Be prepared

Lassie, Come Home

A lot of people want to take their dogs on the trail. And, as usual, we have a different view of the subject.

I'm not gonna touch the "dogs are bad" thing. Or even the "dogs are good" thing. So whichever way your bias goes, relax and don't get all wound up about it. At least not yet.

Ginny and I don't own a dog - specifically because we won't subject a dog that we care about to the things we do and the places we go. That's us. We may someday change our minds, but not until we find ourselves doing something else - something more compatible with owning a dog (or rather with "being owned" by one).


Let's start with the AT. Dogs are NOT welcome in the Smokies - nor in Baxter State Park (Katahdin). For those sections of the Trail you'll need to arrange to have the dog picked up at one end of the section, boarded and then transported to the other end. That means you'll have to use the time and energy to interrupt your hike and deal with the kennels, vets, transportation - and the not-inconsiderable expense of all those things.

In the Shenandoah, you're required to keep dogs on a leash at all times. And keep in mind that on the southern AT, some of the shelters are inhabited by skunks. They keep the mouse population down. Don't mess with them - and don't allow your dog to mess with them or you may both get more than you bargained for.

If we were hiking with a dog, the tent would need to be big enough for the dog as well as us - that means extra weight to carry. We have a friend who hiked the AT and PCT with two dogs. His Trailname was "Dogman" of course. We have a good example of how to do it. And part of that example was to NEVER sleep in a shelter or hostel. Which very often means carrying a wet, heavy tent.

You may know more about training than I do and if you've talked to other hikers (or been on other forums) you've also gotten an earful of the problems created by untrained dogs. That may not be a problem for you. But then, it never is for the owner - even though it very often (much TOO often) is for others.

Too many dog owners have too much confidence in the likeability, compatibility, friendliness, courtesy and training of their dogs. And for the most part, that confidence is misplaced. Not universally - but, again, much too often.

Too many owners also assume that the dog can carry it's own food, water and other gear. And then they load it down with too much weight. There was a recent AT DVD that featured a dog that did NOT want to carry the pack - and had to be held down in order to get it on him. Sorry, gang, but that's abuse.

Sometimes the dog gets its revenge, though. One of our friends had a dog on the AT - he didn't load it down with a lot of weight, but he did have his very expensive camera in the dog's pack. At least, until the dog managed to slip out of the pack and leave it (and the camera) somewhere in the woods. He never did get either the pack or the camera back.

One of the things I constantly run into is the dog owner who says: "He's friendly, he doesn't bite!!"

Really??!! And why do YOU think "I" should believe that about YOUR dog?

Fact is, I like dogs, and I'm not afraid of them. But a lot of people are. I know - it's generally an irrational fear. So what? That doesn't make those people any less afraid. Nor does it reduce your liability if their fears are justified by your dog. And neither you nor they have sufficient reason to "assume" that "your" dog is safe around them. I've run into a dog on the trail that twice threatened me without provocation. He came very close to getting the trouble he was looking for.

Something else that "could" be a problem for you is the dog's health. You know the dog would follow you anywhere. And I know some owners take that for granted - and the dog pays the price. Several years ago there was a dog that died on the AT - basically of heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you follow a "normal" thruhiker schedule, on the southern and northern AT, it'll be cold. No - it'll be COLD. Just make sure your dog doesn't suffer from the cold. And realize that just because it's cold doesn't mean that either you or the dog won't dehydrate.

But then in the mid-Atlantic States it'll be HOT. And that's even more dangerous - both for you and the dog. When it gets warm on the Trail, it can sometimes get REALLY warm - like 95* and 95% humidity. You'll suffer. The dog will suffer more. Unless you've lived in Houston or the mid-Atlantic states during high summer, you're in for a surprise. Be VERY careful to keep both of you well hydrated.

Especially since there are AT towns that have taken to watching for Trail dogs - and calling the SPCA if one of them looks to be in bad shape. And that practice is spreading to the other long trails.

So - let's talk about the PCT - which is the next logical long distance hike after the AT. I don't know ALL of the PCT hikers over the last 10 years - but I know a lot of them. And I know of only a very few dogs that made it all the way. When we hiked in 2000, there were a gaggle of dogs on the PCT - and to my knowledge, none of them made it beyond Old Station in northern California. One of the problems is always the wear and tear on the dog's pads - from either snow or sand and rock. Do you have any idea how sharp volcanic rock is? Then there's the question of water. Most thruhikers carry a gallon or more of water on days where water sources are far apart. With a dog, you'll need enough for two. That makes for a very heavy pack, especially if you're also carrying five or six days food for the two of you. In addition to the same problems you'll find in hiking with a dog on the AT. Dogs are not allowed in the National Parks or California State Parks. Who will look after your friend while you hike those sections? Or will you just skip those sections?

How about the CDT? To put it bluntly - I wouldn't take a dog out there for a thruhike even if I hated him. Not even if I'd hiked the other two trails with him. Why? Take your choice - snow, desert, bad water, cattle, bears, other wildlife - or a couple dozen other reasons. I know of only two dogs that have finished the CDT. Doesn't mean that there aren't others - just that I don't know about them.

Which brings up another point - your dog may be trained to ignore people, but is he trained to ignore wildlife? Could he resist trotting off after fresh bear sign? Or a deer? Or a skunk? Or a porcupine? And as you wander through the herds of cows, can you keep your dog from chasing after them -- and maybe being kicked as a result? Or justifiably shot by an irate rancher? Keep in mind that in the latter case, you won't get any sympathy from the local law enforcement people.

Finally - on any long trail, if the dog goes, then your hike WILL be affected. There will be hostels, restaurants and other facilities that you won't be able to use. Or you'll have to tie the dog outside with the possibility of not finding him there when you go back out. It'll also change the hike in that you'll need to be constantly aware of your responsibility toward the dog. There'll be NO time at which you'll be free of that responsibility. That can get to be really wearing. We've seen it happen.

No - I'm not telling you to NOT do it - just letting you know that reality on a long hike is not as kind to either dogs or owners as you'd like to believe. Do the research - talk to those who have actually done it - and be quietly skeptical of those who have "theories" but haven't actually done what you want to do.

Can you go all the way with a dog? Maybe. It's been done before (except for those places previously mentioned). But - in trying to do so, you'll also risk damage to the dog as well as increasing your own probability of not finishing.

For a viewpoint specifically related to thruhiking, try this link:

And for other viewpoints NOT specifically related to long distance hiking, you might find some help here:

There's also a Yahoo group if you can find it. I don't have the link - or any reason to look for it.

Since this was written, we HAVE become slaves to a dog. Ben is a 79# Golden Retriever and he hikes with us. But NOT for thruhikes, just for day hikes and short back pack trips. He is one of the reasons we are no longer thruhiking long trails. Remember what I wrote above - a dog WILL change your hike and your life.

IOW - we still believe and practice what's written above. YMMV

Created: 06 Jan 2005
Revised: 30 Sept 2016
Copyright © 2005-2017 Spirit Eagle