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Iditarod Trail: Dr. Tim Hunt Explains the Gear Needed to Race

By: Dr. Tim Hunt
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There is quite a bit of equipment we use during the Iditarod Trail. Here's a breakdown of all the gear needed to run this race:

First, the sled, which has come a long way since the days of wood runners and rawhide lashings. These days, many are made of carbon fiber, cables and plastic, but are very durable and light. Many have moved towards the use of a “sit down” style of sled where the musher can sit down on either a seat, a cooler or some other level object that you can sit down easily upon.

Back to the sled; this is basically a 30-40 pound contraption that has a bed or basket ahead of the handlebar that can hold gear, and dogs if need be. A sled bag with many compartments is actually on the bed and does the holding and can act as a place to sleep if you get stuck in a storm. It can be cozy in there and actually an Iditarod was once won that way when Libby Riddles got stuck in a ground blizzard on the Bering Sea coast and slept in her sled bag for about half a day. When the storm lifted she was in first and coasted to victory. That's not for the faint of heart, though.

The sled itself has three methods of stopping. First, the bar brake and the pad brake you use with your feet which is located below the handlebars. Second is the snow hook that is tethered to the gang-line, but you place with your hand into the snow. Third is your feet. You have to be extremely careful to not let go of the sled if you use your feet to help stop the sled.

The runners are what is on the bottom of the sled and have plastic inserts that you change according to wear, temperature of the snow and preference. Many types of plastic are available at different molecular densities and impregnated with substances such as wax.

The gang-line is what attaches the dogs to the sled and runs up the middle of the team. This is based typically with the use of metal cable that has a high tensile strength and can hold a lot of weight. Often these are threaded through rope as well to give an extra layer of security. From the gang-line, the tug-lines are attached to the harnesses on the dogs at the base of the dogs’ tails, or thereabouts. Some folks use tugs that go to the mid back of the dog but there are a lot of variations in between. Lastly, there are necklines that attach to the collar of the dog and then some folks don’t use necklines either. Again, there are lots of personal variations according to what the musher sees as the best way. Teams have won the race with no necklines, with necklines, with short harnesses, long harnesses and both short and long tug-lines. It's all about personal preference.

The harnesses on the dogs are just as varied with all sorts of styles. “X” back, “H” back, shoulder types, ad nausea are out options and all hold their merits. They allow the dog to pull and go forward with a minimum of exposure to possible injury. Collared neck, non collared neck, and ad infinitum types are all options.

Booties for the dog could be a whole post on their own and just might be. Most are made of either a cordura or nylon type of material these days and can last for sometimes 200 miles of use. They are meant to primarily protect the feet from wear on the trail, not really to keep them warm as much. After all, as George Attla said, “No feet, no dogs.” It is so very true. Foot care is one of the key components to a team succeeding and booties have really changed that game for the better for the most part. They have their disadvantages as well; such as on ice there is little to no traction thus it can lead to slipping and hurting a shoulder. All in all, though, they have made huge differences in the care of dog feet.

Other equipment includes the cooker, which the device that is used to boil water. At cold temperatures many fuels do not burn well except for alcohol and we use the iso heet you place in gas tanks to take care of water build up. This burns clean and at any temperature. Cookers, on the other hand, are as varied as the harnesses. I have seen quart kegs cut in half to make cookers all the way to intricate boxes with all sorts of gadgets. I like simple and use the tube approach with a pot that is suspended in it. Four pints of Iso heet will boil a pot of water in about 6-8 minutes.

One different piece of equipment I will be using this year will be the revolutionary Voyce band, which is worn like collar, that will measure different health parameters of some dogs as we race. The Voyce collar has been used in training and the data is very interesting. I look forward to analyzing all of the health and wellness data Voyce generates from the dogs.

And lastly for now is the head lamp, which probably one of the most important parts of our armament. I like rechargeable batteries and now there are great ones that last two days with a brightness to the light of a jet plane taking off. It's just amazing. Since we travel half the time in the dark, this is essential. Being stuck on the trail with no light is no fun. Been there, done that and don't want to do it again!

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Voted America's Favorite Veterinarian in 2014, Dr. Tim Hunt provides expert content to Voyce. His role with Voyce is one example of the many terrific expert partners that have dog-specific content featured in the Voyce member portal. To join the Voyce Experience, click here.