Thru-Hiking With Your Dog: 3 Important Considerations

Having served 22 years in the British Army as a canine trainer/instructor, I gained a lot of experienced in deploying to a variety of environments including deserts, jungles and mountains. Covering many miles a day with my canine partner over varying terrain in less-than-ideal conditions was not unusual. But I would not change a single day and sharing those times with a canine partner made it so much more enjoyable.

Paul Bunker Dog Trainer

Paul and his team in Bosnia

During these times it was common to carry all the gear needed for both my canine and I, and we would share the tarp/tent for rest periods. We were not allowed to attach saddle bags to the canine, so had to haul all the gear ourselves. I first deployed in 1983 before Gortex and Cuben fiber, which made the gear heavy and bulky. Today things are so much lighter and easier, and there is science behind the requirements of undertaking a long-distance hike with a canine.

In the recent past I was Program Manager responsible for several projects to assess canine nutrition, conditioning and stamina, and other things. This provided many lessons in the way we approach deployments of working canines, and the lessons learned are applicable to long distance hiking.  Here’s what I learned about thru-hiking with a dog.

1) Nutrition

Just like human counterparts, the caloric requirements will increase as exercise increases. The amount will vary based on climate, terrain, mileage, if the canine is off-leash or on-leash and the dog’s fitness, among other factors. Although this will vary from dog to dog you can estimate requiring a doubling of the calorie being required. A good plan is to split feed your canine; this is a feed of 50% the daily amount in the morning and the 50% at the end of the hiking day.

A high quality food is better than a high bulk food. Increase in protein and fats will be better than feeding more bulk. Blue Wilderness produces high-protein dry foods with a good calorie-to-weight ratio.

“Booster bars” are used by hunters to give their dogs a burst of energy during the working day. Realtree Xtreme Fuel™ Dog Energy Booster Bars are a good example, and easy to pack along. If possible give your dog an hour of rest after a meal before strenuous exercise to prevent the risk of gastric bloat and/or torsion.

Water of course is important. Canines are susceptible to Giardia and waterborne parasites/disease just like people. Treat your canine’s water supply as much as possible.

Canines do not sweat, instead they lose heat via their breath and paws. If the temp/humidity index is at a certain level, it is physiologically impossible for them to keep cool. The heat/humidity indices need to be watched as well as signs of overheating. If a canine shows signs of heat stress, it needs treated immediately or serious injury could occur. This Heat Stress Index chart gives a guide to the relationship between temperature and humidity, and the requirements to consider when exercising with a canine companion.

2) Conditioning

Conditioning prior to a long-distance hike is important for the dog. Stamina training is different than cardio in canines, just as it is in humans. Throwing a ball a few times a day will not prepare them for the stamina required for distance hiking… especially if you intend to have them wear a saddle pack and carry any weight.

Just as you complete shakedown hikes, so should your canine. This will ensure any gear does not cause rubs or soreness, and will also begin building their endurance.

As a general rule, strenuous exercise should not be undertaken before the canine is 10 months old. This is due to the fact the growth plates of the long bones are not yet closed, and trauma or fractures may occur. Keep in mind that dog’s plates close at an earlier age and large dogs a couple months later.

Despite popular opinion, exercise does not appear to increase the likelihood of osteoarthritis in dogs free of factors such as obesity.1

Exercise could include hiking, swimming, trotting. Heart rate and exercise monitors are commercially available if you feel the need to use one. Build the training up at the pace adapted to the individual dog—overweight dogs used to gentle walks cannot be expected to enter a strenuous exercise plan immediately. For hiking, you should train on endurance, achieved through sustained periods of exercise of at least 15 minutes, 4+ times per week.

Rest is important, especially in the early stages of conditioning. As the canine gains fitness, the need and duration of regular rest periods will decrease. Signs of lameness needs to be addressed to ensure no long-term risk of injury. There may be a level of stiffness in the mornings after a day of hiking, just as in a human.

3) Veterinary Considerations

First, before embarking on a long-distance hike I would recommend getting a detailed veterinary examination to confirm no issues which could cause problems.

Discuss some medications that you can pick up that may be useful on the trail, recommendations include:

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for insect/spider bites
  • Topical antibiotic ointment for superficial abrasions or irritations
  • Eye wash
  • Probiotics to limit gastrointestinal issues
  • Gauze and wrap for possible lacerations

As well as having all preventative injections up to date you should also consider:

  • Monthly use of a flea and tick treatment is very important while hiking. The canine will be in an environment surrounded by ticks. It is very important you take precautions to minimize the risks of tick borne diseases.
  • Heartworm preventative needs to be included in the monthly treatment regime.
  • Use of Mushers Secret prior to and during the hike will help the paws cope with the rigors of distance hiking.

You can use a bounce box to mail these items along the trail and administer as needed. Carry a small amount of Mushers and refill at resupply mail drops.

1) Levine D, Prall E, Hanks J, et al. Running and the development of osteoarthritis. Part I, animal studies. Athletic Therapy Today 2003;8:6–11.

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Comments 2

  • Karla : Dec 19th

    Excellent article!! Thank you for putting this out there to help those taking their canine friends. I work with animals in my practice and there is such much more involved in their training and care than some people realize. I’m doing my first thru-hike in 2016 but without my furry friend. He is too arthritic and couldn’t make it up the first mountain. Thanks again!

  • Eva Briggs : Dec 29th

    Thanks! It is nice to see an article with useful information rather than bashing people who hike with their dogs. I am hoping to through hike with my dog in 2016, as long as he continues in his current excellent health (we’ll be checkin with the vet for a complete exam before departure.) I think he has more stamina than me. I’ve tried out a hands-free leash and it works very well. All that training on how to walk nicely on a leash is paying off. I’m not worried about my dog wandering, because he is used to off-leash hiking in familiar areas, but I want to keep him safe from hazards and from bothering other hikers.


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