BACKPACKING WITH DOGS: CARRYING THE LOAD

I’ve spent more than 450 overnights backpacking in the mountains with the aid of my dogs… Mostly off-trail and in difficult terrain including thick brush and swamps.On all occasions, even 13-day trips, the dogs started out carrying not only their own food but some of my food and gear as well. I pack highly compact, mushing-type dog food but still keep the weight of the dog packs well under one-third the animal’s body weight.Toward the end of these trips some gear was transferred from my backpack to the dog packs to replace expended supplies. However, since these items are usually not as dense and compact as dog food, the dog packs become significantly lighter toward the end of a trip.Not a Dog’s Delight It sounds like a great idea−let your dogs help carry the weight on backpacking trips. At least let them carry their own food. If dogs don’t work much in summer they might be happy to carry a light pack for an easy weekend trip on gentle trails. But when it comes to serious trips, getting a pack strapped onto their bodies takes a bit of encouraagement.Once, during the fitting of a homemade pack, my powerful Siberian husky, Wolfgang, staggered around and pretended that his legs were buckling from the weight of an empty pack. Dogs that will jump up and down at the sight of their pulling harness will try to slink off when I approach with doggie pack in hand. Sometimes, with the more stubborn dogs, it’s necessary to stand on their neck lines to get them to hold still to get the packs on. Even then they will squirm out from under the loaded pack and cease resistance only after the first buckle has been secured. Dogs will deliberately bang their packs into my legs at every opportunity to show they don’t like it. And they will, intentionally it seems, hang themselves up on brush or wedge themselves between boulders. Dogs, understandably, don’t like to be weighted down. It slows them, theoretically making them sitting ducks for marauding bears. Nevertheless, dogs can be quite agile wearing packs—some have caught small animals or birds while packing (with a great deal of gear flapping around).CASUAL OR INTENSIVE?  Dog-packing for casual, weekend fun is a lot easier and less intensive. Buy a dog pack, don’t overload it, balance the saddle bags, buckle it on and go. That advice is usually sufficient because few people pack dogs seriously for long periods in rough terrain. With limited use, faulty dog pack designs don’t become apparent and dogs recover from any ill-effects because they are not pressed too hard.WHY BOTHER? If intensive dog packing is such a hassle, why bother? Because, once the packs are loaded and coaxed onto the dogs, every pound in their packs is a pound off your own back. And, once the dogs are loaded up, they still seem to have their fun, it’s just slower and more cumbersome.PURPOSE Dogs have been used since time immemorial to haul gear and supplies for humans. Also to supply remote trapping cabins and mining camps.My purpose is love of being in wilderness and photography. Dogs help to extend my range of travel and time in the wilderness.I enter wilderness to remain there for a while−not simply to pass through. I like days off during wilderness trips. The supplies laboriously hauled in provide base camps for photography and exploration. I like to climb a mountain peak or visit special places, even in the rain. This gives both me and the dogs respite from heavy packs Although my “day pack“ is pretty heavy because I always carry survival gear, camera gear and the dogs’ evening meals.On day climbs, when I use my dogs to pull me up mountains, I don’t bother with a dog pack. I’d rather have them help pull me up and descend without weight on their bodies. Thus, my dogs have plenty of time for fun on day trips and I don‘t have to bother with packing their packs.CONTROLLING PACK DOGSDog-packing can be a clumsy affair, especially in heavy brush or steep, rocky terrain. Swamps are tedious to travel but I find them interesting. Quaking bogs are actually a spongy kind of fun as long as dogs and human don’t poke through the floating layers of vegetation and sink too deep.I keep my dogs tethered to each other for control. When working with just one dog I keep it on a line tied to me. The last thing I want is dogs running loose with some of my gear, especially since they have a way of divesting themselves of unwanted packs when out of my sight. More than once I’ve had to search for a dog pack that had come off accidentally or been deliberately dumped while I was busy trying to maneuver my own pack. I have carried up to 85 pounds and I don‘t expect the dogs to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I’ve spent some desperate times searching for dumped dog packs−and the dogs didn‘t help me find them either!A short way into our daily treks, my dogs will sit down, look at me, and “select” a campsite right there, just hoping to get those darned packs off their backs. It never fails; however, once their packs are off, my dogs invariably bounce around with great exuberance. So, I conclude they are not exhausted.Once again, I always pack my dogs with less than one-third of their body weight and try to make them as comfortable as possible.SHELTERTo shelter myself and the pack dogs, I use a sturdy tarp supported by adjustable trekking poles, guy lines and stakes. The tarp has more room than a tent, no floor to get torn up or dirtied, is lightweight, compact and fits well in a dog pack. Some dogs like to crawl inside before the shelter tarp is fully erected. Others prefer to sleep outside in all but the worst weather. You can imagine the fun under the shelter when a “tarp lout” wants the choice spot—or doesn‘t want a certain other dog to be inside at all.A shelter tarp is a bit of a hassle to erect but is a very flexible system in broken terrain. My dogs and I have slept in bear or coyote beds—sometimes the only dry or comfortable places available. The important thing is to have something to tie off the tarp and secure the dogs. I usually wind up tying them to the poles. Needless to say, I have had the shelter collapsed by dogs more than once. Once, on Willow Mountain, my falling tarp scared away a curious grizzly.PACK DOG TYPESJust about any dog can carry a pack. Heavier, stockier freight dogs might be more suitable than lean racing types, but I‘ve used both. I use the same dogs for everything. For my main winter activity, off-trail ski-dogging, I have come to prefer slightly slower, heavier animals: power over speed.SAFETY AND EXPERIENCEMy pack dogs are always under my protection, dependent on my attentiveness, alertness and care. Dogs are more helpless when burdened with packs−just as they are more vulnerable to such things as moose and snow machines when running in teams.Stream crossings can be most dangerous. Dogs are powerful swimmers, even with packs on. Also, the packs are usually somewhat buoyant. But packs do get hung up on snags in the water. Depending on circumstances, at particularly dangerous river crossings I sometimes carry dogs’ packs across separately and then let them swim or lead them across with a rope. Sometimes, because only the weight of my heavy pack will keep my footing on the stream bottom, I take everybody across at one time.Some dogs will jump right in. Others will need to be led. On particularly fast rivers the animal will wind up rather downstream from where you enter, so be aware of a suitable landing spot for them downstream on the far shore.Steep, hard snow chutes are also dangerous for man or beast because they are slippery. Uncontrolled descents can be nearly as blazing fast as free falls−invariably ending against rocks below.I have had to lift my dogs (one at a time with their packs on) over particularly steep, treacherous snow formations while clinging to mountainsides. I should stress, at this time, that experienced working dogs do best in these situations. On “spring” snow chutes and gullies, pack dogs are very sure-footed and seem quite aware of the dangers.Boulder fields and scree slopes are also dangerous. Pack dogs seem to have the most trouble there because of the loose footing and gaps between boulders. Steep, rocky terrain is hazardous to dogs’ feet. More than once I have kicked falling rocks away from my pack dogs. I’ve even nudged a sliding boulder or two on a course away from my dogs.PREPARATION AND TRAINING For serious use, pack dogs should be in excellent physical condition. Sled dogs in the off-season should be able to handle a heavy pack trip if they haven‘t been lying around too much.My dogs and I work outdoors year-round on a daily basis (except when I go to town for supplies). Nevertheless, I always make the shift in activities−from winter ski-dogging to summer hiking and mountaineering seasons−slowly and with shorter, easier trips.I use dogs in harness to help pull me uphill at all times possible when hiking, climbing or snowshoeing. Using my animals in harness to help haul me up mountains (mountain-dogging?) seems to provide adequate conditioning for dog-packing.For those who do not regularly work their dogs, having the dogs carry light packs on short trips is probably the best physical pre-conditioning. When packing dogs intensively it would be foolish to jump right in with a long, hard trip.Preferably, dogs should have some practice with packing. Also, the dog handler should become familiar with packing and the various buckles and straps to attach the packs for maximum stability−so the loads don’t slip around or fall off. Working out these problems in the field is a real time-waster.PACK SELECTION AND PACK DESIGNCarrying a pack may not be very popular with dogs, but dog packing is not a really a popular activity with humans, either. I‘ve had great difficulty obtaining dog packs in the correct size, the correct configuration or, at times, finding any dog packs at all. Unfortunately, the one good thing about all the commercial dog packs I’ve ever owned is that the extremely fine quality of construction and material makes even poorly-designed packs last a long time. Thus, I have not owned a great variety of dog packs.I have never found the ideal dog pack. Like many for-animal products, the advertising and design is often geared toward pleasing human vanities rather than the animal‘s well-being.One of the most glorious “failures” was a venerable harness shop design with a removable Velcro feature wherein the pack could be lifted off the yoke. Though well made of excellent materials, this pack was overly expensive and the Velcro added incorrectly-placed padding along the spine which held in heat and moisture. This was exacerbated by irritating gatherings of sewn loops, straps and bunched up material that also led to pack sores.Pack sores are something to really watch out for. Rawness or chafing is more apparent in areas of less fur, but pack sores seem to occur on furry areas with little early warning. These pack sores seep, really stink and may require antibiotics if they are too advanced.The removable Velcro feature does have the theoretical advantage that the dog can dump the pack if a bear or moose attacks, or if it gets hung up in a stream-crossing. Except that this feature was designed to be used with additional straps wrapped around the whole business.The Velcro feature was designed for the convenience of the human handler and to give dogs relief on trail stops. I never used it much. The Velcro became clogged with grass, dog hairs, etc. and lost adhesion. And I could never get the packs back on straight. Plastic snap buckles with adjustable straps (like those on human back packs) are just as convenient. I generally leave the dog packs on during trail stops because they can lie down and take the weight off their bodies that way.Finally, in frustration, I used a razor blade (in the field) to carefully remove all of the Velcro and attached the pack directly to its excellent three-strap harness-yoke setup. I also razored off the front and rear loops with their bunched up material right on the spine.The huge brass rings on my Velcro packs were sturdy enough to tether ponies. I cut them all off with a bolt-cutter. Their removal added the equivalent of an extra day or two of dog food to the total loads of three or four dogs. The nylon loops holding the brass rings were retained because they sufficed for tying stuff onto the outside of the packs.I do not; however, attach any significant weight or bulk to the outside of a dog pack because it makes the load unstable and gets hung up on brush. I find that internal pack capacity is usually sufficient to carry the reduced loads I recommend in rough, mountainous terrain. I don’t mind using outside loops for an extra dog rope or some minor incidentals forgotten during packing, but I try to keep everything inside the dog pack—just as I try to keep everything inside my own back pack. This keeps stuff dry, keeps it from hanging up on obstructions, keeps it from getting lost, and allows me (and the dogs) to slip through brush, fallen logs and overhangs more easily.Chafing is a real problem with poorly-designed, poor-fitting or improperly-buckled dog packs. The forward chest strap should be padded behind the buckle and where it could contact the forelegs. The forward underbelly strap should be padded on both ends and positioned to avoid chafing the tender skin on the rear of the front legs.Achieving a good individual fit is the reason why I cannot recommend any specific brand of dog pack, other than to point out certain desirable features for intensive use.A popular pack, sold by a reputable outdoors store, seems designed more for polite use on gentle trails. In stock form, the top yoke material bunched up right away. And, because of the single underbelly strap design, this pack tumbled off the dogs (over their heads) on mountain descents. I had bought mine because nothing else was available in Anchorage during one of my rare visits to that supply hub.Obviously, choosing the pack design is most important. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time, resources or proximity to towns to research and test available dog pack designs.Because I have not yet actually found the ideal dog pack for serious use does not mean that such a pack doesn’t exist. Some on the internet look promising, but a personal examination and fitting is necessary to correctly evaluate dog packs.Custom-made or custom-fitted dog packs are one solution. Some existing packs could be modified to be more suitable for hard use. I had my current pack design modified by a competent seamstress with the attachment of a second belly strap in the rear and two rigid pieces of linoleum type material (on either side of the spine to keep pressure off the spine) so that the top material would not bunch up. The pack is now somewhat adequate but neither I nor the dog like it very much.One feature I really like is that the tension of the pack on the dog’s body can be adjusted from the top. This eliminates having to reach underneath the dog to make fine adjustments on the trail.PACKING THE PACKSLoading dog packs is a hassle and there are no short cuts: it must be done carefully and methodically. The biggest problem I have, especially toward the end of a trip, is finding enough compact stuff to cram into the dog packs. Usually I can tell by hefting the inner plastic bag to determine when the loads are equally balanced in weight (before actually loading the pack bags). I keep small, heavy objects handy to slip into the packs for the final balancing of loads while on the trail.When packing multiple dog packs I always try to pack so it’s necessary to open (unpack) the least number of bags while on the trail. Thus, the dog food and human food, etc, required for the last few days of a trip are packed into saddlebags that are never unpacked until needed. That way, when breaking camp, I don’t have to deal with repacking and re-balancing multiple dog packs in addition to my own. Packing and repacking in the field, especially during rain or snow, is a real hassle, especially with wet, dirty, hairy packs, straps and buckles.PROTECTING THE LOADWaterproofing a dog pack itself is probably near impossible without adding the tremendous bulk of waterproof materials and waterproof closures. Besides, such a pack would soon become abraded and leak anyway.I use a three-layer system: an outer plastic shopping bag over water-proof garbage bags to protect them from abrasion. I use an inner plastic shopping bag to keep the contents from violating the waterproof garbage bag from inside the load.By the way, those “holes” at the bottom of some packs are drain holes−the inside of the pack will get wet! Dogs will seek every stream and puddle to cool off and they will sit down in running streams with their packs on. Everything will get wet. But let them cool off! Same goes for snow banks.Obviously, delicate gear should not be packed in a dog pack. The more vulnerable stuff should be well-wrapped and toward the rear of the dog pack. One can imagine the amount of scuffing and banging these packs and their contents must endure in rough terrain.OVERHEATING AND FOOT CARE CONCERNS Overheating is most dangerous both to the heat-regulating system of the animal and it’s tendency to cause saddle sores.I don’t buy the argument that dogs don’t overheat from too much padding on a pack because they cool their systems through the mouth. Insulation is insulation, so I recommend a minimum of bulk and material in a pack yoke. There should be no pressure points and preferably a breathable mesh (such as we see in human backpacks) wherever possible. I would like a pack designed with padding on either side of the spine (with a groove for the spine).Care of the dogs’ feet is most important because of the extra weight. I don’t have many foot problems with my dogs. Because they work year-round on a near-daily basis, they are always in condition and their feet are always tough (I never cut their toenails because they are constantly being worn down). My dogs never wear booties, summer or winter, but I always carry them in case of injury and I do inspect their feet.FEEDING The most highly-concentrated, high-protein mushing brands of dog food make the best trail meals. I pack individual meals in sturdy quart, “storage” plastic bags (with extra vitamins and supplements like glucosamine ground up into powder). I pack generous amounts−pack dogs like to eat!I don’t carry dog bowls at all. The dogs are fed right from the plastic bag by rolling down the sides, forming an improvised “bowl” and adding enough water to cover the food. Meals can be pre-soaked in the recloseable bags if desired.The dogs will find all the extra liquid they need in streams, lakes and puddles. This presumes they are used to drinking groundwater. Both my dogs and I drink from the same sources; we all carry giardia; and I do not medically treat my dogs when they test positive for giardia. Your situation may vary.I bring extra dog biscuits and feed the dogs meat from my own food stocks. Leftovers from my meals flavor the dogs’ meals. While I try to avoid stinky food that may attract bears, I now feed my dogs an extra-compact concentrated Alaska salmon, potato, barley and seaweed dog food that’s made only in Palmer, Alaska. Just be aware that great wads of rich dog food do attract bears. And I have found that bears tend to visit during meal-cooking or dog-feeding time, in camp or along the trail.I’ve “met” many bears and had one really close call, mainly because I didn’t pay attention to my lead pack dog and walked right up onto a grizzly with two nearly-grown cubs.Mindy, my leader, had repeatedly “disobeyed” my orders to climb in the direction where I knew a trail home was to be found, but I made her do it anyway. I had momentarily forgotten that Mindy was never, ever, wrong, about any wilderness call she had ever made. I was certain where the trail was located, but Mindy knew there were bears up there! Dogs may appear clumsy and awkward with their packs on, but are still capable of providing warning about dangers along the trail. I pay great attention to my dogs at all times. They are still the same, sensitive and alert animals underneath those clumsy-looking loads.Growing up in New York City on the border between Brooklyn and Queens really prepared Rudy for the wilderness. Being a social worker in Watts also helped. His Hopi and Navajo friends in Arizona told him their knowledge came from plants and animals. They understood that Gretchen and Wolfgang, the purebred Siberian huskies who wandered the forests and deserts of Northern Arizona with him at that time, taught him more than anyone about wild lands and wild animals, if not about life itself.

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