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Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Home > Advice > Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a Dog (Part 2)
Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a Dog (Part 2)

Hiking the Appalachian Trail with a Dog (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1 of Hiking with a Dog, you can click here to read it.  We covered diet, paws, ticks and gear.  This time we wanted to talk about a few things to consider before hiking with your dog.

Before we get to that though, we wanted to give an update on Rooney.  In Part 1, we talked about the dangers of ticks and we mentioned that our pup contracted a tick-borne illness on the AT.  Several people sent us messages asking how Rooney was doing today and we wanted to say thank you for the concern!  We’re happy to report that he’s doing great and is fully recovered.  We got off the trail when his injuries first occurred and took him straight to a vet.  He had a cast for a few days (to protect his swollen paw) and a month of medication.  Bottom line, we took time off the trail and made him our priority.  Today, he is back to his normal, healthy, happy self.

Quick disclaimer before we continue with this post – we are not veterinarians nor are we experts on dogs.  But we do have a good deal of experience on the AT.  We were living in Damascus, VA when we first brought Rooney home so he grew up on the AT and between hiking with Serial and trail running with Minutes, Rooney logged a consistent 40-50 miles a week.  When it came time for our 1400-mile section hike, Rooney was ready and we knew what to expect.

Our goal with this post is to help you look at the pros and cons of bringing a dog on a long distance hike and to help you determine if it’s the right move for you.

Is your dog ready for a long distance hike?  This is a touchy subject for some because the truthful answer is “probably not.”  It takes a lot of work to thru-hike.  Most people don’t make it to Katahdin and even fewer dogs do.  It IS possible though, if you have the right dog and you have the right preparation and mindset going in.  If you can answer yes to these questions, then you’re on the right track.

  • Is your dog the right breed to be active for 8-12 hours a day?  There isn’t a list of breeds we can give you.  Just be realistic and honest about your dog’s capabilities.
  • Is your dog acclimated to the trail?  Will your dog be comfortable and respectful around wildlife, hikers, other dogs, shelters and other people’s gear?
  • Have you built up your dog’s hiking endurance?  His/her paws, joints and endurance need to be gradually built up and conditioned to the trail.  You know how the trail whips people into shape in the first few weeks?  That’s not how it works for dogs.  You should get your dog into shape the year or two before the trail.  Don’t let the trail be a shock to your pet’s system.
  • Are you prepared for your dog’s personality to (possibly) change a little?  If your dog has been raised in a home, living on the trail may change him/her.  One change we saw in Rooney is that now he is overly protective of food.  We can’t feed him around other dogs at all now.  He had hiker hunger on the trail, just like we did, and he lost the comfort of regularly feeling full.  He became very possessive of his food and even now he will snap at another dog if they get too close to it.  We are still working on changing this behavior, even though we have been off the trail for months.
  • Are you willing to put your dog’s needs before your own?  Sitting at home by your computer, this is an easy one to say “yes” to.  But you need to picture these situations and really, honestly ask yourself if you will resent your dog or ignore your dog’s needs.
    • You’ve been in the woods for 4 days and you are hungry and dirty.  You finally get to town and there are zero hostels or hotels that are pet-friendly.  Your hiker crew is ordering pizza and getting ready to shower, watch TV and sleep in beds.  You and your dog are grabbing food and heading back to the woods to sleep on the ground.  Are you okay with it?
    • You get to town and there’s a hostel that charges $10 for a bunk, but doesn’t allow pets.  The hotel charges $50/night plus a $25 pet fee.  Your only choices are to fork over the money or head back to the woods.  Are you okay with it?
    • You’re in town and found a pet-friendly, affordable place to stay (huzzah!) and your friends are heading out to the restaurant for pizza and beer.  The place you’re staying doesn’t allow you to leave your pet alone in a room so you have to skip out on the restaurant.  Are you okay with it?
    • Your dog gets hurt.  Your only choices are to have someone come get your dog and watch him/her while you finish the trail or to end your hike.  Are you okay with it?  (read this one twice and really consider it)

Pet policies on the trail.  There are two places that you are not allowed to take your dog on the AT and will require extra planning: The Smoky Mountains and Baxter State Park.  When you get to the Smokies, you are looking at 5-7 days of hiking that your dog will have to skip, unless you have a service dog.  If your dog is not a service dog, you will need to plan for this section and there are two main options:  skipping this section or boarding your dog. The Smokies are epic so we don’t recommend skipping it, but that’s your choice.  We boarded our dog through the Smokies and it was a good break for him and also a good break for us.  Taking care of a dog on the trail is hard work.  It was really nice to have a week off to just hike together and not be managing Rooney’s needs.  The place we boarded him met us in Fontana and picked Rooney up.  Rooney stayed at their hostel at the end of the Smokies and we hiked to him.  When we exited the Smokies, Rooney was waiting for us and was rested.  He was really happy to see us and start hiking again.  If you want to know the specifics of how much it cost or which hostel we used, send us an email at jill {at} atraillife {dot com}.

Baxter State Park is the second time you will need to make arrangements for your pooch.  Since it’s the end or the beginning of the trail for most hikers, it might work best to ask someone to pick you up/drop you off and stay an extra day to watch your dog.  There are boarding services there, but we can’t vouch for them personally.  When Serial thru-hiked, we didn’t have Rooney and our section hike ended in NY so we haven’t dealt with a dog in Baxter.

Trail Etiquette.  It’s always better to be extra respectful of others on the trail, especially in the beginning. Once you get to know the hikers around you and have a hiking crew that you see everyday, you can relax a bit but that takes time and will depend on the hikers in your group.  Use common sense and these basic tips that we learned to make it a pleasant experience for everyone.

  • Be respectful of others.  You don’t know if the hikers around you have allergies or a fear of dogs so keep your pup leashed and ask permission before letting your dog approach someone.
  • Speak up for your dog.  If someone else has a dog at the shelter and you don’t want your dog to play with him/her, politely say so.  If someone is feeding your dog food scraps, politely explain that you’d prefer not to start that habit.  If you are respecting other’s feelings about dogs, they should respect your dog too and it’s your job to make sure that happens.
  • Leash your dog.  Every time we went to a shelter or were near a group of people, we had Rooney on a leash.  The only exception was when we were camping away from a shelter, with people we knew well.  When we were hiking, we would let him off the leash when we were alone, but we never crossed a road or came in contact with another hiker without putting him on a leash.  Even if you think your dog has perfect response to voice commands, you can’t predict how they will react in every situation.  And more importantly you can’t predict how other people (or their dogs) will react to your pup.  Use your leash.
  • Keep your dog out of other people’s stuff.  No exceptions.  Do not let your dog eat someone’s food or step on his/her gear.  It will not lead to anything good.
  • Be prepared to sleep in your tent.  The only time we ever stayed in a shelter was in the Smokies, when Rooney was boarded.  We did see other dogs in shelters occasionally, but not often and it usually wasn’t encouraged by other hikers.  Rooney came to know the tent as his home and it was a place of comfort for him so we were content to stay in it every night.  We even used it indoors once.

Questions from Readers.  Thank you to Tracy for submitting the wonderful questions!

  1. What did you have in your first aid kit that was dog specific?  Rooney’s first aid kit included a tick key, tweezers, acidophilus supplements, paw wax and his monthly tick treatment.  His full gear list can be found here.
  2. When you started hiking could you describe a typical day (did you tire before your dog or did he tire before you)?  We tired before him, without fail.  Rooney has crazy energy.  If we had a low mileage day (anything less than 15 miles), he would do sprints at camp that night to burn off his extra energy.  He is really happy when he’s out in the woods so we never felt like he was too tired to continue, but he did sleep soundly every night.  And when we had zero or nero days at a hotel, he zonked out the whole time.  He climbed up on the bed and promptly passed out, waking only to stuff his face with food.  (Hmmm…sounds a lot like us actually).  But when he woke up the next morning, he was amazingly perky and always ready to go again.
  3. Did you find yourself taking more breaks than others because of him?  Not really.  When we took a break in the beginning, Rooney was still running around and playing.  Once we settled in, maybe a month in or so, he would take a quick nap at lunch, but it didn’t last very long and he was always ready to go when we were, and usually before us.

We hope this was helpful for those planning their hike.  It wasn’t our intention to discourage you from bringing your dog, we just wanted to be realistic about how hard it is to hike 8-10 hours every day and how much extra work it is to have your dog with you.  We love our dog a ton and have been living and hiking on the AT with him for 2000+ miles and 3 years, but even we’ve had days when we wished he wasn’t there.  It’s just the reality of it.

We never once felt that Rooney was being pushed past his limits physically, but we regularly felt that we were putting his needs over ours.   And that can take a toll on a hiker.  So pause a moment and really think it through.  If you don’t want to bring your dog, don’t feel guilty.  And if you still want to bring your dog on the trail, that’s awesome.  We’ll do everything we can to help you prepare!

If you have other questions, leave them in the comments or send us an email.  We’d be happy to answer them!  In the meantime, you can read all of our posts on hiking with a dog by clicking here.  And while you’re there, be sure to enter for a chance to win an Aquapac Mini Waterproof Camera Case. 

~Minutes, Serial and Rooney

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About

Serial is an AT thru-hiker with over 6,200 miles of hiking under his belt. Minutes is an AT section-hiker who's enjoyed over 2,500 miles of hiking and trail running. Together we're raising our 3 year old Weimaraner, Rooney, and working towards our dream of living in the mountains. You can follow our adventures at www.ATrailLife.com.
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  • matt cook

    Thank you for this blog. It is great to know that a dog has hiked along the trail before. I bet Rooney loved it. I am planning on doing the first month of a through hike this spring. I am trying to determine how boarding fits into the schedule. At what location on the trail to do you enter and leave Great Smokey National Park? I am trying to arrange accommodations for my dog Roxy.

  • jeffrey goldberg

    Thanks for sharing your experience, very helpful and encouraging. I’m planning the colorado trail for summer 2016. Roi, my 15 pound Jack Russell/poodle, will enjoy it as much as i will. Good luck with your dreams. The mountains await!