Think about your ideal hiking companion. She’s energetic, eager, never gets into bad moods or complains about the food, and would do just about anything for you. She just might not be human. Doug Gelbert, author of the popular Bark in the Park series, says hiking with dogs “is an incredible way to bond with your pet.” He figures he’s logged 10,000 miles alongside his dogs, from Mount Shasta to Mount Desert. Here’s what he’s learned along the way.
BE AN AMBASSADOR Your dog affects how people judge all canines on the trail, so if he’s doing his business in full view, jumping up on passersby, and barking at every squirrel and bird, you’re not doing other dog-hikers any favors. Several years ago Gelbert hiked two miles with a miniature dachshund and became a firm believer that any dog can take to the trail. But not every person can hike well with a dog. What the homo sapiens half of the duo needs is the physical ability to restrain Fido when necessary, and act responsibly. It’s up to you, not your dog, to make sure others’ hikes aren’t ruined by his presence.
SHARE THE WEIGHT Dogs love jobs, says Gelbert. One way to make them feel useful—and to lighten your load—is to give them their own pack. Gelbert’s dogs carry their own water bottles, about 16 ounces for each half-hour of hiking. Loaded, a dog pack shouldn’t weigh more than one-third what the dog does. Introduce the empty pack “as if you’re introducing a horse to a saddle,” he says. Let them wear it around the house to get used to it. Gradually add weight, and start taking them on short walks with the pack before you hit the trail. Puppies and certain breeds, like greyhounds, aren’t as adept at bearing weight as others. Check with your vet to make sure your dog is mature and structurally sound enough to carry a pack.
KEEP A NEW LEASH ON LIFE “It’s illegal to have the dog off-leash just about everywhere,” Gelbert reminds. Even if your dog is predictable and obedient, err on the side of restraint. It would be pretty sad to come home without a dog who, just that one time, took off after a deer. Or to return with one who got to know a skunk up close. Above treeline, restraining your pet is crucial to the survival of fragile vegetation. Gelbert’s well-behaved dogs have never tangled with hikers or canines, a result of only letting them run when he’s certain no one is around. He also chooses more remote hikes, leaves early in the morning, and always leashes in the parking lot. “And when we see someone coming,” he says, “I leash them and we stand on the side of the trail.”
GET THE SCOOP Even though you’re far from suburban sidewalks and the eyes of your neighbors, you’ve still got to pick up that poop. Bring plenty of plastic baggies and pack it out. If you’re backpacking and can’t feasibly carry the waste, bury it in a six- to eight-inch deep cathole.
PLAY IT SAFE It takes 24 to 48 hours for an attached tick to transmit Lyme Disease, so your best defense is to check your dog for ticks every day, especially after a hike. Rocks above treeline can be blazing hot and rough on bare feet. Many hikers carry dog booties for extremely hot days or sensitive paws. At the very least, have a salve you can rub on sore pads after your hike. Dogs, like humans, can contract giardia from backcountry water. Though it’s hard to keep them out of streams on a hot day, carry ample H2O for them and you. Watch for a very bright pink tongue, one of the signs of canine overheating. Your loyal-to-the-death best friend will, literally, follow you to the ends of the earth. Go easy on him.