In the next few weeks, lots of clubs are running boot camps to kick off the sledding season. A friend asked me the other day, what should we expect at a boot camp or race? So here are a few tips:
1) Make sure you know where you're going and what time you need to be there. Then add some extra time for traffic issues and pit stops. Racing events tend to be pretty frenetic, and arriving early is definitely better than running late.
2) Pack clothing for all temperatures. Yep, sled dog racing only happens when it's cold, but we often get warm afternoons too. A bike helmet is recommended - actually, it's mandatory on a scooter or rig, but, like most gear, you can borrow one if needed. Head torches are one of the most useful accessories for a sport that largely happens in the dark.
3) Look at all the things your dog does/needs in a day and try to plan how to accomodate those things while camping. Dog beds, dog food, drinking water, water bowls, poo bags, collars and leashes will all be needed. Steel cables and metal stakes or crates are useful to hold your dog at your campsite while you attend meetings or spectate. Walking your dog from campsite to campsite while you chat to people is discouraged, due to the risk of spreading kennel cough and other diseases. Bringing a dog to spectate at the start and finish chutes or anywhere else along the race track is absolutely banned, as it can distract dogs during their race. Socialising of dogs at a race is only done by special arrangement & off lead running is forbidden.
4) Camping furniture is a really good idea. Some people will have (cough cough!) ridiculously tricked out caravans and others have cool camping trailers that come with their own kitchen sink. Everyone brings folding chairs. Canopies and gazebos spring up all over the camp site.
5) When you arrive, select a camping spot with care. Do you want to camp near the toilets and the foot traffic back and forward? Do you want to camp near a generator that might provide some good lighting, but lots of noise? Do you want to camp near someone with a big dog trailer, which probably means expertise, but lots of dogs and potentially noise? Camping out on the edge of the site provides privacy but you might miss out of announcements. Watch out for stake out lines strung out next to trailers and between trees - you want to be able to walk to communal locations without having to traverse dog lines.
6) Once you've arrived, your top two priorities are your dog and checking in. Getting your dog a quick drink, a chance to toilet if needed might depend on how long you've been on the road. Secure your dog and go check in at the admin tent. Bring your money - as well as paying camping fees and/or racing fees, clubs will often have fundraising chocolates and raffle tickets. Get an idea of when the first meeting will be, and then you can go back to your camp and set up.
7) Make sure your dog is content and safe, secure, with shade and water, before you attend any meetings or activities. Some dogs will prefer to be out on a stake out line ("dropped") and others will be quiet and well behaved shut away in a crate or berth. Be aware that a bored dog might try to chew car seats or leashes, leading to a chorus of sympathetic "this is why we can't have nice things!"
8) Sometimes it's a good idea to bring a chair to a meeting. At a race, meetings are often kept as short as possible, but at a boot camp, you will want to be comfortable sitting and listening to the various workshops.
9) Don't expect to get a lot of time for cooking and eating at your usual meal times. Racing often starts at 5pm on a Saturday, finishing up around 7.30 or 8pm. Folks will usually head to bed early and appreciate a quiet night. On a Sunday morning, the camp will start stirring at 4 or 5am, with racing often starting at 6.30am and finishing up around 9am. Bringing quick food like muesli bars and keeping an eye out for catering is a good idea if you're prone to getting hangry.
10) Stick a smile on and talk to people. Introduce yourself and ask questions. Asking to meet people's dogs is a great icebreaker. Experienced mushers will be happy to offer advice, answer questions and loan gear. Many people make their own lines and everyone will be able to recommend their favourite brand of harnesses, scooters and dog food.