Hiking with dogs

Human-canine partnerships are a wonderful thing. Some places along the Pacific Crest Trail can be great to visit with your dog. There is nothing quite like curling up with your dog at camp after a long day on trail. The PCT can also be a poor place to bring your dog depending on the dog and the location.

Hiking the PCT with your dog is possible in some areas, but it should only be attempted after considerable thought, planning and preparation. Here’s a bit about the matter.

Reducing the impact of a dog

Dealing with dog poop

Dog poop can contain fecal coliform bacteria, Giardia, hookworms, roundworms, tapeworms and more. These bacteria and parasites can persist in the soil for years and get into the water and our bodies and infect wildlife. Keep your dog’s vaccinations current. Make sure that your pet is worm and parasite-free through regular testing and de-worming if necessary. This will help reduce the chances of your dog introducing diseases, parasites or worms to wild animals.

If you’re out for the day, carry a plastic bag and pack out your dog’s poop. As a day-tripper, you’re near a trailhead and in a higher-use area. On overnight trips, bury your dog’s poop like you would your own. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and push it in. Never leave your dog’s poop on the surface of the trail or on the surface near a campsite. Trails funnel runoff into our drinking water. People might also step in it.

Dog and wildlife conflicts

Not all dogs act the same when they see a bear, a squirrel or a bird. Some will chase on instinct. Some will bark. Some won’t. Remember that dogs are domesticated predators. A chasing or barking dog harasses wildlife and adds to the challenges that wild animals face.

Wild animals react to dogs in different ways. Some will flee, perhaps abandoning their young or critical habitats. Some (coyotes especially) might be attracted to your dog – and perhaps attack it, or pick up diseases from it. Beware too of the real risks associated with porcupines, skunks and traps set by hunters.

Dogs have a fair likelihood of picking up fleas from squirrels and other small animals. These fleas may carry the plague. It is endemic to places along the Pacific Crest Trail. Your dog could transfer these plague-ridden fleas to you. Keeping your dog on leash and burying your dog’s poop, goes a long way toward protecting wildlife. Even on a leash, a dog can harass wildlife, but it reduces the chance that it will harm or kill wild animals or get lost or injured while running after its target. Only let your dog off leash when it’s allowed by land managers and you’re sure that it won’t harm wildlife or other visitors.

Dogs and other people you meet

We share the Pacific Crest Trail with others. Not everyone (particularly children) likes dogs and many people do not want to hear barking while they’re seeking quiet time in nature. A barking dog will wreak havoc on other people’s sense of solitude. Ask people if they’re comfortable with your dog passing them on trail or being off-leash in a campsite.

We’ve all been startled by an unleashed dog running at us while on trail. This can be especially terrifying at dusk or during the night or when the dog is barking or acting aggressively. Your dog could be harmed by people acting out of fear with boots, sticks, pepper-spray or other weapons, even if it’s not aggressive. Keeping your dog on leash reduces this problem.

Protecting your dog’s food

Animals are attracted to your dog’s food and dirty dishes. Be sure to protect these as you would your own food and mess kit.

Are dogs allowed?

Dogs are allowed on much, but not all of the PCT. Generally, they need to be on leash. The regulations affecting you and your dog vary depending on the agency that manages the stretch of the trail. There are no PCT-specific dog regulations. There are different rules for different places (national parks, wilderness areas, state parks, etc) and you’ll cross many jurisdictional boundaries.

Working service dogs assisting visitors with disabilities are often allowed where other dogs are not. Know the regulations. There is no central or generally accepted certifying body for service animals/dogs. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is generally followed by the federal agencies, and is a good guide to what is and what is not a service animal. See: http://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm Be aware that it is quite likely that you will be contacted by a ranger to inquire as to the legitimacy of your dog as a service animal.

Partial list of places dogs aren’t allowed: maybe not complete – inquire locally

  • Anza-Borrego State Park
  • San Jacinto State Park
  • Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park
  • The rim trail alternate in Crater Lake National Park (dogs are ok on official PCT that doesn’t visit the rim.)

Can I thru-hike with my dog?

Bringing your dog the entire way is not allowed, therefore a “pure” thru-hike by a pet dog is illegal. Leash laws vary, but one regulation that you won’t get around is the total ban on dogs on the trail in some National Parks and California State Parks.

You will not be able to hike the entire trail accompanied by your dog. For certain sections, you’ll have to leave the trail. Before the start of a restricted area, go to town and find a place to board your dog. You might have a friend dog sit. Then hike the park and then return to pick up your dog.

When are leashes absolutely required?

Please keep your dog on leash.

Leash laws differ depending on location. You’ll need to check local regulations (on agency websites or by calling local ranger stations) before heading out.

Some national forest wilderness areas require dogs to be leashed, others do not, and still more do at certain times of the year and only on certain trails.  Or they might be completely prohibited if there is a municipal watershed or other sensitive area as well.

Hiking gear for dogs

Dog packs: If your dog is going to carry a pack, be mindful of how heavy it is. Go ultralight – extra weight should be carried by you. Often people only put a water bowl, some food and the dog’s own waste in their doggy packs. Maybe let your dog carry some of its own water too.

Dog booties: Even if your dog isn’t going to wear them all of the time, it’s generally a good idea to bring along booties. Cuts are common and if your dog gets one, he will likely be thankful for the extra protection. They might keep your dog moving under its own power, reducing the risk that you’ll end up carrying it out. Familiarize your dog with their booties by letting them wear them around town occasionally.

Sleeping gear: Unless it’s hot or your dog does very well in the cold, you’ll probably need to carry a sleeping bag and sleeping pad for your dog. A low cost synthetic sleeping bag, cut down to a smaller size, is a great option. Just as you use a sleeping pad to insulate you from the freezing ground, your dog will also need a pad.

Clothing: When the temperatures get chilly, your dog will likely need a jacket in camp. Purpose built dog coats are nicely fitted and snag less when they walk through bushes. An old down vest, maybe sewn tight, can also be a very warm alternative. Think about what your dog will do if it rains or snows. Will they need something to keep them warm and dry while hiking in the rain?

Other gear for dogs:

  • Water and food bowl – folding is nice.
  • Flashing lights – makes the dog less threatening to surprised hikers at night. Helps you know where your dog is.
  • GPS beacon – in case fido gets lost.
  • Water bottles
  • Collars (or harness) and tags
  • Leash
Happy hiking dog on leash.

Photo by ekigyuu. (CC BY 2.0)

Keeping your dog safe

Finding the right dog for a long hike is difficult. Just as long-distance hiking is hard on us, it’s hard on dogs too. We hear of lots of sad stories. In the past, dogs have been injured or died while long-distance hiking. In fact, injured and sick dogs are all too common. Let that sink in.

Take a wilderness first aid class. The skills you learn for yourself will be largely transferable to your dog.

Is your dog in good enough shape to go backpacking? Build up the miles. Just like you, your dog should have a training plan and exercise regularly.

Drinking water

Your dog is susceptible to water borne illness. Pay attention to the water your dog is drinking or swimming in. It’s especially important to avoid water with foam, scum or mats. Blue-green algae blooms can quickly kill a dog.

Water and snow crossings

Raging snowmelt creeks and steep snow aren’t appropriate for dogs. These are significant dangers during the spring. Leave your dog at home lest they slide off a cliff or get swept away.

Heat-related emergencies

Dogs can’t regulate their internal body temperature as well as you can. And they can be highly motivated to follow their owners at all costs. Be very cautious about hiking on hot days – rest instead. Take frequent breaks to let your dog cool down. Bring extra water. Know the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion.

Overuse injuries

Joints, especially hips, can suffer from too much walking. Don’t let an overuse injury develop. They can be permanent. Cactus needles, granite, lava rock, and hot sand all conspire with the daily grind of distance to wreak havoc on paws.

In closing

Pets are great companions and people bond strongly with them, but there are many considerations and hurdles to be overcome for the human/pet experience to work well for all on public wild lands. It can be done, but it takes care and effort to do it right, so it is incumbent on the human to make sure it is done properly.

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Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton