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.

About Indy

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?

One of our most brutal days on, where else,  Mount Washington.

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?

Sharing is caring.

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!

Peanut butter stick.

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.

Mom! Is it lunch time?

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.

Stuffed black bear not required, but big morale booster.

Indy’s Gear

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.

Little boy’s socks with rubber bands worked the best for his feet.

Where Did He Sleep?

It was great to have our own space.

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.

He was certainly good company.

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?

A cozy hitch with True Grits and Spoonman, aka Big Spoon.

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.

Starting left, Lacey, Roscoe, May, and Indy, who was always the biggest of trail dogs.

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.

 

Through it all, his loyalty kept him by my side.

 

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.

 

So optimistic 😉

 

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Comments 21

  • Tasia Kellogg : Jan 15th

    I love this post, thank you!

    I had my German Shepherd with me for most of Virginia. It was awesome and lovely and horrible and stressful all at the same time. My stress level was 600% higher with her, worrying if she was warm enough, comfortable enough, eating enough, etc. Tenting with a wet dog was miserable, especially after cold rain. The stress of finding food she’d eat as a picky eater in some towns was rough. Hiking in NH and ME, I was so thankful she was at home sleeping in a big bed and not trying to manage those slick, boulder (and rebar “ladder”) filled trails where I would’ve spent the entire time praying she didn’t fall.

    I completely agree with you: I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to have her with me the entire time, but I loved having her with me for the short time she was.

    Reply
  • Diane Doane : Jan 15th

    Great article! Of course, I’m a little bias! It is very important for hikers to have a strong support group, not only for resupplies, but for mental encouragement.

    Reply
  • Cieria : Jan 15th

    All of your posts are extremely helpful when planning a thru hike with a dog! What brand of dog food was the one that ended up working for you and Indy? I’m thru hiking with my 22 pound terrier mix in 2019 and am stressing over the best kind for him.

    Reply
    • Raider : Jan 16th

      So happy we’re helping! The dog food that worked for us was RedPaw 38k, check out their website, they have a few varieties ! http://redpawdogfood.com/poweredge

      Reply
      • Jo Upton : Aug 28th

        I’ve been told there’s an ingredient in peanut butter that is like poison to dogs, but I can’t remember it’s scientific name.
        Please, for your Goldens safety, check with your Vet!!! 😍

        Reply
        • Katie Doane : Sep 5th

          Thanks for your comment! The nasty ingredient is called Xylitol, and I believe Palm Oil is nasty as well. You are right, natural peanut butter is the best!

          Reply
  • Jason Monforton aka Skipper : Jan 15th

    Excellent article Raider! And I think your conclusion was spot on.

    Hiking with Raider for probably 100+ days I could see the joy and comfort Indy brought her, but could also see her struggles. I had similarly conflicted emotions with my pup Lacey, especially during the final few weeks when cold and snow became the new norm. Using all her canine communicative powers she would ask, “Daddy, what are we doing out here!?!?”

    Every thru-hiker intent on bringing their dog should give serious consideration as to whether a full thru-hike is best for their particular pooch. Dogs of a wide variety of sizes, breeds, and temperaments can unquestionably make amazing hiking companions, but very few are suited to ALL of the varied terrain and weather conditions that you will encounter on a trek like this. I decided to let Lacey sit out Maine and New Hampshire, but in retrospect she probably would have rather skipped TN/NC and Georgia.

    And as Raider mentions, don’t let the prospect of logistical complications make that decision for you. After a few hundred miles on the trail you’ll be an expert at solving those minor problems.

    Also, seconding the motion to relocate the entirety of the AT’s passage through Pennsylvania!

    Reply
    • Raider : Jan 16th

      Thanks Skipper!!! oxox

      Reply
  • SOLACE : Jan 15th

    Fantastic writing Raider!! Always enjoy reading you… Hats off on your hike!! Happy Winter ~ SOLACE

    Reply
  • Bob Norton, Jr. : Jan 19th

    Awesome, spot on article. Booster and I (now a 5.5yr old Dalmatian) have done sections, often doing trail magic while hiking. It has to be their hike, not yours. Patience is key as you have said. We did Pinkham Notch up to Madison Hut in 2016 and while that’s one of the toughest climbs I’ve heard on the entire AT, Boo’s loyalty kept him going. I’m just not sure I’d want to do that to him for the entire length. Awesome writing and you have an outstanding best friend.

    Reply
  • Megan Tischbein : Jan 21st

    Ahhhhh! I was the NOBO at Shaw’s Hostel!! I’m sososo happy the food worked out for you guys and that you made it the whole way. Congrats!!! <3 Yogi and Boo-Boo

    Reply
  • mckillio : May 28th

    Thank you so much for the article, it puts me at ease a bit for me and my dog’s upcoming thru-hike of the Colorado Trail.

    My dog, Bear is a almost two years old, 50lb wooly (longer, fluffier, and keeps cooler) Siberian Husky. He’s got tons of energy and we’ve been doing 15+ mile practice hikes with up to 11lbs on him, hasn’t skipped a beat yet. And we actually just switched to Redpaw X-series Performance and he definitely seems to like it better than his old food.

    I do have a couple of questions for you though.

    1. How much water did you add per cup of food?

    2. Did you train Indy with the socks and booties ahead of time? Bear hasn’t used any foot protection yet and given his breed and training so far I don’t plan to but I’d hate for him to get hurt.

    3. When did you feed Indy? This can be pretty breed/dog specific and Huskies are known for only eating when they need to. But Bear generally doesn’t eat in the morning, will eat a decent amount during our >halfway break and at night.

    4. How did Indy react with wild animals, namely large ones and snakes?

    Reply
    • Katie Doane : May 28th

      So happy to help! And SO happy you and your pup are exploring some fabulous terrain together!

      1. I did not add any water to his food. I start with dehydrated food, and realized it weighed just as much as dry food. Not to mention it was so messy and took time to ‘bulk up’. The trail we were on was full of water (minus PA). I would almost always camp by a water source he could drink from, otherwise I was carrying over 4L to our wherever camp. Overall, go with the RedPaw, you’ll be amazing at his muscle gain!

      2. Indy had worn booties before. Living in Buffalo, the snow would get packed in between his pads, so I tried some boots, and they were great for short jaunts outside. But his feet were SO big, they never fit right. Long story short, yes, he knew what the shoes meant. He also still walked funny every time I put them on, they def get used to it after a few minutes!

      3. It’s crazy Huskies are so particular about food! Goldens will eat their weight in food wherever, whenever haha. I fed him breakfast while breaking down camp. Every time I had a snack break, he’d get one too. Peanut butter was great for both of us! I’d give him dinner after I had set up camp for the night. It will become second nature to you if he’s dragging from lack of energy, and they get used to an ‘unusual’ feeding schedule very easily.

      4. On the AT the biggest thing we saw was a Black bear, which was Indy’s size (he’s a good 75 lbs Golden). He completely surprised me! One crept up on us while we were eating dinner at a mountain view. I didn’t even know the bear was there, but his fur went right up, he started growling, and barking, and I saw the bear run off. Dogs seem very pre-disposed to other wildlife. He even walked right over a rattlesnake once and didn’t care in the least it was sunning itself and then slithering away. But this is a super specific thing. I am spoiled! Indy is an amazing dog that would never leave my side. OK, minus squirrles, the squirrels always win.

      Reply
  • mckillio : May 28th

    Ah! I forgot one. Would you have chosen different bowls in hindsight? The ruffwear food bowl seems like it should be avoided for this. I have two collapsible bowls similar to the S2S one that work pretty well and are easy to clean but if I can find a better/lighter one I’ll grab it.

    Reply
    • Katie Doane : May 28th

      What ended up working out best for us was I used the collapsible Sea to Summit cup (intended for us hikers to drink things out of, silly them!). I used this for his food bowl. Easy to clean, light, folded up flat, and it lasted. And of course, it fit no problem in his pack. For his water bowl, the Ruffwear works great! Mostly because the larger size and ability to simply scoop it into your water source to fill it up, and let it chill in your tent / under your hammock / etc. I was impressed by it’s ability to dry on its own, and never grow yucky stuff inside. I hope this helps! <3

      Reply
  • Maureen : Jun 2nd

    I am planning a SOBO trip with my Golden Retriever and I really appreciated hearing what worked out for you and your dog. My dog IS A SERVICE DOG and I was horrified to read that you “played the service dog card” when your dog has no right to public access. I’m glad you “hated” doing it but that makes no difference. A lot of us disabled veterans have service dogs and people like you are making it harder for people like us. Just stop it.

    Reply
    • Katie Doane : Jun 2nd

      So happy to hear you and your Goldy will be making the Trek!!! Indiana IS a service dog as well, I simply meant that I did not enjoy having to remind people they couldn’t turn us away when they wanted to. I completely agree, you will see a lot of doggos on the trail wearing the vest, but it’s pretty clear they are not service dogs. Best of luck!

      Reply
      • Maureen : Jun 3rd

        I’m sorry if I misunderstood you. You wrote above that Indiana (great name!) was an emotional support animal which is something completely different than a service dog and doesn’t have public access rights. Colour me confused! 🙂

        Reply
  • Sheryl Petch : Aug 26th

    What a cruel thing your sociopathic narcissistic money/attention grabbing behavior has lead you to to do to a loyal companion who could not complain. People like you always seem to enjoy exploiting an obviously hurt animal just to gain attention. Having done years of hiking, climbing and mountaineering across the country, I have NEVER subjected any of my 3 goldens or other dogs, to such continued abuse and selfish attempts at publicly. You should be ashamed of your behavior, not taking pictures of an animal that you’re torturing so that you feel better. Folks like you should never be allowed to own a dog.

    Reply
    • Katie D : Aug 28th

      Hi Sheryl, I am sorry to hear you feel that way. I have not received any compensation for any of my blogs or hiking outings. I did run a GoFundMe to finish the hike but never publicized my dog as the reason for it. Indy loves to hike, and I would NEVER intentionally put him through something to harm him! It hurts my heart that you feel this way, I love our Goldens more than anything and would do anything for them. I will admit I did not know enough about the AT at the time with the harsh North sections, but that’s why I wanted to share this article, and the other Golden owners that reach out to me I let them know it’s best to leave them home. I will say I met an amazing Golden this past hiking season that crushed the trail with no problems, so you just never know.

      Reply
  • Dawn : Sep 23rd

    Great article. I have a Golden as well. I learned so much from the article. May I ask, where there ever nights sleeping you were scared/nervous? I am taking my dog on a cross country trip in a few weeks. And we are going to the AT on the way back. Thank you

    Reply

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