Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Are you interested in thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and maybe want to bring your dog?

This post is written as food for thought for folks who are considering a thru-hike, specifically on the Appalachian Trail and may bring their dog too. If you are already packed and leaving soon for Springer Mountain, I send you my warmest wishes for a great walk! Have fun and enjoy one day at a time! 

This post’s theme can be summed up with this sentence: Responsible stewardship of our oldest 2,000+ mile trail starts with our state of mind and heart.

{This is a series of blog posts on thru-hiking (walking from one end of a long trail to the other). I will start with my mental state about thru-hiking and progress to some ideas on how to practically approach a long hike with questions included on whether or not to bring a dog with you. I am "Bobwhite" and I hiked southbound from Maine to Georgia on the A.T. in 2011. In 2012 I married my (2008 A.T. NoBo and 2010 C.T.) husband, Powder River, and in the same year we rescued our adventurous tuxedo mutt, Cooper}

Long distance hiking has only gotten more popular and more possible in the past decade. We see a lot of hype about backpacking and, now: specifically, long distance backpacking- via movies, magazines and all over social media. Cutting edge gear is lighter and better than ever before.

What does it take to do a continuous hike of say, the Appalachian Trail?

The other day, I was at lunch with some old friends and some new folks I was meeting for the first time. My good friend next to me at some point told the lady across the table that I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. The woman across from me was in total shock.
 “All at once?”
 “Yes, in about 5 and a half months.”
 “WOW!” she really couldn’t believe it, but she also had no context for such an endeavor. “You should get a tattoo, on your forehead!!! ‘I hiked the whole A.T.!’

This was fun. It’s always fun introducing someone new to something that you treasure dearly. A good trail friend of mine did in fact get a tattoo, a very large one, on his arm of the A.T. logo. He is a really sweet dear friend and never does he come off as the boasting-type. I really think he got the tattoo just for himself… not really to brag to others about his accomplishment.
When I backpack these days, with my dog and husband, Powder River, (also a former thru-hiker) and we meet other folks on the trail- let’s say at a campsite- we typically don’t tell them we are former thru-hikers. My husband is especially good at this. Sometimes it will come out in conversation, but normally it’s a friend who is with us on that given trip that tells the new friends what we’ve done. Why? Is this false modesty? What is this girl getting at exactly??? Yes, we are internally proud of what we’ve done and there is not a day that goes by that we do not think about The Trail. But Powder River and I know something deep within ourselves:


We were able to thru hike the entire A.T. in one go because of the countless volunteer hours that make the trail walk-able and the countless good natured folks who run hostels, make American-made lightweight and ultra-light gear, give trail magic (food or free rides to town), give community, friendship, hope and smiles. We were able to do our separate Appalachian Trail thru-hikes because we have a loving God who made it possible that we did not get sick or injured (my hike was especially miraculous: I did not have a single blister on my feet and I did not have a single tick, nor one case of diarrhea). We were able to do our hikes because we both had incredible mentors who helped us get our stuff straight, before we hit the trail.
This couple found me on the trail and offered to take me to their home so I could take a shower and eat with them

THEY ARE THE SPECIAL ONES. The people who self-less-ly give to people like me who are really just passing thru and smelling really bad.

What is my great accomplishment? Oh, I only showered once a week for 5 straight months… I lived off instant mashed potatoes… I wore the same exact clothes for 5 months… I became so good at smelling perfumes and deodorants that I could smell day hikers before seeing and sometimes before hearing them.






Let’s be honest: it’s a selfish thing to head into the woods for 6 months. When you are out there, you have very little responsibility. You are living in another world. You are stepping into a natural world of life: generations of plants and animals have lived there forever; the rocks were placed there by ancient ice flows and ancient floods. The trees have seen waves of health and sickness in the way of pests like the wooly adelgid which is now killing the hemlocks in groves. You get to be, for a wink of an eye, a part of a living, breathing world that was not built by man. You get to step on a path that is filled with human history and was built by people you will never even meet. This world is so incredibly dear to me: both the natural world of Appalachia and the human world that is the A.T. community. This place is my second home. In a way, it is my first love. I met God on this trail 11 years ago. My husband proposed to me on this Trail 4 years ago. Powder River and I got married on this Trail 3 years ago.

Responsible stewardship of our oldest 2,000+ mile trail starts with our state of mind and heart. May we have the non self-seeking attitudes of the non-thru hiker demographic of the A.T. community. 

I’m not really sure what most people think about as they ponder going on their first long distance hike. Maybe some think about how refreshing it will be to “be alone” in the woods for a while and take a break from urban or suburban chaos and monotony. Maybe some want to prove something to themselves or others. Maybe some just have thoughts of walking 15-20 miles every day and feeling good and tired at the end of each day. Whatever you may be thinking now, that may change and probably will change. For Northbounders on the A.T., the trail brings little solace. If you want to be alone you may want to consider another trail or consider doing a flip-flop hike, off season hike, or a Southbound hike. You will of course have that change of pace you are looking for, but you will not be alone on a NoBo A.T. thru-hike.

If you have not yet joined the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as a member, I urge you to do so. If you do not have a former thru-hiker mentor, I hope you can find one. There are several “ruck” gatherings throughout the year and this is a great place to be humble and learn from others. It is so nice to be prepared and buy the right gear the first time. It also saves money and saves you from possible injury. Former thru-hikers are your very best resource as you plan. If you find a thru-hike blog that you love, I urge you to email the author and set up a phone meeting. Verbal communication is the very best and I promise you, former thru-hikers LOVE to help prospective thru-hikers and are very generous with their time when it comes to talking about the Trail.

When you decide to thru-hike alone, you are choosing the easiest way. You get to decide when and where you will stop each night. You get to monitor your health and plan accordingly. You have no one to answer to but yourself. Realistically speaking a thru-hike of the A.T. can be grueling. It is more strenuous than the West Coast counter part, the Pacific Crest Trail because you climb up and down several mountains each day. The North is especially rugged and there are days where you will climb up and down shear rock faces, just grabbing onto little roots. There are also sections like Shenandoah National Park where you will be cruising on a nice pine needle packed, well graded trail with minimal elevation gain.
This is what Maine and New Hampshire look like....


The start of my southbound hike on Katahdin, June 28, 2011

Last summer I had the great pleasure of bringing trail magic to a family of 5 on the A.T. in PA. The Kallin Family (http://kallinfamily.com/) has won the respect of many hikers and the A.T. community at large. They hiked with their two young kids and dog. Their kids were 8 and 10. Think of this! The parents allowed their kids to lead and make decisions about how far to hike each day. The kids, RobinHood and Cartwheel fell right into thru-hiker life and even on their own decided they wanted to hike a 20 mile day and then later a 30 mile day! (THEY ARE THE SPECIAL ONES!) Their dog was a good thru-hiker as well. He knew to rest when his people rested, he knew to not bark at people he didn’t know, he knew to follow his family and not get too side tracked. This is a great example of how things can go just right.
The Kallins
Orion, the Kallin Adventure Mutt

On my thru-hike, early on, I met a weimaraner who was really not enjoying his thru-hike (he really missed his couch!). This dog was very anxious at the campsite/shelter and would bark and even nip at people. His anxiety was largely due to the nature of the shelter areas during hiking season. A.T. shelters are primitive, three sided buildings that sleep on average 8 people. People arrive to the shelter at all times during the late afternoon and even after dark. The dog never knew where or why the strangers were entering what he considered to be his “space.” An option for folks hiking with this kind of anxious dog is to always camp a little ways from the shelter (not right in front of it and not sleep in it.) Distract your dog when new people arrive and don’t let the habit be enforced by allowing your dog to bark every time someone new shows up. Later I found out that the dog started biting other hikers. It is very possible this dog changed his behavior due to stress while out on the trail. The owner eventually did the right thing and abandoned her hike.

One day as I was walking along during my thru hike, these two large dogs came running towards me from nowhere, barking. It wasn’t for another 5 minutes that I met their thru-hiking owner on the trail, the dogs were very far ahead of them.

 I bring up these two examples to show why dogs-on-trails is such a political issue and causes storms of rage on social media. I am a dog lover. And as such, I want to do the right thing for my dog. I do not want to push him beyond his capability. There are many instances of thru-hikers powering through injury for the sake of their hikes. I may do this to myself, but I would not do this to my sweet boy.

My love for the Trail and the Trail community MUST however supersede my love of my dog. There have been many selfish dog owners who thru-hike and cause a world of hurt to the delicate political balance that makes a trail from Maine to Georgia possible. The Northern Terminus, Katahdin is now under question by it’s governing park: Baxter State Park because of the selfish acts of thru hikers including people getting fake service dog papers to bring their dog up Katahdin. (Baxter is so upset that they are threatening to reroute the AT away from Baxter to keep thru-hikers out of the park.) There are of course infringements made on the community by selfish thru-hikers who do not have a dog. (Dog owners are not the only ones to blame for the It’s-My-Thru-Hike-And-I’m-Gonna-Do-Want-I-Want-To attitude.)

Grayson Highlands, Appalachian Trail, VA
I love the Trail so much. It is my second home. I’d say many, possibly majority, of thru-hikers are kind, generous people not out to be completely self serving. Unfortunately, the self serving ones are the loudest and the most visible and make the largest impact. (And the A.T. has more hikers attempting thru hikes each year than any other long trail. You will most likely run into the selfish ones at some point.) I hope and trust that if you are thinking of thru hiking with your dog, you will put your dog’s health first, the trail’s rules and other hiker’s needs above your own desires. I fully support people thru-hiking with their dog after they have decided in wisdom that their dog is a good fit for a long hike and that they themselves are willing to do the extra work that is required to have their companion with them.

McAfee Knob, Appalachian Trail, Catawba, VA

The next blog post in this series will have a few more specific questions to consider while long distance hiking with a dog as well as some great resources on the subject.

The author of this post, Marie "Bobwhite" is the owner of a new cottage gear company, Groundbird Gear, making tailored, lightweight dog hiking gear in Maryland for trail dogs around the US. www.groundbirdgear.com


  1. Great post! I really enjoyed reading this and am now even more excited about starting my thru-hike!

    1. Cheers Monica!! I'm so excited to read your updates of you and Roxy!! Esp excited bc you are going SoBo!! Sobos Unite! As we say :) <3

  2. I am sharing this article on Facebook. I really enjoy hiking with my dog and appreciate your post discussing it.

  3. I am sharing this article on Facebook. I really enjoy hiking with my dog and appreciate your post discussing it.

  4. very informative. will direct all dog owners or prospectives to this link!

  5. Dog hiking gears may turn off outdoorsy pet parents, but I really think that this is not just a fad but a need especially if hiking is a regular activity for the pet parent. Hiking with dogs is a fun activity, and I’m sure you’ve read numerous inspirational dog and human hiking stories. If you’re looking for dog hiking gear information, be sure to check this out: http://dogsaholic.com/lifestyle/dog-hiking-gear.html