Hiking with a dog is different. A thru-hike is a unique, individual experience no matter the level of solidarity. Some hikers choose to walk alone or with a partner while many will end up in a group. Others, bring along a dog that, while unable to express their needs through speech, will become an extension of you. So in sync that words become insignificant. A giddy, energetic, lovable presence that can change the energy on any given day. But, it doesn’t come without heavy responsibility and extensive preparation. If your dog conditioned to an outdoor, active lifestyle and you’ve put in a strong training base, they may be ready to attempt a long distance trail.
Many dogs adapt to the ways of the trail: the ever-changing scenery, people, and circumstances. Live outside for 4-5 months? Some dogs are bred for it, others may train for it. No two dogs are the same, so there isn’t one method of approaching a big hike; it’s all about knowing YOUR dog. Sadly, most aren't cut out for the long haul, even though they may love it. It takes a special dog to be able to keep motivated and physically fit on a distance hike. Working breeds seem to have the work ethic and stamina to enjoy the daily task of walking, exploring and protecting their person everyday.
Up to this point, my dog Luna has logged nearly 7,000 miles on long distance trails with me, including the Continental Divide Trail, Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Cohos Trail and Northern Forest Canoe Trail. There's a lot of things I could say about the choice to bring a dog on a thru-hike adventure. So here are 22 things to be mindful of if you're considering a distance hike with your dog:
1. You may not see as much wildlife. Animals can sense a dog and run away before you get the chance to see them, or protective and prey instincts could drive them to chase the wildlife out of sight. I constantly work to de-sensitize Luna to deer and squirrels, or at the very least, use commands to call her off a chase.
2. An alert dog helps keep unwanted animals out of your campsite. With a dog outside your vestibule or in your tent, no rodent or bear will come searching for food. If an animal comes within range of camp, my dog effectively barks or growls until it's gone. I've never had a bear visit camp, including in grizzly country. Be mindful that if your dog is too on guard at night, they won’t be getting adequate sleep.
3. Depending on your dog's tolerance of heat, you may have to alter your hiking times to earlier and later in the day to avoid having a miserable, hot, and possibly paw-scorched pup. Possibly mileage as well. Be prepared to lighten their pack load, or carry it all together during hot stretches to help protect their pads. If you can, plan your hikes Southbound or by Flip-flopping to avoid deserts in the Spring or at the start of any hike. Alternately, if your dog is intolerant to the cold, you’ll need to carry additional gear for them to sleep comfortably or plan your hiking direction to avoid shoulder season temperatures and snow.
4. Dogs get dirty on the trail, which means more dirt in your tent. I have my dog swim at every opportunity, and try to brush her off before getting inside at night. Depending on the climate, you may want an exceptionally muddy dog to sleep under the vestibule. Don’t bother carrying around a dog brush and towel around on a thru-hike, because weight in your dog’s pack is crucial to endurance. You just get used to the dirt.
5. Ticks. On East Coast trails like the AT, tick-borne illnesses like Lyme are on the rise. I can't emphasize enough the importance of having a trail dog on some kind of tick/flea medication. I even double up with a Seresto collar. But as you should for yourself, tick check every night. And have tweezers, tick keys, or some other device to properly remove them.
6. Carry Benadryl. Dogs can get a small dose, based on weight, to treat a variety of things: itchy tick or bug bites, bee stings, or allergies (walking through heavily pollinated or grassy areas).
7. Time in town can be more complicated with a dog. If your traveling in a group, usually it's easy to get some help when you run errands. I'd recommend getting your dog familiar with being tied up outside the grocery store or post office while you’re briefly inside. When it comes to hostels, hotels or staying with kind strangers, sometimes even a well-behaved and tired dog isn't welcome. Keep an open mind when it comes to where you'll stay. Restaurants too. I've never found this to be too big of a problem, but you do need to be flexible.
8. Hitching rides is easier. Most people assume that nobody wants to pick up a hiker with a dog, and surely there are some people who fall into that category. But in my experience, and talking with other hikers with dogs, usually we get rides fairly quickly. A friendly dog makes you look trustworthy and approachable, and some people can't say no to a cute dog. While hopping into a car, I'll often get the comment, " I don't usually pick up hitchhikers, but I love dogs."
9. There are different approaches to hiking with a dog on a leash- some people keep them attached to a leash all the time, while others let them run free under voice command. I'm a proponent of training a dog to behave off a leash by having stellar recall and reinforcing pack instincts. My dog and I are happiest hiking when we're not attached to each other. Before hitting the trail, nail down a “follow” or “heel” command to keep your dog at your side. Work on desensitizing to wildlife, dogs ON leash, and other common trail occurances. Practice, practice, practice.
10. Poop. Leave No Trace principals apply to pups as well. If they poop anywhere near the trail, dig a hole and bury it.
11. Hikers sleep on the ground, in a tent, usually separated by only a few inches of a sleeping pad. It's important to decide how and where your dog will sleep. Depending on their size and breed, they'll have different tolerances to heat or cold. Some dogs are perfectly happy sleeping in the dirt, while others can't sleep without comforts. My dog sleeps at my feet in the tent (or under the vestibule) on a few folds of Z-Rest to give her a little comfort, or during colder weather, we use the Hurtta Outback Dreamer. Sleep is so, so important during times of extreme physical endurance and without a good night’s rest, even a fit dog will never make it.
12. Paws. Some people use booties on their dogs. I do not. I believe if a dog is outside enough, on a variety of rocky and hard surfaces, that their paws toughen up. However, if a dog spends most of their time inside, then plays on the weekends, they might want booties. Like our own feet, paws need some TLC. I apply Musher's Secret wax to my dog's paws every few days, or more frequently if the terrain is rocky or surface is hot.
13. Hikers eat a lot. I've taken a variety of approaches to feeding my dog on trail. It's all about finding what works best for your dog. Depending on their size and your milage (on leash vs off leash) they need anywhere from 1,200 to 2,500 calories a day. Finding a calorie dense, high fat, high protein food is crucial to replenishing your dogs nutrients and energy. There's also dehydrated and freeze dried food options that weigh much less and only require water to rehydrate. I use a mixture of 75% Sojos raw freeze dried food, and 25% kibble (for calories). You can choose to buy common brands along the way, or mail resupply boxes with your foods of choice. It takes a learning curve to figure it out. Don't be surprised if your dog's hiker hunger doesn't kick in for 2-3 weeks. Like sled dogs and many working farm dogs, Luna only eats one big meal in the evening. Feeding them during the day, before they run around, risks them not keeping it all down. In town, load it up with high fat foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, and meats. Throughout the day, reinforce good behaviors with treats. For more info on food, check out Dog Food on the Trail.
14. It's easy for people to assume that a thru-hike takes its toll on a dog's health and ages them exponentially. I couldn't disagree more- at 5 years old, my dog is couldn’t be healthier. A big hike with a dog requires a lot of attention, knowing when they're feeling sick or lame. It's important to be in tune and adjust your plans according to how your dog is feeling. Supplements are a great addition to their diet as well, specifically for joint health. We use a heavy dose of Glycoflex to help recovery and inflammation.
15. Water. I get a lot of questions about this. The easiest way to avoid any water issues is to hike in areas where it's plentiful. If there's water ever 3-4 miles, I don't carry any for my dog. Nor do I filter/treat it. In dry, desert climates where there will be 20+ mile stretches between water sources, you have to be prepared to carry water for your dog. Some dogs drink more than others, so depending on the temperature and terrain, carry accordingly. I never have my dog carry her water. At times, this means carrying up to 7 liters at a time. Depending on the source, I'll filter it for her. Walking through areas with cow poop water? Filter it for the dog too. I always watch for signs of giardia and parasites, like vomiting or diarrhea, and I get her stools checked at the vet every few months because of her level of exposure. To help build up a strong gut and immune system, look for a probiotic like Probiotic Everyday to fight bacteria and infection.
16. If a dog is going to be along for the big hike, there’s a lot of physical and especially behavioral training prior to the hike. Check out my blog post here about what training a pup should have before hitting the trails.
17. Dogs can't hike through most National Parks. It can be a logistical challenge to find someone to care for a dog while you walk through the Park, especially since it's hard to predict the dates. Be prepared to find a sitter, map an alternate route, or skip around the park.
18. There may come situations where you need to push your dog through a tough situation- wet or hot weather, rationing water or food, fording rivers, or walking when they are tired or sore. It's of course best when these are avoided but inevitably it does come up and you have to be okay with watching your dog in temporary discomfort. Learn your dog's limits and teach them to be brave by positively reinforcing new skills.
19. In camp a trail dog can significantly change the mood with their chipper playfulness and snuggles. A lot of hikers have dogs in their lives that they left back home, so many are thrilled to have a dog around to perk them up in the mornings and fill that void. Some people though, may not be into having a dog around. Be prepared for that and work to surround yourself with people who enjoy the interaction. Depending on the trail, there will likely be a variety of social circumstances for your dog to navigate - other hikers, towns, hitches, wildlife, etc. Time on the trail will expand their ability to read body language and navigate various social situations. Like us, a seasoned trail dog will be more desensitized to all sorts of circumstances. Be patient and work with them on it.
20. People will want to come up and talk to you. Having a friendly, well-behaved trail dog usually gets a lot of attention. I love meeting and chatting with people on the trails and in towns about what we are doing and how much we love adventuring together. The kindness of strangers is one of the most remarkable things you'll encounter on a thru-hike, and having a pup alongside you can create more trust and connection for people.
21. Most importantly, work them up to it. Pack, weight, miles, terrain. Day 1 of a thru-hike shouldn't be the first time a dog wears a pack. Let them wear it empty for a number of hikes (or ideally, 6-12months before adding weight), and then work the weight up to 10%-15% of their body weight. Typically the rule of thumb is 20%, but that is TOO MUCH. Keeping your dog’s pack light means they'll burn less calories/need less food and prevent injury and fatigue. Work up your mileage as you would for yourself depending on you're dog's baseline fitness. To get an idea of the appropriate baseline fitness, my dog Luna thru-hikes every year and has a base of 60-75 miles per week (trail running, hiking, mountain biking, leashed walks). A thru-hike is a long haul, so work your dog gently into it so they're happy to be along for the adventure.
22. Added cost. Bringing a dog along isn't cheap. They need the proper gear, food, supplements and vet visits. If you bought cheap dog food and didn't feed supplements (which I would NOT recommend for proper nutrition and this level of activity!), then you could probably budget around $50 per month on trail, perhaps $200-$400 total for a thru-hike, including gear and trips to the Vet (vaccinations, medications, etc). With an average to superior food intake, and depending on the size of your dog, I'd budget for ~$100/month (~$500 total). These are just averages, but the bottom line is that unless you are frugal with your money, at the expense of your dog's health, bringing them along is a significant added cost.
Questions? Please shoot me a comment below.