Megan aka Whoopie Cat and Huck: tips on long distance backpacking with a dog and gear list
Huck's Gear List:
*Pack: Groundbird Gear pack
*Leash: Rocket Dog 6' convertible slip lead (proudly made in VT!). I also carried the waist portion of my bungee waist leash. While the UL backpacker in me cried to carry it, it was invaluable when attaching him to things like trees during breaks, picnic tables at shelters, my pack while in town, etc.
*Sleep pad: Thermarest z-lite (cut in half)
*Sleeping Bag: I had planned to use my puffy jacket to cover him, but the nights never got cold enough for him to need it
*Food storage: several ziploc bags, 8oz plastic cup to measure food (taken from hotel room). The excess food that I carried went into a separate food bag that I would hang at night with his bowl and pack.
*Dog bowl: collapsible bowl (would not recommend attaching to dog pack; his got punctured on day 2)
*Paw wax: Musher's secret
*Microfiber pack towel. Which we didn't use on our 165 mile section - just one day of real rain.
*Orange bandanna, for safety and adorable factor. Made by mountain.mutt.made on etsy.
*Poop bags for town, poop trowel for the woods: I buried his poop like I would my own while in the backcountry. I carry the *Deuce of Spades, weighing in at half an ounce!
*Collar with ID tags
Huck carried his pack, a little less than half his food, his Musher's wax, and pack towel. I sherpa'd the rest.
Some background/trail prep:
I have thru hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Colorado Trail. Over 2,500 miles of backpacking experience, over varied terrain and through varied elements. 105 of the 273 miles of the Long Trail coincide with the AT, which means I've already hiked over a third of it. However, being a new (and first-time) dog owner - Huck and I spent our 7 month adopt-a-versary on trail - I have never been responsible for a dog on an extended backpacking trip. Which meant that in the days leading up to my - or rather, our - hike, instead of feeling SO excited I was pretty anxious. Not without a healthy dose of excitement mixed in, but still, anxious for how my furry hiking partner would fare over the coming weeks. I had planned out our mileage ahead of time, planning to build gradually and planning to carry most of his food since with the insanely hot summer we had I had not been able to condition Huck (or myself, as evidenced by my trail-ending injury) as I would have liked. I also had decided to transition him from his regular kibble to something that would be more easily found on the trail in the quaint general stores I was likely to encounter - after walking to the neighborhood CVS, I figured its selection would be as limited as any I'd find on trail - the winner was a 4.4lb bag of Purina Puppy Chow. I chose puppy chow because 2 friends I made on the AT who hiked with their dogs had used it, citing more nutrients in the puppy chow that would be beneficial while hiking big miles for days on end. So I portioned out the food into ziploc baggies and loaded a few day's worth into Huck's pack, and the the rest into mine. I didn't figure it was fair for him to carry all the food, at least right off the bat, even though the bag of puppy chow was 4.4lbs - exactly 10% of his body weight. I decided to load a little less than half the bag into his pack, along with his Musher's wax and pack towel; I was his sherpa for the rest. I knew the mileage would be tough on its own.
When we hit the trail I immediately felt better, and the fact I had worked with him on a half dozen overnights in the mountains around MA, VT, and NH on hiking behind me in a heel position helped tremendously. For the first day I kept him on leash, since we had NOT worked on perfecting his recall. He has a high prey drive and I didn't want him abandoning me for a chipmunk, or worse, deer, or worse still - a bear or porcupine. Although eventually I decided to let him off leash for half the hiking we did for the first week. He did well -- staying right beside me and respecting my commands to stay back when he began creeping around where the trail widened. I gave him 5 chipmunk chases per day before leashing him for the duration of the day. I didn't want him wasting precious energy, but wanted him to have a little bit of fun. It was his hike, too. And if we encountered other humans, dogs, and always at shelters, he would remain leashed. Keeping him in a constant heel while hiking made it incredibly easy for me to spot upcoming distractions like off leash dogs ahead and prevent him from running up to them, or block the errant unknown dogs if need be. His off leash freedom ended around Clarendon Gorge when scrambling up rocks we spotted Mr. Prickles the Porcupine chilling among the boulders. I thought that hiking with him on a 6' leash would be annoying for all-day affairs, day after day, but I got used to it, and was happy to have the peace of mind that he couldn't get into trouble. I don't hike with trekking poles so it was no problem for me to just keep my wrist behind me as I walked. I could almost forget he was there! Until of course he jerked after a chippie or snagged himself on a tree.
As we got farther north, the terrain became rockier, rooty-er, and more technical. Huck is 2 years old, on the lean side of healthy weight, and a very agile, working breed dog - Australian Shepherd/cattle dog mix - so I had seen first hand that he can handle what the LT would throw at us. He has some experience with ladders and near-vertical ascents in the Whites of NH. One of the most surprising moments on the LT was when he parkoured up a 7' rock wall just north of the Appalachian Gap! I was in the process of finding him an easier route but he just went for it. I kept him unleashed in those technical sections for both of our safety (after ensuring no porcupines in the immediate trail vicinity). I also made the decision to take his pack of for intense descents to save his knees, and lowered him down a ladder at one point by his harness. Although as fate would have it, my body gave out and we had to quit the trail. He seemed very tired during the breaks we took and would lay down at nearly every opportunity after the first few days, but also seemed to really enjoy backpacking life. Every morning he would zoom around the campsite (once we were alone on the trail, or in camp with just our friends), or find the biggest branch he could and drag it around camp and wrestle with it.
Know your dog/trail etiquette:
Huck is friendly but shy and nervous around people he doesn't know, so I kept him away from people and asked that they didn't pet him unless he walked up to them if called. I find it much better to avoid a growly situation by being up front about your dog's needs. Even if they're as cute as Huck, they don't need to be forced into being everyone's best friend. Which also solidifies the trust your dog has in you, and after only 6 days Huck came out of his shell and became much more comfortable with nearly every stranger he encountered in the woods! I would only get halfway through my spiel about him being nervous when he'd be at their feet (for those hikers interested, of course). Otherwise every time we passed a hiker I gave Huck the command to "pull over" and he would sit-stay on the side of the trail until released. I feel proper etiquette is key when hiking with dogs; I try to be a good ambassador for trail dogs and their owners. As far as the few towns we hitched into, if I had to leave him I would attach him to my pack, put him somewhere out of the way to avoid any humans or dogs from interacting with him while I was gone, and keep my visits into stores brief. I had worked on his down-stays and place command since adopting him 7 months prior, and before hitting the trail began gradually building up to more distracting areas/longer durations, and ultimately public places like restaurants, storefronts, etc. so that he was not stressed out when I was out of sight. I actually got several compliments on his good behavior! And of course a tired dog from a full day on trail is usually not going to have much energy to waste anyhow. I continued our obedience work as best I could on trail to keep him sharp, and also did his party tricks (stick 'em up is always a hit) at shelters to endear him to others on the trail. Speaking of shelters, Huck and I tented every night since it was always a shared space.
Dog food/doggie maintenance:
As far as the trail went, the southern 58 miles were incredibly muddy, but we only had one day of rain and I found that somehow despite his being pretty muddy, I never needed to wipe him down at night before getting into tent. I fed him breakfast first thing in the morning, before breaking down the tent or eating my own breakfast, and he would eat dinner first thing when arriving at camp. He went from 1c twice a day (at home) to 1.5c twice a day, with some extra kibble for lunch mixed in with a couple heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter. I found that lunchtime really helped boost his energy. We ended up hiking bigger miles than I had planned; about 13mpd average over the 2 weeks we were out there. Our shortest day was a 7 miles (first day; we got to camp at 2pm and were incredibly bored until sunset) and our longest day was just over 17 miles. When his energy started flagging or he looked tired, I would take his pack off and carry it. I also made sure to give him plenty of decent breaks through the day, especially during the few days with temps in the high 80s - mid 90s (gross). Lots of water breaks, cooling his paw pads in streams, and splashing water up under his belly, groin, and armpits. Speaking of paw pads - the most important ritual we had was taking care of them. Each morning (after breakfast, of course) I would apply Musher's Secret Wax to his pads and inspect them for damage. This was something we had practiced for months to get him used to me handling his paws, and now he could sleep through me messing with them.
Since we have been home he has seemed more confident around other humans, which is a huge deal. I have no doubt he could have finished the remaining 108 miles if my ankle hadn't gotten injured, despite the intimidating faces of Camel's Hump and Mansfield looming ahead of us. Our mileage was about to drop down to a cool 10mpd to account for the increasingly difficult terrain. It was a novel experience to backpack with a dog that I am responsible for, rather than other friends' dogs who I can appreciate for their ability to make you smile after a hard day's hike, pets, and help with finishing up those gross Pasta Side leftovers. It was difficult in ways that I had until now only heard about, but his companionship made the miles of the seemingly deserted (but gorgeous) Long Trail less lonely. I liked having him at camp to talk to and take care of, and to snuggle with in the tent in the mornings. Though each morning his stretching stressed me out as his nails clawed at my $500 tent, and it was more difficult to hike thinking about how the 5lbs I had managed to shave off my base weight through several years and hundreds of dollars worth of gear upgrades was immediately replaced with his dog food and gear, and it was much more difficult and expensive (hotel pet fees, etc.) to navigate town life, his cute fluffy face and his sheer enjoyment of much of the trail reminded me why I wanted him out there with me. I'm not sure if I would attempt a 6 month hike with him, but I look forward to getting back to the trail next summer and seeing what those remaining miles leading to Canada hold.
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