Dogpacking in Montana
The “domestic dog” (Canis familiaris) – how we all love our dogs! - “man's best friend”. In fact, according to Wikipedia: “The archaeological record shows the first undisputed dog remains buried beside humans 14,700 years ago, with disputed remains occurring 36,000 years ago”, so, people have been walking (hiking) with dogs for a very long time. In fact, dogs were the first beasts of burden – millennia before horses, llamas or any other animal. Seems to me, then, that backpacking with your furry friend, sharing the load and the trip should be in our mutual genes, a natural, so to speak.
I’ve heard that people are either “dog people” or not. Well, I am definitely a dog person. But it wasn’t until about 25 years ago that my family and I were in a position to actually have dogs. They have been at our side on the trail ever since, sharing in the fun and the scenery, carrying their fair share of gear and food on our outings (except in national parks). I haven’t seen a dog yet that doesn’t love getting out on the trail – either as a day hike or a full backpacking trip. Every dog I have had. has gone “bananas” when they see me pull the daypack or backpack out of the closet. Dogs just love getting out!
As a rule of thumb, we set an upper limit of pack weight as a quarter of the weight of the animal. I have medium to large dogs (labs), and my dogs run about 60-70 lbs. So, a quarter of their weight would be around 15 lbs. In reality, it is less, as it is difficult to get to that much weight before running out of space in the packs. Still I do shoot for 10 – 12 lbs. Some of that will obviously be her food, but that still leaves room for some nice “luxuries” that I wouldn’t take if I was going bare bones ultralight on my own (see Backpacking into Retirement – My Journey to the “Light Side”, Distinctly Montana, June 2018). I have modified my dog’s pack so she can also carry my wading boots “to boot” on trips that include fishing. But, beyond the utility of carrying some of the load, it is far more the companionship on the trail that really matters, especially when I am going solo.
As any lab owner knows, labs not only love the hiking, they love the water – boy do they love water! In fact, this can be one of the major challenges of backcountry fishing – keeping my dog out of the hole before I fish it! But who can get mad? Its almost as much fun watching their enjoyment in the stream as it is pulling fish out of it. Its part of the experience with my dog.
Just like humans, dogs need conditioning. This isn’t a problem for me. As an older hiker, I need a lot of conditioning before the summer backpacking season – so “Mysti”, my current hiking buddy, conditions along with me – getting out for weekend warm-up hikes. But one additional note here. Its not just the physical conditioning that is important for your pooch. Their feet are just as important. Its easy for us as we wear boots. Feet develop calluses and toughen up as the animal walks on rough terrain. However, during the winter, they can soften up when walking on just snow. So it is important to start out slow, and then find rockier areas to hike through the spring. Even so, I had one trip that took us through some unexpectedly sharp terrain. My dog ended up with cuts on her feet that required first aid and some extra care on the way out. Luckily I was prepared.
Once you get a pack for your companion, be aware it will take some time for them to adjust to their new width. Be prepared for running into trees and rocks. Be on the lookout for obstacles on the trail so you can be proactive. One of the toughest, will be deadfalls across the trail, especially if they are reasonably new, with lots of branches intact. Its one thing for us tall bipeds to part the branches and clamber through – but its quite the obstacle course for a dog with a pack. I will often just take her pack through these barriers myself. And then there are always stream crossings. Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting our dog not to just jump in, pack and all and soak everything that’s inside of it. That’s fine if its a shallow crossing, but with deep, swift crossings, I like to take the pack across myself, even if it takes extra trips. This leaves your dog to swim across unfettered, and keeps your gear dry.
Finally, a word about bears. We live in Montana and bears in the backcountry are a fact. I have heard a few different things about bears and dogs. What some folks have warned me about, was a situation where an unleashed dog goes after a bear, barking at it etc. Then the bear would get aroused and charge the dog. It doesn’t take much imagination to see this could result in the dog running back to you for protection with an angry bear in tow! It seems plausible, but in 25 years, this hasn’t happened to me. What has happened recently was once, when we were camped on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, a large black bear appeared on the opposite bank. Our dog barked, we shouted, but it didn’t seem to be concerned about us. I suspect this was a bear that had come out of the Park to the north, and so was somewhat familiar with people. Later that night it must have crossed and come close to camp. Our dog barked a bit, but then tried to hide under our tent! (we were camped on a sandbar). So, its something to consider as to the right solution for you and your dog – tie up at night, or leave free. Different dogs behave differently.
If dogpacking is something you think you might be interested in trying with your best friend, and want to learn more about it, REI has a web site with some great tips. Its under their “Expert Advice” section: “Hiking or Backpacking with Your Dog”, https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/hiking-dogs.html.
Graytrekker AKA Doug Stevens