Considerations Before Taking Your Dog on Your Thru-Hike

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.

Health

Bandit overlooking the beauty of the Sierra. Photo courtesy of Nathan Olsen.

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.

Vaccines

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), Leptospirosis, and the Lyme disease vaccines. 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.

Microchip

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 dog’s 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.

Spay/Neuter

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.

Food

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

Gotta take care of their paws! Photo courtesy of Nathan Olsen.

Generally, if your dog displays any of the following symptoms on trail, you should be concerned.

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Reduced energy
  • Lameness
  • Stiffness
  • Pain
  • Joint swelling
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • 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.

Etiquette

A happy hiking dog. Photo courtesy of Nathan Olsen.

Hostels/Hotels/Town

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. 

Tact

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 to be respectful of other people’s 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.

Food

One common complaint about dogs on long-distance trails is 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.

Leash Etiquette

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 bylaws 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:

  1. In campgrounds and on leash, and
  2. 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.

Responsibility

A thru-hiker’s best friend. Photo courtesy of Nathan Olsen.

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 five 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. 

 

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Comments 4

  • OldWolfe : Jun 20th

    One serious concern is the heat. Once the temperatures get above 80 F or 25 C, Dogs have a large risk for heat stroke. At our nearby state park they have about 4 dogs die every summer because of heat stroke. Once temperatures get to that level I would be very reticent to take my dog on the trail. https://www.thv11.com/article/news/local/heat-exhaustion-prompts-officials-to-rescue-dog-off-pinnacle-mountain/91-565440408

    Reply
    • Samantha Olthof : Jun 22nd

      Absolutely. Not only do they need frequent breaks in the heat, but also a lot of water! Depending on the dog and the conditions, one may need to reschedule their hike or skip a section and come back when the weather is more temperate. Alternatively, you could stick to mostly night hiking and avoid the daytime heat.

      Reply
  • Nancy East : Jul 6th

    I’m a small animal veterinarian so this is a topic near and dear to my heart, and I write about hiking safely with dogs often at http://www.hopeandfeathertravels.com. It’s always great to see other folks who are mindful of keeping dogs healthy and safe on trails too!

    Just as an FYI, I think you may be referring to Leptospirosis instead of Parvo in your post. Leptospirosis is spread in the urine of infected animals (which can obviously contaminate water sources in wilderness areas). Parvo is primarily transmitted through feces from other infected dogs and is something we see most often in puppies (but not always, if an adult dog is not vaccinated). Both Lepto and Parvo can be vaccinated against, but many vets treat Lepto as an “optional” vaccine, reserving it for dogs who are more likely to be exposed to it (and hiking dogs certainly qualify). Lepto is also zoonotic, meaning it can be spread from animals to humans, hence another reason vaccination is important for trail dogs. Anyway, just a little FYI. It’s not impossible to catch Parvo from a stream, I suppose, but it’s waaaay more likely that Lepto is what they’ll encounter in the woods. 🙂

    Happy Trails!

    Reply
    • Samantha Olthof : Jul 6th

      Hi, thanks for your feedback! From what I understand, Parvo can be caught from standing water (especially puddles), not so much moving water. Is that right? You would know more than me about it though. I’ll add reference to Lepto to this article because that seems like a great suggestion. I’m also going to go check my puppy’s vet records and see whether she got that one yet!

      Cheers

      Reply

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