When I haul out our backpacks, Argos leaps for joy. Time for another wilderness trip! A weekend outing in a nearby national forest or a week-long adventure in Washington State’s Glacier Peak Wilderness is equally exciting for my 12-year-old Shepherd mix. He knows we’re headed out to do some backpacking, and boy, is he ready!
You and your dog can get ready too — and why not? Once, at the summit of Angel’s Rest (a bluff on the Columbia River Gorge), about a three-mile uphill trek from the trailhead, I met a full-of-beans Dachshund who was in great shape. Most dogs can enjoy trekking the outdoors. Just be realistic about your dog’s endurance potential and tailor your trip to suit his abilities. Few experiences match hiking with a dog on backcountry trails, and with the right planning and preparation, your trip will be fun, safe and respectful of the animals and plants whose home you’re visiting.
Preparation is key, and it begins with things that — as a responsible dog owner — you’ve already done. Your dog is spayed or neutered (which reduces that roaming urge) and microchipped (collars are a choking risk and tags can fall off). You’ve made sure he’s trained to respond to basic obedience cues, which will help you manage his behavior on the trail, and he’s current on the vaccinations that will keep both him and wildlife safe.
Although the rabies vaccine is the only one required by law, others are essential when you’re hiking in wild areas, and even in nearby “urban wilds,” where foxes and coyotes make their homes and where water sources may be contaminated. Not only is an unvaccinated dog at risk of contracting disease, he can also transmit disease to wild canines. Your dog should be vaccinated against bordetella (“kennel cough”) and have the standard DHLPP inoculation, which protects against distemper; canine hepatitis; parvo; parainfluenza; and two strains of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease most frequently transmitted by direct contact with contaminated urine, either on land or in water. Several veterinarians I spoke with suggested a leptospirosis vaccine that protects against four common strains; they also warned that even a dog who’s recovered from the illness may shed the bacteria in his urine for up to a year, and shouldn’t be taken into a wild area during that time.
Make sure your dog is on a heartworm- prevention program. Most heartworm preventives also provide protection against intestinal parasites like the raccoon roundworm, and some even provide moderate flea control. Good tick control is a must; check with your veterinarian about preventive products, and take along a Tick Twister or some tweezers. To transmit disease (such as Lyme), a tick must be attached for 24 to 48 hours, so plan to give your dog a good going-over each evening to remove the little monsters before they do any damage.
Few dogs can do a backpacking trip without endurance training. Start close to home with hour-long hikes (adjust according to your dog’s fitness level), and include uneven terrain to toughen his paws and give him a cardio workout. Within weeks, you’re likely to be ready for day-long excursions farther afield. Provide plenty of water and snack breaks, and hike only as fast and as far as your dog can go comfortably. Get him used to wading and even swimming. Some dogs take one look at a rushing stream and say Forget it!, but if you build the challenges slowly and make water training fun, many will be unfazed by white-water riffles.
Most national parks don’t allow dogs on hiking trails, but national forests do. Dogs are also allowed in many designated wilderness areas as well as most Bureau of Land Management holdings, but do your homework. Browse online at wilderness.net for an overview of wilderness areas around the country. Invest in a guidebook for the place you want to visit. Update your information by checking in with district rangers about current conditions and trail closures; ask if you’ll encounter snowfields or steep terrain, and whether you’ll have access to water and shade. Some backcountry areas are simply too hot for dogs, putting them at risk of burned paws, dehydration and heat stroke, to say nothing of snakebite.