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.
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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.
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.
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.
When you backpack with your dog, you’re a guest in someone else’s home, so practice “Leave No Trace” principles (read more about them at lnt.org). Before leaving on your trip, groom your dog, removing seedheads or other plant material from his coat to avoid spreading invasive plant species. Wild areas, even tough-looking deserts, take years to recover from disturbance, which is reason enough to keep your dog on the trail and leashed at all times. Good trail etiquette requires it, too. A sudden encounter with a loose dog can be alarming to other hikers. Because I like to hike hands-free, I use a 16-foot retractable lead attached by its handle with a carabineer to an eye-loop on the front of my pack.
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.