Thalita "Wolf Mama" and German Shepherd Nala thru hiked the Long Trail this summer. In the following interview you'll read about specific difficulties of the rugged Long Trail, how Nala got all the calories she needed and some general planning tips if you are a prospective long distance hiker with your dog.
Here's how Wolf Mama summed up her experience:
"My magical journey through the wilderness ended the same way it began, with tears in my eyes and my heart overflowing with emotions. I can officially call myself a Long Trail Thru-Hiker / End-To-Ender!!! I am so happy to have reached my goal of thru-hiking the LT this year but I’m also very sad to see this amazing adventure come to an end. I’ve grown so much and learned a lot about myself and how strong I really am in the past month, physically and mentally. This was the hardest challenge I’ve ever set myself up for, but it was also the most empowering, freeing, and meditative thing I’ve ever done. I’ll never be the same!"
You can find them on Instagram @thalitaaax
The Long Trail is known to be very rugged. There are sections with aluminum ladders to descend and steep ledges, etc. Were any of these sections particularly difficult for Nala, if so- how did you get through them?
I found blog and forum posts talking about these sections all around the internet, but I found myself coming back to bringfido.com and hikewithyourdog.com. However, the most reliable source of warnings was the hikers coming from the opposite direction. The key was having communication with home base so they could advise me on how to negotiate these obstacles. I used a satellite text messenger, but in a pinch, a cell phone with a battery pack could work.
The simplest solution, which we took on the Forehead and the Cliff House of Mount Mansfield, was to simply avoid the areas with ladders. For the Forehead there was a bypass trail called Forehead Bypass and for the Cliff House, we just didn’t go. However, there was one section called Ladder Ravine near Camels Hump, about 1.5 miles north of Cowles Cove shelter where there was a 12 ft aluminum painters ladder we had to descend. Based on everything I had heard, there was no reasonable way to bypass it nor was the ladder short enough to assist Nala down the ladder. So in my resupply earlier that week, I had a crevasse-rescue pulley system delivered, and intended to lower Nala down by her harness. When I arrived at Cowles Cove shelter and had rain predicted the next day, I erred on the side of caution and took a zero day, waiting for the rain to pass before trying to pass any dubious obstacle. The following day, when we reached the ladder we found that by going maybe 100 m off the trail, the cliff that the ladder descended decreased to maybe 4 ft, which Nala just jumped down.
How did you keep her calorie intake up?
Being such a big dog, she consumed something like 5 cups of food per day, which is why her robust pack was so essential. Nala’s food was kept in gallon-sized ziplocs, with each day being a separate bag. It helped with rationing and watching for healthy consumption. On a resupply day, I would pick up ziplocs full of food and critically, make adjustments to how much should be in the next food drop.
If not for my support crew, intake of food, particularly nutritious food, would have been difficult. As a German Shephard, she’s prone to joint problems, which is why I make sure she has food that’s loaded with glucosamine and chondroitin. But getting that food at every little town along the trail seemed impossible, unless I shipped it to the post office, which would have been expensive. What’s more, even just finding any dog food or treats is hard if your resupply stop is a one-horse-town with a single gas station. And if you find the food, nutritious or not, it comes in a bag too big for Nala to carry. So in the lead-up to the hike, before I knew I was going to have support, I was considering all kinds of solutions involving the mail and bump boxes and maybe cutting her good food with whatever I could find in each town, etc.
The bigger challenge I found was getting her to eat all her food. She tended to be torn between the option of sleeping and eating. So to combat this, I served her food as often as possible (which she tended to eat while in sleep-position) and I would sometimes mix some kind of treat into her food to motivate to choose to eat over sleep.
Did you have any routines for your dog for town days and resupplies, paw care, and bedtime?
We actually only had one town day, per se, and it was at the Inn at Long Trail. We didn’t make trips into town because I had a support crew who was either delivering supplies and picking up waste in-person.
Regarding paw care, I used Musher’s Secret. I bought the 200-gram container, which is this cylinder roughly 4 inches across and 4 inches tall. This worked well because I could just stick it on Nala’s paw while she laid on her side, and twist it back and forth to apply the wax. In hindsight, I probably could have bought a few 60g containers and had the same effect, and not had Nala carrying a half pound of wax.
Bedtime was never really an issue for her, whether we were on the trail or in the Inn. The trail made her so tired that she would nap at any opportunity, and her breed is so well equipped for the outdoors that the heat or cold or rain or bugs never really bothered her. That being said, I bought a vestibule for my tent, and on nights when it was rainy or particularly buggy, she would sleep in the vestibule.
What's your best advice for prospective long distance hikers with their dog?
Make sure your dog comes back when you call them. Nala was off-leash for the entire hike except when we were crossing roads. Having good verbal recall is very important because sometimes you may come across another hiker that’s uncomfortable with dogs or even another dog that’s not friendly. (Please note: Nala does not have a prey-drive)
Train your dog before you thru-hike. I very frequently took Nala day-hiking and weekend-hiking before we thru-hiked so she was physically in shape to be climbing mountains all day. Also, I also made her wear a pack on her back with some weight to make sure she was used to having it on her as she walked/climbed.
Trust. Trust between you and your dog is essential. Nala likes to wander around and explore but she never goes where she can’t see me. When we were at camp, she just wandered around and patrolled the campsite. On the nights that we tented, Nala slept outside the tent. Every morning she was always right outside my tent waiting for me. If you are uncomfortable with your dog being outside the tent while you are sleeping, train them to sleep inside the tent with you.
Do your research. Make sure with the trail or forest association that you’re planning on hiking that dogs are allowed on the trail. Also, plan out what gear you will need for your dog. It’s important to keep in mind that your dog will need gear for its safety, health and comfort. I spent a lot of time debating over what type of gear was best for Nala. I’d have to say I made the greatest choice when I went with the GBG pack for dogs! I also added Benadryl to my first aid kit and actually had to use it with Nala on one occasion.
Follow trail etiquette. When your dog poops, push it off away from the trail or dig it up. No one wants to see that, smell that or risk stepping on it. Be aware of other hikers or dogs on trail and at camp. When you are on a summit in an alpine zone, make sure your dog doesn’t walk on the fragile plants. Vegetation in those environments is very delicate and can be easily destroyed with trampling. If your dog likes to wander into the grass, just keep them on a leash.
When you complete your thru-hike, don’t forget to apply for certifications and patches for yourself as well as your dog! Most associations now grant them for dogs as well, and I believe dogs should be recognized for their grand achievement just like us. Nala is officially a Long Trail End-to-Ender just like me!
And finally, what trail do you have your eyes on next?
I really want to do the PCT. I’m not sure I’ll have the time for a whole PCT hike, so I’ve been more intently scoping out the John Muir Trail. It’s shorter and goes through some of the more noteworthy areas of the PCT, and is coincident with the PCT for much of its length. In essence, the JMT is to the PCT what the LT is to the AT.
Big congrats to Nav and her Sheltie Arrow for a successful Northbound thru hike of the Appalachian Trail! It takes a very special dog to hike the entire (dog) AT and we want to know how Arrow did it! Here's our interview with Nav!
Nav's video blog is here: www.youtube.com/c/HikingWithArrow
And her Instagram is: @hikingwitharrow
What was your approach to bringing Arrow on the thru hike with you- did you think she'd do the entire trail or were you playing it by ear based on her energy level?
The very first time I ever backpacked was 3 years ago, and Arrow went with me (she was only 6 months at the time). On that trip, I saw a different side I had never seen — she just seemed so happy and free! She really came alive out there, and she behaved so well. When I decided to thru-hike, I felt like I just couldn’t do it without her. She is her absolute happiest and best self on trail. I did plan to take her for the entire hike, but I obviously had to keep in mind that her happiness came first, and if it ever seemed like she wasn’t enjoying it, she would go home.
Did Arrow do every section except for the off limits sections in the Smokys, Bear Mtn and Baxter S.P.?
For the most part, yes! There were a couple random days where we were staying with friends and I was slack-packing that I decided to give her the days off to rest. She also, unfortunately, got Lyme disease during our hike, so she did have to take a couple days off while I continued on. She joined me two days later, though!
What were the main factors that contributed to Arrow's success on the hike?
Well, for one, her breed. She is a Shetland Sheepdog, and this breed was literally created to run all day. Arrow is very much a working dog, so when we would be hiking every day, I really think that she thought she was working and it was her job to get my tramily and I down the trail every day! (So cute.) Our longest day was 32 miles, and I swear it didn’t even phase her. She is extremely athletic and motivated. I think another thing that really helped her was her attitude. This kind of feels silly to say, but I feel like Arrow is a very positive dog and is always ready for whatever. I could tell when we were going up long uphills that it would start to tire her out, but she’s smart and would slow down or take breaks to keep her going. Oh, and I can’t forget, the abundant amount of sticks she chewed on! I think that definitely kept her spirits high and kept her going.
What type of logistical and physical support did you get from folks at home?
Obviously hiking with a dog can be a little complicated, and my husband was so great with helping me. As you know, dogs aren’t allowed in the Smoky Mountains, so Arrow couldn’t do that section with me. My husband, Parker, came and met me before the Smokies to pick up Arrow, and then he also brought her back to me after I finished them! That was pretty much the only help I needed with her from home, as I was always able to get her dog food in towns and such. One other instance, when Arrow got Lyme she was able to stay with the parents of one of the guys I hiked with. The trail provides!
What are some things that came up during your hike bc you were hiking with a dog that maybe you hadn't thought of before-hand?
I’m not gonna lie, the whole Lyme disease thing really freaked me out. I was SO diligent about tick-checking her every single night, but I guess sometimes you just can’t help it. Thankfully, Lyme is much easier to treat in dogs than humans, so she just had to take a couple days off and she was back. Luckily we were staying at one of my tramily members’ houses during this time, so she was able to hang out with his parents while we were hiking.
Would you mind sharing about any particularly difficult days you and Arrow had?
The day we were supposed to hike into Harper’s Ferry, WV, Arrow started puking profusely that morning during our hike. We had about 11 miles to go that day, and she started doing that around mile 4. My hiking partner and I just kept stopping with her every time she would start to throw up, and then eventually we took turns carrying her. Thankfully there was a road 1 mile away when she started throwing up, so we very slowly got there and I got a hitch into town to a vet. After running tests and everything, the vet said she was totally healthy and that she probably just got into something or drank some weird water. That was a scary day, but everything turned out great!
What were some of your favorite things about having Arrow with you and/or what was your favorite memory from your hike?
Oh, man. I couldn’t imagine having hiked without her. She is such a loyal, fun little companion that always brought a smile to anyone’s face. Every morning she would cuddle with me, and then she would make her way around camp and snuggle with anyone else who wanted it. I always had people tell me what a mood lifter she was! There were times that I’d be on a tough uphill or just was feeling tired, and seeing her happy little face encouraged me so much and gave me the will power to keep going. One reason I love backpacking so much and got into it so heavily was because I knew how happy it made Arrow. It makes me happy to see her so happy!
What other advice would you like to give to prospective long distance hikers who would like to take their dog?
I could go on and on about this, but my biggest thing I always preach is just make sure it’s the right dog. The breed of your dog, what its intended purpose is, is so vitally important. Also, does your dog enjoy long hikes? Not just 5 or 10 miles, but 20 miles over tough terrain. It’s important to assess your dog’s ability to handle that kind of exertion and if they actually enjoy it. The physical safety and all around well-being of your dog is your number one priority! Another thing that is so important to think about is how well behaved is your dog, really? We all like to think our dogs are the best, but having a dog that runs up on other people, other dogs, gets into people’s stuff, etc., can be a real nuisance. You must consider the people you’re around and how your dog will come across to them. Also, having a dog that listens to you and minds is vital. There are so many exciting smells, sights, animals and other things that your dog may want to check out, but for your safety and theirs, it’s important that they listen when you tell them what to do. Some other things to think about are: When in town, you have to be sure to find dog-friendly places. Not all are! Also, not everyone is a dog person, so sometimes you may not be able to hang out with certain people if they have issues with dogs.
What's next for you and Arrow?
Well, we are about to move to Pittsburgh, PA, and we’ve got some future hiking plans in the works. :)
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