The Gold Rush of the 19th century brought Europeans to Canada's remote west in search of riches, but today there's another kind of rush on offer. It's the thrill of harnessing your own team of over-excited huskies, hopping aboard your sled and mushing out to explore the frozen wilderness. These dogs live, breathe and love running, and once happily in motion, they fall silent. You're whisked along, through hills and mountains, frozen forests and crisp fields of fresh snow, with the sound of the sled runners on the snow and the dogs' paws your only soundtrack. This landscape may look Christmas card pretty, but forget ‘walking in a winter wonderland’; racing through it on a sled is way more exciting.
Dog sleds have been used for centuries in Northern Canada as an essential means of transport during the winter, and dog sledding is an integral element of the local culture throughout the Yukon. So although purely for recreation, today's husky safari vacations are an exciting connection with the region's past.
A husky safari is also a superb way to deeply engage with the landscape, in a way that celebrates the ancestral relationship between humans and their domesticated canine friends. As you mush along, look out for wildlife, watch the sun sparkle off fresh powdery snow or take in the clear blue sky above. While camping or staying in remote cabins, scan the skies for the Aurora Borealis, too.
Most husky safaris kick off in Whitehorse, the Yukon's capital city. Calling it a city makes it sound big and urban – in fact, Whitehorse is home to just 25,000 people, three quarters of the province's population. It's surrounded by wilderness just waiting to be explored, and for anyone who's fit and experienced enough, you can even race along sections of the Yukon Quest, a 1,600km dog sled race, said to be the hardest in the world.
As active, winter adventures go, a husky safari takes some beating, and husky safaris in the Yukon perhaps take the most beating of all. This remote federal territory in northwest Canada, home to First Nations people long before prospectors arrived, is smothered in snow in winter and makes a truly dramatic and fascinating destination for exploration by dog sled. If you want a remote vacation, a winter vacation, an active vacation, a responsible vacation and a decidedly dog-centric vacation, then a husky safari in the Yukon is utterly perfect.
You can enjoy a husky safari as a day activity, lasting four to six hours. You'll help to harness up the dogs, and typically two people will ride on a sled, with the chance to switch drivers halfway through. This is often part of a multi-activity vacation that might also include Aurora Borealis spotting, snowshoeing, staying in a remote lodge, exploring Whitehorse and the Gold Rush town of Dawson City, a dip in the Takhini Hotsprings or a visit to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.
If you'd like to explore deeper into the wilderness, see more wildlife, have more chances to spot the Aurora, and care of your own team of dogs, longer husky safaris are ideal, lasting anything from three to eight days. On a week adventure, you might spend the first week mushing the historical trails at Fish Lake, staying at an off-grid ranch with perhaps some winter camping, too, before heading out on the famous Yukon Quest Trail. These vacations are typically small group adventures, but often have a degree of flexibility. On a longer husky safari that is based in one place for a few nights there's usually no obligation to go out on every sled ride. You have the option to skip one, so that you can simply enjoy nature, take photos, and drink tea out in the Yukon wilderness.
Husky safaris are immersive, active adventures that require stamina and team spirit, but reward you with a rich experience of the frozen Yukon wilderness and a deep understanding of the dogs. Almost anyone who's taken one says working with the dogs was the absolute highlight. The strength and control needed to manage a team of huskies, plus the extreme cold weather in the Yukon mean husky safaris are typically only suitable for people aged 18 and over. Be aware, too, that husky safaris are at the mercy of the weather. If it's too cold, the dogs can only run for a few hours or they would literally freeze, so be ready for some shorter days on the trail.
Any husky safari, whether a day session or a full week vacation, will start with instruction. Your guides will teach you everything you need to know about mushing, from technique to safety, and you'll have the chance to do a trial run before the full safari starts. You are always accompanied by experienced guides, too, on every sled ride.
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This depends on the duration and demands of the husky safari – there are vacations to suit all abilities and ambitions in the Yukon. Short day excursions or center based trips that last four or five days and include daily husky safaris and nights in a lodge are just right for the beginner musher. If you're up for a challenge or more experienced, you can opt for a longer trip that also includes a few nights of winter camping or in a remote cabin on a point-to-point journey.
More than experience, you need fitness. Dog sledding is a comparable physical activity to cross-country skiing, so you should be in relatively good shape, with enough stamina to cope with days on the trail and often simple accommodation. You will be standing up on the drives, too – this is a sled, not a sleigh. The guides usually cut the trail for you, by going over powder covered routes first, which makes the going easier but you can expect some hills. When your dog team reaches an incline, you’ll need to jump off and help by pushing the sled and keeping the dogs moving, rather than letting them grind to a halt. The dogs will appreciate this.
Team spirit is also essential. You need to be prepared to muck in. Husky safaris that stay overnight in the wilderness or in a simple ranch are working adventures. In the morning, you’ll take care of the dogs by scooping poop, feeding them, harnessing them and readying the sleds. You’ll need to feed and settle the dogs down at the end of each sled ride, too, and may be expected to help with prepping and cleaning up after dinner. Rather than a chore, though, this all-hands-on-deck element feels fun and collaborative, ensuring you build strong bonds with the other mushers on your trip, the friendly guides and especially with the dogs.
What about the cold?
It certainly gets cold in the Yukon in winter, and not ‘it’s a bit chilly today’ cold, but real, severe, ice-on-your-eyelashes cold. In February, it can drop to -45°C at night, which carries a risk of frostbite so it’s essential to cover up completely. Neck protectors and balaclavas are important and ski goggles can be useful, although are prone to misting up. The tour operator will usually supply cold weather gear and winter boots, plus helmets, or have these items available for rent. They should supply a comprehensive packing list, too. The key is to bring thermals and plenty of mid-weight layers, that give you flexibility. A husky safari can actually be quite sweaty work, especially when you’re helping the dogs by pushing the sled uphill, so you’ll find you need to peel layers off and put them on again according to how active you’re being.
Is a husky safari responsible?
The welfare of the huskies is a key responsible tourism issue but happily, most modern sled dog owners are very proud of their dogs, viewing them as canine athletes that are bred and trained to do what they love – run as part of a team. Do feel free to ask about how they are cared for, though. Ask if the company or its individual mushers have ever been recognised for their dog care, whether the dogs are well socialised, what kind of dogs they are (typically Alaskan and Siberian huskies) and what conditions they are kept in when not on the trail.
Look out for recognition from the Mush With P.R.I.D.E (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog’s Environment) organisation. This was set up in 1991 by mushers concerned about the care of sled dogs and the public perception of mushing. Dog care and equipment guidelines were created and now responsible husky safari suppliers and kennels are encouraged to become members and sign up for voluntary kennel inspections.
In addition to following these guidelines, husky safari operators may have their own welfare guidelines which they’ll be happy to tell you about. These might include ensuring the huskies have a healthy diet and frequent vet checks, and providing sprinklers for them to rest under in the summer, on hot days. Some guides are even trained to stretch and massage the dogs.
When it comes to the environment, dog sledding has a very low impact. The sleds themselves produce zero pollution and organised husky safaris will operate a leave no trace policy, bagging and removing all refuse and even human and dog waste while out on the trail. Super responsible trips are self supported and won’t even use snowmobiles to bring supplies to camp or provide backup, except in emergencies.
There are strict conservation policies in place in the Yukon, so you can be reassured that any husky safari is subject to routine scrutiny by conservation officers. Husky safari operators are licensed by a territorial wilderness tourism regulatory body, which requires them to submit annual reports on everything from the number of guides used and their qualifications, to the number of guests taken over the land and the specific areas visited throughout the year.
Best time to go on a husky safari in Yukon
Husky safaris run during the winter – obviously – which in Yukon means mid November to April. If you go in the depths of winter, in January and February, expect lots of snow and extremely cold temperatures which can shorten trips out with the dogs (and make trips to the outhouse loo at night somewhat challenging). If you go at the start of the winter, in November, or later in the year, in March or April, conditions will be milder and there are more hours of daylight, but some trails may not be accessible because of the lack of snow.
A trip to Lapland wouldn’t be complete without a joyous ride through the snow pulled by a happy team of huskies, right? And yet the welfare of the animals working hard up front might not be as crystal clear as the air around you. Here’s what you should be looking for in order to pick out a responsible husky sledding safari.