKC’s website, link below, for more information about preventing and treating hypothermia in dogs.

A top down photo of snowshoes on a woman's feet.

Keep Your Dog Hydrated

If you see your dog eating snow, they are likely trying to hydrate. Remember, snow doesn’t hydrate unless it is melted. Bring a collapsible dog dish and some extra water for your snowshoe companion.

What to Bring

For longer hikes, I recommend carrying the ten essentials and some extra water and food for your dog. I also like to carry an insulated mat that my dog and I can use to sit on. This protects us both from losing too much heat through conduction when we stop to rest.

Have Patience and Lots of Treats

Though I touched on this in other tips, it’s worth repeating. As with any new activity, it helps to have patience. Bring some tasty dog treats to help your dog understand what you expect from them. With time and practice, your dog will be the perfect snowshoe companion.

Happy Snowshoeing!

I hope this article helps you get out on a winter adventure with your dog! I’d love to hear about your snowshoeing experiences in the comments below.

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Resources

1 Caleb Musgrave. 2022. “The Way of the Snowshoe“. The Canadian Bushcraft Podcast. (Snowshoe talk begins at 36:00)

2 DIRO Outdoors. 2017. “How to Buy Snowshoes.”

3 Caleb Musgrave. 2022.

4 American Kennel Club. “Signs of Hypothermia in Dogs.”

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