One of the most common questions I get about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with a dog is about food. During our hike, I was asked numerous times about his food and water situation. Mismanaging either of these can be detrimental to your beloved pup, especially over the length of the PCT. It is for this reason I tend to stay away from online commentary on the topic. This topic involves more detail than a quick response over social media. In this post, I will share what I did during our thru-hike what worked and what didn’t. I know my dog best. You know your dog best. What worked for my dog may not work for your dog. I hope reading about my experience will help you find what works best for you. This post is about his food on the trail, I wrote about our water experience HERE.
Choosing A Food
With so many options for dog food, it can be hard to decide what is going to be best on a long trail. Traditional kibble, dehydrated foods, air-dried foods, freeze-dried foods, dog bars, or canned foods. When it comes down to it as long as you have enough calories for your dog the rest is personal preference. Each will have its pros and cons and what works for a weekend trip may not work for a thru-hike. For example, many people will use bars or freeze-dried foods for weekend trips, but the cost over 5-6months of food for a dog with hiker-hunger is going to be very expensive. Canned food while loved by most dogs is heavy, messy, and involves packing out bulky trash. It may seem like a obsious ‘no’, but I get asked about it and while I wouldn’t carry it on the trail it’s great along the way. For a dog that is fed raw food people often choose dehydrated, air-dried or freeze-dried foods. These are all going to be more expensive than kibble, and in my experience also bulkier to meet his caloric needs. I did not take dehydrated, air-dried, canned food or bars into consideration. I weighed my options between kibble and freeze-dried foods. For the same amount of calories, freeze-dried food would cost me 4-5 times as much as kibble and take up nearly 2x as much space in our packs. That said kibble would weight 3-4 times as much as freeze-dried food. Of course, this is going to depend on the brand of food. When I talk about kibble, I am referring to the most nutritious and calorie dense kibbles available. These tend to be grain-free or limited ingredient diet foods and not the cheap, low-quality kind of food that comes in multiple colours and are full of corn, soy, etc. In my opinion, low-quality food is an irresponsible choice for a dog that is about to work very hard and be challenged beyond what they’ve previously known.
So what did we do for the PCT?
For the PCT I went with a combination of food types, although it was primarily kibble. Each day Frank ate 1 quart (2lbs) of a salmon based kibble with a few freeze-dried blocks broken up and mixed into his kibble with a bunch of water. I would allow the water to soak in before giving it to him. If its really cold out you can use warm water. Frank really enjoyed when I did this on cold days. The freeze-dried blocks and extra water would make his food softer and saucy which is a lot nicer to eat at the end of the day than dry, crunchy kibble. When available I would also include powdered peanut butter to this mix. This method was not only more enjoyable to eat but also more hydrating when he was motivated to eat, but too tired to chug water. He also enjoyed tuna packets from hiker boxes, and occaionally I carried out small packages of wet food (intended for little dogs) for a special treat. Throughout the day he got lots of treats including cookies, chewy jerky type treats, and dried chicken/duck breasts. All in all, his trail food weighed approx. 2.5 lbs per day (not including bonus tuna packs and such etc.). I also shared my own food with him if he showed interest. In town, he would always get some sort of special extra foods. If available I would add a can of wet food to his normal food rations, or get him a hamburger patty (or two). Some places were really nice and loaded him up with treats and food. He also got lucky at times when other hikers shared food with him which I always really appreciated.
Frank weighs 70-75lbs depending on the time of year. For the winter months, I let him bulk up a little. In the spring he burns it off quickly, and I have to be mindful he gets enough calories. Given his weight, and caloric demands on the PCT, I could not (financially) afford to feed him entirely freeze-dried food. I also would not have been able to fit all his food in my own bag during the many days which were too hot to put a backpack on him. Even when he could wear a pack all the time I would have ended up carrying his food simply because it wouldn’t fit in his despite him not being over his personal weight capacity. Ideally, he would have weighed around 40lbs like I was told he would be when I rescued him. Then both of us could have carried a lot less weight. That said his larger size makes him less attractive to predators, and much more secure while fording rivers. I believe that in general smaller dogs are easier to manage on a long trail, and are certainly easier to carry food for.
When did Frank eat?
Normally, I only fed Frank once per day after we got to camp. Rarely did he ever eat all his food. Anything leftover he would be offered the next day at lunch. I always carried his leftovers which were extra heavy due to the water I added to it, but it was worth it knowing he got to eat as much as he wanted. Occasionally, he would be too tired to eat more than half his food before choosing to go to bed so I would give it to him in the morning for breakfast knowing he would be hungry and appreciate eating before another day hiking.
How did Frank resupply?
Since I wanted to feed him good quality food all of our resupply was done through boxes mailed by my mom from Canada. Because I was mailing out food I was able to make most of my own meals and cut down on my own cost. This went really well except for two boxes that didn’t arrive (both via UPS…). The first was at Crater Lake where there was absolutely no dog food but luckily The Hiker Pup was available to take us to Medford for a dream resupply. Months later I learned this box had not arrived because it was turned back at customs due to ‘unlabeled dog food’ and chicken breasts. I don’t recall the situation with the second box, but we were lucky they had some sort of dog food available as I was in a hurry to beat winter in the Sierra at that point. Looking back we were super lucky we didn’t have more issues with our food coming from Canada. Perhaps stamping all our boxes with dog paws was a bad idea.
I have heard of people who bought dog food along the way, but I would personally not recommend this. Many places we stopped at had no food options (and I mean zero dog food available), and when they did only had low-quality kibble. As a solution, some people bulk their dogs’ calories with oil due to severe weight loss. I never had to resort to this and doubt how healthy it is. Finding freeze-dried or quality kibble along the trail would involve a lot of research beforehand and sending ahead food from the places that do have it to those that don’t. Because I choose to mail my resupplies I don’t have many details on food available on the trail but I would be happy to provide feedback to anyone planning to attempt this.
Our typical resupply was 4-7 days long. Although, Frank never carried more than 4 days. Many days it was not appropriate for him to carry anything including his empty pack either due to heat or terrain obstacles. Many sources will tell you a dog can carry up to 25% of its body weight. Because properly managing Franks load was crucial to our success I will save it for a post on gear and weight.
Very important is that whatever you choose as a food plan that you are not only willing but also capable of carrying all of their food.
How you feed your dog on the trail is personal preference. However, carrying enough calories should be your primary objective. Not how convenient it is for you. There is no point bringing a ‘filling’ food if your dog loses weight due to a caloric deficiency. I would also advise again bringing a diet of cheap, junk food lacking in nutrients. Very important is that whatever you choose as a food plan that you are not only willing but also capable of carrying all of their food. Yes, Frank carried a pack but there were weeks worth of days where I carried all his weight. Had I just put a pack on him without consideration to many factors (which will be discussed in a future article) we would not have been successful.
Throughout the entire trail, I received compliments regarding Franks appearance. He maintained a strong physique and healthy weight from start to finish. He also did not beg for food which is important because no hungry hiker wants a dog begging for their precious calories. Unfortunately, I had to hear from countless trail angels, hikers, and locals about all the underweight, miserable and suffering dogs they had seen on the trail. I even had one extremely busy trail angel only a couple weeks into a Northbound hike tell me they hate seeing dogs on the trail because of the ‘animal abuse’ they have witnessed. This was quickly followed by comments excluding Frank from the general ‘dogs on the trail’ population as well as remarks on his health and vitality as he played fetch with another hiker. It was clear this person had told off more than one hiker regarding their dogs’ poor condition.
It has now been more than two months since we completed the PCT. We have been active cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and I have cut Franks food to about 70% what he ate on the trail. Even with reducing his food he has still gained weight and is just a little chubby now. He could easily get away with eating only half what he did on the PCT but would be sad to eat so little relatively. At this point, I am okay with letting him bulk out since we are planning another big summer of thru-hiking. I hope this gives you an idea of how demanding the PCT is and how much food it takes to keep a dog healthy.
Thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with a dog is a monumental challenge; bringing enough food is only a small part of it. 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 food 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 veterinary, 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. What you choose to do with them is entirely your own responsibility. I do not encourage thru-hiking with a dog.