At the end of September, long distance hikers from all over the west met at Camp Arrah Wanna in Welches, OR for the annual American Long Distances Hikers Association – West (ALDHA-West) Gathering. The ALDHA-West promotes long distance hiking on America’s National Scenic Trails, and is the only organization that recognizes and awards the Triple Crown of Hiking. The “Triple Crown” is the completion of America’s three premier long distance trails – the Appalachian Trail (AT), The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Individuals that have completed all three hikes are known as Triple Crowners and have the distinction of hiking over 10,000 miles. During the annual Gathering, the group enjoys various speakers discussing everything from hikes taken domestically and abroad, to the evolution of ultra-light gear, various techniques for back country adventure, and this year, a talk given by myself on thru-hiking (the continuous hike of a long distance trail) with dogs.
My Name is Whitney LaRuffa. My trail name is “ALLGOOD.” Just like my counterparts at the gathering, we mainly go by our trail names. In 1996, while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, I found a dog, Erwin. Erwin had been following many hikers for weeks before he and I crossed paths. I adopted Erwin and we continued to hike to Maine together. In the following two hiking seasons I worked as a Ridge Runner for the Appalachian Trail Conference in central Pennsylvania. As a Ridge Runner, Erwin and I patrolled a 75-mile section of the Appalachian Trail providing backcountry information and education, first aid and general trail maintenance. Over those three seasons on the AT, Erwin and I walked close to 6,000 miles and learned a lot about what worked and what didn’t when traveling with dogs into the backcountry.
The following is a brief summary of the presentation I made at the Gathering, with some stories, tips and techniques for all of the dog lovers out there that ever ask, “Just how long of a trip can I take my dog on?”
In March of 1996 I left home at the age of 18, loaded up my pack and caught a train and a few cars south to Georgia where I started my hike of the AT at Springer Mountain – the trail’s southern terminus. While Hiking from GA I met numerous hikers along the way, some of them had dogs with them and most did not. The ones with dogs seemed to be really bonding with their pets, and the dogs seemed to be having a good time, for the most part. I had always wanted a dog and in less than 450 miles from the start of my 2,174 mile hike, I met one.
Erwin was a smaller German Shepard mix who had started following groups of thru-hikers at Fontana Dam in North Carolina. The day we crossed paths in the town of Erwin, TN he had already flip flopped back and forth through the Smoky Mountains three times and had followed two hikers into town who had decided to go home and not finish their thru-hikes. After playing with the dog that afternoon I was informed that if he didn’t leave town in the morning with a hiker he was going to the county animal shelter. I instantly jumped at the chance to care for this dog, and for the next 13 years we were inseparable. I went to town and bought some dog food and a collar. My initial thought was if he stayed with me for the next week to Damascus, VA, I would keep him. In a way, I guess I let Erwin decide if he wanted to keep me.
Along the way we received tons of “trail magic” – a traditional trail term for the generous gifts and or help from strangers. The outfitter in Damascus helped me out with a great deal on a dog pack, some collapsible bowls, and a leash. Also, I had two vets give me discounts on vaccinations for Erwin along with general health exams and advice. However, as nice as it was enjoying our walk north together it wasn’t all fun or easy.
Having a dog with you on the trail does pose some logistical and financial considerations. At one point on our hike Erwin developed a limp; was it a thorn, an injury, or just too much walking? When we got to town we immediately found a vet to have Erwin examined. Some $40 later it was advised for him to rest for a few days and soak his foot. Once we left town he was not to carry his pack for a week or until he was better. Great, I thought, now I was stuck carrying his extra food and water for the next 100 miles or so. We left town after three rest days. Back on trail Erwin limped for about a quarter of a mile, until he saw a chipmunk and went sprinting after it. Surprisingly Erwin’s limp went away as he went sprinting up the trail – ha-ha, he got me.
Lodging along the way was tricky too. Many times we couldn’t stay at a hostel or hotel where our friends were because Erwin was with me. If we could stay, there was usually an extra pet fee of $15 of so. Given this fee, along with the cost of feeding Erwin and myself both on trail and with supplemental caloric intake when in town, my hiking budget had just gone up significantly.
Despite the cost, the extra work in camp of caring for Erwin, and some of the logistical complications along the way, I would not have wanted to hike any other way than with him by my side during the four month journey north to Maine.
ALLGOOD’s Tips for Thru-Hiking with your dog:
- Know the regulations and rules where you are going, and abide by them. Please don’t let your actions or your dog ruin it for future users.
- Keep your dog’s pack weight as light as possible and never have your dog carry more than 25% of their total body weight.
- Keep your dog on leash or under control while on trail, this will not only protect your pet but also minimize conflicts with other users.
- Always practice proper “Leave No Trace” techniques. The two biggest to me are disposing of your waste properly and not harassing wildlife.
- Waste – please bury your dogs pooh off trail as you do your own. This will prevent water contamination and the spread of other bacteria into the environment.
- Wildlife – prevent your dog from chasing or injuring wildlife. This not only helps the wild animals it will also help prevent injury to your pet.
- Keep it fun. It’s easy to focus on the miles. Make sure to take time to rest and play along the way with your dog. Toss a ball, take a swim, or just rest peacefully and have a snack.
- Start with smaller hikes and work your way up to big miles. My dogs often hikes over 20 miles a day with me but that didn’t happen overnight.
- Keep your dog fit, exercise them daily and hike as often as possible when between journeys.
- Take a dog first aid course, learn dog CPR and work with your vet to stock a good trail first aid kit.
- Train your dog in the areas of obedience, and trail specific commands like hike (move forward), wait (freeze frame), and trail (get on the trail tread not in the woods).
- Keep your dog comfortable – bring a K-9 Overcoat to keep them warm at night, and pack a foam pad for them to sleep on.
Gear you have to have out there:
I currently use Ruffwear gear exclusively for my dog now. In the 1990’s there were limited options and the gear was often an afterthought for many bigger gear makers. I made many of my own items, but in the past few years I have switched to Ruffwear’s products for their quality build and well-designed features. Below is a table showing my dog’s typical pack for a trip on a long distance hike.
|Dog Bowls||Ruffwear Bivy Bowl||4.45oz|
|2 Days of Dry Food||Natural Balance||40oz|
|Freeze Dried Duck||Stella & Chewies||3.85oz|
|2 Tennis Balls||Chuckit||5.6oz|
|Freeze Dried Treats||ZiwiPeak||3.25oz|
|Cloud Chaser Soft Shell||Ruffwear||8.35oz|
|Grip Trex Dog Boots||Ruffwear||6.5oz|
I hope you have enjoyed my brief summary of a talk that lasted close to an hour. I would love to share all I know but that would fill a book, which is in the works. Please consult your local vet before attempting a 100+ mile hike with your dog. They are a great resource and generally will have some sound advice.
I still hike with a dog today and in the past few years we have been section hiking the PCT during our vacations. Next summer we are heading to California to thru-hike the 175 mile Tahoe Rim Trail in a week. Whether it is hiking 20+mile days, or scaling cascade peaks, I will always walk gently with my loyal dog by my side.