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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
In camp, before you turn in for the night, secure all food, trash and toiletries from bears and rodents in a bearresistant canister stashed at least 100 feet away or stuff sacks suspended at least 10 feet above the ground and four feet from a tree trunk.
Dogs can pick up a giardia infection from contaminated water. Symptoms include diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. Some dogs show no obvious symptoms, but they can still infect other dogs, so when you get home, collect a stool sample and take it to your vet; if your dog needs medication, it’s best to get it started right away.
Once you’ve made camp, no matter how much you want to, don’t unleash your dog. The “solid” recall that never fails at the dog park may easily fail in the outdoors, where there are so many new distractions. A 25-foot cable will allow him some freedom without giving him an opportunity to chase wildlife, and if you’ve set up well away from the trail, he can’t run at unsuspecting hikers. Remember, you’re an ambassador for dog owners everywhere, and we want to maintain our dogs’ welcome in the backcountry.
All of your preparations will pay off in the companionship you’ll enjoy with your dog on the trail — and what a pleasure to see the great time he’s having! After all, you’re sharing a special partnership that harks back thousands of years, to a time when our nomad ancestors carried everything they needed on their backs, a loyal dog at their side.
Photograph by Daniel Holz/TandemStock.com (Women & Dog)
Photograph by David Mathies (Mountain)
Photograph by Terrance Emerson (Golden Hill)
Photograph by Darcy Binder (Kenzie)