Preparing for a trip is rarely easy, and when it's a journey of 2,189 miles over 7 months, nearly impossible.
There was so much to consider. Bringing my dog, No Shame, along doubled those thoughts and concerns.
I began researching the Appalachian Trail as a whole, gaining a basic understanding of rules and regulations for dogs along the trail. I created a rough sketch of our miles for the first 2 months, and possible places to pick up package drops. I needed to figure out a way to adapt her food to meet the physical strain she'd be undergoing. The research began.
Dog Food Weight & Calories
Hikers are known for counting ounces; cutting handles off toothbrushes, tags out of clothing, and many other seemingly ridiculous methods of dropping the tiniest bit of weight. This thought process continued into the realm of dog food. How do you get the biggest bang for the weight?
I looked into different kibbles, freeze dried, and dehydrated foods. I read up about the battles of finding quality dog food along the trail. People reported feeding their dogs puppy or cat food as they have higher protein levels. I also read this can be dangerous since it isn't formulated for an adult dog and their body must work harder to process the additional protein.
I'm not a vet or a nutritionist, I didn't dare mess with already nutritionally balanced foods at the risk of harming of my dog. I wanted my dog to have high quality food and to provide her with the best opportunity to maintain a healthy weight while hiking big miles. It was time to get assistance so I could best meet my dogs needs.
I spoke with my vet regarding calories and what my dog would likely need to maintain, we were looking at almost 1,300 Kcal/day. Her normal kibble provided her with 660 Kcal/day, I needed to find a way to increase this without weighing her down too much. Freeze dried food is an ultra light solution but when you look at the bulk of the food, it's unrealistic.
Then I found The Honest Kitchen (THK). Their Limited Ingredient Chicken Recipe provided 75 Kcal/cup more than the kibble I was feeding. No Shame had been on the same kibble for almost four years and I was nervous about changing things in a drastic manner. I worked with the folks at THK to brainstorm ideas, finding ways to use their food in an affordable and beneficial way. They suggested using the food as a topper and adding it to her normal kibble. This would allow me to increase her calories with a minimal impact on her pack weight and my wallet. Problem solved!
Importance of Proper Nutrition While Hiking
Reflecting back on our journey I know there was no way we would have made the miles without the proper food for No Shame. It took us weeks to find the proper balance for her. At the end of the day, No Shame was famished, she couldn't get enough food, wandering through camp trying to steal from hikers. I recalled hearing about sled dogs getting fed the bulk of their meals at night and I decided to try it out. It worked!
She would eat a quarter of her food in the morning and the rest at night. This allowed her body to absorb and process the food she'd eaten while she was at rest. Her daily Kcals remained under 1,200 and yet she had very few variations in her body weight; she started the trail at 38 pounds, and had gained a pound by the end. On average we hiked 15 miles a day on varying terrain. She carried her own food with a pack which didn't ever go over 5lbs, getting lighter daily with each feeding. Living on the trail was a science in understanding each others needs.
During our time on the AT we met about ten other dogs who were attempting to make the distance. Some seemed to be progressing well enough, others ended up leaving the trail. When I spoke with the hikers, it was like listening to a record on repeat. Their dogs were loosing weight, their packs were chaffing, they had injured a paw, the weather was getting to them, or the miles were too much. Many folks opted to either leave the trail with their companion or send them home.
I feel so blessed to look back on our journey together and realize that my dog made this trip too, successfully and healthy. Her energy was boundless! No Shame's personality helped me overcome the mental struggle of the trail; a transfer of energy between beings. It was clear that she loved being in the woods and running free just as much as I did.
Erin Tuveson is an outdoor enthusiast and photographer who also enjoys facilitating adventure based teambuilding with youth. During 2015 she took 7 months off work to become a "thru hiker" on the Appalachian Trail. Star, aka "No Shame," is also an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys lounging in the sun, chasing small furry critters, and taking time to snuggle. She also dedicated 7 months to the trail but felt 2,000 miles wasn't enough so she tried to triple the mileage. We are both happy to report we completed the hike and have returned to the "real" world.