Preparing for the AT is for the dogs…
Being that our hike starts in a couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking back to last summer when I made the decision for Andi and me to hike the AT. Many may say that the journey starts when we step foot, or paw, on the trail, but actually our journey started back in July of last year.
For those who don’t know us, Andi is my PTSD service dog and me, well, I’ve proudly serviced my country for 28 years and have come away from it a bit banged up. I’m also finishing my masters in Canine Life Sciences. So this 5M+ Step Journey she and I are on will be documented and submitted for graduation.
Thinking back, I knew there would be a lot to do to prepare us for this hike. Me, well, strengthening my body, the trial and errors of equipment, getting out there and hiking distance. The nice thing about going through all this is that I’m not alone. There is a wealth of information out there to assist a wanna be thru hiker…blogs, forums, books, experienced thru hikers, classes and so on.
Preparing for Andi to be by my side on the hike is another story! There is very little information out there on the logistics of thru hiking with your dog. Unfortunately, much of the information out in cyber space is from naysayers. This blog entry will not go there.
I have had to start from scratch for the planning of this endeavor for us. Those who are close to me know what Andi means to me and knows that my focus has been more on preparing her and preparing logistically for her safety and well being as well as making sure this hike is just as enjoyable for her as I’m hoping it will be for me. In the end, this journey has been and will always be about making us whole again. Below is the short version of preparing for Andi’s thru hike:
Andi’s Physical Fitness
I taught Andi to run on a treadmill last year so this came in handy for helping her with carrying a weighted pack. I gradually added weight to her backpack over time (I’ll speak more about her pack later). Andi and I have taken many hiking trips since last summer to acclimate her to the sights and sounds of the night in the woods. We added distance with each trip to help with endurance.
I learned, over these several months, that by watching her body language, I knew when it was time to take a break, drink some water, cool her body in a pond or even stop for the day.
We have been in to see her vet several times to prepare, ensuring she is healthy and physically prepared for the hike. She has received more than the normal shots. Also, we (me and her vet) have had many discussions about what is the best prevention for ticks. This is probably my biggest concern for her and me…Lyme disease. We are trying an oral medication this week to see if she tolerates it well enough to switch over from topical. I also have a topical spray to use on her daily for added protection. On top of all this, I know that I have to be vigilant about combing and checking her daily to avoid ticks munching on her or me.
Last week she had her final full physical and has been cleared to go. Andi will also get a full physical upon return to compare her physical and mental health before and after our hike.
The Logistics of It All
On Call Along the AT
I have made arrangements with friends and family to come and get her if she needs help, as well as times when locations don’t permit her admittance. I know, that as my service dog, she legally is allowed to be with me, but I will not put her in harms way, nor will I upset the natural environment of such places like the Smokies. (These times will definetly be the most trying for me)
What to Carry
I decided that she will carry no more than 3 lbs at any given time. This weight includes her pack. Andi is medium size weighing 56lbs. I have learned over the past 9 months of hiking with her that if she carrys anything more than 4lbs she doesn’t enjoy herself and tires more quickly. I have decided that I would carry the bulk of her weight in food along with all of her water, first aid, sleeping pad and sleeping bag.
Interesting to note-my NEMO 800 down is currently be converted into a bag for her
My decision to carry her gear has caused me to research and learn more about UL packing. I have gone from 27lb base weight to 13lbs. Thanks to Andi I have learned to minimalize. I have to admit it’s been a costly change but well worth every penny.
This has been, by far, the hardest thing to logistically plan!
Andy’s diet has been raw for the last couple of years, so knowing that I have to switch her to other food while we are on the trail (Estimating 7 months) made me a bit nervous. We have been searching for high quality, high protein, minimal ingredient (primarily meat) and on top of all that it needed to be light weight.
Some foods that I tried didn’t sit well with her stomach, others were just too heavy in carrying weight.
We finally found a dog food that met all of our requirements. At first, I gave her small bits as treats to ensure the food was agreeable with her digestive tract. In January, on a 6 week trip to Florida, I switched her completely over to the new food…She loved it as much as she loves eating a raw diet! She also tolerated it really well!
A special shout out to Real Meat Dog Food for partnering with Andi and me on our incredible journey. They deserve a blog entry of their own so I can properly thank them for helping us. Here’s their link if you want an all natural, made in the US, great dog food! https://www.realmeatpet.com/realmeatpetfood.htm
Finding the right food was just the first hurdle that we overcame. The logistics of packaging, boxing and shipping is much more intense. In the attached photo, Andi is watching me measure and package her food into individual serving size meals. I have recruited family and friends to assist with mailing a week’s worth of food at a time to us while we are on the trail. Even though there is, and will be, a lot of time, effort and cost put into this endeavor, Andi is more than worth it…She has saved my life!
Taking a dog on a thru hike should not be taken lightly! Andi’s safety, well being and enjoyment is my number one priority. I am prepared to take more zero days if that is what she needs! I am planning on spending more nights in our tent than in shelters! I’m good with spending all my time with her in town. This journey is about us, not me.
I have spent more time preparing for her hike and in turn, these preparations have helped me be better prepared myself!
So, when you see us on the trail be sure and say hi. Do be aware that because of her training she will usually not approach you until I let her know it’s okay.
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