In the summer of 2018, my dog Frank and I went on a most excellent adventure. We spent 166 days together hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) southbound (SOBO) from Canada to Mexico. We had great times and challenging times along the way but had we listened to the internet critics we may never have tried at all. I heard it all: it’s too hot, you can’t carry enough water, it’ll eat their paws, its illegal, its animal abuse, and on and on. While I had heard many horror stories about dogs on the PCT, I also knew it was entirely possible to do it right. Along the trail, I heard countless stories of dogs suffering, but thanks to the one great piece of advice I received Frank was not among them.
HIKE YOUR DOGS HIKE (HYDH)
Hike your dogs hike. It was that simple. And at the same time a full-time job, and immense about of work and responsibility in following through. When asked how I was making it work I often quipped, ‘one must be strong like ox, and flexible like bamboo.’ I felt any simple answer aside from HYDH would be true yet false at the same time. The most accurate answer is far too nuanced and conditional for passing conversation.
We started the PCT with a LOT of wilderness experience together. I had the utmost confidence that Frank was not only physically, but also mentally capable. Above all, I trusted my ability to read him accurately and put his needs before my desire. Through this trail together I have gained a wealth of experiential knowledge that I believe can help humans and their dogs have a safe and healthy backcountry experience no matter how far you are hiking.
Before I can dive into everything from food and water to gear, terrain, weather, and an endless list of challenges I feel it is very important to properly introduce Frank. Everything about our life together has set him up for success, and I hope learning about Frank will help you prepare your own pup for all the challenges of a long trail.
Four years before rescuing Frank I had made the decision that one day I would have a dog. Knowing I would adopt I researched breed characteristics to find a mix that would suit my needs and personal ideology of what a dog should be. I pictured in my mind Frank, not only in appearance but also in personality and relationship. Years passed and when I was ready there he was waiting for me; his foster parents had even given him a name I had long loved. How I came to decide the time was right is a story for another time, but it was love at first sight and the single most amazing change I have called into my life.
I know nothing about the first year of Franks life other than he had been rescued from a high kill shelter in California by a group on Vancouver Island who had him in foster care. He arrived severely underweight, had an infected eye from foreign material, and had previously been called Havoc. He had been fixed and on the mend for three weeks when I took him home. I couldn’t believe he had been unwanted and treated so poorly. Adopting Frank came to be the classic tale of ‘who rescued who.’ Sadly, many thousands of dogs per year do not share Franks tale of rescue which is why I am a staunch advocate of rescuing pets and do not support breeders or designer dogs. For those that are curious how I found Frank, I used petfinder.com which is a database of dogs available for adoption.
I brought him home July 6th, 2013. I had gone over to the island as a walk-on passenger. To get home I had to carry him across the scary metal bridge deck onto the ferry. He thanked me with a kiss and we became inseparable from that moment on. At the time I was working for an adventure company and he was able to come to work with me every day. Our first week together we went sea kayaking, mountain biking, trail running, horseback riding, SUPing, and hiking. We walked to and from work and spent all of our free time hanging out along the river, learning how to play in the park, and having big adventures. He was a wild puppy, headstrong, and full of poor behavior. At the time his greatest redeeming qualities were that he played well with other dogs, and was not going to let me lose him.
It took a lot of time, patience, and persistence but Frank grew to be a very good boy who trusted and accepted me as his leader. Our life of wilderness adventures and pedestrian transport allowed him to learn conditional behavior and taught him to look for me for guidance on how to act. By the time autumn rolled around, we had run our first 30km day together through the mountains on trail, talus, scree, and hands-on rock with mild exposure.
6 months after adopting Frank we moved into a van, and have lived nomadically to this day. Frank is never left home while I go to work, and most days he spends more time outside than in. Bedtime and dinner vary day to day, and we have lived through 5 winters in Canada without heat. Frank is not accustomed to the routine life of most pets or even seeing the same faces year round. For him, I am the only constant. Setting out on the trail was a not a huge departure from our normal.
On the trail, we woke up somewhere new each morning. Food and sleep came after the days’ adventure was done and not at a predictable time. We were constantly sharing time with new people who would then disappear again. And going inside didn’t mean being somewhere warm. All these aspects of the trail were normal for Frank, and I believe that played a huge role in his high spirits throughout all the physical and environmental challenges of the PCT. He trusted me to look after him no matter what the circumstance and didn’t get stressed out with the lack of familiarity.
“Caring for your dogs’ emotional needs on the trail is just as important as caring for their physical needs.”
All dogs seem to love going for walks in nature and most even enjoy camping, but they also really like to go home again after, to all the comforts and routine they are used to. The unpredictability and seemingly endless nature of long trails are ultimately not enjoyed by most dogs conditioned otherwise. We like to envision dogs as constantly living in the moment, but they too miss that which is familiar to them. Not all dogs will thrive under the conditions of a thru-hike. As far as I can tell it seems to be the minority.
Caring for your dogs’ emotional needs on the trail is just as important as caring for their physical needs. It takes a very strong relationship and a great deal of mindfulness. I cannot count the number of times I fed Frank dinner while my stomach grumbled, or went thirsty to ensure he would not. It may have been my idea to hike the trail but in each individual moment, it was always about giving Frank the best experience I could.
“I believed wholeheartedly we would be successful.
What I did not anticipate was the extent to which the trail would challenge me.”
I didn’t decide to hike the PCT and then try to get my dog ready for it. I knew from our experience that Frank was capable of the trail and therefore decided to hike it together. ‘Sending him home’ was never an option. Our life is together.
Over the course of our 5 years together before embarking on the PCT we shared countless days and nights in the wilderness. We’ve adventured through all four seasons, long into the night, and far beyond the bounds of a trail. We have been challenged to improvise and refine our methods to make every situation as safe and enjoyable as possible. Frank demonstrates a focus and ability to learn I continually find inspiring. He has shown me time and time again that he was made for all facets of this lifestyle.
These are some of his most notable pre-trail experiences:
50+ alpine summits of easy-moderate scrambling
2x 5-summit days, 2500m (8200ft) climbing
100+ tent nights backpacking, up to 11 consecutive
Consecutive 30km days
45km day PB
Prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions
30+ bear encounters
4 months living a in tent down by the river
Feeling thoroughly prepared both mentally and physically I set out on the PCT with great confidence. I believed wholeheartedly we would be successful. What I did not anticipate was the extent to which the trail would challenge me. I was caught off guard by the amount of doubt experienced along the way, and humbled by the burden of responsibility.
Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with a dog is a monumental challenge. I will never suggest that someone attempts it, and in most cases would caution against it. Our story is a rare success that resulted from numerous conditions aligning in our favour. For those that choose to try despite all the cautions, I will do my best to share our experience. Next up I will share about Franks water system on the PCT. Whether you are planning to backpack for months or a single night there will be valuable information for a happy and healthy time on the trail.
Safe trails, and happy tails.
Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian or ‘professional’ with dogs. I am not telling you what you should do with yourself or your dog. I am simply sharing my own personal experiences and opinions. What you choose to do with that is entirely your own responsibility. I do not encourage thru-hiking with a dog.