Dog sledding is a lesser-known sport to some, but a common tourist activity for others. Some people travel the world in search of the best dog sledding destinations to spend their winter holidays.
What about this sport makes it so appealing?
From the history of the sport to the types of dogs and equipment used, we’ll dig into the exciting world of mushing and find out what makes this sport so popular.
The Origin of Dog Sledding
Dog sledding originated over 4,000 years ago. It is one of the oldest forms of transportation and can be traced back to ancient culture in the Arctic regions.
Even today, it is commonly used by indigenous communities for hunting, transportation, and communication.Library of Congress, Picryl
Dog Sledding as a Sport
Dog sledding is not only used as practical transportation, but it has also become a thrilling adventure. Countries such as Canada, Alaska, Norway and Greenland are known for their dog sledding traditions.
Dog sledding races include the Yukon Quest, Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, and La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc, among others.Bureau of Land Management Alaska, Flickr
As you may already know, dog sledding includes a sled pulled by a team of dogs. A team usually consists of 8 to 14 dogs.
The lead dog sets the pace, followed by the swing dogs, who help steer the sled, and the wheel dogs who provide the power to pull the load.James Padolsey, CC0, Wikimedia Commons
The most common breed used for dog sledding are Huskies. They are known for their endurance and strength.
They also have a thick coat, strong muscles, and the ability to withstand low temperatures.violetta, Pixabay
Seasonal Dog Sledding
Contrast to popular belief, dog sledding is not just a winter activity. In places with colder climates, dog-sledding can take place all year round.
Some places have specially designed sleds for changing terrain in dryer seasons.badamczak80, Pixabay
Training & Care
Dog sledding requires proper training and care for the dogs. Dog sledders, often called mushers, spend a lot of time teaching commands and ensuring the health and well-being of the dogs.
Building a Bond
It is essential for mushers to bond with their dogs, building a trust and connection. Trainers spend countless hours building a special bond with their dogs in order to understand body language and predict behaviors.
Sled dogs are strong, but they are extremely powerful as a team. They can pull loads that are many times their own body weight, sometimes as much as 10-20 times their weight.
For example, a single pair of sled dogs could haul upwards of 1,000 pounds over a short distance. Dog teams used specifically for hauling often manage loads of 300 pounds or more on a regular basis.
Sled dogs can run at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour over shorter distances, and 10-14 miles per hour at longer distances.
In poor trail conditions, sled dogs can still manage about 6-7 miles per hour.strangebiology, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
The “drivers” of the sled are often referred to as “Mushers”. This is because the term “mush” is used to command the dogs to start running.
Some believe the term mushing comes from the French word “marcher”, which means to walk. It is believed that French voyageurs in the late 1800s introduced the term.
Others believe the Norwegian word "mushu" to be the origin of the English command "mush."Tambako The Jaguar, Flickr
The lead dog in a dog sled team is crucial, as it is responsible for following the musher's commands and navigating the route.
A lead dog is chosen based on its intelligence, initiative, common sense, and the ability to locate trails.werdepate, Pixabay
Famous Dog Sledding Event
The Serum Run to Nome in 1925 is one of the most famous dog sledding events. Teams of sled dogs and mushers delivered diphtheria antitoxin to the remote town of Nome, Alaska, during a diphtheria outbreak.
It is also known as “The Great Race of Mercy”. It included about 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs. They traveled close to 700 miles in 5 and a half days.Carrie McLain Museum / AlaskaStock
Dog Sledding Heroes
All of the mushers and sled dogs in The Serum Run in 1925 were considered heroes.
Balto, one of the lead dogs on the serum run, became a famous hero, and his statue stands in New York City's Central Park.Brown Brothers, Wikimedia Commons
Modern sleds are typically made of lightweight materials like aluminum or carbon fiber, making them easier to handle and faster.
Early, traditional dog sleds were made of strips of wood lashed together.Wolfgang Hägele, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
Sled dogs wear specially designed harnesses that distribute the weight evenly across their bodies to prevent injury.
Having a proper fitting harness will reduce tension on the neck when they pull, and allow for effective use of force while maintaining freedom of movement.EclecticBlogs, Martin Male, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons
Dog sledding has become a popular tourist activity in many cold regions, giving people the chance to experience the thrill of mushing.
Some tour companies will allow people to cuddle and bond with the dogs prior to the adventure. Most tours involve a small lesson in dog sledding before the journey.Bureau of Land Management Alaska, Flickr
Ethics & Environment
Dog sledding is an environmentally friendly mode of transportation, as it doesn't rely on fossil fuels. It is also considered ethical as sled dogs are treated extremely well.
They are often seen as athletes and are cared for as such.Tambako The Jaguar, Flickr
In 1932, dog sledding was included as an official sport in the Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid, New York. Five contestants from Canada and seven contestants from the United States competed.
The event, run under the rules of the New England Sled Dog Club, ran twice over a 25.1 mile (40.5 km) long course.The Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
The Biggest Dog Sledding Race
The Iditarod is the most prestigious sled dog race in the world. The event happens each year, and takes competitors about 10 days to travel two mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and the treacherous Bering Sea ice. The race ends in the old Gold Rush town of Nome.
The top 3 winners in 2023 received $40,000-$52,000 in prize money.Bureau of Land Management, Flickr
Dog Sledding Experiences
There are many opportunities around the world for dog sledding.
You can take courses/lessons, go on guided tours, and attend dog sledding events. If you happen to visit a colder climate destination you are likely to see dog sledding as active transportation. Most dog sledding tourist experiences will cost around $500+, but it is said to be an experience like no other.TriplexAdventures, Needpix
Dog sledding is currently both a thrilling winter sport, and a commonly used mode of transportation in climates and locations where roads are scarce.
Sled dogs are extremely powerful and are exceptionally well cared for, making the activity both environmentally friendly and ethical.
If dog sledding sounds intriguing to you, there are tons of opportunities around the globe for both spectating and participating.