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

By: Cristen Conger
pack of sled dogs
Par Domeij/Getty Images

Sled dogs would offer a number of advantages if you're lost in the snowy Alaskan wilderness. See more pictures of dogs.

The survival of the early indigenous groups of Alaska and Siberian Russia depended on sled dogs for help with hauling, hunting and herding. Even today, teams of sled dogs and drivers race across the barren upper reaches of the Alaskan geography every year during the famous 1,000-mile-plus (1,609 kilometers) Iditarod Race.


Snowmobiles offer faster, more convenient transportation across the snowy expanses of wintry Alaska. They don't require the time and effort of raising, training and hitching a team of Alaskan huskies or other such sled dog breeds. But if you had your choice between a snowmobile and a sled dog team for a trek across the Alaskan wilderness, could sled dogs make the cut? Would they be a blessing or burden?

The lowered use of sled dogs certainly has not rendered them useless. In fact, sled dogs reign supreme over snowmobiles in some situations because the dogs may prove hardier in tougher conditions. They can see farther than humans can, potentially preventing sleds from diving over drop-offs or submerging in icy water. Sled dogs' reliability can also outmatch snowmobiles, which can break down and leave you stranded on foot.

If you've been thrown off course, sleds dogs' innate sense of direction can serve as a virtual GPS system. Although strange scents may cause them to stray a little, sled dogs have a general knack for finding their way back to where they came from. For instance, people who drive packs routinely on the same paths don't have to direct their course because the dogs instinctively know where to go.

Sled dogs can also offer warmth and protection during the night by scaring away predators. During the day, they can sense open water or weak ice. Toss in their ability to forecast bad weather, spot dangerous animals and run for long distances without much food, and you can see why these dogs helped the Eskimos and others survive for so long.

But despite these canine superpowers, sled dogs have their weaknesses. Read on to find out how sled dogs could hold you back and put you in life-threatening situations.


Sled Dogs: Weighing the Pros and Cons

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.
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.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

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