Adventure 101: Dogsledding

Marco Polo observed early versions of dogsledding during his travels through Asia in the 13th century. Today, the activity endures as an ideal way to experience untouched winter landscapes.

“The dogs can go into areas machines can’t,” says National Geographic Young Explorer Sarah McNair-Landry, who grew up on Canada’s Baffin Island and made her first solo trip when she was eight years old. Here are her tips for getting started:

Getting Started

Ely, Minnesota, is perhaps ground zero for the activity. With more dogsledding tour operators than anywhere else in the country, there are trips for most ages and experience levels. And with 2,000 frozen lakes in winter within 50 miles of town, it’s a good training ground for beginners, who can choose simply to sit on the sled for an afternoon, or actually learn to drive the dogs on their own over several days.

“A pack of sociable Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes is not the easiest to control,” says McNair-Landry. “Mushers will demonstrate how to steer the dogs by barking out commands such as ‘gee’ (turn right), ‘haw’ (turn left), and ‘whoa’ (stop).”

How Long?

Families with young kids should opt for a trip of just a few hours. Adults and families with older children can book longer lodge- or camping-based trips.

The 34-year veterans at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely offer guided day-trips and overnight expeditions based at their lakeshore lodge with feather-bed comforters and fine cuisine.

Weather and Gear

Unlike skiing, dogsledding doesn’t require deep or even recent snow. In fact, the runs are faster and easier when the snow is compacted. Extreme winter weather may actually cause trips to be delayed.

Even in milder weather, however, dress warmly to ensure blood flows to your fingers and toes. In addition to a base layer, a fleece layer, and a wind layer, McNair-Landry says “mitts, boots, goggles, and a neck warmer are essential.”

The Next Level

Ready for something a little different? Try running (or perhaps cross-country skiing or snowshoeing) alongside the sled. Experienced skiers can attempt skijoring, or dog-propelled skiing.

“Start with one dog tethered to you, and hold on tight,” McNair-Landry says.

Other Places to Find Your Dogsledding Legs:

1) Baffin Island, Canada. Outfitter pick: NorthWinds leads multiday trips

2) Fairbanks, Alaska. Outfitter pick: Paws for Adventure guides one-hour tours and overnight trips

3) Lapland, Sweden. Outfitter pick: National Geographic Adventures offers nine-day trips with an overnight in the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi 

Mary Anne Potts is the editor of National Geographic Adventure, including the Beyond the Edge blog. Join our adventure community on Twitter @NGAdventure.

[This piece appeared in the November 2013 issue of Traveler magazine.]