Come Along, Little Doggie

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1997

Come Along, Little Doggie

All you need to know before bringing your best friend to the backcountry
By Ron C. Judd

sk any good trail dog: When slopes get steep and rocks get slick, full-time four-paw drive is a very nice option. But a hyperactive nose and ceaseless imagination are just as crucial. Dogs live to smell. And the outside world is one giant snifforama. This point struck home one day as I watched Lucy, my young Labrador recliner, stop abruptly along a trail she had trod at least 300 times. Transfixed, Lucy dropped her snout and inhaled deeply, as if savoring a fine cabernet. Lucy has sniffed a billion rocks. But she'd never had a good whiff of this particular one. That is precisely what makes backcountry trips with a canine companion so rewarding. Over time, people begin to take wild places--even new ones--for granted. But for a dog, every scramble into the bush is the first time, part 844. That glint in the eye at every switchback can render wet trails drier, evil winds friendlier, lonely places homier. But for successful backcountry tromping you need to abide by some basic rules, most of which Lucy and I learned the hard way:

Don't overdo it at first. Older dogs probably have spent too many evenings watching zebras on the Discovery Channel to take on a 27-mile backpack trek. Just like people, dogs need to build up muscle strength and footpad-toughness for long hikes. Pick a short trail not too far from home and let him build his stamina.

Practice commands. Working on voice control will pay big dividends later, when you might be hiking on trails filled with people, llamas, horses, and other dogs. If the dog is on a leash, a well-learned "wait" command is key. An untrained dog will clear an obstacle such as a deadfall or rock in a stream, and then plunge ahead, pulling you off-balance right when you're teetering on top of it.

Make it a habit to carry water for two or three. Dogs often drink more than people, and you won't always be near streams or other convenient water stops, particularly in midsummer.

Let your dog shoulder some of the burden. Dogs in good condition can carry 30 percent of their body weight. A proper-fitting pack is essential (see "Canine Couture"). Don't forget to remove it before your dog crosses streams or other obstacles.

Create a designated sleeping spot for your dog inside the tent with a roll-up mat or burlap bag as a bed away from home.

Be patient, or failing that, learn to embrace your dog's unsink-able zeal for all things outdoors. Five minutes after discovering her irresistible rock on our walk that day, Lucy spotted another one behind me, raced to sniff it, and hog-tied my legs with her leash. I stumbled and fell, smacking my head on a stump. Cursing, I looked up and saw Lucy's upside-down snout, nose working madly. I could almost read the delight in her eyes. "Dufus." Sniff. Sniff. Sniff. "Excellent!"

Oh, the Places We'll Go
Finding a good place to unleash your dog in the wilds can sometimes be risky business, given  the hundreds of differing rules for thousands of public lands. We polled dog owners for a few legally sanctioned canine favorites.

Boulder, Colorado. Boulder's hardy hikers, climbers, and bikers rave about the 33,000 acres of public open space and 131 miles of trails around the city--most of which are open to dogs on voice control. Residents note that the Third Flatiron, Boulder's most famous climbing rock, has been summitted by more than one four-legged climber. Information: City of Boulder Mountain Parks, 303-441-3400.

The Sky Lakes Wilderness, Southern Oregon. South of Crater Lake National Park, Sky Lakes's 110 miles of trails lead through spectacular glacier-carved lake basins, and the Pacific Crest Trail cuts north-south for 30 miles through the 7,113-acre wilderness. Dogs are permitted off-leash (voice-control rules apply), and hikers are advised to avoid the mosquito-plagued month of July. Information: Rogue River National Forest, 541-858-2200.

Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington. This high, dry, 530,000-acre wilderness in the North Cascades is crisscrossed by 740 miles of trails, all of which are open to dogs under voice control. But don't let the pooch stray too far as a large lynx population lives here. Information: Okanogan National Forest, 509-996-4003.

Tilden Park, Berkeley, California. Here's one for the day-tripping crowd. Tilden, which allows dogs off-leash on trails and in fields, has fast become the favorite escape of Bay-Area dog owners. This large East Bay park has miles of hiking trails with expansive bay views, and even a lake for dog-paddling. Information: Tilden Park, 510-562-7275.                                  --R.C.J.

C a n i n e    C o u t u r e
You'd never want to be caught up a long trail without the proper rain slicker, boots, or mess kit. Neither would your favorite quad-pod friend. Here's what's new in canine adventure gear.

Dog packs:
Most serious dog hikers consider them essential, because they allow Butch to pack his own grub, supplies, and family vacation guides. Wolf Packs's handmade packs come in a number of sizes, and range from the simple Cordura Trekker Reflector ($54.50; pictured at right), to the full bells-and-whistles Banzai Explorer ($69.50), which has ballistic-cloth sides to ward off prickly brush, and fleece-padded buckles (call 541-482-7669). Caribou's Woofer I, II, and III packs ($24-$30, 800-824-4153; Woofer II pictured above), with rounded corners to avoid snares, are good no-frills choices. Wenaha's Explorer II ($64.95; 206-488-2397) comes in two pieces: a harness consisting of straps and webbing, and a separate saddlebag that attaches with Velcro.

The portable bowl:
Raise your hand if you've ever tried to rehydrate Old Jake by squirting water from a water bottle toward his confused jaws. Solve the problem with a collapsible nylon water bowl/supper dish. We particularly like the big, bombproof Oasis Bowl by Ruff Wear, a 2.5-quart Cordura model sold by Wolf Packs ($15.50; 541-482-7669; pictured on previous page, top left). It folds up nicely, dries fast, and in a pinch, serves as an emergency dork rain hat.

Seat savers:
Getting a trail-soaked dog back home can wreak havoc on your car. Auto Seat Savers (Kramer Products; 541-683-6539) are urethane-treated nylon slipcovers sized to fit full bench seats ($59.95) or bucket seats ($34.95). They come in four colors to match dogs and interiors.

Dogs putting in heavy-duty miles--or walking through inhospitable terrain such as snow or hot sand--suffer from the same foot failures we do, and then some. Cracked pads are a common problem. Better booties have tough Cordura shells, fleece-padded liners and Velcro tighteners. Wolf Packs' Summer Pad Protectors ($14 for all four wheels; pictured at left) have a dual layer of tough ballistic nylon on the soles and come in ten colors and four sizes (541-482-7669). If you think your dog would die of embarrassment and chew booties off, consider "Musher's Secret Paw Wax," a sled-dog product from Eco Pak Canada ($12 for 200 grams; 514-953-1218).

Life jackets:
We know what you're thinking--the dog swims better than you do. But a boat spill far from shore or in cold, fast water can leave even a strong-swimming dog in peril. The Pet PFD from Boundary Waters ($18; 800-223-6565; pictured at top) is cheap insurance. It'll keep a dog afloat, and comes equipped with a grab-loop for hoisting him back to safety.

We suspect any self-respecting trail dog would not be caught dead in one, but fleece-lined jackets are available from Boundary Waters for dogs of all sizes. The Ultrex shell (pictured at top, left) offers wind and water protection ($34.95; 800-223-6565).                 --R.C.J.

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