Iditarod Gear: To bring or not to bring. That is the question.

On Mush! You Huskies radio show last night we talked about the mandatory gear that every musher MUST carry in his sled during the Iditarod.

According to the official rules of the Iditarod it says:

Rule 16: Mandatory Items: A musher must carry with him/her at all times the following items:

  1. Proper cold weather sleeping bag weighing a minimum of 5 pounds.
  2. Ax, to weigh a minimum of 1-3/4 pounds, handle at least 22” long.
  3. One operational pair of snowshoes with bindings, each snowshoe to be at least 252 square inches.
  4. Any promotional material provided by the ITC.
  5. Eight booties for each dog in the sled on in use.
  6. One operational cooker and pot capable of boiling at least three gallons of water at one time.
  7. Veterinarian notebook, to be presented to the veterinarian at each checkpoint.
  8. An adequate amount of fuel to bring three gallons of water to a boil.
  9. Cable gangline or cable tie out capable of securing a dog team.

When leaving a checkpoint adequate emergency dog food must be on the sled. (This will be carried in addition to what you carry for routine feeding and snacking).

Gear will be checked at the re-start and during the 24-hour mandatory layover for conformity to minimum standards as set forth above. Gear may be checked at some other time during the race. Gear may be checked at all checkpoints except Safety.

Vet books will be signed by a veterinarian or in the absence of a veterinarian may be signed by a designated race official. The musher will also sign the vet book.

Musher Gear

What the rules do not say is a required check list for the musher. I find this interesting.

Every musher that is competing in the Iditarod should know well before they hook up their dogs on Willow Lake what it will take to get themselves to Nome safely in terms of gear.

Each musher is different in what they bring along in their sled and on their person so lets discuss what I have learned and what I do on the trail for myself.

Musher Clothing

“You can never be too hot,” according to 7-time Iditarod finisher Jason Barron.

Most mushers these days wear elaborate “survival suits” that will keep them warm in -50 degree temperatures. Under this suit most mushers dress in layers of fleece and other wicking materials. Cotton is a no-no. Cost: $400-500

A heavy duty parka is also used. We are not talking about a parka you pick up at Sports Authority. These parkas are twice the size of these commonly sold in big box sporting good stores. Cost: $600-800

Each musher’s parka will have a ruff to break the wind from their face and is often made of wolverine (does not frost up), gray wolf or other furs. Cost: $400-500

If a musher does not wear the survival type suit he/she will wear a pair of bib-type overalls designed for extreme temperatures. Cost: $80-300


Most mushers these days wear a heavy duty pac boot designed for extreme temperatures. These boots are bulky and heavy. They are hard to walk in and can become cumbersome. Cost: $200-300

I used Neo’s overshoes with a pair of down booties and a pair of smart wool socks. These have kept my feet warm in -34 degrees.

Gone are the days of soft-soled muklucks. The soft sole makes it difficult to set your snow hook without hurting your foot and many people have found that this style of boots just don’t keep your feet warm enough.

Speaking of socks. Many mushers will change out their socks at every checkpoint. This is at least 20 pairs of smart-wool type socks. Cost: $360


There is a system that most mushers use for their hands. Many mushers, me included, will use a pair of small stretch knit-type gloves that you can pick up for a dollar a pair at the local big box store. These gloves are great because they allow you to work with the dog’s feet as well as snaps and lines without having to take them off.

An over-glove is then used. Many mushers use beaver fur with a moose under-side. Beaver is known for its extreme warmth and will not freeze. Others use an over-glove made of synthetic material such as Cordura and an insulating lining. Cost: $200-400

Most mushers will use chemical hand warmers as the temperatures drop. The key is to put them in the palm of your hand not on top for the best protection. I find these bulky and cumbersome. Cost: $1.00 a piece


Hats are as varied as the musher’s themselves. You will often find hats made from everything from seal skin to beaver to fleece. Most, if not all, will have ear flaps and a way to secure it. Cost: Free to $600


A head lamp is an essential piece of gear for every musher. The head lamp is a tool that can save your life. While headlamps come in all shapes and sizes, prices and features vary and most mushers will carry at least three of them. One on their head, one in their pocket and one in the sled. Cost: $50-900 each

The batteries are what is expensive. While some headlamps have rechargeable battery packs, most of them require regular AA batteries. Most mushers will swear by using only lithium batteries at a cost of about six dollars a pack. Battery life depends on conditions but you must remember that even in March in Alaska it is dark longer than it is light and you never want to run your team in the heat of the day so most mushers find themselves mushing at night, hence a heavy reliance on their headlamps.


Some musher wear sunglasses and others wear googles. Others prefer to wear nothing at all. I can attest to the dangers of snow-blindness by not wearing proper eye-wear so I will always have a pair of sunglasses in my pocket if not on my face. The problem with most sunglasses and googles is they freeze up from the condensation of your breath and make it difficult to see.


Many mushers these days are bringing iPod’s and other devices to listen to music and even audio books and podcasts on the trail. Our guest on Mush! You Huskies told us about a battery pack you can hook up to your iPod that uses AA batteries (I’ll have to get one of those soon!)

GPS Units

In this year’s Iditarod mushers can bring along a GPS unit. While you should never rely on a GPS to save your life it can be used to determine position as well as other features such as speed, elevation etc. I feel that it is just another piece of equipment that will take up valuable pocket space and another battery-dependent item. Also, while I am no expert on the use of a GPS unit don’t they just point you from Point A to Point B in a straight line if you have not entered the exact route before? Seems to me the unit would not help if you have strayed off the trail?

People Food and Snacks

Of course the most difficult thing a musher can experience is dehydration, so intaking enough liquids is critical. It is difficult to keep liquids from freezing in -30 to -50 degrees and most mushers have a system for doing this. Many boil water in their cookers at each check point. Some put bottles of water close to their body so the heat will un-freeze it.

Some will drink Gatorade and other juice type drinks and I was surprised to see a lot of mushers bringing along Capri Suns. I have tried the Capri Sun drinks on the race I ran this winter and they worked great. The drinks comes in foil-type packages and work very well in your cooker at checkpoints.

Remember that you must drink plenty of water BEFORE you are thirsty in order to stave off dehydration.

Mushers little secret: If their is one secret to mushing these days it the 5-hour energy drinks. This little shots provide an instant pick-me-up and do not have the gotta-go-to-the-bathroom side effects of coffee. Cost: $2.00 a bottle

I have seen and used a lot of different snacks. Everything from beef jerky to Jelly Beans to what I like to call horse nuggets. Horse nuggets are protein cubes that are packed with ingredients that will curb hunger on the trail. Think of an energy bar but in a 2x2x2 inch square.

Camping Gear

Of course you will be carrying a mandatory sleeping bag as part of your required gear but some mushers carry sleep mats and tarps that they use to camp on the trail. Weight and space limitations are key here. You only have so much room in your sled for gear and often a musher sacrifices his own comfort for the gear that is required.

Besides you are lucky if you get a couple hours of sleep every couple days. Sleep deprivation is the key component to a musher’s fitness on the trail.

You will often see a musher catching a few hours of shut eye laying down with his dogs on the straw, or inside of his dog bag on his sled and in some cases sleeping on top of his dog sled still packed with gear.


Another life-saving tool that every musher must carry on their person is a fire starter. Many carry several different types from water proof matches to flints to fancy fire starting tools picked up at the outdoor gear store. All of these must be kept in a water tight container.

I know, I know I am missing stuff. I have learned a lot over this past year about what to take and what not. You will often see what is called the “rookie hump” on a novice musher’s first qualifying races and as he/she gains experience on the trails some of that gear is left at home.

I like to travel light, but cary enough gear that I know I am as safe as possible. A race like the Iditarod is a race of checkpoints and if a musher can think of it that way he/she will have a good race. Remember that each musher ships out A LOT of supplies, dog food, etc. to checkpoints along the trail. This is part of what makes the Iditarod a logistical nightmare.

What do you take that this not on the list? What do you leave at home? What do you take that you can not live without?

Citation: for excerpt on Rule 16


Robert Forto is a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the popular radio shows, Mush! You Huskies and Dog Works Radio Shows