My dogs are some of my favorite hiking companions. When I decided to thru-hike the Long Trail, I knew I wanted to bring them along for the adventure. So, in 2015, I spent 21 days hiking the trail with my husband, Dan, and our two dogs: Mika, a then 6-year-old husky mix, and Lucy, a then 8-year-old Lab mix.
Thru-hiking with my dogs was ultimately amazing, but it added an extra level of difficulty to the hike. It wasn’t just my wellbeing I had to worry about – I had to ensure that they were happy and healthy as well. I needed to monitor if they were eating and drinking enough through the long miles and humid weather. I had to help them follow Leave No Trace Principles. And, as they love to beg, I had to keep them from being a nuisance to other hikers.
Is Your Dog Fit Enough for a Long-Distance Hike?
There are many variables to take into consideration when planning a thru-hike with dogs. Knowing if your dog is fit enough is one of them. According to veterinarian Dr. Gina Roberts, “An exam by your veterinarian to ensure your pet is healthy enough for endurance exercise is always an important place to start. You should also take into consideration the breed of dog. Some breeds are not as well suited to hiking, or endurance activities, as others may be.”
Conditioning your dog before attempting the trail is important too. Dr. Roberts recommends to “start with short distances and slowly build up the distance and intensity. For example, start with 10-minute walks several times a day, and build by 5 minutes weekly. Train on similar geography as to where you will be hiking to acclimate the dog to changes in elevation. Avoid over-exercising the really young. Excessive exercise before growth plates close could cause long term problems. I would recommend waiting until at least a year of age, though older may be better, to start training, and as I stated before, go slow and read your pet.”
In my experience, there was a learning curve for my dogs on how to navigate rocky, steep terrain. It took multiple hikes before they could easily maneuver over the difficult New England trails. By the time we went out on the Long Trail, my dogs were seasoned hikers. We had recently completed the White Mountain Four Thousand Footers so they were accustomed to a similar landscape. We were able to average almost 14 miles per day with a few 16-19-mile days. That high mileage may not be feasible for all dogs.
Another thing to think about is if your dog will wear a pack or not. Dr. Roberts states, “Training your dog with a pack and slowly increasing the weight is important … in a well-conditioned dog, ensure to never exceed 30% of body weight. I would recommend starting with a pack that is 10-15% of the dog’s body weight and slowly increasing weight with training.” Both of my dogs wore packs and carried their own food. They carried about 3-5 days worth of food at a time, which was measured out into individual Ziploc bags for ease of feeding. Along with our human food, we included dog food in our resupply boxes.
Canine Trail Nutrition
With the increased exercise that happens on a thru-hike, making sure your dog is getting the appropriate amount of nutrition can be a challenge. According to Dr. Roberts, “During endurance activities, such as long-distance hiking, a dog may need anywhere from 2-5 times their resting energy requirement. Talk to your veterinarian to find out what caloric intake would be appropriate for your dog at rest and during activity.”
The type of food your dog eats can also affect their performance. Many hikers consider a dehydrated dog food to save on weight, but Dr. Roberts says, “Dehydrated diets may sound better weight-wise but may not be better nutritionally. Unfortunately, there is not extensive research available to determine if dehydrated diets are well balanced, especially when participating in endurance activities, such as long-distance hiking. I would recommend a performance diet that is more energy-dense, highly digestible, and higher in fat. An example would be Purina Performance 30/20 or Hill’s Science Diet Adult Active. Both have higher calories per cup than normal maintenance dog food. Higher protein and fat are important for endurance activities. Always change foods gradually, so starting them on the new diet before thru-hiking is important. We want to make sure they are well adjusted and tolerate the food.”
Another important tip from Dr. Roberts is to “not feed a large meal prior to activity. It would be best to feed your pet at the end of the day to avoid hiking with a full stomach. A large volume of food prior to exercise could cause discomfort and increased risk of gastric dilatation and volvulus, or GDV/flipped stomach.”
First Aid for Dogs
A first aid kit for your dog is also essential. Below are some veterinarian-recommended items to include in your kit:
- Vet Wrap/cling wrap and gauze to bandage injuries
- Benadryl for allergic reactions*
- NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) pain medication in case of an injury or lameness*
- Neosporin to apply to wounds
- Styptic powder to stop bleeding associated with broken toenails
- Protecting your dog’s feet with a product such as Pad Guard or Tuf-foot beforehand may be beneficial. Boots can also be utilized if the terrain is abrading your dog’s footpads.
- A harness in case of injury and the animal needing to be carried. Most dog backpacks can serve as a harness.
*Remember to check with your veterinarian on drug dosages before medicating.
Aside from my dogs’ packs and first aid kit, other gear that I find useful is:
- A dog bed – There are packable dog beds, but I have also seen hikers cut a foam sleeping pad in half for their dog.
- A collapsible dog bowl
- A pack towel specifically for your dog (wet, dirty dog and dry, clean tent don’t mix well!)
Tough Spots on the Long Trail
There are a couple of areas on the Long Trail that can be difficult even for the well-conditioned canines. The first is dubbed on the map as “Ladder Ravine”. Located just north of the summit of Burnt Rock Mountain, there is one metal rung ladder. Most dogs cannot climb it and must be carried up or down.
Another area with multiple ladders is the forehead of Mount Mansfield. Luckily, there is a Bad Weather Bypass Trail that can be taken to avoid that section. There are a few other ladders and re-bar scattered throughout the trail, but they can be maneuvered by most dogs.
Transportation and lodging in town can also be difficult with a dog. Not all volunteers or businesses may allow dogs in their cars or buildings. Some inns only have a limited amount of rooms that allow dogs, so you may need to plan ahead more than someone hiking without a dog. I was lucky enough to have a lot of family and friends in the area to help with shuttles.
Rules & Etiquette
It is also important to become familiar with the guidelines that the Green Mountain Club and our public land managers recommend following while enjoying the trail with your dogs. Dogs are allowed throughout the trail, including at the overnight sites. They are allowed in the shelters as long as no other hikers object. They should be under control at all times whether that is under voice control or by leash. Dogs should always be leashed while hiking in alpine zones, which includes the summits of Mount Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, and Mount Abraham. Other places leashes are required are near roads, overnight sites, water sources, and at other hikers’ requests. These guidelines are important when trying to adhere to Leave No Trace principles.
Even More Tips
Watch our four-part “Hiking with Dogs” video series for even more tips for hiking with your canine companions, including training, health, and long-distance hikes:
A Final Thought
The most critical thing to remember is to not “hike your own hike,” but to hike your dog’s hike. You know your dog better than anyone, so rest when they want to rest, hike mileage that is appropriate for them, and be prepared to get off trail if they aren’t thriving. It is important that both dog and human enjoy the experience. When this happens, thru-hiking with your dog will be a memorable and rewarding adventure.