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Adventure Lifestyle Hiking and Backpacking

A Chat with an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

Have you ever thought about hiking the Appalachian Trail with your dog? We had a fun opportunity to outfit Panda, an AT Thru-Hiker’s dog, for the 2016 season. We recently caught back up with Jacqui Reed to get her reflections and thoughts on that AT thru-hike – what it was like to have Panda along as a partner and what that added to the journey. Enjoy!

Backcountry K-9: Let’s start with the details – Where and when did you start? What was your average mileage? When did you finish?

Jacqui: I started at Springer Mountain on Saturday, March 12th. My partner Kimmy, her dad and her husband, Panda, and I all drove up from south Alabama early that morning and parked in the parking lot at Springer. Kimmy and I left our packs in the truck and we hiked up to the starting plaque to take pictures. Afterward, we hiked back down, said our goodbyes to her family, and started off.

I summited Katahdin September 1st. Unfortunately, no dogs are allowed in Baxter State Park so Panda couldn’t summit with me, but she did go all the way to the line.

It’s hard to say what my average mileage was because I was all over the place. We took multiple zero days where we didn’t hike at all and multiple nero days, which were days we hiked less than half of our “usual” miles. But Panda was in excellent shape and we had multiple big days of 20-25 miles, especially the second half of the trip. Our biggest mileage day was 30 miles.

Backcountry K-9: What was your inspiration for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail? Did Panda play a part in the decision?

Jacqui: I’ve known Kimmy since we were toddlers and sometime around the beginning of 2014 she Facebook messaged me and said she was planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t think much of it at the time and actually forgot about it for a while. Then, about a year later, we were texting each other one day and she told me she was driving up to section hike a piece of the A.T. with her husband for a few days. For the next week or so we texted almost every day and the more she talked about her plans,  the more I wondered why I shouldn’t do it too. I’ve always been in love with the outdoors and the solitude of hiking and camping. It sounded like a great adventure, so I asked Kimmy if I could join her and she immediately said yes. There was never any doubt in my mind that Panda couldn’t or wouldn’t make the trip with me. She’s basically my daughter with four legs and a tail. Kimmy knew that and she had no objections when I said Panda would join us too.

Backcountry K-9: Did you carry any of Panda’s gear?

Jacqui: I carried some bags of her food throughout the entire trip, the amount I carried varied based on her needs. During June and July when it got incredibly hot I was worried about her overheating because of her thick double coat so I only had her carry her water. Two or three times when I misjudged the amount of water between re-supply spots I ended up strapping her pack on top of mine and leaving her in just her harness as we hiked up longer climbs.

There was another dog thru-hiking with very short fur named Huck who started around the same time we did. Panda and I ran into him frequently and the few times I compared the weight of their packs it seemed that I was letting Panda off easy, but I didn’t mind.

Somehow, in one way or another, Panda was always able to communicate with me what she needed. I made adjustments accordingly and she stayed happy and healthy so I didn’t care that my pack was heavier.

Backcountry K-9: What piece of Panda’s gear did you find most valuable?

Jacqui: That’s a hard question because different pieces of her gear were invaluable at different points along our hike. We ran into snow a couple times before the Smokies and since I was hammock camping the best she could do was get under my tarp and hammock setup. During those nights her jacket was amazing, I didn’t have to worry about her getting too cold. We started out with a sleeping pad, but I mailed it home after a few weeks because she refused to sleep on it. The jacket was good enough for her.

Her leash had the adjustable handle, which made town stops a breeze logistically for me. I could hook her leash to just my pack and leave her outside of whatever building I was visiting without worrying about her wandering or anybody thinking she had been abandoned.

I absolutely loved her harness and pack combination! Being able to take her saddlebags off and leave her harness on was crucial at many points on the trail. In the northern states where there were rock scrambles and metal ladder rungs to climb I had to detach her saddlebags, throw them up to where we were headed, and then lift her via the harness handle as she scrambled up the rock faces. I saw several dogs along our hike that had different packs without the detachable saddlebags and I can’t even imagine hiking the whole trail that way.

Backcountry K-9: What was Panda’s food on the trail? 

Jacqui: I started out with dried Canidae because they were her food sponsor. And I had ziplock bags of Canidae shipped in resupply boxes that accompanied my food resupplies for the first half of the trip. It was high-quality food that gave her all the nutrients she needed so she didn’t have to have an exorbitant amount. I supplemented it with various treats. Later in the trip, I ran into [logistics/planning problems] resupplying with Canidae and her food became anything I could get my hands on in town. And she was always talking other hikers into giving her snacks and leftovers of whatever they had.

Backcountry K-9: Were there any other logistical challenges with resupplying her? Did Panda’s needs cause more or less zero days than you anticipated?

Jacqui: She was surprisingly easy to accommodate throughout the trip. We did take an unplanned zero at Harper’s Ferry because she was not acting right. She woke up lethargic and wouldn’t follow me around without a lot of persuasion, which is big because she always wanted to be right where I was the rest of the trip. And she didn’t want to drink any water or eat anything. I was afraid she was really sick and it would only get worse if we kept hiking so we zeroed. I spent the day coaxing her to drink children’s Pedialyte mixed with water and I called the closest vet to assess what my options were if she did get worse. Thankfully, by the end of that day she was drinking and eating normally and the next morning she was back to her normal self.

She somehow injured her paw while we were slackpacking in the dark in the White Mountains, but I was saved from a zero because the trail angel helping me to slackpack really enjoyed her company and took care of her during the day for two days while allowing me to continue slackpacking. That was huge at the time since I was in a little bit of a time crunch and I knew she was being taken care of.

Backcountry K-9: Did you notice any changes in Panda’s appetite?

Jacqui: Yes, before the trail she was a fairly picky eater. She would only eat certain dog foods, they had to be a certain size, and if she didn’t feel like eating when I put food down she’d turn her nose up at it. The first few days on the trail she did that, but when she realized she was not getting another option she started eating whatever I gave her whenever I did. As expected, after a couple of weeks her appetite increased and she ate all the time, just like I did. I was really pleased that she gained some muscle and maintained a healthy weight.

Backcountry K-9: Any other physical or mental changes you noticed in her while on the trail?

Jacqui: She was happier than I have ever seen her. She was 7 years old when we started, but she ran and explored like she was 2 or 3 again. And that excitement never faded; it was the same at mile 1,500 as it was at mile 1. She loved being outside and having me all to herself. And she was so spoiled rotten by other hikers that she earned the trail name Panda Princess.

Backcountry K-9: What about changes when you got back home?

Jacqui: For several weeks afterward she would get really excited every time I got out her leash, but then be mopey when we just went for a walk and went back inside. I could tell she missed being outside all the time. Now, she still loves hiking and camping, but she’s adjusted to our “normal” life.

Backcountry K-9: What one piece of advice would you have for another hiker considering tackling the AT with their dog?

Jacqui: The most important thing I can stress to other hikers is that you can’t be selfish and take a dog, the two concepts are incompatible. And it sounds simple in theory, but few hikers really think about what it means in practice. You have to know how to recognize signs of your dog stressing out or being too tired. You have to be willing to stop early for a night or take an unplanned zero or three if they need it, even if you don’t. You have to know that some hostels are not dog-friendly so you can’t stay there and it does no good to be upset about it. You have to know what your contingency plan is if your dog loses too much weight and isn’t healthy or if they simply aren’t happy and don’t want to hike anymore. Are you sending them home to stay with a friend or family member or are you getting off the trail too? In many ways, your dog’s needs surpass your own and you have to be ok with that or you’ll run into problems.

Every dog-hiker pair is different and each one will run into their own unique challenges, but if the hiker is dedicated to the process of planning and learning along the way, and to their dog, there’s no reason they can’t have a wonderful, successful experience. It never crossed my mind that Panda might not go with me and I couldn’t have done it without her.

Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

Here are a few links to the gear Jacqui used and mentions above:

If you’re interested in learning more about backpacking with your dog, check out our backpacking with your dog crash course and pack list to get you started!