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Hike, Backpack with your Dog


August, 2005

She had climbed about 12,000 feet on Mount Whitney in Southern California when the idea occurred to Charlene LaBelle to write a book about backpacking with dogs.

By Steve Dale

She had climbed about 12,000 feet on Mount Whitney in Southern California when the idea occurred to Charlene LaBelle to write a book about backpacking with dogs. “It was something I always did, but back then you just didn’t see as many back packs on dogs.” So with Malamutes at her side, back in 1992, she scribbled the entire outline for her first book on the topic, all while fighting off effects of altitude sickness.

The idea of hiking with a canine isn’t to have your four-legged friend do the heavy lifting. For one thing, it’s considered unkind or even inhumane for any dog to haul for more than a third her weight. Gary Hoffman of Greenfield, WI is the author of “Dogs on the Trail” (Insightout Publishing, Greenfield, WI; $13.95). It’s his fourth book on the topic. People think of hiking with big dogs, like Malamutes, Samoyeds or Collies, all breeds that offer backpacking titles. Hoffman’s partner on the trails doesn’t exactly clear brush for him. In fact, his 7-lb. Yorkshire terrier could get lost in the brush. “A dog is a dog, size doesn’t matter,” says Hoffman. “Besides, anyone who understands Yorkies knows how feisty they are.”

Hoffman says Willy’s diminutive backpack is filled with his kibble (each meal is in an individual sealed plastic bag), a few treats, a collapsible water dish and a toy. The formula works for nearly any dog, since big dogs eat more and eat larger kibble. Hoffman points out when dogs are working on the trails for so many hours, it’s reasonable to feed them more than you would if you were at home.

Hiking with your dog is no different than hiking with any other partner, according to Doug Gelbert, author of “The Canine Hiker’s Bible” (Cruden Bay Press, Montchanin, DE, 2004; $9.95). “It’s about sharing an experience and bonding.” Bring five people and five dogs together for a long hike or backpacking trip, and Gelbert says the dogs always become better friends, and usually the people do too.

“We all need to get away and to relax,” says Margaret H. Bonham, author “The Simple Guide to Getting Active With Your Dog,” (TFH, Neptune City, NJ, 2002; $12.95). “Dogs are a little more attuned to nature that we are. One of my dogs noticed a rattler before I stepped on him. That’s a good thing. Bears and mountain lion can count, and now it’s one against two or three (you, the dog and perhaps another human companion or another dog), and won’t be as likely to show themselves if you have a dog barking a warning.”

In LaBelle’s case, it’s often three dogs and three people. One night a bear approached her tent, heard the barking and then high-tailed a quick getaway. Naturally, nearby campers were also appreciative.

LaBelle, who is in Saratoga, CA, has authored an updated version of “A Guide to Backpacking With Your Dog” (Alpine Books, Loveland, CO, 2004; $12.95) says, “Their senses are so attuned to everything around them. If you pay attention to your dogs, you’ll notice things you never would have, appreciating nature in a different way.”

Bonham, who lives outside Denver, CO, says it works both ways, the dogs pay attention to you too. She recalls teaching one of her dogs to cross a stream walking on a log bridge. “I swear she was so proud, ‘like mom, look what I did!”

Certainly, the forests and parks are filled with hazards, which is one reason to keep them on a leash. Having a dog skunked in the middle of a trip isn’t fun. Porcupines, snakes, poison oak and poison ivy are also dangers which are usually avoided if a dog is on a leash. Hoffman says in nearly all places, it’s the law to keep dogs on a leash. “Besides a dog running up an down a trail is inconsiderate to others.”

Keeping your dog safe means providing ample drinking water for day hikes. Or for longer trips, purifiers (available at where camping supplies are sold) can make reasonably clean water safe. Drinking from streams, dogs (and people) are potentially prone to giardia or leptospirosis.

Dr. Deb Eldredge of Vernon NY says hiking can be a fun family activity, which in her case includes her husband, a 14-year old daughter, 12-year old son, a Great Pyrenees, and a pair of Welsh Pembroke Corgi’s. She says heartworm preventative is necessary for all dogs. The need for Flea and tick preventatives depends on where you happen to be going. While Eldredge says she doesn’t see ticks in upstate New York, she knows any trip to New England, for example, means use a tick preventative. Tick borne disease can cause serious illness.

“Be reasonable; unless your dog is really acclimated to it, you don’t hike far on a 90 degree day,” says Eldredge. “If your dog is lagging or seems out of breath, don’t take a chance, take a water break. Dogs can overheat easier than people.”

Gelbert lives adjacent to Valley Forge National Historic Park in Pennsylvania. and hikes daily, rain or shine, with his border collie mix, Katie. He says, “Some people don’t understand a hardy dog bouncing around a yard and running after a squirrels is different from an athlete (getting) in shape for a long hike, or several days of continuous hiking. Just as runners get into shape for races, it’s best to start slow and gradually build endurance.”

Most national parks do not allow dogs (Shenandoah National Park at the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine are notable exceptions). Many state parks, national forests and national historic parks do allow dogs. Check on the Internet or call to confirm.

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