Smart Traveler: The Canine Question

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Smart Traveler: The Canine Question

A backcountry primer for a coyote-eat-dog world
By Debra Shore

In theory it sounds great: a summer camping trip for all, including the four-legged among you. But before you get too attached to the idea of watching Spot run free through high mountain meadows, here are a few things you should know.

The Rules
Regulations vary from site to site, but in general the most restrictive areas, where pets are often banned entirely, are national wildlife refuges, because of their obvious primary mission. Most national parks do allow pets but usually confine them to campgrounds, road corridors, and the odd well-used trail, and require that dogs be on a six-foot leash. National forests tend to be looser: Dogs usually must be leashed in certain campgrounds, but can roam in the backcountry if they're under voice control. And areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management are the least restrictive of all. Most state parks have leash laws, and many require owners to show proof of their pets' shots.

Rangers have found, however, that regardless of leash rules, most people ignore them once out of developed areas. If you get caught, in most places you risk a citation and fine, generally $50. And rangers do follow through. Between 1991 and 1994, for instance, 75 percent of the citations written by rangers in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area of the Roosevelt National Forest, near Boulder, Colorado, were for unleashed dogs, which harass wildlife, get into conflicts with other hikers and their dogs, and generally disturb the peace.

The Dangers
More important, things can be treacherous out there for animals who haven't lived in the wilds for a few thousand years. Dogs left unattended for even a few minutes have been carried off by coyotes, mountain lions, and even alligators. A number of dogs, blindly chasing ground squirrels or chipmunks, have fallen 300 feet or more from the rim of Crater Lake in Oregon. Other natural features pose additional risks. "Over the years we've had an awful lot of pooches go into the thermal pools," says Yellowstone law enforcement specialist Pat Ozment. "The dogs see this nice big pool and, particularly if they're water-type hounds, in they go--and it may be 190 degrees. Obviously, it's cooked puppy then."

If you do hit the trail with your dog, don't expect boundless energy. "We've seen exhausted, dehydrated dogs that have to be carried off the mountain," says Casey Moffitt, a ranger in the White Mountain National Forest. "Not all dogs are prepared for an eight- to ten-hour hike up 4,000 feet on a hot summer day." When planning your route, be realistic: River crossings, boulder fields, and stretches of deep snow may be unmanageable.

Pack first-aid items, such as tweezers for removing porcupine quills, and check feet frequently for cuts and debris that can lead to infection. Also, search regularly for ticks, especially the tiny deer ticks that carry Lyme disease. Supply plenty of water and filter it--animals, too, can contract giardia. Treat pet food as you would human food, especially in bear country. Have your dog sleep with you in the tent to avoid skirmishes with nocturnal creatures like raccoons. Always pick up your pet's droppings and bury them. And on the trail, act responsibly: Don't let your dog bound recklessly ahead, and be sure to give passing hikers a wide berth.

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