Now that the winter season has arrived, it’s time to start taking special consideration for the cold. Similar to how you might change your camping habits in the winter, it’s important to remember to change those habits for your dog too. While they have their own natural ways of keeping warm, they feel those biting temperatures the same way we do. It took me a while to figure out why my border collie, Abby, was so cold at night. Trip after trip I would wake up from her burying herself in, and sometimes under my sleeping bag in the middle of the night. At first I figured it was just cold and she wasn’t built for it, and then I remembered that I’m not built for it either. Then it occurred to me that I needed to take care of her the same way I take care of myself.
Increase the Diet
When it’s cold out, it’s particularly important to eat a high calorie diet to support the amount of calories homeostasis uses to keep the body temp warm. We eat extra butter, increase cheese, candy bars, etc to keep ourselves warm, but we don’t have access to those high calorie dog foods all the time. When I’m outside and the eating more calories, I make sure the pup is too. To do this, I increase her dog food amount, pushing 1½x the amount she usually eats. In the winter, with snow on the ground I’ll usually mix a spoonful of peanut butter into her dinner as well. Peanut butter burns quickly in the body and makes for great warmth at night.
Extra Sleeping Gear
I also bring a small closed cell foam pad for her to sleep on. This is nothing fancy; in fact, it’s one half of an old Thermarest pad I had laying around the basement. Closed cell foam is warmer than it is comfortable, and works well to create a barrier between your pup and the ground. When I’m winter camping I carry one for myself, and one for the pup and use them everywhere. During the day I carry and stand on the pad to keep my feet warm and insulated from the ground around a campfire or cooking table. At night, I put it under my self-inflating pad for extra comfort and warmth. I do the same thing with the pup. If she’s cold and shaking, ill have her get up and sit on the pad for a little extra warmth. I also carry a small down quilt for her at night. She figures out the best way to use it on her own, but I make sure it’s out and available for her to either sit on or nuzzle under.
If you had asked me about this 10 years ago I would have called you silly, but the added benefit of some insulated dog gear can really increase your dog’s trip. This becomes particularly important for older dogs, smaller dogs, or dogs with more wire-y fur. Some dogs are fortunate enough to have tons of furry, fluffy fur to keep them warm in the winter, others are not. Ruffwear is my personal brand of choice. They make a number of items to keep dogs warm through the winter. Abby wears the Polar Trex booties in the winter. They help to keep the snow from clumping in her pads and are tall enough on her legs to help minimize build up on her legs as well. Note: It took some time for her to get comfortable with the idea of wearing booties. I’d suggest teaching her to walk in them at home before taking them on the trail. She also wears the Palisade Dog Pack. I prefer this pack because the pouches detach and she’s left with a half-harness that adds a little warmth.
One of the greatest tips I’ve ever gotten for my dog is bringing a brush. I don’t carry the standard dog brush, but rather a small, lightweight human brush with quill-like bristles. These are great to help break up snow-buildup in her fur. I’ve found that the typical dog brush just gets stuck in snow buildup; however, brushes with quill-like bristles can be used to break and remove the buildup.
Similar to humans, dogs require lots of exercise to get their metabolism going. Take some time to play with your dog in the snow early in the mornings and just before bed.
It’s a double bonus, the play time will warm both you and your pup. Warming walks at night help move warm blood at night before bed, and playing a couple quick rounds of fetch in the mornings will help their system wake up in the morning. If you see your dog shivering during the day, take a quick break and play tug of war or fetch to help them produce the heat that they need.
As a special note: Dogs are lucky in that their animalistic survival set allows them to know how to stay warm. If you see your dog digging a bed or expressing high activity they are most likely working on their own to heat themselves up. Try not to limit your dogs activity when outside in the snow. They’re probably trying to keep warm the same way you are!
Happy Trails everyone!