How My Dog Survived a Thru-Hike With Me: Keeping Them Healthy
I dashed down the trail trying to beat the setting sun. My dog, No Shame was 20 feet ahead of me excited about the sudden increase in pace. The switchbacks on the Virginia mountain gave us a clear view of the trail ahead, or so I thought. The light was almost gone, everything surrounding the trail was in shadow and shadows hide a lot. The explosion of movement 40 feet ahead of me had me screeching to a halt and calling No Shame back to me, I feared she would be enticed into the darkness. I crept forward slowly expecting to see the flash of white as the deer bounded off into the distance. My already rapid heart rate soared as my eyes adjusted and the silhouette of a bear standing on her hind legs burned itself into my brain, two mini shadows stood by her side. I stood there frozen for a moment, heart racing, hand on my dog whispering sweet words to her as I slowly clipped her leash on. I watched mama bear closely as I took the corner of the next switchback and watched as she settled down onto all fours and directed her little ones downhill, the same direction I was headed.
I have spoken with so many people about my experience on the AT with a dog and I decided it was time to create a single spot for folks to get the information. This is how I did my hike, this is what worked for me and my dog.
A bit about my little lady, No Shame:
- She is a mixed breed rescue, best guess is husky and australian shepherd. No matter what the mix she is a working dog and is happiest when busy.
- She celebrated her 5th birthday while we were on trail, young enough to have energy, old enough to have manners.
- Her normal weight off trail is 35 pounds.
- She started trail weighing 38 lbs, she finished trail weighing 38 pounds.
- She started training to carry a pack at a year old and hit the mountains shortly there after. Having this much experience created a great foundation for the endeavor ahead of us.
Here is the basic breakdown of what we took on trail:
- Pack: Groundbird Gear – Roll top saddle bags
- Food: Merrick and The Honest Kitchen
- Water/food bowl: Ruffwear Bivy bowl (original design from 2009/2010)
- Leash: Ruffwear Roamer leash
- Booties: Mushers Booties
- Sleeping pad: Cut down old closed foam sleeping pad (Wal-mart sleeping pad)
- Blanket: Home made down blanket
- First Aid: Tweezers, Benadryl, vet wrap
- Jacket/coat: None
- Paperwork: Vaccine paperwork – Rabies, Kennel Cough, etc
- Bear Bell: Custom made
The moment you decide to take your dog with you, the hike is no longer yours but instead it is completely hijacked by the pooch. Be ready for this reality.
Things to Consider
It is important to be sure your pup has been conditioned, they will face the same challenges as you. It is highly unlikely that you are starting a 2,000+ mile hike without preparing for it, and if you are that is your choice to do so. Your dog is joining you because you decided they should, respect them by getting them ready. Start out by having them hike with an empty pack or none, let their body adjust to the physical activity before you add weight to them. Slowly start adding weight and increasing the distance. There is no way to prepare for the epic reality of this hike except to get out there and do it. Pay attention to your dog and how they are feeling changes happen gradually.
Nutrition is a challenge on trail and one of the most important things for your pup. Before you hit the trail you’ll want to decide if you’re going to keep them on a consistent diet or if you want to go with what you can find on trail.
I kept No Shame on the same kibble she’d been on for the past 4 years but I added The Honest Kitchen (THK) to it as a topper. This allowed me to increase her nutrition level without a large difference in weight or bulk. I discovered that how I fed her made ALL the difference. Breakfasts were just a little something to tide her over, a 1/2 cup of kibble. Her dinner was where the real bulk of her meals came from, it was 1 1/2 cups of kibble and 1/3 cup of The Honest Kitchen which I re-hydrated and mixed the kibble into. PLEASE if you don’t read any further or follow any other links I get it but READ THIS ONE!!! This is an article I wrote providing detail to how I fed my dog. Easier to send you right to the source then try to rewrite it.
Pack Weight and Fit
Pack weight is a debated issue. It is common to see 25% of their body weight listed as an appropriate pack weight, I feel this is too much for a dog to carry for any extended period of time. I decided to go with a max of 15% of my dogs weight. She carried 5 pounds and just like me her pack weight went down as she ate her food. I didn’t require her to carry anything other than her food and bowl. By limiting her pack to food only it meant I could balance it by making sure she had the same number of meals in each saddle bag. This also reduced the awkwardness of having a sleeping pad or other bulky items attached to her pack. It is SO important to make sure their pack is properly fit for them. You want a pack which does not shift on their body but is loose enough to allow their rib cage to expand as they breath. Watch for chaffing!!! Be ready to support your pup if needed. I carried my ladies pack when the days were hot, she seemed to be struggling, or if we hit terrain that made me nervous.
No Shame wore a Groundbird Gear pack. This pack system was custom fit to her. I picked roll top saddle bags which allowed me to roll them down tighter as we emptied them. The removable saddle bags made it easy to fit her harness before adding weight or allowed me to leave them off for the day while still providing me with a system to clip into. I made sure the saddle bags could hold 5 days worth of food and no more. She was able to maneuver almost any terrain in it, she did log ladders, rock scrambles, and river crossings but sadly never got the hang of narrow trails and would occasionally get stuck between rocks.
There is no magical equation which provides the answer to how many miles to hike each day. It will be a process as you will figure out as you go and which will change day by day, week to week.
Figuring out our mileage happened as we hiked. I kept the mileage low to start, not for No Shame but for me. As both our bodies adjusted it was easier to increase the mileage. When we were closer to town and her pack was lighter she was able to pull bigger miles. As the weather warmed up I had to pay closer attention to breaks, water, and mileage. When we took breaks the first thing I did was remove her pack, this allowed her body to cool off and for her to find a cold patch of ground. During the hottest days our mileage dropped by a third. If we were normally doing 18 miles a day we were lucky to make it 11 or 12 miles. Our average was 14 miles a day with our biggest day being a slack pack day at 24 miles. These distances are only true for me as she typically double or tripled what I did in a day while running back and forth on trail.
Having food or supplies mailed will create a more structured hike and in some ways a more expensive one. If you have packages shipped to a Post Office you’re able to bounce them further along trail, at no additional cost, if you don’t need them. Sending packages to hostels or hotels means the only way to move them forward is to pay to get them to a new location.
I decided early on that I was going to feed her well even if it meant my hike became more orchestrated. My trip was planned around going into town every 5 days to resupply. I had an amazing support person at home who made it possible for me to do mail drops. I would email my mother the week before with what I needed, along with a location, either a post office or a hostel, and an ETA. For the most part this system was great, we’d wander into town pick up our package and head on our way. If I decided I wanted to take a zero or we were delayed I had to accommodate for the difference in food. Typically I’d hook my little lady up with raw food, a chicken leg or thigh, instead of investing in 10 pounds of food I didn’t really want her eating.
Every town is different, there is no guarantee that you will be able to find a hotel or hostel that will accommodate a dog but use your AT guide to see who is listed and always call to confirm the latest information is correct. Dogs are not allowed into most stores so you need to come up with a solution for leaving them outside. When I first started on trail I set my dog up with hikers who I’d been hiking with but as we got into a routine I felt comfortable leaving her attached to my pack. On a couple occasions I returned to find a treat left on top of my pack or someone would drive up as I was headed off and hand me goodies for No Shame. You will find places which go out of their way to accommodate dogs, cherish them!
You will encounter varying terrain along the AT. Common sense is the most important thing you can use to handle it. There are cliffs, rivers, roads, rocks, thorns, and barbwire. Pay attention to your surroundings. The southern portion of the trail is relatively kind, simple dirt trail, as you move north you come into rocks and then the roots and mud. No Shame had trouble in northern PA with the jagged rocks, sliced one of her pads. In NH the rocks wore down her pads so when we got into town the hot pavement made her lame. Having spent her youth hiking through the Whites gave us an advantage as she was familiar with rock scrambles, ladders, and cliffs. I trust No Shame to find her own footing, in places were there is lots of scrambling or jumping I allow her full freedom. This prevents risk of injury to either of us because the leash is not interfering. We were not prepared for river crossings, my little lady would prefer to take a mud bath then have to walk through running water. At one point I would have preferred the mud bath too. When the streams are rushing be smart, remove your dogs pack and figure out the safest way for them to cross. When the streams were shallow or not very wide I allowed No Shame to pick her way freely across them, if the water was rushing and deep she was fastened to me.
It is recommended that you keep your dog leashed along the AT but leash laws vary place to place, some areas are more clearly posted than others. Shenandoah National Park rules state dogs need to be leashed at ALL times. This isn’t to be a pain in your butt, although my dog may have felt otherwise, but instead to keep you and your dog safe. After coming across 17 bears I was thrilled my dog was attached to me.
There is plenty of it out there! The AT is home to bears, deer, porcupine, skunks, rattle snakes, bees, rat snakes, copper heads, squirrels, and many more enticing critters. Know your dog and how they will respond to these animals. It is your job to keep both your dog and the wildlife safe. It is a natural instinct to rush to the aid of your dog, STOP! Be sure you aren’t putting yourself at risk if you are trying to assist your dog.
Ticks are ticks, there is only so much you can do. I treated No Shame with a topical tick control and did tick checks throughout the day and every night before we climbed into the tent. This does not mean we didn’t find ticks on us, on more then one occasion I woke up to a tick crawling across me.
Accommodating Other Hikers
Be respectful of other hikers, check with folks before you decide you’re going to settle into the shelter with a dog. If you are in the shelter and space is cramped make sure your dog isn’t taking up room someone could use, if so please move your dog. I suggest you carry your own shelter system with you in case the shelter is full or folks don’t want to share space with your dog. If your dog is a barker be ready to quiet them or place yourself away from other people. Being respectful goes beyond shelter space and extends to the trails. Keep your dog under control, don’t allow them to push past hikers, damage gear, or be rude via barking or growling. Begging is also a no no. Many hikers will be excited to see a dog on trail, especially one who is sweet and respectful.
Where They Can and Cannot Go
There are three places on the Appalachian Trail where dogs are not allowed to go. Starting from the south, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this section begins at Fontana Dam in NC spans approximately 73 miles to I-40. Bear Mountain Zoo, NY which is less than a mile – you can take Blue blazed bypass trail. If you are coming NoBo the bypass trail splits to the left immediately after going through the tunnel under 9W. Baxter State Park, ME -Dogs are not allowed in any part of Baxter. Initially I was very frustrated by the fact I couldn’t complete my thru-hike with my friend and hiking partner. As the day got closer I was resigned to the reality and instead had my mother print a picture of her to carry with me. I realized 3 miles from the summit that for my dogs safety alone it was best she was not up there with me. My hands were getting cut from grabbing rocks as I propelled myself upward, her feet would have been shredded. I let go of frustration regarding the dog rules and was thankful she was in a safe place.
If your dog is a service animal these places are not off limit to you. And I must bring this to attention as I heard it spoken of often on trail – please DO NOT get your dog “certified” or take advantage of the “they can not ask” rule just so you can bring them through these sections of trail. By doing this you are creating additional challenges for actual service dogs and their handlers.
There are vets in many of the towns if you need one talk to locals or do research online. I carried current paperwork showing vaccines in case there was a need to board or receive any treatment while on trail. While in Waynesboro VA, I took No Shame to the vet for an infected scrape on her ear. The vet was amazing and set us up with treatment, when the infection returned they worked with me via email and placed a prescription for the next town I would be entering.
Think about it
I hope this bundle of information helps you make an educated decision about taking a dog on the trail. As you can see there is plenty of stuff to consider and it is not a decision to be made lightly. My hike was altered tremendously because I took a dog with me. Be prepared to do what you need to do to keep your dog healthy and safe.
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