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.
Katie (Trailname "Crayon") and Oliver (trailname "Poncho") thru hiked Vermont's Long Trail northbound in July/Aug of 2018. Crayon had a successful thru with Poncho and agreed to share a few details. We hope it helps you in your planning! Poncho at the time of the hike was 1.5 yrs old, weighed 42 pounds, is a cattle dog mix and wore the size small Trekking Pack. Enjoy reading about their hike!
What kind of backpacking trips had you done either by yourself or with Oliver before the LT?
Honestly, we only did one multi-day trip before thru hiking. I adopted Oliver in October and decided to hike the Long Trail the following summer, so we haven’t been together very long! We have day-hiked together once or twice a week since I got him. At first it was very difficult. He had spent his entire young life in a cage and was not leash trained, had a high prey-drive, and zero recall. It was frustrating. I got the help of a professional trainer and was totally committed to getting him up to speed- I’m very active outdoors and it’s really important to me that Oliver be able to participate in all my adventures! But it’s also really important to me that he be well behaved, safe, and not a risk or annoyance to others. I live in southern New Hampshire and have really close access to some less populated hiking trails, so all winter we were out there training, training, training. I had always wanted to hike the LT but wouldn’t commit until I was certain that Oliver could handle it behavior and conditioning-wise.
Did you have any concerns with Poncho and the difficulty of the terrain (slab climbing etc) and or Poncho meeting a moose or other potentially dangerous animal encounter (snakes, porcupines etc).
By the spring I was feeling very confident in Poncho’s behavior and really proud of how far he’d come! I started taking him up into the White Mountains to see how he’d handle the terrain and some really populated trails. He is happiest when he’s hiking and he really impressed me with how trail-savvy he is. Part of that is breed, I think- he’s a cattle dog mix. The LT offered up some of the more rugged and technical hiking I’ve done. He needed a few boosts here and there. The handles on your pack were so useful! It was fun to watch him get more comfortable scrambling as we headed further North. By the end I was barely assisting him at all. Unless we were scrambling, I had him hike behind me so I could see what was coming- critters, people, etc. This worked really well for us. I leashed all through the Pico/Killington area because of the high porcupine population- there were warning signs on the shelters! I also leashed if we were hiking early in the morning or at dusk. We did the rest of the hike off leash! We saw 2 moose from a distance and he stood quietly and observed them with me. He chases the occasional chipmunk but when we’re long distance hiking and he’s wearing a pack he’s usually all business. I think he considers it to be his job, hahah!
What did he carry in his pack?
Just his food! I upped his calorie intake by 50% by adding a powdered, dehydrated dog food formula on top of his regular kibble. He was able to carry both comfortably. His pack never exceeded 10% of his body weight.
Did you decide to resupply in towns or do mail-drops, or a little of both?
I did mail-drops because I wanted to be sure that I’d have his food and in the correct amounts. It was a short enough thru-hike that this wasn’t really a big issue!
How many day sections between town days did you do?
We had 4 resupplies with about 5 days between each.
How did you do town days with Oliver?
I did end up hiking with some great people who were more than happy to help keep him entertained if I had to go somewhere, but there were a few instances where I had to tie him while I ran quickly into a store. I had to make advanced hostel or hotel reservations because of limited dog-friendly options, so I was held more to a set schedule than other hikers who could take zeroes, etc. if they wanted to on a whim. We had no zeroes, just a couple neroes. Hitching took a bit longer because on all the days we hitched it was pouring rain and I had a wet, muddy dog! The people who picked us up were of course big dog and hiker lovers and I was very grateful to them, hahah!
Did you need to do anything to help protect his paws?
I applied Mushers Wax every couple days and had a set of emergency booties, gauze, and vet wrap. Luckily we did not need them! His paws held up great!
What kind of sleep set-up do you have with him?
I have a 2-person tent (Big Agnes Copper Spur) and he sleeps on his own thermarest z-lite. I sort of committed to carrying more weight/extra gear once I decided he would join me on the thru. He’s doing big miles and long days like me so I felt that he deserved to be comfortable at night! He didn’t need any sort of blanket/sleeping bag, but on the 1 or 2 nights it got a bit chilly I covered him with my down puffy jacket. We did sleep in shelters through the northern portion because it was wet and rainy. He was really well behaved and handled this just fine.
What time is "doggie-midnight" ;)
As soon as he had dinner he would be down for the count! I put him “to bed” in the tent or in the shelter and he would sleep through the night. He also learned to grab a nap whenever we stopped for a quick break along the trail. I also gave him a longer 30-45 min rest in the middle of each day. He fell into a routine really fast!
What was your favorite day on Trail with Poncho?
It’s hard to choose one! He’s my buddy and such a loyal friend. I think the last day was my favorite. I was just so proud of him and so grateful for our friendship. I’m convinced he’d follow me just about anywhere. Dogs really are amazing creatures! I’m so lucky that Poncho and I found each other.
The Long Trail is America's oldest long distance hiking trail. It was the vision and dream of James P. Taylor in the early 1900s. He created the Green Mountain Club in 1910 and the first section of trail was cut in 1912. The final section of trail was cut in 1930. We visited the Club headquarters in Waterbury: it is very nice! Stop in when you visit VT!
Long before the creation of the Green Mountain Club, there were the Green Mountain Boys: a militia led by Ethan Allen. They, in a large part, are the reason Vermont is a state today and not part of NY. NY wanted those lush Green Mountains for themselves!
The GMBs' most famous feats include the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 from the British and they assisted in the Battle of Bennington which was also a victory over the Brits. Ironically, both locations are situated within the state of NY.
We were glad to visit all of these historical sites! We even made it up to Montreal for about 24 hours. The Green Mountain Boys also tried to take Montreal but failed. Our brief trip up there was also a bit of a failure as our Green Mountain Boy did not enjoy the busy streets!
Thank you for reading about our historical side trips and nerdom! We were pretty excited to meet some Vermonters who would recognize Cooper's special edition pack but only met 3 people who caught the pack's resemblance to the Green Mountain Boys' flag.
The Long Trail: Divisions 12 and 11: Canada Border to VT 15
Powder River and I planned to do a little more than one third of the Long Trail on this trip, from the border of Canada to Appalachian Gap, VT 17. We left our car at the Hyde Away Inn in Waitsfield (we highly recommend this Inn!) and paid for a shuttle to the Northern Terminus of the trail, about a 2 hour drive. Thank you Carlene for the great shuttle!
The Long Trail is 273 miles long from Canada to Massachusetts. It joins the Appalachian Trail at VT4 near Killington. It (as well as the AT) is marked with white blazes.
We arrived at the trailhead parking a couple hours before dark. The hike to the actual start of the LT to the Canadian border is 1.3 mile. We really enjoyed hanging out near the border! Our shuttle driver pointed out how the American border police SUV was parked nearby and we thought of what that job must be like. We camped about a half mile south of the terminus.
So Day One was brief but lovely! Day Two we hiked 8 miles to Laura Woodward Shelter (at the northern base of Jay Mountain). It was very difficult, as we expected! We remembered what Maine and New Hampshire were like on our respective thru hikes of the AT and knew that the Northern section of the Long Trail would be similar. The unknown for us on this trip was how Cooper would do. He is prey driven and we kept him on leash always, with the occasional brief spurt of "catch and release" to let him climb up or down major rock scrambles. I would release him and he would run to Powder River. No treat can ever trump his love of chasing animals and our caution was not too extreme (last summer he chased some moose that we had not seen fast enough to prevent him from chasing). What was extreme was Powder River's experience of being constantly bound to our Tuxedo Mutt on this incredibly rugged trail!
On Day Three we sat down on the side of the trail and thought maybe Cooper is just not ready for this kind of rugged trail and he needs more leash training. We also admitted that we were not in our old thru-hiker shape and this trail is really tough! I am sad to admit that we tried to bail on our hike and hitched down to Montgomery Center on Rt 242. God was good to not let us give up so easily and after a couple aimless hours in that tiny town with no cell signal, we hitched back to the trail and decided to hike to the road crossing for Eden. Good thing because our hike became much more enjoyable over the next several days!
The morning of Day three we had a great time on the fogged summit of Jay Peak. We hung out in the ski tram hut and ate amazing sandwiches from the cafe and drank Tram Ale, made especially for Jay Resort by Long Trail Brewing. Cooper was not a fan of the tram arriving and departing and kids coming and going. But he did receive some nice trail magic up there in the form of a bungee leash that was given to us by a day hiker!
When our hitch delivered us back to the trail, we hiked north of the road to camp and Jay Camp.
Day Four: We started working with Cooper to stay leashed and behind Powder on descents. It wasn't always perfect, and Powder had an active time preventing Cooper from passing him by planting his trekking poles in just the right spots so that Cooper could not squeeze through. It was possible though due to just how narrow the trail is and how incredibly dense the woods are! I'm actually amazed moose can travel through this mess of pines trees, each one tangled in it's neighbor. We saw moose tracks and fresh poop but never heard or saw one, probably for the better. (For those unfamiliar with moose: they are not to be taken lightly! They are very territorial and WILL chase you down to get you off their spot, as Powder can attest!)
You can probably guess by now that we were not on track to do our planned 100 mile section in our allotted 10 days. Possibly Powder and I could have done it without Cooper, but it still would have been very difficult and I know my legs would have been shot after the third 11 mile day and I'd be back on my ibuprofen regiment. We chose the pace we could handle comfortably which turned out to be about 8 miles a day. Day Four we did 7 miles and camped just before Rt 58 and the major climb up Haystack Mountain.
Cooper's trail running skills are only matched by his trail-side napping skills! He would lay down at every possible opportunity :)
Day Five: We climbed for hours over several false summits of Haystack Mountain. We made it to Tillosten Shelter around 4pm and a nice Canadian family with two young kids came in for the night. We walked on, past the pond and another 2.5 miles to Belvidere peak. A Nobo had told us there was a nice fire tower up there and that he had camped up there. And it was lovely!!!
Day Six we hiked out to VT 18 with a plan to hitch to Morristown, get a rental car and drive back to the Hyde Away Inn (reunite with our car and then return the rental car). We prayed for a hitch after trying to call around a get a shuttle but to no avail. Our prayer was answered in a big way: the second car that passed us picked us up and took us to Enterprise rental car! Our driver was really great and told us about his son who was "our age" and was a scientist but is currently a studio artist in Bennington. He gave us his son's business card and we were able to visit him at his studio at the end of our time in Vermont! What a pleasure to see your work in person, Aaron! Such an inspiration to see your work and know where it comes from! You can visit Aaron's studio in the 400 block of Pine St, Bennington, Vt behind Speedy and Earl's coffee.
Back on Trail and Finishing Divisions 12 and 11:
We got back on the trail a after a couple of days off and started where we left off: VT 118. We were excited to scramble through "Devil's Gulch." A Nobo we met on day one told us that it reminded her of Mahoosuc Notch on the AT in Maine. We were excited for that and also remembered that it took us 2.5 hours to do the one mile Mahoocuc Notch. So we figured it might take us a while to go through the gulch as well- but we also had no idea that it was so short in length, maybe 0.2 mile... It was fun but only took about 10 minutes and we only had to pick Cooper up by his harness handles one time.
We stayed at Spruce Ledge hut/camp directly after the gulch and met Anthony + Lisa; Kevin and dog Gibson: Sobo Long Trail thru-hikers. It was fun hiking with them for a day and they inspired us to do a big mileage day: 15 miles from Spruce Ledge to Roundtop Shelter. We had fun getting to know them and know that they must be having a great time journeying on the LT this month! Cooper enjoyed meeting Gibson! The next day we hiked out to the road where we completed this year's section hike, at VT15. We landed another God-sent hitch and made it all the way back to our car at the obscure trailhead parking of 118!
What we learned from this trip and some detail about Cooper's booties
We re-learned that we struggle to press on when we know our car is in the area and we again discussed what an admirable feat it is to be a section hiker! Powder and I both have this wonderful memory of our thru-hikes and what it was like to hike through pain and all sorts of trail and weather conditions to meet the end goal. We are not great section hikers however, and it's good to just remember that even though at one time we did 15-20 mile days, day after day for 6 months during our thru-hikes, we maybe need to set out with more gracious expectations for ourselves when we plan section hikes. Also we love to go to historical sites and we didn't exactly make time for that in our original plan to hike 110 miles, but when we decided to trim our section, we had more time to go to Montreal, Fort Ticonderoga, The Ben and Jerry's Factory, The Green Mountain Club, visit with our new friend Caitlin and her dog Vaida, go the the home of Ethan Allen, etc etc. It was a great trip and I'm glad we got to explore the area with our car as well as our feet on trail. The weather was also much hotter than we expected and we were glad that as section hikers we could bail and not press on over those rugged mountains with 90 degree temps!
We learned our own limits and Cooper's limits on a section hike on difficult trail in high temperatures. Cooper had to wear his booties (made by dogbooties.com) the first several days to protect his pads from the onslaught of granite. He became very good about us putting them on! This amazed us that he some how knew and allowed us to take care of his feet for him. At the end of our trip, his pads were more rough than when we started and his declaws were a bit irritated, but he had no cuts on his feet. We have seen from some hikers in New England that dogs can lose a whole toe pad and we were glad to prevent that from occurring!!
We carried a waterbottle just for Cooper and needed to offer him water about as often as we ourselves would drink. It was really hot and just as we would stop on an ascent to drink a swig, he would also want a drink (and a mini nap!). Whatever water he did not finish in his bowl would be poured back into his bottle so that we'd have as much water as possible for him between stream crossings. When we'd get to a stream crossing we would tell him to drink (this is a command he knows) and often he wouldn't drink for long or at all, but he would drink from his bowl on the ascents.
Thanks for reading about the first section of our Long Trail section hike!
Most of the photos in this post were taken by Powder River. You can visit his professional photography page here: www.jeffsellenrick.com
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