Ready for some winter fun with dogs? Try your hand at something new: dog sledding! Here’s what to expect when you book a dog sledding adventure.
Dog sledding has been on my bucket list since I first made a bucket list nearly a decade ago. But despite my travels, I’ve never had the chance to try it. That is until I visited Pagosa Springs, Colorado, this winter. On a snowy day, I finally stood on the back of a sled and called out, “Let’s go!”
Before Going Dog Sledding
Since I live in Phoenix, I don’t have much in the way of proper winter attire. So, after landing at Durango-La Plata County Airport, I drove into Durango to find boots and ski pants. The city has a Walmart and Big 5 Sporting Goods, but I had better luck at Durango Outdoor Exchange.
Whether you bring your own winter gear or purchase some when you get there, as I did, dress warmly. And make sure you dress in layers.
You can always take a scarf off or exchange a heavier jacket for a lighter one. Waterproof outwear is a must, too. If your boots or pants get wet, the wind from the sled’s momentum will chill you on the trail.
San Juan Sled Dogs, the provider I went with, also recommends bringing sunglasses, sunscreen, and a reusable water container. I suggest lip balm, too. On my trip, San Juan Sled Dogs provided snacks and hand warmers. If you’re unsure whether the outfit you work with will have these, you may want to bring your own.
Getting Ready for Sledding
It snowed hard the morning I went dog sledding, so I’m glad San Juan Dog Sleds offered transportation to and from the trail. As soon as I arrived, a chorus of excited barks greeted me, and several malamutes began jumping and pulling at their tie-outs. Owners Peter and Morgan Bartels explained that the dogs get excited every time a car pulls up because they know it’s time to sled.
For the next several minutes, the Bartels strategized how to organize the dogs for their second run of the day. Some dogs only go once, while others benefit from the extra exercise. To ensure all the dogs who needed to run got the chance, the two guests who went out earlier that morning were asked if they would go again.
I planned to bring my DSLR and reusable water bottle on the trail with me but, at the last minute, decided against taking either. It was the right call. Unless you are riding on the sled, there isn’t anywhere to set items. Other than my cell phone, which worked perfectly for the few photos I wanted, I left everything behind.
What to Expect While Dog Sledding
Peter called me over to the sled he would help me drive and instructed me to stand at the back on the runner. When the dogs started, he told me, I’d need to hold onto the handlebar firmly. But I shouldn’t yank on it. He told me he would stand on the runner in from of my handlebar and manage the team, but I had one important job.
“When we stop, I need you to step down on the brake until we go again,” he said. This keeps the dogs from running off, especially if he needed to get off the sled for some reason. I tested the bar at my feet and figured I could manage.
As the other sled set off in front of us, I braced myself for the ride. “Ready?” Peter asked after they disappeared.
I nodded, and he called to the dogs, “Let’s go!”
Dog Sledding in the San Juan Wilderness
I felt the sled yank forward, but it wasn’t as jarring as I expected. The trail took us down a hill to an open area. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see much other than snow: snow blanketing the ground, snow obscuring the pines ahead, and snow covering my jacket sleeves. We stopped to give the dogs a break.
A few dogs took mouthfuls of snow while others rolled in it. Peter explained that all of the dogs were rescues from another provider who stopped offering sled dog outings. Because Morgan had worked with the dogs there and grown attached, she wanted to give them a good home doing what they loved doing, pulling sleds. That led to the founding of San Juan Sled Dogs.
We started back up, stopping occasionally so the dogs could rest. Along the way, Peter pointed to each of the dogs, giving a little history on them. Most were Alaskan malamutes, not huskies, and built for pulling freight, he explained. As a result, dog sledding with a malamute team is slower than you might expect.
Heading Back to the Camp
Near the end of the ride, we slowed a bit to give the team ahead of us time to unhook and settle their dogs before we returned to the starting point. Finally feeling confident enough, I called out, “Let’s go!” one last time to the dogs, and we pulled in.
After unhooking the dogs, Peter introduced me to them one at a time. “Petting them is their reward,” he said. “We don’t give them treats, just pets.”
I could easily see why it was such a family-friendly activity. Most kids would love petting the dogs just as much as the dogs loved being petted. And since the sleds had several rows of seats in the front, an entire family could sit and enjoy the ride. After time with the dogs, kids could drink hot cocoa and make s’mores.
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A Final Word About Dog Sledding
I’ve done a lot of amazing things. I’ve “flown” a T-6 Texan WWII trainer, raced a Formula One car, and rode a camel across the Wadi Rum desert. While grateful for these experiences, I’m not sure I’d do any of them again. But I’d go dog-sledding in a heartbeat. It was a blast for the dogs and me.
I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to go dog sledding again, but you can be sure that if it’s an option, I’m going to take it. When looking to try something new or planning your next outdoor activity or a trip to Colorado, let Wander With Wonder be your guide.