The Joys of Skijoring!
If you are looking for some great winter cross-training for cycling and you have a dog or two, I encourage you to try skijoring. I read that skijoring, which is Norwegian for “ski driving,” is the fastest growing dog sport in the United States. People realize that it is something they can do with their companion dogs in the winter so both dogs and humans can get exercise. I picked up skijoring last winter and I’m hooked. It’s a fun way to get exercise and as someone told me, “They do the work and I get the exercise.” It’s so true. Dogs have a desire to pull and love to have a job and I get to ski faster and further than I would under my own steam. Let me share some details of the sport so you and your 4 legged friends can run/ski as a team.
Dogs are beautiful, fast runners and they love to run. I have always wished I could run as fast and as effortlessly over the terrain as they do. Maybe that’s why I like riding a mountain bike on trails so much. Skijoring gets me as close as I ever could be to the beauty of a running dog. You ski behind one or two dogs while connected to them via a harness and tether. They’re running fast and graceful like dogs run and you’re skiing faster than you ever would on your own. It’s kind of like a person flying in an ultra-light plane next to a flock of geese flying in formation. That is the closest we can get to experiencing bird’s gift of flight. Well, skijoring is the closest we can get to truly “running” in a partnership with dogs.
Dogs on the Run
I will first explain what it is like to ski while connected to dogs. On the flat terrain and hills, I use the poles and my ski kicking motion to assist the dogs, all the while feeling a constant tug on my hips to propel me forward. On the downhills, I must admit, I just glide along and recover since they run faster than I can ski. My goal is to keep them at a gallop or full run and expend whatever effort it takes to not slow them down. Fast dogs can run 15 to 20 mph with a skier for 4 to 6 miles, but most will run 8 to 15 mph. That’s movin’! It’s a very cool athletic relationship with an animal. They are my teammates and they enthusiastically respond to my effort and directions.
If you have cross country ski equipment and energetic dogs, you can skijor. Skate skis work the best, but you can do it with traditional XC skis, too. Don’t use skis with metal edges, as you could hurt the dogs if your skis run into them. Poles are essential to help provide thrust and balance. The only additional things you need are about $100 in equipment, including harnesses for you and the dog(s), a nylon rope line, and some connecting hardware. I included a photo with typical gear used to safely connect you to the dog(s). You can buy a skijor belt or harness with waist and leg straps. I use a rock climbing harness, instead, and it works great. The human harness connects to the rope line via a quick release buckle called a snap shackle. This “panic release” allows the skier to disconnect quickly from the dogs in an emergency.
The rope line, which is usually 6 to 8 feet long, has a bungee section that soaks up the shock if the dogs or you start or stop quickly. At the end of the rope line is a tug line (3 to 4 feet long) for each dog. This tug line has hardware that clips onto the tail end of the dog’s harness. The classic X-back dog sledding harness works well for skijoring, too. It has a padded shoulder area and an open grid of webbing that goes over the dog’s back so that the dog is pulling with its entire torso and shoulders, not its neck. The dog should wear a collar with a large metal ring so that if two dogs are running side-by-side, their collars can be connected via a short neck line. When all hooked up, the skier and dogs are about 9 to 12 feet apart.
Getting the Hang of it
Then you can go out to a packed snow surface, hook up to your dog(s), and give it a try. Any breed of dog will do, but they should be big enough (at least 40 pounds) to get through snow and be able to offer you some horsepower. Most of the dogs used in competitive skijoring are mixed breeds, with some combination of hound, pointer and Alaskan husky. However, any dog that is athletic like a herding, hunting or pulling dog, usually works well. The dogs will learn by repetitive sessions and by watching other dogs doing it. Lots of encouragement and praise will help, as they love to please and are eager to run. Some dogs understand right away and others take more time. Skijoring with other skiers/dogs should help and having someone call the dog with you attached will get them used to your connection to them.
Common sled dog commands are “hike” or “on out” to get them going faster, “wait” or “hold” to get them to wait for you to be ready, “whoa” to slow down or stop, “on by” to pass other skiers and dogs, “gee” for turn right, and “haw” for left turn. Give them praise, but don’t make too much chatter, as they may tune you out when you really need to give commands.
Try not to take your dogs out on too long of a skijor session each time or they will just trot, trying to save energy for the long haul. Instead, find a route that is 4 to 6 miles long as an out and back or loop. In skijor racing, for example, a one dog event is 4 miles long and a 2 dog event is 6 miles. Be aware of when your dog slows down to poop or is distracted. Snowplow or step to the side to avoid running into the dog with your skis.
Dogs are motivated by their desire to run and to be with you. When you get up to speed, it is a rush to watch their graceful strides and to be moving along with them as a unit. It is peaceful, quiet, exhilarating and rewarding. Give it a try and enjoy the exercise and companionship with your dogs. And when the snow is gone, you can try bikejoring, but that’s another story.
The picture above shows Laurie skijoring with Daisy (white dog on left) and Finis (right). Another dog, Bridger, is running alongside Laurie enjoying the exercise, too. Notice the X-back harness on Daisy and how the tug line connects to the harness near the base of her tail. Also notice how the rope line connects low on the skier’s hips so that the skier’s upper body is not being pulled over.
Laurie Brandt is a former professional mountain bike racer, four-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race, two-time winner of the Leadville Silver Rush 50 mile race, and three-time Colorado State Mountain Bike Champion. She is now a professional geologist for Buckhorn Geotech, member of the COPMOBA Board, and mother of two young girls. At the Mount Massive Mush recently (March 3-4, 2012) in Leadville, Laurie won the 2 dog skijor race. A similar article appeared on the Outdoor page of the Montrose Daily Press on March 2nd, 2012, where she is a regular columnist.