BACKPACKING WITH YOUR DOG

Published by the Everett Herald Newspaper, 1998

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

For the dog loving outdoor enthusiast, there's nothing as inspiring as the sight of a husky tearing through crystal white drifts of fresh winter powder. For most outdoor enthusiasts, sharing your leisure activities with a companion animals is almost second nature. This is particularly true in winter, when snow cover adds a measure of protection to the more fragile elements of nature. Keeping a few basic civilities in mind, most dogs can (and will eagerly) accompany you onto the hills and trails, provided that you are properly prepared with the appropriate safety measures, and a responsible frame of mind. This article will deal with one component of taking your furry canine companion with you into the winter field; the appropriate use of dog packs.

An Overview
Dog packs should only be used if your companion animal is comfortable and willing to take the added load on her back. As recreationalists, it becomes ethically wrong to force a dog to carry a pack solely for the purpose of lessening ones own load. The fundamental purpose of outfitting your companion with a pack is so that she can carry, primarily, her own food and fresh water. Some larger breeds are happy to carry more gear, but a rule of thumb is to limit her load to about 1/6th of her body weight.

Pack Design:
The first and most important consideration is that the body-contacting segments of the dog pack (back panel, inside side compartments and straps -- especially behind the buckles) be adequately padded and free of irritating or sharp edges. For year-round use, preferable materials include brushed nylon, spandex, polypropelene or neoprene (optimum fabric.) the outer layer should be a urethane coated nylon or cordura for durability and waterproof function -- your companion may wade into open water or plow through wet powder: outside fabric should shed frost and prevent ice accumulation which could weigh down the pack. In winter, the radiant warmth of a dog's body is often adequate as a source of personal heat, but if insulation is a concern, a canine sweater should be fitted separate and underneath the pack. Not unlike layering for humans, so that layers can be stripped off when the temperature becomes warmer. Bear in mind that dogs thermoregulate mainly through their mouths and paw pads, mesh fabrics are not necessarily better than solid fabrics, but in some cases, mesh is lighter. Natural fibers such as cotton, wool or leather should be avoided.

As with a human's pack, canine's packs must be selected for comfortable weight-bearing, stability and free leg movement. This means trimming the load to be equal on both sides of the pack, shifting the heavier items (usually water) to the front of the pack. "The trick is to make sure that your dog's shoulders support the weight," says Lynn Rodgers, Owner of Wenaha Dog Packs in Washington state, "That way, her back won't bear the burden of the load." Rodgers also suggests acclimatizing your companion by loading the pack with crumpled newspaper when you first introduce her to wearing the pack; "Let her carry the pack around the house and learn to adjust to the increase width of her gait -- providing that she doesn't knock over too much furniture."

A minimum of three lash straps should hold the pack to your companion; one across the sternum (to keep the pack on uphill slopes), one around the sternum, or chest (behind the front legs to keep the pack riding on your friend's saddle) and the last around the belly (slightly tighter than the chest to keep the pack on when going downhill.) There should always be ample clearance around the elbows to allow for full lateral and vertical leg movement.

Straps should be tightened only so much that your hand can still fit comfortably between pack and body: a good suggestion is to modify a break-away segment on each strap so if she ever inadvertently wanders out of sight (something that the responsible pet guardian wouldn't possibly permit) and gets snagged by branches, she can break out of her pack and return to your call. In all cases, selected buckles should be quick release fastex types. Make sure that you initially check that the fastex snaps are not stitched or applied to straps backwards -- my husky Sabrina once lost a pack due to this design flaw.

For most purposes, unless you plan on taking your companion on serious expeditions, the best pack design for dogs is the simplest pack -- lash points, daisy chains, drag loops and fancy accessory patches should be reserved for human packs, not canine packs.

Pack Contents:
Carrying her personal food, water and bowl should be the prime purpose of outfitting your companion with a pack. For backcountry/telemark skiers, additional items could include an avalanche beacon, an ice screw (to secure her to a slippery hillside if necessary,) spare compass and first aid kit (with appropriate canine components.) Compression straps are helpful to stabilize the load; remember that your companion will likely keep a faster pace than you, and her pack is likely to ride more actively than your own.

An item that should be added to your companion's pack is a canine first aid kit. The kit would probably be used mainly to stop bleeding, cleaning wounds and preventing infections; suggested components include medicated spray (dermaplast), gauze, adhesive tape, hydrogen peroxide (for cleaning and to induce vomiting), Q-tips and the all-purpose duct tape to fasten splints.

In The Field:
Deciding to take your canine companion afield imparts an elementary responsibility to the guardian; make sure that she doesn't stress or harass any winter wildlife, particularly birds or ungulates. For wildlife, many species of which are frequently harassed by dogs, winter is a critical time to preserve energy and calories. Facing harassment and fleeing burns those calories, and for many species, this could mean death. Taking your companion into the wilderness is similar to taking a toddler along -- you are responsible for everything that happens around them. Remember that at all times.

Care should also be exercised in preparing your companion for her jaunt in the wilderness. In winter, when dogs are exposed to colder weather and outside conditions, it is recommended that their food servings be increased by 25% in order to help them produce the extra calories needed to generate additional heat. You can also add a teaspoon of vegetable oil to their food to help their metabolism brace against colder weather. They should always have access to fresh water so that they can regulate their body temperature after heavy exercise plowing through the drifts. To prevent cuts to their paws, make sure to check between the pads of their paws for accumulated snow or ice.

Certain states or national parks in the united States have restrictions on the presence of dogs on trails or wilderness areas. Become familiar with the laws and regulations governing the region that you intend to travel, and pay particular attention to any additional considerations that might affect thoroughfare for a four-legged hiker or mountaineer. Determine whether the trail traverses an icefield or glacier; check to see if there will be river crossings; avoid entering environmentally sensitive regions. Common sense also dictates that your companion's waste products are also your responsibility. Treat her waste like human waste; prevent it from entering waterways, remove it from trails and bury it in the top layer of soil or under the snow.

Sidebar
Eagle Creek in California manufactures two models of packs that are simple and functional. These packs are, essentially, two expedition Cordura panniers, attached by a backstrap of nylon mesh. The webbing used to strap the pack to your companion is narrow and may become uncomfortable during long uphill routes; fastex buckles (which are not protected with a backing of fabric) could catch fur when fastened carelessly. Overall, Eagle Creek's pack are simple, economical (priced from $25 to $40 dollars, depending on retailer) and a great choice for the casual stroller or weekend walker who doesn't have the need for a robust pack. Eagle Creek dog packs are available through REI and other distributors of Eagle Creek products. Eagle Creek, 1740 La Costa Meadows Drive, San marcos, CA 92069 @ 1-800-874-9925.

For dog lover prefer to travel light, K9 Koolers are a complete water carrying system for dogs. Combining a chest harness (which adjusts to fit from medium size boxers to large wolfhounds) with two water bottles cradled in nylon carriers, the K9 Kooler sports an optional add-on pack to carry a serving of dog food, canine first aid kit or any other sundry items that you think your pal should be responsible for. This system is incredibly secure and will stay on the most energetic canine -- my husky Sabrina took the K9 Kooler over a 4-meter cornice and into a pine bramble without shedding the system. These Koolers are ideal for backcountry skiers, joggers, mountain bikers or anyone who takes their canine companion on high-aerobic activity. Priced between $39 and $49, depending on accessories, K9 Kooler can be ordered from 0070 County Road 332, Rifle Colorado 81650 @ (970) 625-4132.

By far, the best pack design I've encountered is manufactured by Wenaha Dog Packs of Washington State. Established in 1972, Wenaha has 23 years of specialized experience designing only dog packs; their two designs are available in 7 sizes, suitable for dogs weighing from 5 to 100+ lbs. Material used is 500 denier Cordura nylon, with an added layer of ballistic nylon on the lower panniers. Wenaha's Explorer II features an exclusive foam-padded saddle with velcro attachments that allow the saddlebags to be easily removed for stream crossings or rest periods. Their packs features absolute stability and maximum security (when used with the accompanying compression strap) even on near-vertical ascents and descents. Prices range from $25 to $53, depending on model and capacity. Internationally distributed, Wenaha Dog Packs are available at REI and though direct mail-order from Wenaha, 4158 Maltby Road, Bothell, WA 98102 @ 206 481-1205.

An excellent book about dog packs is Charlene LaBelle's Backpacking with Your Dog, distributed by REI.

An excellent book about dog packs is Charlene LaBelle's Backpacking with Your Dog, distributed by REI.


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Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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ProjSeaWolf@earthlink.net