Note: this article originally appeared on The Trek, which you can read here.
There tends to be a pretty negative reaction when people ask about bringing their dog on a thru-hike. It’s not necessarily that dogs are incapable of thru-hiking, more than many of them are unprepared for the challenge… or their owners are. In my last piece, I talked about the training required for taking your pup backpacking. Here, we’ll discuss more specific health and etiquette considerations for thru-hiking with a dog.
First, you need to make sure that your dog is in good health before they do any strenuous physical activity. Check with a vet before taking your dog thru-hiking to ensure that they are in top-notch condition. Consider the breed and temperament of the dog to determine whether they would thrive or struggle in such an environment. And be sure to take them on some shakedown hikes to see how they react in the wilderness. You shouldn’t be taking them thru-hiking at all until they are full grown to avoid damage to their bone structure.
You must get your puppy fully vaccinated before taking them backpacking. Parvovirus is a really dangerous virus that can be caught by drinking standing water, and dogs on extended trips are at risk for being infected. Here is a thorough article about puppy vaccines, including age requirements.
In addition to mandatory vaccines listed, I would recommend getting the bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine and the Lyme disease vaccine. Lyme disease (and other tick-borne infections) are risky to humans and dogs alike, and they’re on the rise across the US and Canada. Before you take your dog backcountry, you should research what insect-borne diseases are prevalent in the area and the symptoms to watch out for. For more details and tips about about tick-borne infections and prevention, check out this post.
Getting your dog microchipped is a good idea before taking them on any extended trip. A microchip is an identifying chip, about the size of a grain of rice, inserted under the skin on the back of your dogs neck. If they wander off in the woods or in town and someone finds them, vets, shelters, or animal control can identify them with the microchip, and you will be notified.
Getting your dog spayed/neutered before backpacking will make life easier. There will always be other dogs on trails, and you don’t want your dog becoming an unexpected parent. When I was at Hiker Heaven, one of the guys in my bubble had to keep his unfixed dog leashed because one of their dogs was in heat at the time.
Like thru-hikers, thru-trotters need more food than normal to fuel their exertions. You may need to double, triple, or quadruple their food intake while hiking. My friend Nathan (who generously provided the images for this post) thru-hiked with his dog Bandit. He used this dehydrated food and highly recommended it. He would supplement their packed food with dog food he could buy locally (and some human snacks, which I would generally avoid). If your dog starts losing weight rapidly, increase their food intake right away.
Additionally, consider how your dog will adjust to the on-trail diet. You may not be able to get the food they normally eat, or you may wish to supplement their diet with snacks. Some dogs have food allergies or sensitive stomachs that need to be accommodated. Adding variety to your dog’s diet in the months leading up to the trail can help them get used to eating different foods before you start your thru-hike.
When to Worry
Generally, if your dog displays any of the following symptoms on trail, you should be concerned.
- Loss of appetite
- Reduced energy
- Joint swelling
- Rapid weight loss
- Difficulty breathing
- Diarrhea/constipation/any abrupt change in bowel movements
This could mean any number of things. They may be injured or ill. They may not be receiving adequate nutrition (not just food quantity, but also quality). Depending on the severity of symptoms, they may need to see a vet ASAP.
When you go into a town or look for hostel/hotel accommodation, you need to make allowances for your dog. Some places may not allow pets. Some may, but only on-leash. You may not be able to take them into stores while you resupply. You have to be willing to change your plans to accommodate your pet. This may mean spending less time in town or skipping certain hiker stops.
It is important to remember that some people truly don’t like dogs, for any number of reasons. You chose to be out in the wilderness with your dog—they didn’t. So try and be respectful of others wishes and keep your dogs away from people who are not interested in being near them.
Leave No Trace (LNT)
In areas with sensitive vegetation, your dog should be kept on leash to prevent damage to the ecosystem. Furthermore, dogs are not local to wilderness trails. The same as your own waste, you should be digging catholes (dogholes?) for your pup.
One common complaint about dogs on long-distance trails are that they steal food from other people. Hiker hunger does not abide food theft. Your dog needs to be well-behaved and well-fed to prevent them from scrounging or stealing food.
When to keep your dog on-leash:
If your dog is not good with other people or dogs, or if their recall is not spot-on, you should strongly consider keeping your dog on a leash while hiking with them. It is important to remember that many jurisdictions have leash by-laws in place, so stay informed about local laws. You should probably also keep your dog on leash when you are in town.
Dogs are not allowed in National Parks, with the following exceptions:
- In campgrounds and on leash, and
- service dogs.
When to keep your dog off-leash:
Keeping your dog off-leash in the desert is actually a key safety precaution. They can walk ahead and seek out shade and wait for you rather than having to be by your side, in the sun for longer periods.
If you are walking on steep slopes or rocky scrambles, you may want to keep them off-leash to allow them to choose their footing and approach. If your dog slips or falls in one of these areas, they may pull you down as well. This also applies to river crossings. You know your dog best, so it is up to you to decide how best to approach these challenges.
Long-distance hiking is very difficult to do with a dog. Unlike a hiking partner, a dog can’t tell you when they’ve had too much or where they’re hurt. You need to be highly attentive to your companion and tailor your hike to their needs.
I knew a guy named Hershey on the PCT who was hiking with his dog. We were doing about 13 miles into Acton KOA, but he didn’t show up until much later that night. “Where were you?” we asked. “It was too hot for Archy. He curled up under a bush and wouldn’t come out for 5 hours. So I dug out a spot beside him and waited until he was ready to hike again.”
Despite their wolf ancestors, most dogs are not good at hiking long distances. You may need to do shorter distances each day to keep them healthy. They definitely require training to build stamina. But more than anything, they need you to put their needs first, because they love you so much that they’ll try to keep going when they can’t. They can’t speak up and explicitly tell you that they need to stop. It is your responsibility to put them first. I cannot emphasize this enough. Even if you do try thru-hiking with your dog, you may need to make the heart-wrenching decision to send them home.
Ultimately, the final decision of whether or not to thru-hike with your dog lies with you and the trail you’re attempting. Is your dog up to the challenge? Are you? Is that particular trail conducive to taking a dog? Only you can answer these questions, but remember to keep your four-legged companion’s needs before your own.