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  • Writer's pictureDr. Julie Stafford

Plan for perfection, prepare for disaster.

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

While this may sound dramatic (and it was told to me by a VERY intense veterinary surgeon), it certainly holds true when taking your dog into the backcountry. We all want to think that our trips will be instagram influencer worthy, but most dogs just won't sit still for that 29th try at the *perfect* selfie! More seriously though, when things take a turn for the worst and animals are involved, situations can go from fun to truly dangerous quickly.

So what is the absolute BEST way to ensure your hiking/backpacking/rafting/skiing/etc. trips with your dog go into epic trip history?

Planning...yup, I just vomited in my mouth a little.

Take this from a serious teleophobic- (it's a real thing and I promise, a sick dog is not just me getting out of awkward social situations)- planning can be HARD to do, but it is the single best way of keeping your furry adventure partner safe and injury free.

When I know I'm going to be adventuring with dogs, I try to visualize my trip from beginning to end: How am I getting to the trailhead? What modes of transport will the trip entail? What terrain will we be traveling through? Are there any water, glacier, or shale crossings? What will meals be and how do we safely store food each night? What water points will we have? Where will we take shelter each night? What weather conditions do we need to be prepared for? Then I consider whether the risks outweigh the benefits for taking a furry companion along and what items I may need to bring to mitigate the risks.

So it could look a little like this:

Driving to trailhead. Hiking 11 miles round trip on established dirt trail. Two water crossings that will be shallow/low flow. Dinner, breakfast, and snacks planned. Will carry bear can for food. Two sites to refill water, hiking along stream for approximately half of trail. One overnight above tree level. Sleep in tent, dog in vestibule with leash attached to tent pole*. Possible conditions include rain, snow, wildlife encounters, or higher than expected water crossings. Risks to dog are minimal and include: paw injuries, sprains or strains, wildlife encounters, sketchy water crossings, exposure pretty unlikely risk with husky.

Items to bring:

Three meals of dog food fit into bear can

Bear spray

Collapsible water/food bowl

Extra leash length- p-cord maybe

Quick-dry towel so dog isn't sleeping wet/doesn't soak bag if pulled into tent for warmth

Harness +/- Pack in case water is a bit higher and so dog can carry own gear (if water too high for safe crossing will turn around)

First aid kit

*Attaching a leash to the bottom of your tent pole is a wonderful way to gently keep your dog tethered for the night, it allows them movement and if they HAVE to get away for some reason (like... say... to chase after a skunk) it will wake you up, so you can have the full joyful experience of chasing your skunked dog in your underwear in the middle of the night. Use with caution.

This is a pretty typical list for a simple overnight in Alaska. In other areas, special heat considerations, different wildlife interactions (such as snakes instead of bears), or other risks may be taken into account.

If your trip list looks more like this:

Bush plane flight in, pending weather. Hiking up 6 miles, glacier crossing. Packrafting down 10 miles of class IV river, followed by a 20 mile class II float. 3 mile hike out to road to hitchhike back to town.....

Mayyybe you might want to consider leaving the pup(s) at home. We can talk more about addressing these individual events in the future; it is doable to fly, cross glaciers, and even packraft with your pup. But to put all of them on the same trip drastically reduces the 'dog friendly' nature of the trip and puts both your dog and yourself at a much greater risk for misshap.

A note on trip planning with other hominids: Do your friends a favor and let them know ahead of time if you plan to bring dog(s) or other animals. I remember a while back my brother had to jump in to save a dog from getting swept down the river during a water crossing the owner wasn't prepared for. It made for a miserable wet night for him and put both the dog and him at risk. Be a good person and make sure your skin friends (yes, I went there; it made me squirm too) are on board with furry friend accompaniment.

Photo: Luna, PC: Jeremiah Hassemer

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Aug 30, 2021

I started working with my pup as soon as he had all his parvo shots. His first water crossing was an inch deep and I nearly had to drag him across. The next time we encountered that stream - a month or two later - he nearly dragged me across. He loves the water and is comfortable up to his chest. I've got him to go in up to his chin, and I'm hoping to teach him to swim. I really suck at water crossings, so I'm hopeful he'll be better at them than I am. (Four legs good, two legs bad.)

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