This is a series I wrote on my (now very out of date) dog-focused blog about hiking with Perrin. I wrote these in 2017 when I was living out west, so some points about specific wildlife don’t apply, but I still think there is some value to them here. The other part, all about Perrin’s gear, can be found here.
I love to hike and I especially love to hike with Perrin, however there are lots of things I need to take into consideration before we go hiking. Hiking with a dog can be riskier in some ways than hiking alone. Before I go out, I have to decide those risks are things I can live with.
The first decision is whether to hit the trail at all. For some dogs, due to age, conditioning or injury may not be ready for hiking at all. Or it may be a matter of choosing an appropriate level of difficulty. The last thing I want is Perrin exhausting or injuring himself, or for him to harm his joints when he was a puppy. One thing I regret doing with Perrin was starting him with a backpack too young (about a year old). I never put much weight in it, and even as an adult I restrict his pack to about 10 lbs, but I still should have waited longer for a dog Perrin’s size. If I did it again, I would wait until he was 2 and more fully developed.
Before heading out, I always take stock of Perrin to make sure he is feeling okay. During this pre-trip check, immediately prior to a 5 day trip, I found the beginnings of a hot spot, and was able to get it shaved down and pick up some hot spot cream from the vet. That could have been a mess if I hadn’t noticed it until we were on the trail and 30km from the car!
Risks Exacerbated by Dogs
- Wildlife Encounters: A dog who is off leash could very well bring a bear back to you, or make an encounter with one much worse. An off leash dog may also take after wildlife and be very difficult to find (not to mention they would be harassing wildlife, and this type of behaviour is often what leads to dogs being banned from parks and trails).
- Injury to the Dog: This is a big consideration for me as we usually hike solo, and Perrin weighs over 100lbs. An injured dog is going to have a very hard time making it out, even with first aid care. And if you are unable to carry your dog out, you are in quite the pickle. This is one reason I have Perrin pull a toboggan when we hike in the winter; I could always load him up on it and pull him out. If something acute happened, like bloat, you would also be in a very bad place. I do carry an InReach incase of injury, and I have always wondered if I would be fined for ‘an improper use of rescue services’ if I were to call for rescue because my dog was hurt. Luckily I have never had to find out.
- Increased Risk to Yourself: Because I hike solo most of the time, my risk tolerance when on the trail is very very low. If in doubt, I hike out. However, I know that I would put myself in situations that are far past my normal threshold for risk of injury in order to rescue Perrin from a bad situation.
Beside the increased risks mentioned above, there are other downsides and limitations to hiking with a dog.
- Gear Limitations: You have to be much more conscious of your gear selection, and this can be very limiting if you are of the ultralight persuasion. I have one ultralight tent I have all but stopped using because Perrin is so hard on it. I have moved to using my tarp if I am hiking solo, or my heavy, but more durable tent if I am hiking with someone else. I also stopped using my hammock set up because there is nowhere for Perrin to sleep. You will also end up carrying more gear, between dog food, extra water, first aid supplies and bedding (for winter camping). Inclement weather gets just that much worse. Imagine sharing a small ultralight tent with a very hairy, very cuddly, soaking wet dog. In a down sleeping bag. Not the highlight of my hiking trip!
- Trail limitations: Unfortunately there are more and more places where you are not allowed to hike with dogs, so this limits the places you can go. There are some incredible, world class hikes in the Canadian Rockies that I would love to hike, but will never be able to because dogs are banned from the trails. Even in dog friendly places there are often restrictions in place that make hike planning harder. For instance, on the Assiniboine hike my partner and I did in 2016, having Perrin with us added 5 km and 500 m of elevation gain to our first day. Normally hikers get a shuttle from the parking lot of Sunshine Village up to the trailhead at the main lodge, however we were not able to do that so we had to walk up the access road. The pup also limited our options for alternate hike-out routes once we were in. We had originally planned to hike in and out the same way (over Citadel Pass), as we only had one car and could not run a shuttle to use one of the alternate routes. However once we got in to Mount Assiniboine we realized this was a poor plan. Due to the wonderful dog loving helicopter loader who worked for Assiniboine Lodge, we were able to hike out to the Mount Shark trail head, and he drove us to Canmore where we were able to get a cab back to the car. We got very lucky, and if we didn’t have the dog, we would have had more options.
- Increased Anxiety: Maybe this is just me, but my concern level goes way up when hiking with Perrin. I am always evaluating if he is okay. Has he drank enough water? Is it too hot out for him? Do we need to take a break? Dogs can be very stoic, and some will work until they drop, so it is important to keep an eye on the furry ones and be proactive about their health.
- Dealing with poop: Yes, this is a real consideration. As a responsible hiker, you want to deal with your dog’s excrement the same way you would deal with your own. This means making sure your dog goes the prescribed distance away from trails and waterways, and burying it at the specified depth afterwards. Or picking it up and carrying it out (backcountry facilities are not designed for plastic garbage).
I beg all dog owners who are taking their pets out into the backcountry to be responsible and follow the rules. Most provincial and national parks require dogs to be on leash, and off leash dogs can be dangerous to wildlife, other hikers, their owners, and themselves. Dog poop on the trail is unpleasant for everyone. Don’t let your dog be noisy at the campsite, keep them out of communal shelters (where they are typically not allowed anyway) and do not let them visit other hikers without explicit permission. I have found that nothing breeds bad feelings between hikers like a noisy dog, or one walking on top of or getting into other people’s things. If we want to be able to keep hiking the dog friendly trails that are left, we need to prove that dog owners will follow the rules, not be a nuisance to other hikers or wildlife, and that our pets will leave minimal traces on the environment.
I don’t mean to dissuade people from hiking with their dogs. I love it, and wouldn’t have it any other way! There are simply many things to be considered before you go out to ensure that everyone stays happy, healthy, and safe.