So, if you already read Long Distance Hiking With a Dog: Don’t Do It!, I didn’t successfully talk you out of taking your dog on a long trail with you. If you are going to try, I want to help you do it right. Just like for you, nutrition is one of the next big parts in planning a long distance hike!
Calorie-wise, planning for your dog’s hike is tricky and may take some experience to get just right. It really depends on daily mileage, climate, terrain, and whether you keep him/her on a leash. Count on increasing his/her calories anywhere from 50-100% while you are hiking, with closer to 100% needed if he/she is off leash.
Higher quality dog food, available at specialty pet stores, has better ingredients AND more calories per cup. I feed Sage Orijen Regional Red while hiking. It has 470 calories per 4 oz. (about a cup) and its main ingredients are bison, beef, good fats, and a variety of vegetables. It is also fortified with vitamins, glucosamine, omega-3 and 6, and probiotics. Compared to the leading brand of dog food, which is mostly corn, wheat, and water, Orijen is freeze-dried and has 25% more calories (by weight) than even the high-calorie puppy formulations. Though it is more expensive by the pound, you will actually save weight and give your dog more nutrition if you can feed a high quality food on the trail. Dog Food Adviser is a good link to find out the quality of your buddy’s food. Luckily, they are not judging you for eating Snickers for 2 meals a day…
There are some really high quality freeze dried foods on the market for dogs too! The Honest Kitchen makes human-grade foods with really good ingredients. It comes in a powder form, which packs really nicely compared to kibble. It just needs to be re-hydrated with water on the trail. Calorie content per oz. is really high, especially with the line called “Love”, but it isn’t cheap. Also, keep an eye on your dog’s teeth with the powdered food. My dog got noticeable tartar buildup while eating it long term (easily remedied by carrying something for him to chew on).
One way to increase the calories you feed your dog without carrying extra weight or bulk is by supplementing with Turbo Pup meal replacement bars at least once per day. These bars come in a 2-pack that has 500 calories and weighs a little over 4 oz. They also take up half the space of kibble.
When I am hiking without my dog, I prefer the buy-as-you-go method of resupply so that I don’t have to deal with post office hours. However, I have found that when I hike with my dog it is easier to do mail drops because:
- I know what kind of food I will be able to get if I just mail it to myself. It isn’t always easy to find a good pet store in small trail towns.
- I can stick to a known food. Switching food on some dogs is hard for them to deal with. Even if you find good food, you may not find the same one your dog ate on the last stretch. Some dogs will get upset stomachs or diarrhea when you switch food quickly.
- I know how much to feed. Because I stick with the same food throughout the trail, I know exactly how many calories in each cup and therefore I can send exactly the right amount for that stretch. Most of the grocery store brands do not list calorie content on the bag.
- I don’t have to waste food. If I buy food in town, I am limited to the size of bag that they sell. Sometimes, the smallest size is 7-8 lbs. Because I don’t usually need to carry 7-8 lbs. of food, I would end up giving the rest away.
If you really don’t want to deal with resupply boxes, here are some hints:
- Choose the “high energy” or “puppy” formula food. They are usually higher in calories (so you can carry less).
- If you are used to feeding your dog high quality food at home, carry at least 20% more, as it will likely be lower in calories and nutrition (not including the amount you are increasing it for the trail)
- Try to buy the same brand each time, to avoid upset stomach
- Consider adding a doggie multivitamin once daily
Don’t forget to send yourself enough dog food to get you through any town days you spend. And, like you, it is nice to have your dog bank up some calories in town. If possible, I like to get a can of high-end canned food at the pet store to add to my dog’s kibble.
If you are changing your dog’s food for the hike, is a good idea to slowly transition to this food 2-4 weeks before you leave by mixing it with his/her current food. If they aren’t used to getting a nutrient and calorie-rich food, it can cause stomach upset.
Off trail, I keep my dog pretty thin. So, a couple of months before the hike, I increase his food a bit and allow him to gain about 4 lbs. (10% of his body weight). Therefore, if I underestimate his food on the trail and he loses a couple of pounds it will be okay. Weight loss was my #1 dog-related health issue on the first long distance hike with my dog.
Thanks for reading! Watch for an upcoming article about “Trail Specific Training”, which will cover trail-specific commands to teach your dog that will make your hike easier and safer.