I have always been a dog person, so I would have to say that my best trail buddies are my dogs. Having one or two of them at my side on the trail has added great joy over the years - sharing in the scenery, around the campfire and carrying their fair share of gear and food on my walkabouts (except in national parks, of course). They also allow me to bring a few luxury items I would not bring if I was alone. Whether it’s a day hike or a full backpacking trip, I haven’t seen a dog yet that doesn’t love getting out on the trail. As every dog-owning hiker knows, they go “bananas” when they see the daypack or backpack come out of the closet.
According to Wikipedia, undisputed remains of a domestic dog were found buried beside humans 14,200 years ago. There is also evidence our association may go back much, much further. In fact, dogs were the first beasts of burden – millennia before horses, llamas, or any other animal. Seems to me, then, that backpacking with your four-legged, sharing the load and the trip has been “hard-wired” into both of our genes - it's a “natural”.
Everyone has their favorite breed - I tend to go with labs – or more accurately, mostly lab, lab mixes, as opposed to purebreds, as I usually get mine from shelters. I like the size of labs, and, if you figure pack animals can generally carry a quarter of their weight with ease, that means labs are good for 10-15 lbs, depending on conditioning. I also find that the larger dogs have a gait more similar to mine, so we can travel at the same speed. I generally start breaking in a “new to me” dog when my current one gets to be about 7 or 8. I am on my fourth dog now and she is 7, so I am weighing whether or not it is time for reinforcements. Here are a few choice vignettes about my experiences with my dogs in the backcountry over the years.
As any lab owner knows, labs not only love hiking but they also love water! In fact, this can be one of the major challenges of backcountry fishing – keeping my dog out of the hole before I fish it. But who can get mad? It’s almost as much fun watching them enjoy the stream as it is me pulling fish out of it. It’s part of the experience with my dogs. My current dog, “Mysti” (as it was a “mystery” where she came from) have an understanding now – I get to fish the head of the hole, she can “fish” the tail. To her, fishing is diving 3 feet for grapefruit or larger size rocks and taking them to the shore - “rock fishing”, as it were. She is quite maniacal about it too – she can do this all day long. So, if you come across loads of rocks strewn around a particular area along a stream, it’s a good bet Mysti has been there.
Another dog I had (Bella) was always fascinated by fish. She would respectfully stand right next to me, not spook the hole and just stare into the water. If I took too long to catch a fish she would start whimpering in a nervous manner - ‘where’s my fish!!!’. As soon as the rod bowed from a fish on, she would start jumping up and down until I finally brought it to the net. She would enthusiastically sniff at it with great interest, but then when I released it, to disappear back into the water, she would stick her nose in the water as if trying to find where it went. Then the sequence would start all over again.
Other interesting experiences revolve around bears. In Montana, we have a very healthy population of bears and there is always a potential for a bear – dog encounter to go wrong. So far, I have been lucky, perhaps because where I live in western Montana, my dogs experience bears at home, too. That doesn’t mean we haven’t encountered bears – we have, several times, but so far, so good (black bears, no grizzlies yet – phew!). One of the more memorable encounters happened a few years ago on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. One evening, while camped on a sandbank, well away from the designated trail, we spotted a large black bear on the opposite bank while I was fishing. Mysti barked, my wife and I shouted at him and he looked at us, but really didn’t care and carried on drinking. Perhaps he had come from nearby Glacier, where encountering people was not uncommon, I don’t know. When he was done, he lumbered off up the ridge, and was gone – or so we thought. When I go out camping with my wife, we use one of those ultra-light tents, so we don’t usually let our dog in the tent, fearing her nails would rip through. She sleeps on a little mat in our open, small vestibule.
That night, a couple of hours before daybreak, something stirred her – she bolted around outside, running around and barking a bit – then all of a sudden – made a beeline back to the tent and dug a hole in the sand right underneath us and hid there! ‘Great guard dog!’, I thought. Nothing else happened, probably because we always keep a clean camp and hang our food well away. However, it was rather unnerving. My wife insisted on leaving that day! This was the third trip there out of 4 where we had close encounters with bears and she wouldn’t go back there with me again.
Finally, when kids are involved, dogs are a must! I have found with my kids, it made for a much more memorable trip, it took their minds off the possible discomfort of their own packs and “shortened” the trail considerably. Around camp they spend hours playing with the dog(s) which freed me to go fishing nearby. Let’s face it, natural beauty only goes so far with kids, while dogs can provide hours of entertainment!
Dogs definitely add an additional dimension to a backpacking trip and one I do not want to be without.