Canine backcountry packs have to stand up to sharp rocks, rain and mud, so they must be sturdy. They should also be padded for comfort, lightweight and breathable, and have adjustable straps. When you’re ready to make a purchase, take your pooch to the outdoor store with you to assure a good fit. Straps should be snug, but you should still be able to fit two fingers between the strap and your dog’s body. Try out several packs by walking your dog up and down the aisles to make sure the straps don’t chafe his belly, chest or legs. Even though it’s important to be able to see your dog in low light, most packs give the merest nod to reflective material, so I sew a generous strip of yellow reflective tape to each saddlebag and attach an LED light to Argos’ harness. If your pack doesn’t include one, buy a harness for water crossings and a small bell for the rear of your dog’s pack to alert bears that you’re coming down the trail.
For day hikes, take compostable poop bags, which are made from corn. But don’t leave them on the trail! Too many times, I’ve seen trails littered with bags people either forgot or chose not to take with them. Your dog’s pack makes it easy to “bag it and drag it”; your dog can carry out his own waste until it can be disposed of appropriately. For multiday treks, carry a garden trowel so you can bury the waste. Don’t just kick your dog’s feces into the bushes because “it’s all biodegradable anyway.” Burying dog and human waste in a six- to eightinch- deep hole at least 200 feet — about 70 adult paces — from water sources prevents bacterial pollution that can make wild animals (and your dog) sick.
Bring two collapsible nylon bowls: one for kibble, the other for water, and pack a towel for cleaning your dog’s paws if you like to have him in the tent with you. Argos wants to bed down beside me, all 80 pounds of him, so I towel him off at night, and clip his nails before every trip to prevent tent rips. (Carry a patch kit just in case.)
Deciding how much food to pack takes some calculation. Using a waterproof bag, start with your dog’s usual ration and increase it by 50 percent for multiday treks. Don’t skimp; dogs expend a lot of energy swimming rivers and climbing steep switchbacks. Include trail snacks, a quart of water and purification tablets or a pump to purify backcountry water. Make sure both sides of the pack are weighted equally; the total should not exceed one-third of your dog’s body weight. If your dog’s pack is too heavy, plan to carry the excess yourself.
Pack a dog first-aid book and kit, plus a snakebite kit with a pump, and learn to use the pump before you go. Add a dose of antivenin (available from your vet), two booties in case of paw injury or soreness, and a muzzle or a sock. Tuck in a copy of your dog’s vaccination records, including his name, breed, age, any medical conditions, the phone number of your vet and your own contact information.
By leashing your dog, you can avoid many hazards. Dogs poke their noses into intriguing holes, inviting the ire of ground-nesting bees or poisonous snakes. Loose dogs also run the risk of being attacked by bears and big cats, taking a bad fall, or getting lost. Then there’s your own risk of contracting poison ivy or poison oak from your dog’s fur after he’s run through patches of these nettlesome plants and covered himself with their toxic oil.
Rivers and streams are gorgeous places to take breaks, but they can be tricky to cross. Scout for the calmest stretch, then throw a stick into the water to determine the speed and force of the current (be sure your dog doesn’t try to go in after it). If you can’t tell how deep the stream is, secure your dog and then wade in alone, using walking poles to probe the way ahead. Before crossing, remove your dog’s saddlebags and attach his leash to his harness (never to a collar!). It’s best not to carry your dog, but if you must, leave your pack, cross with the dog and secure him on the other side before returning for your pack. Take your time and above all, if you don’t feel confident about safety, be willing to turn back.