Friday, May 16, 2014

Hiking with a Dog: 780 miles later

Now that we have officially passed the 1/3rd mark, I think this is an appropriate time to update our followers on what it has been like hiking with Sheila the Australian Mountain Dog. We've learned a few lessons along the way, and for anyone considering bringing their outdoor-loving dog on a long backpacking trip, you might want to take notes!

Hiking with Sheila is so rewarding, but it's also very challenging. Making sure she is happy and healthy is our number one priority. Having her along for the adventure adds one more variable to the equation of getting to Katahdin.

Food & Water
In the beginning, we were stopping every 15 minutes to give her water which made our average pace barely above 1 mph. After hiking 780+ miles, we usually stop every hour or hour and a half to water her, depending on the terrain and the temperature. Between the two of us, we carry 6.5L of water to make sure that we all have enough. She can easily drink about 2L of water per day (sometimes a half-liter or more while in camp in the morning and at night, and a liter throughout the day). Doggy dehydration is serious, so make sure to carry extra for your thirsty pooch. We don't let her drink from streams or rivers directly due to the risk of Giardia, though sometimes she will sneak in a few laps.

For food, she started out eating twice as much as she did at home (about 4 cups per day, 2 in the morning and 2 in camp at night). We didn't anticipate how hard it would be to actually get her to eat. She would eat a few handfuls in the morning, and maybe a few more when we stopped for lunch. We finally learned to accept that she wants to eat the majority of her food at night. Nowadays she eats 5 cups of food per day; 1 in the morning, 1 in the afternoon, and 3 at night. She still acts a little picky and we have to work pretty hard to convince her to eat. There was a 2 week period where she was losing weight and we were worried she would have to go home, but we started putting about a tablespoon of olive oil in her food at night and we haven't had a problem since (fingers crossed!) She carries about 5 days of food in her pack and we will usually carry an extra day for her, just in case. 

Since the weather has warmed up, ticks have been our number one battle. She started out on a Seresto tick and flea collar, but we found that it just wasn't potent enough to fend off the explosion of ticks that seemed to come out of nowhere as we crossed into May. We were spending 1.5 to 2 hours per night picking off 30+ ticks (including the dreaded deer tick). When we decided to skip some of the trail to let Cheez-it's foot recover and to get back on track, we switched to the Preventic collar and within 48 hours all of the ticks that were attached to her were dried up and dead! We will see how the new collar works once we are back on the trail, but for now, we are very happy with the switch. The Seresto collar works supposedly for 6 months and the Preventic is effective for only 3 months, but we think this is the best move. I will report when we return! We are also working with Tarptent to see about getting a "dog bivy" that will fit in our vestibule and keep her separated from us while keeping her from running off after an animal in the middle of the night. A big problem we were having with the ticks is that the live ticks would crawl off of her and onto us in the middle of the night. We are hoping that the fast acting Preventic will help solve some of this problem.

Wild Animals
Sheila is a herding dog by instinct. If she spots an animal in the woods and it just so happens to be running away, she really wants to chase it. Thankfully, she has only bolted off once after some deer. She also chased a bird that was flying in the sky in the Grayson Highlands. On that note, Sheila didn't seem to mind the ponies until we started making a big about them. Oh! She chased the goats at Woods Hole Hostel and we had to turn off the electric fence to get her back out. Thank goodness she actually listens to us when we yell at her.

We have come across one rattlesnake so far, but we know they become more common in PA. A guy named Bangarang told us about a rattlesnake vaccine you can get out west, but the few veterinarians we asked here on the east coast have never heard of it. Just be careful if you chose to hike with your dog in rattlesnake areas. Always keep your dog close and keep an eye out for any snake that may be on the trail or just off the trail. Rattlesnakes will often let you know if you're too close, but it's best not to push your luck.

Hostels & Town Stays
We have been very lucky at each hostel we've stayed at in that they have let us leave Sheila in the room while we run any errands. This is not a privilege, so always ask if it is okay. And don't leave your dog if you know that they are prone to whining or could become destructive if left alone. It really helps to hike as a pair if you take your dog, that way one of you can hang outside with the dog while the other runs into the store or orders food. Town seems to stress Sheila out immensely. The noise of cars and motorcycles really freaks her out after a week or two in the woods. We find that minimizing our time in town minimizes her stress.

Sheila's gear has been holding up wonderfully. Her saddlebags are showing some wear from her rubbing up against rocks and things, but I'm sure that they will survive for the rest of the trip. We have had a spot of trouble with the fit of the pack, causeing the whole thing to slide forward as we were coming down a steep descent, but I think the issue was more user error than a design flaw. I am really sad to hear that Granite Gear is discontinuing the Long Howl, because it's the only one we've found with this type of design and we prefer it much more than the typical dog packs.

For hiking in snow, I definitely recommend the fleece booties. They are cheap and they get the job done. I was very hesitant about the hard-soled booties you can buy for your dog because none of them seemed to fit quite right and they seemed like they might do more harm than good in the long run. I just felt like they didn't allow her foot to move naturally, so when we found these simple fleece socks I was really excited. The fleece insulated her pawpads from the snow and slush while keeping the ice from building up between her toes and allowing her to walk naturally. I don't worry about rocks so much, though I'm sure she gets tired of walking on them (just like us!) After a long day on rocks, we usually rub her pads down with Musher's Secret to help nourish them. She loves a good footrub at the end of the day. These booties combined with the moisturizing power of Musher's Secret have helped to keep Sheila's feet happy and healthy.

A tough decision...
Overall, we would not take her on another long-distance backpacking trip. We would take her out for a week or so at a time, but being on the trail for 6 months with your dog is a lot of extra hard work. If you're considering taking Fido for a long hike, be mentally prepared to spend a few hours a day taking care of your pet. If you aren't committed to the idea of putting your animal first in every situation, then don't bring them along. It has been very tough for us to continue on with her because on one hand we know she is having a blast, but on the other hand the risk to her health from tick-borne disease is real and has really been weighing on my mind. 

For now, she will continue to hike with us and she will continue to steal the hearts of the hikers around her (including ours!) but if this new medication seems less than effective, we might end up taking her off-trail. Just please, please be a responsible pet owner if you decide that you are up to the challenge! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or send us an email to

1 comment:

  1. Here in South Texas we do vaccinate our dogs for rattle snake bites. It is suppose to lessen the reaction to the snake bite. I was also told it works for Copperheads too. Thank you for the great information!