Whether you’re a seasoned thru-hiker or a first-time adventurer, you want your best friend beside you. We don’t blame you!
Katie Houston is an avid thru-hiker, with a goal of hiking 10,000 miles by the time she turns 25. (She's already 2,900 miles in!). She lives full-time in a camper with her dogs - Flynn the Great Dane and Thru the Siberian Husky. She says she finds herself missing them even when she's only gone a few hours. But there is a lot to consider before embarking on a backpacking adventure with your pup.
Katie gives us her top five pointers for backpacking with dogs...
1. Be prepared!
Follow the rules. Picking an appropriate trail, cleaning up after your dog, and carrying the weight they can’t are all expectations you should abide by whenever you take your dog out on trail. Make sure you know the rules and regulations of the trail you are on and always practice Leave No Trace principles. Arrange for any short-term boarding or shuttles you will need in advance and be respectful of any no-pet policies hostels or hotels may have.
Don’t overburden them. Dogs should only be expected to carry 10% of their body weight. Find a well-fitted backpack (check back next week for our new Backpack 👀 - Wilderdog) and distribute the weight evenly as you load it up. You'll need to carry any extra food and water for your dog. Some trails with unreliable or seasonal water sources may require water carries over 20 miles! Always double check your source’s reliability and carry extra water for your pup.
Do your research. Familiarize yourself enough with potentially dangerous wildlife in the area. Even female deer with fawns can be dangerous when they feel threatened. Keeping your dog on a leash will help reduce your risk of a dangerous wildlife encounter. If your pups are as naturally curious as mine, knowing how to identify venomous vs. non-venomous snakes and know which venomous snakes are present in the area is also a good idea. Check out your local REI and see if they are offering snake-avoidance behavior classes your dog can participate in.
2. Go at your dogs pace.
Depending on the breed, age, and personality of your dog, you may need to adjust your trip’s daily mileage to accommodate them. Chances are if you are feeling wiped, so is your dog. Start off with relatively low-mileage days and then ease into more as you and your dog get used to carrying your packs and get in better shape. Building good habits on trail like taking frequent breaks and providing lots of opportunities for food and water is key to you and your dogs happiness. Taking zero-mile-days or days under 10 miles will also help revitalize your dog and give them the opportunity to catch up on food intake.
3. Expect your dog’s behavior to change, but know when to ask for help.
You can expect the same changes you go through on trail to be experienced by your best friend too. The waves of appetite variances, the exhaustion at the end of a brutal day, the susceptibility to illness and infection are all facets of hiker life. Your dog is a hiker now too, and will be changing as much as you on this journey.
Your dog will be more tired. You may know your dog from nose to tail but be ready to see some changes in their behavior once you start your journey. Some dogs deal with change gracefully, especially those that are well-traveled or are used to their owner’s non-routine lifestyle. Others will find the adjustment difficult, physically and mentally. At the end of your first 10 or 15 mile day, your pup that is usually jumping around meeting new people may just lie down and sleep the evening away. As long as it isn’t excessive or persisting, being tired is a very normal reaction to hiking all day every day.
They may be ravenous one week and eat very little the next. In addition to their personality, you should expect their food intake to change throughout the duration of the hike. They may lose their appetite for the first few days and then drastically increase their food consumption: a possibility you need some flexibility for when arranging resupply boxes. Be sure to bring along any supplements recommended by your vet or include high-protein treats in your resupply boxes as a treat in town.
Be able to recognize any problematic symptoms. Understanding your dog’s body language and anticipating normal changes to their personality can help prevent overreacting in the field. However, you should be on the lookout for any symptoms that may indicate a bigger problem. Knowing the symptoms of common trail illness for dogs, such as altitude sickness and Lyme’s Disease, before you go will help you feel more confident in your daily assessment of your dog’s behavior and will help you understand when it’s time to call a vet. If your dog seems to be exhibiting more troubling symptoms such as excessive lethargy, drooling, or vomiting and diarrhea, those are pretty clear signs to take a break from your adventure and get to a vet.
4. Be flexible and ready to make sacrifices.
Know that anything can happen on trail. Injuries, dehydration, altitude sickness, and conflicts with wildlife can happen to anyone, including your pup. Keep them safe by being well prepared and taking precautions on trail. However, even the most well-prepared adventurers can fall victim to circumstance. A conflict may require you to get off trail for the benefit of your dog and, if necessary, cancel your hike all together. Your need for flexibility extends to any changes in the weather that you may encounter. If the temperature unexpectedly skyrockets for the week your trip was planned, your husky may not appreciate the now-85 degree hike as much. If you plan on sharing the adventure with them, you’ll also have to be completely willing to stop your hike for them.
5. Your dog should want to be there.
Does your dog REALLY love to hike? The most important question to ask yourself before bringing your dog on your adventure: Does my dog want to do this? If your answer isn’t a resounding “Yes, absolutely, they LOVE to hike!” then you probably shouldn’t bring them. Ironically that’s exactly how people feel about long-distance hiking in general. Some people begin their journey at Springer Mountain, Georgia intending to complete a 2,200 mile thru-hike… just to find out 4 hours in they may love short hikes but HATE hiking for more than 6 miles at a time. Your dog may feel the same way! Be on the lookout for signs of exhaustion or persisting behavioral changes that indicate they are unhappy.
Consider genetics. Beyond our dog’s preferences, sometimes we have to make the hard decision that a hike may just not be in our best friend’s best interest. Although our Husky may be able to hike 15-20 miles a day and will still be yanking us along at the end, our Great Dane just isn’t built for long hikes like the Husky is. Great Danes have chronic hip and joint issues that would only be exacerbated by a long-distance hike. If you have any questions about your dog breed’s capabilities and limitations, consult your vet.
All this to say, you’re reading this article because you clearly love your pup and are concerned for their well-being. Dogs are complex emotional beings and we have an obligation to treat them with respect and honor their needs and preferences. Thanks for reading, and have fun out there!
Thank you, Katie for giving us all the best backpacking tips! Follow along with Katie and her pups at https://oatshikes.com/.