All year I looked forward to Aspen joining us on the dog-friendly stretch of the John Muir Trail, but as the trip date loomed nearer I started second-guessing my decision to take her backpacking for seven days and 57 miles. Will her food fit in the bear canister? What if she runs out of food? What if her pack strap rubs on her leg and leaves a sore that gets infected? Will her pads hold up over 57 miles? Will she be a burden on my hiking partner? Will I be a stressed-out momma bear the entire trip? SO MANY QUESTIONS RUNNING THROUGH MY HEAD!! I took a deep breath, counted to 10, and addressed each issue one at a time.
Food – I searched the internet for advice on dog food for backpacking. While I found information on types of food, no one else seemed concerned about the food fitting in a bear canister. Are these folks not hiking in bear country? I feel like a pile of dog food would give a jar of honey some competition for bear appeal. Bottom line, we had two Bear Vault BV500 canisters to fit six-days worth of scented items in for two people and one dog; if her food didn’t fit in with ours she couldn’t go.
I did a test a few months ago with her normal kibble and dog treats. The food weighed in around eight pounds and took up two-thirds of a bear canister – that just wouldn’t do. I used the Dog Food Calculator and figured at a highly-active level, my 50-pound dog needed about 1,820 calories a day. Not all dog foods break down calories per cup, but the two I ended up with did. I opted for a combination of dehydrated food – Honest Kitchen’s Keen (470 calories/cup) and a nutrition-packed kibble – Nature’s Variety Chicken Meal Formula (490 calories/cup). She also had a variety of dehydrated and jerky treats to add a few calories throughout the day. With one cup of each twice a day, she was eating 1,920 calories a day with her food alone. All of that ended up taking up half of a bear canister and weighing around eight pounds, which she carried during the day. The pack weight was well under the recommended 25% of her body weight.
As for what to do if Aspen ran out of food, you know your dog best, but I recommend packing their full rations even if they are finicky eaters while traveling. Plus, I included jerky with my snacks, which I ate last. That way if we got held up she’d have some rations that resemble dog-friendly food. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to let her starve because all I have left is people food, but my dog typically sticks to dog food and I like it that way.
Dog Pack – Aspen has an older version of the REI Classic Dog Pack that she’s used for a couple seasons now. The lock-tight clips on the straps leave something to be desired, but maybe the new pack has improved. Last season, to insure the straps wouldn’t slip, I fitted the pack on Aspen and then sewed them in place. However, as a growing pup, I noticed the pack was rather tight around her chest this year. I loosened the straps, but apparently too much and it rubbed on her inner front leg. After a few test hikes, we found a happy medium and while she still doesn’t enjoy putting her pack on, she forgets it’s there as soon as we start hiking. Plus she went the whole trip without any hot spots! My advice, before you decide on a pack bring your dog to the store and try on a few to see which one works best. Pet stores let Fido in or REI typically lets you take the pack right outside to try it on, just remember to ask first!
Tough Paws – Aspen has tough pads from all of her outdoor adventures and from running around on our gravel driveway, but 57 miles is no small paw. I got Aspen Ruffwear’s Grip Trex and Bark’n Boot Liners to help protect her pads when we got to the rough granite. I also brought some pad balm from the local pet store to help keep her pads from cracking. Plus I packed a few dog-specific items in my wilderness first aid kit.
After trying the boots for a day, I ended up just putting the balm on every night and calling it good. She was fine with the boots for a few hours, but then started limping a little. I’ve seen the boots work well for other dogs; I think she just has long and skinny paws that don’t seem to fit well in the boots. Either way a few recommendations: put the boots on while they’re standing, make sure the boots are nice and tight so they don’t come off while hiking, get a bright color so when they do come off and you have to run back down the last quarter mile of trail the boot is easy to find – Aspen thought that was hilarious…
Two Girls, A Dog, and a Backpacking Tent – I’m used to sharing my tent with my boyfriend who came in knowing Aspen and I were a package deal, but Aspen can be a sleeping pad hog so I was a bit worried this would get on Squirrel’s nerves. I’ve read about other people bringing their dog a little sleeping pad and a kid-size sleeping bag, but with Aspen there’s no need for that. For one, with two full-length sleeping pads in my tent, there is no room for another. I recently bought a Nemo Astro Air, it’s full length, rolls down completely flat, and held up to dog claws so far. I put the clothes I wasn’t wearing between the two sleeping pads; Aspen slept at my feet or in the middle space. I slept in my sleeping bag liner and had my sleeping bag zipped all the way open draped over the two of us, which was plenty warm as I have a little heater for a pup.
As for on the trail, I’ve put a lot of time into training Aspen to be a good adventure pup – Training Collar: A Tale of a New Dog. Plus it was endearing when she would go back and forth between Squirrel and me while hiking to make sure we were both OK. Aspen even became our mascot to folks we met along the trail; I’m pretty sure most of them knew her name before ours.
For those familiar with bear mothers, you know they are very protective over their cubs. Well Aspen is my cub and her well-being is at the top of my list of things to worry about. However, since I was able to address all of the questions running through my mind I realized I would regret not taking her along on the dog-friendly stretch of the John Muir Trail. Looking back, I am glad I took her, but it definitely added a level of responsibility that I felt throughout our time on the trail. If you’re on the fence about bringing your dog into the backcountry on a long trip I hoped this post helped and I’m happy to answer any questions.
– Momma Bear