How I Thru-Hiked with a Golden Retriever
It all started with a contest. Make a video why you want to hike the Appalachian Trail. My idea was simple.
I just wanted to go for a long walk with my best friend.
My video went viral, we won third place! All the gear I needed was on its way, and the countdown to Katahdin had begun. I dove hard into the black hole of hiking online. To my dismay, advice on thru-hiking with your dog was lacking at best. Not to mention there was nothing about Golden Retrievers thru-hiking. So I took a risk and jumped into the unknown. We did make it through, but struggled a lot during the first half of the trail. My goal is to spare you of the same distress by answering some of the most common questions I get.
Indiana “Little Spoon” Doanes is an 8-year-old Golden Retriever. He started at 75 pounds, and in mediocre shape. We were into running and day hiking before we left, but nothing intense. I figured we had six months to get into shape, not to mention our home base was the flat glacier hole formerly known as Buffalo, so we didn’t have much choice. He is an active therapy dog, so he is great with people and good off-leash.
By the end, he only lost a little weight, coming in at 73 pounds. He was on a monthly heartworm and a three-month tick and flea pill. He had full bloodwork panels done before we left to ensure there were no underlying problems, and to create a baseline for when we got back.
We headed south from Maine on July 6, 2017, and finished in Georgia on Dec. 13, 2017.
Did He Go the Whole Way?
My answer is always, “He sure did!” but truth be told, Indy missed the following sections:
- Baxter State Park
- 100 miles of Pennsylvania
- The Smoky Mountains
Sprinkle in a couple of slackpack days when he got to stay at the hostel or hotel, but that wraps it up. Indiana did complete most of the trail. I like to argue he walked just as many miles as anyone, seeing he would double back all the time. Along with herding. More of that later.
What Did He Eat?
Besides all the extra stuff we could stuff into our faces in town, obviously, his hiking food was the same stuff the champion dogs of the Iditarod eat. (see below)
Before we left, his dog food at home was Purina Pro Plan. After endless online research, an expensive talk with the vet, and a good amount of Indy nonapproved food donated to the local SPCA, it took one NOBO to finally solve our food dilemma.
What I Started with, What Worked
For the 100-Mile Wilderness I used his regular Purina mixed with Honest Kitchen dehydrated food. It was a pain rehydrating, got stuck in his collapsible food bowl crevices, and I noticed that it added tartar to his teeth quickly. Add in he was losing weight and his energy level was pretty low. Insert a sweet NOBO at Shaw’s hostel with her dog. She told me she found this certain food—expensive, but it seemed to work. She disappeared, only to return a few minutes later with an extra bag she had. Bless her heart, because the rest is history.
The only thing I added was glucosamine powder and the occasional olive oil for extra calories on those long days. I noticed quickly that he added muscle and his energy levels were better. I should also add that for lunch Indy got peanut butter, a lot of it. We became semi-famous for the invention of the peanut butter stick. Way easier to scoop, you never have to clean it, and if you lose it, you just pick another one up off the ground. Almost as genius as my eating Cheetos with a spork idea. But I can’t give away all my secrets!
Speaking of that 100-Mile Wilderness, I did opt for a food drop. Being a baby SOBO, it was worth it. I also had the fortune of my parents sending Indy’s food to us on the trail. I would recommend using hostels over post offices wherever possible. When I couldn’t get his food (post office closed, lost package, etc.) he enjoyed whatever the local grocer had to offer. When the stores didn’t have any dog food (it happened) we went with his favorite, hot dogs with instant potatoes and cheese. Yea, he ate better than most on those days.
Did He Carry His Food?
Yup! The maximum days he would carry was around four days (eight pounds). This meant I got to carry extra food sometimes. All in the name of love.
Did He Carry His Gear?
He sure did. The only things I carried were his sleeping pad, puffy, and peanut butter (since we shared anyway). The heaviest his pack got was 12 pounds, but it usually averaged around six pounds. In the beginning, I would carry his pack during steep and rocky climbs (thank you Maine and New Hampshire), and also in the heat (I’m still mad at you for that, Pennsylvania). I started to compare his paws to tires. The more weight he carried, the quicker his pads would wear down. So I’d keep the pack on the lighter side as much as I could.
- Pack: Mountainsmith K9 Pack: Runs large, also sewed fleece on the inside to eliminate rubbing
- Food: Red Paw PowerEdge 38k
- Water bowl: Ruffwear Bivy bowl
- Food bowl: Sea to Summit X Cup
- Leash: Ruffwear Flat out leash
- Sleeping pad: Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Four squares cut off for easier packing
- First aid: Tick Twister New Skin Glue and Maloxicam (can be used as ibuprofen for dogs)
- Coat: Ruffwear Quinzee Jacket Only needed at night when temperatures dropped below 40 F
- Brush: wooden travel size brush Used it all the time, great for brushing out dirt and knots
- Paperwork: uploaded to Dropbox app (never needed it)
- Ramen: These are in hiker boxes everywhere, and make for a great backup snack or dinner if needed.
- Boots: Musher’s Secret Wax I went through three tubs of this. For the extremely relentless rocks of New Jersey through central Virginia, I found socks worked the best.
Socks you say. Yes indeed! I used boy-size socks and rubber bands for his big paws. A pack of socks was cheap enough that once they got holes, you could just dispose of them. Also becomes a fun game for hikers behind you to find lost socks and leave them in bear boxes for you.
Disclaimer: I tried every dog boot known to man, but none worked for his big, webbed feet.
Where Did He Sleep?
Underneath my hammock!
Believe me, yes, I was nervous about him wandering off, but would you feel the need to wander away after 15 miles of 4,000-foot elevation changes? As true as that was, I didn’t trust that mentality. I got a Cuben fiber tarp with doors (as if that would stop him, smh). But no need, he did great. Each night I would put his Therm-a-Rest foam pad directly under the hammock. That way, my down under-quilt was just above him to help keep him warm. The key was to hang lower, to ensure the tarp (if needed) would cover us both, along with the down touching his back.
I highly recommend hammocking with a dog.
Forget stresses of if he got wet, covered in mud, anything like that. While hiding inside my hammock with netting, I watched mosquitoes try their hardest to find a spot to bite him, to no avail. And if he needed to go to the bathroom, he could do so whenever he pleased.
By the time the November rolled around, I switched to a tent. It was too cold to hammock, and the Smokies loomed ahead. Indy, my pack, and I fit nicely in a Big Agnes UL2. Let me prepare you, cuddling with all your soaked gear and a soaked dog makes for a rough night. I quickly learned what it meant when it rains inside your tent.
What About Town?
Resupply: More often that not, Indy was essential to me getting a hitch. In the beginning, I was constantly reminded that they were only doing it for the dog. Fine with me. Once we got into town, if I had to resupply, I would attach his leash to my pack and find a good spot for him to hang. There was always a side grass area, or benches, something that wasn’t in the busy entranceway, but in a more secluded spot.
Hostels and hotels: Trail towns always seemed to have at least one dog-friendly option, but if not, Indy had a way of winning over people since he was so well-mannered. I may have pulled the service dog card a few times (he is an emotional support dog), but I hated doing it. Most of the time, I just accepted we would have to do our own thing. Fortunately, people are generally very nice. A few times I’d go in and eat at a restaurant, leave him outside, and find someone from the kitchen brought him a big bowl of water and some scraps. Trail magic prevails! But, there will be times you see the other end of the spectrum.
Trail towns: Our personal experience showed the least dog-friendly town was Harpers Ferry (with exception to the AT Conservancy, super dog friendly). Close second to that was Pennsylvania. More difficult to get a hitch, as well as finding dog-friendly locations. I’d actually like to start a petition we reroute most of that state. Who’s in?
Would You Do It Again?
I would not recommend bringing your dog to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
I literally struggled with this question every day. I felt very selfish. Either I was selfish for bringing him, or I was selfish for leaving him behind. Never in the whole expedition did it become apparent to me what the correct answer was. In the end, I am so happy he was with me the whole way. We cemented our bond, and lived harrowing experiences together. But, at what cost?
There are a few types of dogs that are made for the trail. Only you, their pride and joy of a pup parent, can determine if your pup is up for the challenge. If you have a smaller dog, check out this great article. My experience is with a large, purebred dog. I am basing my information on what I observed and talked about with other trail pup parents.
All that being said, I found Central Virginia through Georgia was great for us. Soft trails, switchbacks, southern hospitality, all the good stuff. It was in Maine all the way through Northern Virginia where you find relentless rocks sections, 20-foot rock walls, and steel rebar that is apparently made to help you climb rocks (lolz). I would recommend bringing your bestie for the second half of the trip (or first half if you’re doing it backward #sobolivesmatter).
It’s not that they can’t do the entire trail, or even that they shouldn’t, it’s just my humble opinion it would have been easier on the both of us if I could have worked out picking him up in Virginia. Believe me, I understand logistics are hard, try to plan this type of arrangement. Even throwing the idea out there on Facebook hiking groups, or word of mouth, it’s worth a shot.
Remember, this is what I find would work best for a larger dog. I watched in shock and amazement as a Corgi-mix scaled Mount Washington without even panting. Or when Lacey would chase squirrels down cliffs, only to pop up on the other side. Of cliffs.
I learned quickly that there is a big difference if the dog is a purebred or a mutt, big or small.
The mutts always did better as trail dogs; maybe it’s something with their ability to adapt? I’m no expert, but from what I understand a purebred dog is literally bred for very specific jobs. For example, a Golden Retriever is built to swim with big webbed paws, which is great for water, but not so great to withstand high trail mileage. In the end, he was able to adapt and became a trail dog machine.
I believe a lot of his success was due to one major personality trait of Golden Retrievers: loyalty.
There is a perfect description of Golden Retrievers on Dogsaholic.com: “They constantly seek the contentment of their owners. A Golden Retriever can focus well on various tasks, working to exhaustion. So, the owners of these dogs should be careful not to abuse them by giving them too many chores.”
Indy certainly would seem happy to walk that long 20-miler with me, only for me to find out later, that he had a cracked paw pad. It’s gut-wrenching how loyal they are, so be careful. In regard to size, the smaller dogs seem to hold the advantage, easily adapting to the terrain, where the larger dogs had a harder time. I also discovered Indy is a field Golden, which means working Golden, aka he likes to herd people. Great.
No matter what kind of fur baby you have, when you are out there with your pup child, the key is patience. Be patient with the millions of questions you get asked, be patient with your dog learning the ropes, and have patience with other hikers who are dying to know what kind of food you feed them. Make an effort to connect with your fellow thru-hikers with dogs. One NOBO helped us tremendously, but there were many others who gave cryptic (if any) advice. It is hard enough on your own taking care of your precious ball of fluff; imagine how much you might help someone by reaching out. I’d really like to see thru-hiking dogs become a flourishing and supportive community.
I hope this helps you in your quest for knowledge in adventuring with your fur baby! We hope to see you out there, happy, healthy, and loving every minute of it. Except in Pennsylvania; no one expects you to love that.
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