Are sled dogs a help or hindrance in the Alaskan wilderness?

Sled Dogs: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Managing a pack of sled dogs can be harder than it looks. 
Managing a pack of sled dogs can be harder than it looks. 
Steve Casmiro/Getty Images

Sled dogs have a host of special abilities that could potentially help you in the snowy Alaskan wilderness. But the task of overseeing a dozen or so pups can be an avalanche of responsibility.

First, if a sled dog becomes injured, won't that hold you back? Sled dogs' endurance often allows them to press on in spite of minor injuries. However, if a dog cannot keep up with the pack, you may have to put it on the sled with you. That will add around 40 pounds (18 kilograms) or so and slow your trip, depending on the strength and number of the rest of the pack. Individual dogs may also start fights that you must spend precious energy breaking up.

Overexertion in the cold can make you vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. When you break up a dog fight or stomp out a path for them to run on with your snowshoes, you may sweat, lowering your internal temperature. That increases your risk of illness or death when the temperature outside already chills you to the bone.

On the other hand, sled dogs pulling you can save much of the heat you would lose walking or running on foot. Running is a natural instinct for sled dog breeds. The dogs enjoy it and will run for miles on their own. But because of this free-spirited nature, you must know how to manage the pack. Driving a sled isn't like driving a car -- you can't just press on the gas and go. Sled dogs are prone to stubbornness, and if they don't want to move, they won't.

Without control, you could end up in dangerous situations, such as being dragged behind the sled, led through brush or even thrown off. When attached to the sled, the dogs should not run off, and if you're thrown off, they'll likely return. But, for instance, if a storm whips up and your dogs become unharnessed from the sled, there's a chance they'll bolt. In that case, their natural urge to run may send them miles away.

Snowmobiles have largely replaced sled dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. Snowmobiles have largely replaced sled dogs in the Alaskan wilderness.
Snowmobiles have largely replaced sled dogs in the Alaskan wilderness.
Cameron Lawson/Getty Images

Sled dogs can travel up to around 100 miles (160 kilometers) per day, but they aren't particularly fast. While the dogs will carry you around 5 to 12 miles per hour (8 to 16 kilometers per hour), you can zip along on a snowmobile at speeds comparable to cars. Although some areas require you to go slower on snowmobiles, many models can exceed speeds of 90 miles per hour (144 kilometers per hour). Nevertheless, centuries of sled dog use in the Alaskan wilderness has proven that with the proper control, slow and steady can win the race.

For more detailed information about sled dogs and wilderness survival, peruse the links below.

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More Great Links


  • Allan, Benedict. "An Iceman's Best Friend." Dec. 2006. Geographical Magazine.
  • Case, Linda P. "The Dog: Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health." 2005. Blackwell Publishing. (April 4, 2008)
  • Coppinger, Raymond and Coppinger, Lorna. "Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Environment." 2002. University of Chicago Press. (April 2, 2008),M1
  • Horan, Stephanie. "The Alaskan Malamute." Jan. 2005. Dog World.
  • Kirk, Ruth. "Snow." 1998. University of Washington Press. (April 2, 2008)
  • Paulsen, Gary. "Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod." 1994. Harcourt Brace & Company.
  • Schultz, Jeff. "Dogs of the Iditarod." Sasquatch Books. 2003. (April 2, 2008)
  • Scott, Alastair. "Tracks Across Alaska: A Dog Sled Journey." Atlantic Monthly Press. 1994. (April 2, 2008),M1