Winter is here and more and more countries are covered by snow. Earlier I would just go with the sled with my 2-3 dogs, but since I moved to Norway I got familiar with another fun winter activity: skijöring with dogs!
Many people have seen it before, either at championships or on video, but not many know how to begin with it. Neither did I, as a person, who did not know anything about crosscountry skiing either. Even the very basics were brand new knowledge, so I thought I would gather the information I have learnt in my first year as a “skijörer” and also ask some internationally successful, experienced athletes to share their top tips for beginners.
But let’s start with the very basics, the equipment. Since it’s also a sleddog sport, where the dogs pull, they will need a proper harness (here you can read my post about finding the right one), attached to a bungee leash, which should be a longer one. Usually brands offer two lengths, one for canicross and one for scooter/bike, and when it comes to skijöring you should use the one that is made for wheels. I use Non-stop Dogwear’s 2.8m Bungee leash, and even add an additional Y-leash extension when I am using two dogs (or simply use two separete lines).
The skier will need a belt, I use the Løype belt from Non-stop Dogwear, because I felt that with the belt I am using for canicross I am not so stable. On this belt the carabiner the bungee is attached to is fixed and close to my body.
Of course skis, poles and boots will also be needed, but not necessarily the one you would think.
In crosscountry skiing there are two different techniques: classic and skating, and apparently the also require different equipment. For skijöring skating (or freestyle) skis and boots are being used. The skis are slightly shorter and have a less pointy top compared to the classical ones, while the boots give more support for the ankles. The poles are on the other hand a bit longer than the ones being used for classic, it should be ca. 20 cm shorter than the skiers body height.
Once we have the right equipment, we can start skiing. I did loads of alpine skiing when I was a child, but cross-country skiing is something completely new to me, so I decided to ask some people who are more experienced, and whose advices I trust a lot. Mikal Lillestu, multiple World Championship medalist says that first one should start by skiing by him or herself. In the beginning it might be hard to find the balance, but once one is a bit more stable on the skis it is easier to attach the dog.
Another important piece of advice of Mikal is that one should choose situations he or she and the dog can succeed in. Choosing easier tracks, not going in the busiest times of the day can all help us feel more confident and better about our skiing adventure.
Viktor Sinding-Larsen, World Champion skijörer (amongst other disciplines) advices to rather do many shorter sessions, than one long one. His best tip on skiing technique is to always have the ski (the one you’re standing on) straight, at least if you want to be fast 😉 This way even if you are not the best skiers you can get the most out of the dogs help.
When it comes to dogs he says the most important is to always stay behind the dog, make sure you don’t scare them and don’t break their trust.
Mathilde Lutnæs, European bronze medalist in combined (pulka and skijöring) also emphasized to find a trail you feel comfortable on and to practice without a dog. If there is a possibility (loose dogs are allowed), you can just let your four-legged partner free at times and go a bit on the skis by yourself. She also thinks it’s a nice idea to go with someone experienced if you have the possibility, who can help out at the start and help you up if you fall.
Talking about an experienced partner… It can also be a good idea to start out with a more experienced dog. It doesn’t have to be a skijorer expert, but being confident in commands and being able to stop if you fall or come back in case you let it loose is definitely a huge help in the beginning!
In general, in skijöring the attachment point on the belt is fixed and is close to the body, which help with keeping the balance, especially in the turns. Mathilde in addition advices to use an open hook (finnish hook for example) or a panic carabiner, so in case you get scared on a downhill for example you can easily let go of the dog.
Although I might be a beginner, I also have some tips I would like to share with you.
Firstly, don’t be afraid to try it. Falling on snow is not the worst thing, and trust me, you will learn in no time how to stand up (been there, done that).
Also, learn how to dress properly. I used to overdress in the beginning, since skiing was usually requiring loads of clothes, but cross-country is more active, so I would recommend to dress similar as you would do for running, maybe just a very little bit warmer.
Making videos can help a lot too. I was feeling quite confident on skis, but once I saw myself from the outside I saw sooo many mistakes. It can be useful to compare the videos to professionals in order to perfect your technique.
Lastly, get informed about the tracks you are planning to visit. I learnt in Norway, that locals are very picky about their skitracks, you’re not welcome on many of them with dogs unless it’s been groomed several times and is hard enough, but at some places four-legged partners are not allowed at all. Also, pay attention that your dog is not running in the classic tracks, because as I learnt it’s also a terrible thing to do.
I might make a video with Mikal later on, to show the three skating techniques he is trying to teach me, but for now, I think this will be enough to start you skijöring adventures with. Once you get the hang of it I am sure you will love this winter sport with your dog! Good luck!