Skijoring is the sport of being pulled on skis by a dog or dogs in harness. It’s the simplest, most intimate form of dog driving there is. Skijoring can be done by anyone with adequate skiing skills, and with virtually any breed of dog that weighs more than about 30 pounds–as long as the dog is willing!
Only a few items of equipment are necessary to start out in this sport. You’ll need skis, boots and poles, of course. Most skijorers use cross country touring skis or skating skis, though skating skis are best on wide, flat, well-groomed trails. The dog’s harness can be either an X-back or H-back racing harness, but NOT a weight-pulling harness. The skijorer wears a skijoring belt, at least 3 to 4 inches wide across the back, to which is attached a skijoring line that hooks into the back of the dog’s harness. There are refinements to each of these items, but the basic setup is very simple.
Though we don’t really know where it originated, skijoring with dogs probably dates back to the gold rush days, when the lure of yellow metal reached from North America across the ocean to the Scandinavian countries. When those early Scandinavian explorers and gold miners returned from the Arctic, they brought dog mushing back with them. There, where skiing originated, it was only natural for dog mushing and skiing to be combined. Skijoring behind dogs became immensely popular. But it was considered to be primarily just a training technique for the formalized sport of Nordic-style dog mushing, in which the dog pulls a small sled and the skier skis behind the sled.
In the United States, skijoring was more commonly done behind horses in the early 1900s. But as the automobile replaced the horse, skijoring gradually died out in mainstream America. In the Arctic, the native people often skijored with dogs, but it was a quiet activity done without any fanfare.
Today, the sport of skijoring is known and practiced worldwide, and it continues to grow in popularity as people discover how easy it is to hitch up their dog, throw on some skis, and hit the trails. Although skijoring is fairly easy to learn, it requires some basic skills and attitudes on the part of the skier. Teaching your dog to pull can be a rewarding endeavor as long as a few simple steps are taken to minimize the frustrations. Knowing the right harness-training techniques and feeling confident about your own ability to ski are essential to provide a good experience for both skier and dog.
One of the beauties of skijoring is how simple and inexpensive it is. Skis, boots and poles are usually the most costly components, and most people who learn to skijor already have these items. You’ll need to add a skijoring belt, a skijoring line and a harness for the dog, but these can often be purchased for under $60 total. Many mushing equipment suppliers carry skijoring equipment, and some offer skijoring packages (harness, line, and belt) at a slightly reduced cost.
Almost any kind of ski will do for skijoring, but some are better suited for certain types of terrain or specific activities. If you skijor in the back country or on ungroomed trails, the best ski for you may be a wider touring or telemark ski. Because of the danger of injuring your dog, metal-edged skis are not recommended unless you are an accomplished skier and are completely confident you can avoid striking your dog with your skis. Adjustable bindings that allow you to lock down the boot heel may be desirable for steep downhill work or for skijoring with three dogs. (Skijoring with more than three dogs is not recommended. The increase in power is usually more than offset by the increase in potential tangles and loss of control, no matter what skis you wear!) If you usually skijor on wide, well-groomed trails, or if you compete, skating skis may be your best choice. Skating skis are fast and give a great deal of control on corners. But they require good trails to be effective. If you ski on a mix of wide and narrow or groomed and ungroomed trails, you may be better served by a pair of classical cross country skis. If you aren’t sure which ski is best for you, talk to other skiers and skijorers, as well as ski shop personnel.
The two most critical factors in choosing a ski boot are (1) purchasing the correct boot for the type of ski, binding and technique, and (2) finding a boot that fits well and is comfortable. Warmth is yet another important factor. If you plan to skijor in all types of weather, get the warmest boot you can, or add a pair of ski boot coveralls. Remember that adding dog power may generate extra wind chill, and that you may not move your feet as much as you do when skiing by yourself.
Ski poles should fit the type of skiing and skijoring you plan to do–longer poles for racing on skating skis and for powerful double-poling, shorter poles for touring. Skijoring can be hard on poles, so you may want to emphasize strength and durability rather than light weight.
This is a specialty item you won’t likely find in ski shops, but many sled dog suppliers offer skijoring belts. These are usually wide, padded belts that include an attachment system at the front for hooking to a skijoring line. Some belts come with leg straps, a nice enhancement that prevents the belt from sliding up your back. Some people use a climbing harness for skijoring. When you shop for a skijoring belt, look for a wide belt to protect your spine (at least 3 to 4 inches wide across the back, although the belt can be narrower in the front) and an attachment system that is durable and reliable. Plastic components can become brittle in extreme cold, and some of the more lightweight plastic connecting pieces have been known to break under stress. Your belt or skijoring line should have a quick point of release within arm’s length; many skijoring race rules require this, and it is an important safety issue. Whether you use a quick-release or some other method, whatever you use should be easy to release when you have gloves or mittens on. Why use a quick-release or other detachable system? There may be times you do not want to be permanently attached to your dog, whether or your safety or for the dog’s. Some potential scenarios include falling through ice, encountering a moose, losing control or falling when going downhill, becoming involved in a dog fight, or becoming seriously tangled with another team. When going down steep hills, some skijorers take the line off their belt and simply hold it in their hands in case they need to release their dog in a hurry. Obviously, you want to keep your dog attached to you except in extreme cases, but it’s safer to at least have the option of letting go when necessary. If you use a quick-release snap, be sure it is of high quality; lower-quality quick-releases have been known to fail.
Skijoring lines are usually 8 to 15 feet long. They incorporate a shock-cord (also known as bungee) section in the portion of the line closest to the skier; this shock-cord section can be from 1 to 3 feet in length. The shock cord absorbs the stress of starting or stopping, helping to take the strain off both your own back and your dog’s. Shock cords are also helpful when double-poling. Some skijoring lines are all one piece, but the most flexible setup is to have a line that ends in a loop to which you can attach a one-dog, two-dog, or three-dog (fan-style) tugline.
Harness for the dog:
The typical skijoring harness is simply a dog-mushing harness (also called a racing harness). It usually has an X-style or H-style back and is well padded across the shoulders and chest. Do not use a weight-pulling harness for skijoring; the weight-pulling harness is specifically designed for pulling extremely heavy loads over a very short distance, and it is not suitable for skijoring or dog mushing. Walking harnesses also are not suitable for skijoring. Unless you are lucky enough to live in an area where feed stores carry mushing supplies, your best source for a harness is probably a sled dog supplier. Be sure to purchase a harness that fits properly. An ill-fitting harness may chafe the dog or cause muscle strains, and if it causes discomfort, it may also dampen the dog’s desire to pull. If you’re not sure how to fit a harness, talk to a dog musher or contact a supplier. Most suppliers can explain how to measure a dog for fit or how to check the fit on a harness already purchased, and some suppliers will make custom harnesses to your dog’s exact measurements.