About the Author, Melanie Alvarado: I have been a lifelong avid hiker. After growing up in southern Germany, I moved to the US at the age of 19. I work as a Nurse Practitioner and currently live in Central California with my boyfriend and 3 dogs. My favorite activity is hiking. Recently, my most frequent hiking destination is the High Sierra.
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After many years of solo hiking, much about my hiking and especially planning of hikes changed last December when I adopted a dog. Meet JoJo AKA Little J, or just “my J:” a Miniature Pinscher/Terrier mix and born adventurer. He used to run the streets off a neighboring town as a stray, then spent some time at a shelter where he caught kennel cough before he stayed for a few months with a foster mom. I saw him at an adoption event in front of the pet store where I was planning to buy a few items for a future dog. I didn’t expect to actually come home with a dog yet that same day. Yet, after I met him and talked to his foster mom, I knew I had already found my new companion: 14 pounds of high energy and endurance with long legs, an alert and intelligent mind, and a tender and loving heart.
I knew that I wanted a dog that could hike with me. However, in the process of hiking with my J, I had to make a lot of changes and adaptations to my usual hiking routines. After JoJo came to live with us, I slowly started going for extended walks and short hikes that gradually got longer and longer over several months. On my own, I was used to easily hiking twenty or more miles on a dayhike. I knew I could not expect that from my little J, and certainly not without building up to it. Another obvious change was having to check ahead of time if dogs are allowed on the trail I was planning. This excluded a vast number of beautiful trails in several national and state parks near me. I was happy to have done a lot of exploring of these parks over the last two years since I moved to central California. Instead, I now learnt to look for trails in National Forests, on BLM land, and in some County Parks of which there fortunately is also no shortage in my area. Of course knowing the leash laws of the land I’m entering is also important, although after an initial scare of JoJo running off to chase after an animal and being gone for quite a while, my personal rule has become to keep him on a leash at all times. I often use a retractable leash, which I realize has many potential problems but works just fine for my J. This way I can give him room to run when it is appropriate while simultaneously keeping control at all times and keep JoJo as well as the wildlife safe.
I have been a proud dog Mom to JoJo for over six months now. Since then, we have done a lot of day hikes, some running, as well as several dog training classes. I’m now very excited to plan a thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail in the late summer with my J. The Tahoe Rim Trail is a loop trail of about 170 miles around Lake Tahoe in Northern California. On my own, I would likely plan on completing this trail in slightly over a week. With JoJo, I’m doubling that number to giving myself at least fourteen days. Although in reality he might be able to outhike me, since this will be our first thru-hike together, I would rather not find out after a few days that I miscalculated and carry an extra fourteen pounds… although I can and will absolutely carry him if I really have to. Planning for a much lower daily mileage will force me to slow down significantly and make room for things I usually don’t do at all or only rarely: longer breaks, preparing hot drinks and meals, some fishing, reading, writing, meditating, maybe even some plein-air drawing and painting. I’m beginning to really like those aspects of my planning, as it will make me be more present rather than just hike, hike, hike like a madwoman until the evening, set up my tent, eat some trail mix and go to sleep, as I have done before. I plan to only go around ten to twelve miles a day for the first few days and then gradually consider speeding up a bit as long as JoJo shows no signs of exhaustion. We plan on two resupply stops with nights booked in a motel along the way, which was significantly more costly and difficult to book with a dog.
Hiking with my J also involves carrying a significant amount of additional gear. Due to his small size, I won’t have him carry any of his gear, at least on this first thru-hike. There are obvious items like a collapsible bowl, extra water, leash, poop bags, and food. Deciding on how/what to feed my J on the trail took quite a bit of consideration in itself. In addition, I’m accumulating a rather surprising amount of doggie clothing items. JoJo turned out to be very sensitive to heat and cold, so I got him a warm winter jacket as well as a summer cooling vest, which we have already used plenty of times on day hikes. Since on the Tahoe Rim Trail we will likely encounter both heat and cold, I plan on taking both items along. In addition, I got him a rain jacket as well as doggie boots. So far, he never showed any sign of sensitivity to his paws on our hikes, likely because we built up our mileage slowly enough for him to develop a good layer of callus. However, for peace of mind I’ll make sure he is used to the boots ahead of time in case we do ever need them on particularly rocky or sandy terrain. The most recent piece of gear I added is a sleeping pad. Being a bit of a minimalist, on my own I never bother using a sleeping pad, but JoJo has shown a clear preference for sleeping on a fluffy soft surface, so I decided to bring along an inflatable sleeping pad for the two of us.
Then there are specific health and safety considerations: On the trails and in the backcountry, dogs may encounter dangers and risks that an urban canine may be unlikely to deal with. One such issue is snakes. At least for now, we are primarily hiking in California, where the only poisonous snake species is the rattlesnake, of which I have encountered quite a few on my own solo hikes in the past. JoJo is inquisitive and has a strong prey drive and would likely be eager to run up to a rattlesnake. To lower this risk, I completed a rattlesnake aversion training session with him JoJo where he learnt to avoid these snakes and possibly to even alert me as a result. I also plan to schedule a vet visit in the weeks leading up to our thru-hike, to assure his immunizations are up to date. Additional immunizations, like the leptospirosis vaccine that is optional for urban dogs, may be recommended for a hiking canine. Heartworm prevention and a tick and mosquito repellant plan are crucial for a dog that goes on regular backcountries adventures. Another preventive measure is to avoid letting a dog drink out of puddles that hold stagnant water to decrease his risk of getting infected with giardia. On the eastern section of the Tahoe Rim Trail, where water sources are at times are quite spread out, this will mean carrying a significant amount of extra water. Even the drive to the trailheads was a learning experience: After several longer drives on winding roads, I realized that my J gets car sick. Embarking out a longish hike with sick dog that threw up in the car is not the best idea, so I had to learn about preventing car sickness in dogs.
I couldn’t ask for a better hiking partner than my J. Watching his excitement on the trail adds even more enjoyment to the hikes. I can’t wait to end my days with JoJo curling up next to me in the tent. During the last months, especially while planning my thru-hike, I learnt that many people unfortunately seem to be opposed to dogs on the trail, even where they are allowed. This is part of why I’m extremely careful to assure I’m following all the rules and never give anyone a reason to complain about my dog or worry about his health or safety. While I’m hiking with my J the way other hikers on the trail perceive us may influence their opinion about all the other hikers who take their dog on the trails. I will do the best I can to make my hikes enjoyable and safe, not only for myself and my J, but also for anyone we might encounter or who may hike the trail after us.