I’ve hiked 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail and 200 miles of the Colorado Trail. I’ve been backpacking for over 40 years and consider myself experienced. When my sons and I were planning a 50-mile loop in the Frank Church Wilderness of Idaho, it wasn’t a big deal with the exception of one caveat: we were taking our two dogs, a dachshund/golden retriever mix and a chihuahua/schnauzer mix neither of which had ever been out in the wild overnight.
I wasn’t too concerned about them since we’ve done many day hikes together. I’ve brought them on many 15-mile hikes and because of all the running around they do that means 25 or 30-miles for them. My main worry was the pads on their paws which normally would be very tough because of all the hiking we do in the foothills. We had spent almost 3 months in Connecticut where it was difficult to walk the dogs because of the leash laws and us being so busy. I was afraid their pads had softened up, but nevertheless we went ahead with our plans and hoped for the best.
My only other concern was wolfs and coyotes. There are several thriving packs of wolfs roaming the area. Both of my small dogs would make a great meal for them. I decided not to concern myself with them. What else could I do? If I were to let dangers such as these dictate what I do, I’d never let the dogs leave the house. I couldn’t stop thinking about a story my wife heard:
She was walking her dogs in Boise when an older gentleman came up and warned her to be careful with our little one. “My wife and I had one about that size,” the man said. “One morning my wife was out walking the dog in the foothills when I coyote snatched him right on the leash. By the time my wife could get the 15 feet to the end of the retractable leash, the dog was dead.”
The first and second days of the hike went great. For the most part we hiked along the Salmon River and the dogs could drink and cool down in the water pretty much whenever they wanted. They were tired at the end of the day and when we camped for the night all they wanted to do was to eat and crawl into the tent and sleep.
The first night was rather funny. All the hikes they’ve ever been on were day hikes that ended at the car and a drive back to the house. They couldn’t figure out what was going on; there was so much activity. Our campsite was a beehive of activity while we were setting up the tent, collecting firewood, cooking food, and performing the myriad of other chores that come with backpacking. They lay there watching us with that confused look. “We’re supposed to be heading back to the car by now, it’s getting late! What are you guys doing?” After eating their meal they were ready for bed. I had to coax them into the tent since they had no idea what it was. They had to poke their head in the door slowly looking right then left for any hidden dangers. After they checked it out and were satisfied they would be safe, they sheepishly entered and lay down and promptly passed out.
All was well until the evening of the third day. Kiara, the dachshund/golden retriever mix, was limping. I looked at her pads and they were worn down and sensitive to touch. I was worried because we were no longer hiking along the Salmon River; we were hiking along a high mountain ridge where there was a long way between water sources. We had to hike 10 miles the next day with only one water source in between. If Kiara slowed us down we wouldn’t make it.
The next morning her pads were super sensitive. We had to do something. I always carry a bit a Gorilla Tape with me – the tape of a million uses. I’ve used it to repair tent poles, torn shoes, and a backpack. I came up with the idea of fashioning a bootie out of Gorilla tape and a couple of socks. It worked well for several miles but them came off. I had to do something else. We had seven more miles to hike for the day. They say “necessity is the mother of all inventions”, and this proved to be true today. We came up with the idea of a combination backpack and papoose. My son, David, would carry Kiara on his back with this contraption. First we emptied his backpack and distributed the contents between my other son and me. Then we put the dog in the pack. It was okay, but Kiara was unstable and fell over sideways. We got one of the small dog blankets we brought and tied it around David’s chest and the backpack so the dog’s rear was resting in it. It was kind of like a papoose wrapped around the backpack. This worked really well for Kiara. I don’t know if it was the better view she had from up there or what, but she really enjoyed the free ride. On the other hand, at the end of the day David was exhausted and made it clear he couldn’t do it for another day.
Another funny thing happened that day. While David was carrying Kiara, our other dog Moe got very jealous and demanded he get a free ride. He would jump up on David while he was walking and whimper and cry. We gave in to him and let him ride, but only for a short while.
The final day was going to be the hardest. We’d go 11 miles with no water. We had to make the miles and we didn’t know what to do about Kiara’s pads. We used up the remaining Gorilla tape making another bootie. Just like yesterday it lasted only for about 3 miles. Now we were worried, we had no idea of what to do. We simply said the heck with it, and were just going to let Kiara walk and hope for the best.
It was a hot day, I’m sure it was at least in the mid-nineties. After about 7 miles we started running very low on water and had to start rationing it. We were all very hot and thirsty. The good news was that strangely enough Kiara was doing fine and had only a very slight limp. It doesn’t seem possible but the only thing I can think of is that pads heal super fast and the day she stayed off her paw gave them a chance to heal.
Things started getting serious, we had a good 4 miles left and no water left and no more water sources. We would stop frequently to let the dogs rest and cool down. They would remove the top inch of soil and lie in the hole they dug to cool down. I looked at the dog’s gums and tongue which appeared normal. Apparently the blood vessels in their mouth dilate panting cools them down more efficiently. When they dilate their gums and tongue appear bright red which means they are overheated and which can lead to a heat stroke. Other symptoms of heat stroke is the dog becoming sluggish and perhaps confused. They were sluggish but certainly not confused.
We heard it before we saw it. The gurgling of a clear, cold stream flowing through the charred remains of a forest. What a sight to behold! Kiara was the first one in the water. She laid down in it and lapped up the water nonstop for what seemed a good five minutes. I never thought a dog could drink so much water! The kids and I decided it was not worth filtering more water as we only had another mile back to the campground.
Here is what I learned on the dog’s first backpacking trip:
- Heat. If its hot the dogs need to cool down. Planning ahead goes a long way. If there are going to be long stretches without water on a hot day, carry a lot of extra water for the dogs. In addition when the dogs starting getting hot, slow down and take plenty of breaks in the shade. Their panting will cool them down.
- Pads. Make sure you bring them on plenty of practice hikes before bringing them on a extended backpacking trip. These will not only get them in shape, they will toughen up their pads. Bring along pair of dog booties but be sure to test them out to get the dog used to them and make sure they work. I’m what they call and ultralight backpacker and only bring lightweight gear that is essential. I’ve even been known to cut the end of my toothbrush handle off to save some weight. To this day I still don’t bring dog booties on backpacking trips, but I make sure the dog’s pads are toughened up before I leave.
- Food. Dog food is just too heavy to carry. I made small, lightweight packets of couscous (carbohydrates) and dried meat (protein). The only potential problem with this food is you need boiling water. This means a water source is crucial and valuable fuel is needed to boil the water. These weren’t factors for us because we were always able to camp next to a water source and I used a lightweight wood burning stove to cook with.