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Po Box 831
Kotzebue, AK 99752

Dog Sled 101


Dog Sled 101

Katherine Keith

John Baker runs by his motto, you dream, you try, and you win. He has competed in the Iditarod 20 times. Our team is made up of John Baker and Katherine Keith,  who are the mushers, as well as a few handlers, who are determined and inspired to run in a very successful race this upcoming Iditarod.

There is lots of equipment that goes into making mushing possible and fun. We're going to start with the dogsled.



-Pieces of a dogsled-

  • Runners: Two long strips at the bottom of the sled that slide along the snow, ice, or dirt (yes, dirt!). The runners extend beyond the back of the sled for the musher to stand on. Runners are made of wood or metal and topped by strips of plastic to protect them and help them slide more easily over the snow. The strips of plastic can be removed and replaced when they become worn or damaged.

  • Top Rail: Curved pieces of wood along the top of the sled that hold the stanchions in place and form the top of the cargo basket.

  • Stanchions: Vertical pieces of wood between the runners and top rails, forming the framework upon which the rest of the sled is built.

  • Cargo Basket: As the name suggests, this is where a musher stores his or her supplies while on the trail. A heavy-duty nylon sled bag fits over the basket to protect supplies. The basket is large enough for a musher to sleep in, using the sled bag as a tent to protect from bad weather. Also, if a dog gets sick or injured on the trail, a musher can carry the dog in the basket to the next checkpoint. You’ll often hear the expression “dog in basket” or “dog in bag.”

  • Foot Boards: Strips of rubber or plastic that fit on the back of the runners for mushers to stand on. They give the musher traction so he or she won’t slip off.

  • Brush Bow: An arched piece of heavy plastic or wood at the front of the sled that acts as a bumper. In a collision with a tree, snow bank, or other sled, the brush bow receives the shock of the impact and keeps the rest of the sled from being damaged.

  • Handle Bar: Arched piece of wood or metal at the back of the sled extending from the runners and forming the highest point of the sled. Used by the musher to hold onto the sled and steer. Tired mushers on the trail have been known to tie themselves to the handle bar so they won’t slide off the sled if they fall asleep.

  • Claw Brake: A spring-action steel claw that attaches to the rear of the sled brace running from front to back. It is positioned between the musher’s feet. When the musher steps on the brake, the claw digs into the snow, causing the sled to slow down (but not come to a full stop).

  • Snow Hook: A large steel or aluminum hook that attaches to the sled with a rope or other line and is used to anchor the sled when stopped. It looks something like a big two-pronged fish hook. Snow hooks are designed to dig into the snow when pulled to keep the dogs from running away with the sled. A horizontal piece between the two prongs allows the musher to dig the hook into the snow with a heel or pull it out with a hand. Snow hooks can also be anchored to a tree to keep the dog team and sled in place. Some mushers have snow hook holders attached to their sleds to keep the hook in place when not in use.

-Positions on the team-

  • Lead dogs: Perhaps the most critical part of the team, lead dogs set the pace and keep the other dogs on the trail. They are the dogs that respond to the musher’s commands of “gee” (right turn) and “haw” (left turn). Lead dogs must be alert and intelligent so they can find and follow the trail when it is covered over with snow. They do so through smell, sensing where other teams have passed, and feel, by feeling with their feet the packed trail beneath the loose snow covering. They also keep the other dogs in the team moving by pulling the gang-line taut. In the past, some Iditarod mushers used only one lead dog. Today, it is more common to see two.

  • Swing (or point) dogs: Positioned directly behind the lead dogs, the swing dogs help steer the team around corners. As lead dogs make a turn, it is not uncommon for the other dogs to want to jump off the trail to follow them. The swing dogs pull the team in an arc that keeps the other dogs on the trail and brings the sled and musher safely around a corner.

  • Team dogs: These are the team’s brawn. They pull the sled and maintain speed. On average, Iditarod sled dogs pull 300 to 500 pounds (including sled, supplies, and musher). There are several pairs of team dogs, depending on the size of the sled-dog team.

  • Wheel dogs: These are the two dogs closest to the sled. They are usually the largest of the dogs because they are the first to take on the weight of the load being pulled, especially during starts and climbs. Wheel dogs should be even-tempered as they must withstand the constant slamming of the sled runners behind them.

    It is not uncommon for mushers to switch their dogs’ positions during a race. Some dogs make better leaders in certain weather conditions but not others. Sometimes, after a long run, a musher may wish to give a lead dog a break. Dogs who are fighting may need to be split up, or a female in heat may need to be moved away from the males. Sometimes during a race, after a few dogs have been dropped and a team becomes smaller, a single lead dog may be used instead of two.

-Harnesses that we use-

  • H-back harnesses: Designed to help the dog pull heavy weights efficiently
  • X-Back harnesses: used more frequently than the H-back, with short versions that ride farther forward on the dog's body.

-Other Gear-

  • Dog booties: Are put on the dogs to help prevent cuts and bruising on their feet while running in harsh conditions or over long periods of time.
  • Dog jackets: For when it is just REALLY cold outside. We actually have wolf fur and we will sew it to the band that goes around the belly for extra warmth.