Whether you’re a seasoned thru-hiker or a first-time adventurer, it’s natural to want your best friend beside you. Believe me, I know! I live full-time in a camper with my dogs, Flynn the great dane and Thru the siberian husky, and I find myself missing them even when I’m gone only a few hours.
But there is a lot to consider before embarking on an adventure with your pup. As you read articles filled with tips and advice for thru-hiking with your dog, which inevitably conjure up adorable images of your pup happily snuggled up in a shelter, you’ll first need to ask the most important question… “Does my dog really want to go on a thru-hike?”
Does your dog REALLY love to hike? If your answer isn’t a resounding “Yes, absolutely, they LOVE to hike!” then you probably shouldn’t bring them. Ironically, that’s exactly how people feel about long-distance hiking in general. Some people begin their journey at Springer Mountain, Georgia intending to complete a 2,200 mile thru-hike… only to find out 4 hours into the adventure that they may love short hikes but HATE hiking for more than 6 miles at a time. Your dog may feel the same way!
The next step is to consider genetics. Beyond our dogs’ preferences, sometimes we have to make the hard decision that a hike may just not be in our best friend’s best interest. Although our husky may be able to hike 15-20 miles a day, still yanking us along at the end, our great dane just isn’t built for long hikes in the same way. Great danes have chronic hip and joint issues that would only be exacerbated by a long-distance hike. If you have any questions about a breed’s capabilities and limitations, consult your vet.
Even if your dog checks all of the boxes for the ideal thru-hiking partner, you’ll still have to monitor your dog on trail to make sure the experience is a positive one for them. There are quite a few indicators that a thru-hike may not be the best idea for your pup once on trail. These can include: excessive or persisting lethargy, symptoms of common trail illnesses for dogs, or signs of excessive anxiety or stress.
Some dogs deal with change gracefully, especially those that are well-traveled or are used to their owner’s non-routine lifestyle. Others will find the adjustment difficult, physically and mentally. At the end of your first 10- or 15-mile day, your pup that is usually jumping around meeting new people may just lie down and sleep the evening away. If it is excessive or persisting behavior, you may have to reel back the miles or be prepared to take a few zero days to give your pup a much-needed break from the demands of hiker life.
Understanding your dog’s body language and anticipating normal changes to their personality can help prevent overreacting in the field. However, you should be on the lookout for any symptoms that may indicate a bigger problem. Appetite waves, exhaustion at the end of a brutal day, and susceptibility to illness and infection are all facets of hiker life, but knowing the symptoms of common trail illness for dogs, such as altitude sickness and Lyme’s Disease, will help you feel more confident in your daily assessment of your dog’s behavior, and will help you understand when it’s time to call a vet. If your dog seems to be exhibiting more troubling symptoms, such as excessive lethargy, drooling, or vomiting and diarrhea, those are pretty clear signs to take a break from your adventure and consult a professional.
And finally, the question becomes, “Are you ready to prioritize your dog over your hike?” This may seem like a no-brainer but you have to be able to factor in your best friend in every facet of your hike, including transportation, finding pet-friendly lodging, and being prepared to drop everything if your pup shows troubling symptoms on trail. Building good habits like taking frequent breaks and providing lots of opportunities for food and water is key to you and your dog’s happiness. Taking zero mile days and/ or hiking under 10 miles will also help revitalize your dog and give them the opportunity to catch up on food intake.
All this is to say, you’re reading this article because you clearly love your pup and are concerned for their well-being. Dogs are complex emotional beings and we have an obligation to treat them with respect and honor their needs and preferences. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make sure Thru didn’t just vomit up all those paper towels she ate earlier on our rug. Thanks for reading!