Man’s best friend, they’ve been beside us for over 14,000 years. Originally bred for working, dogs quickly developed into the perfect companion over time, and have even found themselves to be considered part of their human families, in many cases. They are lovable, silly, energetic, and loyal to a fault.
I have been around dogs my whole life. Growing up, we always had a family dog. It was a way for our parents to teach us responsibility, give us another companion to play with, and spread extra love (and sometimes gas) throughout the household.
It comes as no surprise that after I moved out on my own, dogs continued to enrich my life. My current family of five consists of my wife, my son, a Boxer, a Great Dane, and myself. Since doing my first solo hike along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail when I moved to Asheville, they have been with me every step of the way.
So what is it that makes dogs such great companions on the trail? Well, for me it started with living by myself, while my fiancé at the time (now my wife) finished her last semester at Charlotte. I didn’t want to hike alone, but I also knew absolutely nobody in town. They helped to ease my concerns along the trail. I’d like to believe that no animal, or human for that matter, is going to mess with the guy hiking with a Great Dane and Boxer. That being said, they are all bark and no bite.
In my life, I tend to be an obliger. I never want to let others down, but I often neglect to do things for myself. On days when when I just can’t seem to shake off that morning sleepiness and am struggling to muster up the motivation to get on the trail, my dogs will climb onto my lap, snuggling and staring at me with those eager doughy eyes, practically begging me to take them on their next adventure. This helps to give me purpose and reason beyond my own volition. I have no choice to get up and go for fear of letting them down.
After all, dogs make great trail companions. They literally live to follow you around everywhere you go. They are happy to roam the Earth. Home is where their pack is.
Residing so close to the Pisgah National Forest, there are areas where dogs are allowed off leash. Believe it or not, my pups do ten times better off leash than on. They start every trail excited, barreling out of the car, then it’s off to the races! Once they get that out of their system, they are primed and ready for our journey. Stella, my boxer, tends to “lead” the pack. Like a good soldier, she goes out on a short recon mission, then reports back to Mission Control, Code Name: Daddy. Luna, on the other hand, is the follower of the pack. She remains forever by my side, loyal to her very core.
So down the trail we hike, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of the great Appalachian outdoors. Anytime we approach a water source of some sort, (streams, rivers, ponds, mud puddles, you name it) Stella is the first to find it. Playfully, she romps through, thrashing her head and splashing water everywhere, tongue flapping in the wind. Now, I know dogs don’t speak in the human sense of the word, but the joyful expression on her face is all the communication I need to know that she’s truly experiencing life to it’s fullest.
While nothing brings me more joy than having my pups on the trail with me, it is not a responsibility that I take lightly. There are several considerations to contemplate before making the decision to bring your dogs on the trail with you:
1. Is your dog trained well enough?
Do they follow your verbal commands? Never take your dog hiking off leash if you do not have total control of them. While your dog may be friendly, it is possible for someone else to be hiking with their leashed dog who could be aggressive or recovering from a previously traumatic life experience. Also, while most hikers and outdoor enthusiasts have an affection for dogs, you will run across others who may be scared of, or just do not like dogs. In other words, be courteous. You are rarely the only person on the trail.
2. Does your dog do well on a leash?
If off-leash hiking is not an option for you, don’t lose hope just yet! There are many hikers (myself included) who also have success with leashed hiking. This can be equally as joyful for you and your four-legged friends. Unfortunately, some dogs struggle with leashed hiking as well. They may pull hard, seemingly unfazed by the fact that they’re choking themselves nearly to death. This is both unhealthy for them and uncomfortable for you, leading to hours of frustration, rather than relaxation.
3. Is your dog capable of making the trek?
Some dog breeds are more adept at trekking through the woods, while others are capable of a walk in the park at best. If your dog has medical conditions, consult your vet to find out if hiking is right for them. Older dogs may struggle as they could have bad joints, hips, etc. You know your dog’s limitations better than anyone. Use your best judgment, and if you’re on the fence it never hurts to consult your vet.
4. What are the rules and regulations in the area you will be hiking?
In many cases, dogs are welcome on-leash throughout National and State Forests. That said, there are some areas where dogs are not welcome on the trails. Being from North Carolina, the Great Smokey Mountain National Park is an area where dogs are welcome to the Park, but not on the trails. Always check before you go, and never take your dog on a hike in a Park that does not allow it. There are several reasons dogs could be unwelcome, including protecting sensitive endangered species.
5. What are the trail and terrain conditions?
I think it is safe to say that most of the trails in North Carolina and surrounding states are well suited for hiking with dogs, but there are exceptions to every rule. The Profile Trail on Grandfather Mountain has several steep sections of terrain, including areas where the trail consists of aluminum ladders propped up against rock face. The Linville Gorge is another area renowned for its steep, rocky terrain and shear cliff facings, carved out by a glacier millions of years ago.
In addition to terrain, weather conditions should also influence your decision. Cold weather or even snow could make conditions too extreme for your pups. Remember, they’re hiking the trails barefoot. In the summer, weather conditions can be too hot for them to tag along. If you are bringing them with you on a hot day, be sure to pack them extra water. Dogs don’t sweat, so they overheat easily and will need hydration for the trip. Wherever it is that you are hiking, safety should be your number one priority for both you and your four-legged friend.
6. What type of wildlife or animals do you expect along the trail?
In North Carolina and surrounding states, you can expect to see squirrels, birds, foxes, snakes, deer, bears, or even wild boar. In addition to wildlife, you can expect to run into other hikers’ dogs, both leashed and unleashed (Surprise! Some people don’t follow the rules), as well as horses on certain trails. What is important is to know what type of animals you can expect to run across, and have a plan for what to do if you see one. You don’t want your best friend getting seriously injured in an altercation or lost out in the wilderness.