Dog Mushers’ Tricks for Staying Warm

When mushers line up with their dogs in Anchorage this weekend for the 975-mile Iditarod, they probably won’t be worrying about the temperature. Months of preparation and years of experience have readied them for everything from last year’s mild climes to temperatures down to 60-below and gale-force winds.

With much of the rest of the nation engulfed in Alaska-like weather, we asked two competitors for their tips on staying warm.

“I’ve raced in 60-below,” said second-time Iditarod racer Travis Beals. “It’s different. It’s surprising how warm you stay with all your gear on. What’s scary about it is when you take a breath it almost feels like there’s not enough air, that you just can’t get enough, especially when the wind is blowing.”

Survival Basics for Extreme Cold

Layer: Layering is especially crucial for athletes who are sometimes running and sometimes standing still. For Beals, 22, that means long underwear, fleece pants, fleece top, snow bibs, a jacket that reflects body heat, a down parka — and a big white outer shell on top of that.

Use Tech: DeeDee Jonrowe, competing in her 32nd Iditarod, uses a battery-operated heated vest during training. For races in which batteries won’t stay charged, she uses chemical warmers for hands, feet and back. To keep his feet warm, Beals adds foam-based snowboarding-style liners and waterproof neoprene covers to his boots.

Go Native: “I’ve developed most of my clothing from the Native cultures,” Jonrowe said. “They’ve been here thousands of years. I’ve tried a lot of different insulations, and when it’s really storming, I had to go back old-style.”

One key piece, she said, is a good fur ruff to protect the face. The beaver fur trim fits close to the face, and you breathe through long wolverine hairs. Combined with goggles and a heavy emollient Jonrowe helped develop, Ididacreme, her face stays protected from frostbite.

Be Innovative: Beals made dozens of fleece neck warmers that he leaves at various checkpoints. The moisture from breath freezes the fleece, so Beals replaces them as often as possible.

Snowmobile racers sometimes put duct tape on their faces to prevent frostbite.

Fuel Your Inside: “No insulation takes the place of fuel,” DeeDee Jonrowe said. “That’s warmth from the inside.” That doesn’t mean you have to eat bowls of Eskimo ice cream (Crisco laced with berries) like Jonrowe does near the end of races, but a water bottle filled with warm water or tea can warm up an afternoon of cross-country skiing.

Keep Moving: “Honestly, you can have the best gear in the world, but if you want to stay warm you’ve got to run and work and help the dogs out,” Beals said. “When it 50 or 60 below, you’ve got to get off the sled and run. And you can’t run with all that stuff on, because if you get soaking wet you’re really in trouble.”

Polar Vortex Behind U.S. Cold Blast

As for the dogs, “they make us humans look pretty wimpy,” Beals said.

Other than booties to protect their feet, their natural protection is enough. Although when it’s below zero, they may use leggings to keep snow from gathering on their legs — and the males may sport foxtails “to help protect their boys,” Beals said. The foxtails are attached on each end to the harness and strung across the dogs’ undersides– covering their members.

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