Iditarod Q&A: What do mushers eat? How cold or hot does it get? And why are there fewer racers?

We’re now several days into this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and a winner should emerge by the middle of next week.

We asked what readers wanted to know about the Iditarod and compiled a collection of questions and answers for this article. Is there something you’re curious about? Let us know in the form at the bottom of this story.

I know the competitors send out food and supplies for dogs ahead of time, but what about for themselves? Are mushers fed a hot meal at checkpoints, or do they eat cold food that they send ahead with the dog kibble?

Mushers will also include food for themselves in their food drops, and they’ll eat cold food or hot food that they warm up themselves. Each musher is required to carry a portable stove and a big pot capable of boiling at least 3 gallons of water through the race — they might heat up food that way, or if there’s hot water or a microwave at a checkpoint, they might use that to heat their food.

Generally, mushers are sending out food they can eat quickly: snacks they can rip into and easily access, or more caloric meals that can be tossed in t he boiling water of a cook pot as they’re preparing dog food. You might see vacuum-sealed packages of soup, pasta, pizza, stroganoffs and so on. There might be more elaborate fare tossed in for a pick-me-up, too — something to look forward to. For example, Martin Buser a few years ago was eating beef tenderloin and rice that was stored in vacuum-sealed bags, which were warmed up in a pot of boiling water.

Later in the race, mushers will often start dropping food they sent out in common areas at checkpoints, and is not uncommon to see other racers digging through the food pile looking for goodies or some variety.

At lots of the community checkpoints food is brought by volunteers. This might mean big pots of moose soup put out in the community hall at Galena, or the hospitable crew that tends to the stove in Unalakleet churning out pancakes and bacon for mushers at all hours. However, food donations tend to arrive for the front of the pack and frequently taper off as the days go on. So, middle- and back-of-the-pack mushers sometimes don’t get to enjoy the same spreads.


I’ve seen musher numbers dwindle in recent years. What are some contributing reasons?

There are a number of reasons. For one, it keeps getting more and more expensive to run the Iditarod competitively or recreationally. Prices for everything from premium dog foods to freight costs are higher than they used to be.

Alaska’s economy has a lot to do with it, too. When Alaska experiences a recession, like we did for few years before the pandemic upended our economic recovery, it can limit the amount of cash available from sponsors to support mushers or finance prize money. When the race purse is smaller, some mushers may look at the amount of money it takes to get to the starting line versus how much they have the potential to win, and decide it just doesn’t pencil out.

The economics are most acute in rural Alaska, where costs for everything are much higher. Over the decades, the Iditarod has seen a smaller and smaller share of mushers from the Bush competing, with the race roster dominated by people living and training along the road system, where goods and energy are cheaper, and travel logistics for moving dog teams around are much simpler.

[The superstar, the veteran, the doofus: Meet 5 of the dogs racing in this year’s Iditarod]

The last two years, though, COVID-19 has been a big reason the race field shrank. Travel logistics for competitors out of state or abroad are extremely complicated and costly, where possible at all. And some would-be racers might have decided the circumstances aren’t sufficiently safe. One musher publicly attributed the 2022 Iditarod’s vaccination requirement as a reason he was withdrawing ahead of the race.

How does a musher signal for emergency help?

As part of their mandatory equipment, mushers carry an emergency device where they can signal they need help. Activating it means they must scratch from the race, according to the Iditarod rules. But it alerts officials who mobilize resources to rescue them and their dog teams, usually by snowmachine if the weather is severe.

For example, in 2018, Scott Janssen and Jim Lanier used the SOS button on a GPS device to summon help after Lanier and his team got stuck in a notoriously windy area between White Mountain and Safety. Lanier scratched for health and safety reasons; Janssen scratched and ended his race so he could see his friend safely to Nome. They were taken to Safety by snowmachine and flew in a helicopter to Nome. (Here’s their gripping account of what happened.) More recently in 2020, three mushers had to be rescued after they wound up on a part of the trail flooded by seawater outside the Safety checkpoint. They were flown to Nome in a helicopter.

Do mushers carry drinking water?

Many do, yes. Hydration is a pretty big factor for mushers to balance, since it can be hard to get enough fluids even as you’re sweating and burning calories during runs. Keep in mind that competitors, their equipment and their sleds are out in some pretty extreme cold for prolonged periods, and mushers are often bundled up tight under gloves and mittens.

Which is to say: Water bottles freeze. And so do your fingers if you’re trying to screw on and off a little metal cap while your sled bounces over tussocks. So you see some pretty interesting hydration rigs, like store-bought metal water bottles modified to be super insulated with long plastic straws sticking out of the top — that way, mushers can sip without having to fiddle with caps and whatnot.

A lot of the time, mushers will send out bottles of Gatorade in their drop bags with all their dog food. The frozen beverages are then tossed in the same boiling water pots used for cooking dog food, so they can thaw. It’s all about finding efficiencies.

[As a child, Kailyn Davis imagined having a dog team. Now, she’s in the midst of her first Iditarod.]

What is the range of temperatures that mushers will usually face on the trail?

It depends on the year. Generally, if the temperature stays in the minus 20 to plus 25 range, it’s treated as pretty much par for the course.

At the extremely cold end, overnight temps in the range of 40 degrees below zero to 60 below are not unheard of. Once the mercury starts getting to the minus 30 range, it starts to make for some exceptionally challenging conditions: Body parts begin to suffer, fluids and ointments don’t behave normally and equipment can start to break or fail.


The coldest stretches tend to be on the north side of the Alaska Range in the Interior areas along the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers. Temperatures along the Norton Sound coast typically aren’t quite as low, but the wind can be much more intense. That brings pretty brutal wind chill, especially heading from Unalakleet up to Shaktoolik and Koyuk.

On the flip side, warm temperatures cause their own havoc. It’s not unheard of for temperatures to climb above 32 degrees, and particularly if the midday sun is blazing, that can melt snow and ice along the trail on top of being unpleasant for the dogs. The 2013 race saw some unseasonably (and unreasonably) high temperatures, with mushers complaining about it getting to almost 50 degrees. Lance Mackey described his team as going “slower than drool” during some of those hot runs.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.