*Thanks to Sandi for suggesting this post!
**As usual, I use “Pacer” and “Supergirl” interchangeably.
When taking your best friend out on the trail, whether on a long run, a hike up a mountain, or backpacking trip, there are quite a few things to consider: packs, booties, food, water, etc. Trying to google this information or posting your questions on group chat page can be frustrating. Not only is the information subjective and often based on breed type, but people are VERY opinionated about their 4-legged kids. (Do NOT ask dog questions on Facebook. It’s worse than googling your own health symptoms and finding reason to believe you have a fatal disease.)
Unfortunately, I don’t have any clear answers for you either. All I can do is share what I’ve learned in mine and Supergirl’s 5 wonderful years together, from running through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, to backpacking the Colorado Trail, snowshoeing at altitude, and hiking up rocky mountains.
Before I start listening out gear and other tips, I need to share the biggest piece of advice I’ve ever received. When I was researching information on backpacking with a dog before hiking the Colorado Trail, I came across a comment that seemed harsh, but could not be more true. In my own words: when you decide to take your dog on your adventure with you, it is no longer your adventure. It is your dog’s. This isn’t to say that you should let your dog lead the way, but to acknowledge that the pace, distance, and length of breaks is really more up to your dog than you. On a backpacking trip, you may have goals of 20+ mile a day, or summiting a 14er, but if your dog gets tired or rips a paw pad. you are probably going to need to call it in early. The health, happiness, and safety of your dog is key. I know this sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget when your on the trail and focused on a destination.
Here’s my list of gear, considerations, and tips to help you and your best friend stay happy on the trail:
Backpack– Pacer has an old version of the Ruffwear Palisides Pack. We got this for our Colorado Trail hike as it had the best reviews and I figured if we were getting one, we might as well just go all in (it’s pretty expensive) rather than mess with cheaper versions. The storage in the pack is great (Pacer was able to carry almost all of her food*) and the pack detaches from the harness so when you take a break you can simply remove the bags without taking the whole thing off.
With that, we have had some chaffing issues under the front legs. For the most part, it’s minimal. My BIG mistake was when I left her walking harness on and it put her pack on over it. That led to chaffing that would have made a grown man cry, but she was quite stoic and just kept hiking. If I would have been more responsible and checked her belly, I would have at least caught it after the first day of hiking. I felt awful when I saw the mark later on.
The main point here: always check your dog’s backpack, especially if it is new and at the beginning of a hike. Read the fit and directions guide when you first put it on. Stop and adjust it if needed. (Also, I think Pacer’s long fur, yet very fine under her legs, also makes it more likely for her to have issues.)
*The Ruffwear website reads that dogs should carry no more that 25% of their bodyweight. I don’t know if there is research behind it, but it sounds like a good rule of thumb. More on food later.
Booties- Booties are a huge pain in my butt. Period. I don’t think any pair is perfect. We started off with the Ruffwear Summit Treks, which are okay but slip off fairly easy in deep snow. Once we lost most of those, we tried Ultra Paws Rugged Dog boots. With their double strap, they stay on a bit better, but will still fall off in deep snow. Also, they rubbed against the sides of Pacer’s paws (I’m confident I bought the right size) leaving small bruises. I guess I could get socks to wear with them…
All in all, I wouldn’t put your pup in booties if your pup really doesn’t need them. Paw pads are pretty durable and are meant to be splayed (humans’ feet would probably be similar if we weren’t put in shoes when were first started walking and added on layers of cushion). A lot of dog’s paws can handle snow and rough terrain when built up properly. So when does Supergirl rock her kicks?
Snow: Again, Supergirl has long fur*, which penetrates right through her paws. Because of that, when the snow is heavy and wet, she quite literally gets snowballs in-between her toes that makes running difficult. That’s when we bring the booties out. However, if the snow is packed down, she goes shoe-less (but I might carry them in my pack). I haven’t tried Musher’s Secret yet and am pretty skeptical of any benefits in deep snow, but please feel free to leave a comment if you’ve given it a try.
**I’ve also tried trimming the fur between her paws, but that didn’t help much.
**One more trick: If your dog is a furball like Pacer, try spraying your dog’s legs and belly with olive or coconut oil before you head out in the snow. This helps prevents snow for building up (poor Pace has had so much fur build up by her legs and “skirt” that it’s been difficult to walk and I’ve had to help break up the snowballs!)
Rocky Terrain: When we hiked the Colorado Trail, Pacer never once needed to wear her booties. The hike included a lot of passes, so it was common to leave the dirt and find ourselves on rocky slopes. However, on our first 14ers (we were doing a double) early the next summer, a few of her pads ripped*. The trail wasn’t anything worse that what we had done before, but her paws had not yet toughened up enough to handle the rocks. Now, I carry at least one or two booties with me whenever we hike a 14er or any rocky trail, just in case.
*If your pup happens to tear a pad, the remedy is pretty similar to what would be advised for a human. Let (okay, maybe force) your dog to leave her paws in an Epsom salt bath for a few minutes, and make sure you get any debris out. Then, use your old socks to put over her paws, securing loosely with a rubber band. If possible, do this a few times a day. After a few days to a week’s worth of rest, your dog should be good to go again. (I found all of this out within 5 minutes for a $50 vet appointment.)
Leash: Pacer has a Sense-ation harness. This helps me from going crazy as she pull at me when she sees a marmot. I really like it as I always used to worry about her neck as she’s suddenly lunge at the little critter. Once in awhile, it does get caught under her leg, so I have to stop and fix it. For some reason, this always happens a few times in a row before Pacer and I learn to walk normally again. It does make running on single track a bit difficult, as it’s not really comfortable for me to hold the leash with her running ahead of me or behind me. I’m quite interested in the Gentle Leader harness that goes around the muzzle, or the running leash with the waist strap for humans and the bungee-like cord. If anyone has an experience with either of these, please feel free to share your reviews!
Sleeping Pad-Nope, Pacer doesn’t have one of these! Like I’ve said, Pacer is quite the furball which is plenty to keep her warm at night. If she did get cold, I’d probably let her snuggle in my sleeping bag with me or let her lie on an extra piece of my clothing. Regardless, she she usually like to lie down in the middle of my sleeping bag until I shove her down a bit and she curls up by my legs.
Meals– Again, I have no measurement to offer. How much food you give your pup depends on not only the breed but the length of time your out and the distance of your hike. Roughly, if we are out for a 15-20 mile hike, I usually give her an extra half serving at each meal. For example, Pacer normally gets 1 cup of food. If we are out for 15+ miles I’ll give her a cup and a half at breakfast and dinner. If I forget, I might give her a half a cup in-between meals. And/or, I’ll add a big scoop of peanut butter to her food. (I’ve heard of others using coconut oil, but I prefer peanut butter as it still has it’s nutrients- it’s all squeezed/processed out in oils. Plus, Pacer likes it better…and I get to have some too 🙂 )
Meals when backpacking- This can be tough, as food can get heavy quick. With Pacer, while still giving her an extra half serving at each meal, I usually give her half of her normal food with half dehydrated food. This keeps things a bit lighter. I don’t give the dehydrated food on its own simply because in my mind (and I have no research on this), it doesn’t seem as sustainable. Pace is roughly able to carry 5 days worth of food in her pack. If we need another day or two’s worth, I’ll carry the extra.
Treats: I’ve learned to start bringing treats for Pacer with me on our long hikes and runs. Mainly, this is because I used to share my snacks, but then I was still hungry. While she still usually gets little nibbles of my food, she now more often gets a few treats during our rest breaks and at the end of a hike or run. I haven’t not yet tried a hiking specific/dog power bar type of treat. Mainly, I just stick to whatever natural (as in I know what all the ingredients are) brand I have on hand.
Water: Before our thru-hike, people told me I need to filter Supergirl’s water too. There was absolutely no way this was going to happen, for a few reasons: 1) When you have a “hot” dog on your hands, there is nothing that is going to stop them from jumping into a creek crossing and taking a nice long swig 2) carrying extra filtered water back to camp at night for Pace did not sound like fun 3) she was getting fresh mountain water! Plus, she had been drinking water from the streams of the CVNP since she was a pup, so her stomach was used to water not from the sink (again, this is through my observation and not through research). Basically, if the water is moving at a decent speed and you’re not around farm animals, I’d say it is relatively safe for your pooch.
Ticks– Luckily, out here in Colorado I have to worry about ticks way less than in Ohio. We still have some, but most don’t carry Lyme disease. (So far, I haven’t picked any ticks out of Pacer’s fur or from my legs since we moved out West.) I also don’t worry about tick prevention or worms much in the winter. I giver her Heartgard maybe once every other month in the winter months and skip the tick prevention all together. Once warmer weather hits, I’ll do both once a month. For tick prevention, we buy a natural brand (Natural Chemistry) from Whole Pets that uses oils rather than chemicals. (Regardless, it’s still good to check for ticks and other bugs after every hike, or at least 1-2x a week when brushing your pup, just to be safe.)
Heat- This is so dependent on breed and just with any individual dog (as with humans as well!). In the summer when we are down at lower elevation (5,000+ ft in Boulder), I keep my runs with Pacer short, preferably picking a route with creeks to cool off in. On the other hand, if we are up at elevation, she’s like a new pup. When we get above treeline, she goes wild. In general, I’d say just run early or late with your dog during warmer months and try to pick a route with water. When hiking, make sure there’s a lot of creek crossings or that you bring enough water for your pooch (and yourself—there’s been times when Pace and “share” the water in my hydration pack, usually resulting with me becoming dehydrated.)
Napping/Sleep-When Supergirl and I are backpacking, she is great and full of energy the first few days. Then she starts to get tired and I become a worried dog mom. Honestly, I believe this has much less to do with the distance and much more to do with the fact that Supergirl is not getting her daily naps (and much less sleep altogether.) Again, building in rest days and/or at least 1-2 longer rest breaks during your days trip can be beneficial. After a long trip, whether backpacking or car camping/hiking, I let Supergirl rest for most of the week, still taking her on long walks each day, but I skip or limit taking her running with me.
Signs of Injury-As you probably well know, dogs can’t tell us when something is wrong or they are hurt and the injury isn’t always apparent. The #1 thing I notice with Pacer when something is wrong as that she slows down and becomes lethargic. Figure out the cues your dog gives you. For a lot of dogs, their eating pattern changes (not the case with Pace). For healthy, athletic dogs, sometimes it is normal for them to go through a period where they tire out quickly on a run or seem to have a bit less energy. Of course, the best option is to go to a vet. However, one thing that I found out (after well-meaning friends on FB telling me Pacer could have arthritis or that, at age 5, Pacer was getting old), Pacer just needs a week or two of rest. This basically means short walks and not taking her on runs with me (and ignoring her big brown eyes as I head out the door without her.)
“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” – Roger Caras
XOXO (with a side of slobber),
Ray & Supergirl
9/3/2017 Update: I forgot to mention in my original post! When moving to Colorado, I did purchase Nationwide Pet Insurance. I just have the emergency plan (just over $11 a month), which is mainly because, with the boulders and wildlife here, there is a great potential for unplanned injuries, for both pups and humans (though of course prevention is the key).