Dogpacking: Guide to Bikepacking with your Dog
Who doesn’t enjoy the idea of bikepacking with their dog? Promises of wagging tails and grinning muzzles at every rest stop, topped off with restful bliss at the end of the day. What’s not to love? John Freeman has been bikepacking with Melan for a couple of years. Here are his tips and insight…
When I started bikepacking, I thought it would be great to have my dog join in on the adventure. Naturally, at first, questions outnumbered solutions. But as with almost anything nowadays, time spent on the Google machine led to many examples of folks mountain biking and cycle-touring with dogs. However, not many had chosen to combine the kind of off-road terrain and routes, that we now know as ‘bikepacking’. So, I was left to figure this out the old fashioned way: trial and error.
Let’s back it up a bit. My dog’s name is Melan (Mel·an·chol·y ˈmelənˌkälē). Melan is a five-year-old, ice-blue eyed border collie cross rescue dog born on a reserve in southern Alberta. He is an exceedingly friendly dog with a calm and kind disposition, and can seemingly run forever. As with many humans, Melan can be timid when it comes to new experiences. This aspect has created an even stronger bond between us, as we have both learned how to introduce one another to the methods of ‘dogpacking’.
After a couple international trips and several local jaunts in the Canadian Rockies, Melan and I have found a few systems that work very well for us. Outlined below are some of the things that Melan and I have found to work for us as we continue traveling together.
Step 1: VISIT YOUR VET
Your trusted veterinarian will be an invaluable resource before going on any trip and will help confirm your dog’s health. This will also be a must if you are traveling internationally, as the vet will need to complete paperwork required at border crossings. At minimum, make sure that vaccinations are up to date for the region you plan to ride.
For almost any outdoor pursuit, keeping to a lightweight setup is key to a successful trip. You’ve likely perfected your own bikepacking setup. It’s lightweight, functional, it’s got several custom touches and a few luxuries such as that new titanium toothbrush. What I’ve tried to follow in my solo bikepacking missions, is the term ‘durable lightweight’. Light, but not excessive to the extent of risking equipment failure. Now what if I told you to add 70 pounds (32 kg) to your carefully planned and executed adventure bike? This is exactly what Melan and I did for our first three months of ‘dogpacking’ in Spain. The equation looks something like this: happy dog+ trailer with custom Porcelain Rocket liner+ food+ water = dogpacking.
During that time, we rode across most of the Altravesur in southern Spain, then north to tackle the Trans Pyrenees*. We also rode many other smaller trails along the way with great success. *This route is similar to that which we rode. We traveled east from Hondarribia to Cap de Creus.
FOOD AND WATER
On a short trip, it is easy to pre-package dog food. Keep in mind however, that a dog will require more calories than normal, just as a human does when on a bike tour. Quality dog food that is low in fillers is not only better for your dog, but it will likely have more calories per kilo. On extended trips, it will become necessary to purchase food as you go. Depending on where you travel, the options will vary. Small bags of 3kg (6.75 lbs) are a common size in many places. Last spring, while crossing the Spanish Pyrenees, even these seemingly small bags were a heavy load to bear, especially on days where we gained over 2500m. (see PACING AND TRANSPORT)
Snacks are great way to add calories, and are useful for reinforcing a dog’s training. Butchers or local restaurants can be a great source of protein, if the opportunity presents itself. Melan and I have also been pleasantly surprised by the spontaneous generosity of people, in terms of offering much-needed treats at exactly the right moments.
Water is often an ongoing challenge within any bikepacking trip. Doubly so when planning for not only yourself, but also your canine companion. Pre-trip research is the key to success in this regard. Many backcountry campsites will have water for at least a portion of the year, while towns or gas stations likely have free water for the asking. Regular bike bottles or specialty bottles for dogs are good for on-the-go hydrating. I’ve found that having a dedicated bottle for Melan helps to keep him hydrated, while keeping myself healthier, along with aiding in keeping tabs on our separate rations. Using a collapsible bowl (plastic bags can make a quick water bowl in a pinch) is handy when taking longer breaks, such as a lunch stop, or a heat-of-the-day nap. Staying on top of a dog’s hydration is critical. As soon as Melan and I have quit for the day, I immediately set out his dinner and keep the water topped up.
I have always resisted the temptation to put packs on Melan, mostly because the added weight, combined with large amounts of running, I worry that this could potentially cause injury, or discomfort later in life. The bulk of a pack would also make jumping in and out of the trailer more difficult.
Pacing is as critical for a dog as it is for you. On our local trails, it’s natural to bring dogs along for a ride; tails wagging, the stoke is high. However, keep in mind that a dog may run nearly twice the distance that you ride with all the back and forth, and detours to investigate various sights and smells. It is key to try and keep a mental note of this as the day progresses. I have found several different tactics to be effective with Melan, on varying surfaces or trails. On asphalt, where riding speeds and traffic are likely to be higher, Melan spends most of his time in the trailer. This applies to long flats, sharp rocks as well as descents. On climbs, he will typically walk or trot along beside the bike. I use a ‘runner’s leash’ which fastens around my waist and has an elasticized section. The leash is then connected to the back of his chest harness; not to his collar. In this way, he is less likely to get hurt if there is a sudden stop. The length and stretch of the leash allow Melan to hop in and out of the trailer while still connected. On single track, I typically allow Melan to run off-leash. He enjoys it, and it’s definitely safer for both of us since he can stay clear of wheels on a narrow trail. Melan is a herding breed and will instinctively chase ungulates (deer, elk, etc.), so, depending on where we are, I sometimes put a pulse collar on him.. These radio controlled collars, if used correctly, can provide an added measure of control over the dog, when needed to allow more off leash time.
I attempt to limit Melan’s distance to around 25km/day, once I am confident in his base fitness level. All dogs will naturally have different distance thresholds that can be sustained over a trip, so knowing your dog’s abilities and fitness level is paramount. When preparing for any dogpacking trip, Melan and I will progress through a gradual build up of distance on different surfaces, in order to help prevent injury and allow us both to gain confidence before getting too far from home. I find it helpful to think of Melan as an athlete and myself as his coach. I will always ensure that he has the required rest to recover, before increasing the distance or intensity.
If you choose to employ a trailer on longer trips, the added load is going to have an effect on the how far the two of you can travel and over what terrain. However, when a dog has adequate training and is comfortable, you’ll be surprised where a single wheeled trailer can go. Subsequently, I haven’t found a need to make changes to gear ratios from my standard bikepacking setup but this may be different for you and your dogpacking set up. Don’t expect any KOM’s with Fido in tow!
On shorter trips, an athletic dog may be completely fine with four on the floor over a few days. For longer trips, however, you will need a method to carry your dog. Some folks (with smaller dogs) have had great success with a rack-mounted setup, while others have towed two wheeled trailers designed for wide tracks and roads. Since we are riding mostly off-road, and Melan tips the scales at 19kg (45lbs.), a trailer with a single wheel (BOB Yak, in this case) was the most logical choice for us. This setup allows us to tackle singletrack trails, as well as urban sections, while spreading out the weight. Many trailers are not designed for live loads or high speeds (40km+), so it is essential to make the choice that is best for you and for your dog. To improve comfort and to protect Melan, I contacted Scott at Porcelain Rocket to build us a custom, padded and reinforced liner for the trailer. Scott had built a version of this before, so he had some great ideas for the setup. As with everything that comes out of the Porcelain Rocket workshop, the design and quality are top notch. This liner/trailer combo has proved indispensable for covering big miles on dirt. I also added a simple plastic splashguard to the front yoke of the trailer as protection for Melan from the spinning wheel and debris off the bike’s rear wheel. This doesn’t need to be elaborate or overly large. I used a piece of corrugated plastic and a few zip-ties to hold it in place.
It only took a few days of training in our local park for us both to become accustomed to the nuances of the trailer. Attention should be paid to the leash to prevent entanglement with the rear wheel while the dog is in the trailer. Melan now skilfully jumps in and out on command, once I’ve slowed to a safe speed.
SHELTER & HYGIENE
Non-Camping: Hotels, Air BNB and Warm Showers, and charitable locals can all be options. The reality is that not every type of accommodation will allow you to stay with a pet, and those that do will often charge a small fee. While not every Warm Showers host or hotel is open to dogs, we have typically been able to find them when needed and the experience has always been a positive one.
Wild, or stealth, camping has always been my preferred option and a good reason to go bikepacking in the first place. A tent is little more than a portable den, so most dogs will acclimatize quickly. Naturally, some precautions should be taken to protect the delicate tent fabric, poles and inflatable sleeping pads, which can easily succumb to a dog’s claws. A piece of closed cell foam, or an old foam Thermarest, provides comfort/warmth and reduces the chance of damage to the tent floor. This foam doubles as a pad in the trailer floor mostly, but also acts as a dog bed in the tent at night. A dog will also act as an early warning for animals or people that occasionally approach in the night. Melan’s warning noises would scare off the Jabalís (wild pigs in Spain) that would often approach our tent in the night.
Dirty dog means dirty everything in close quarters. Taking the time to give your pal a quick bush before bed is certainly worth the effort. This intimate time also provides the chance to do a quick once-over for ticks or hidden injuries to the pads of paws. Check under collars and harnesses for rub points. Melan and I have made this brush and check a pre-tent ritual that we both now cherish.
International travel with a pet is a scary topic, and there are entire businesses devoted solely to it. Depending on the borders that you plan on crossing, and the countries that you will plan to travel through, the requirements will vary greatly. I have found that with some patience, and a few web searches, I was able to sort the bureaucratic hurdles fairly easily. The following links are a great place to start, if you are a resident of Canada or USA. Airlines do not have the same exchange agreements for live animals, as they do for baggage. Unless you book flights with the same airline, from departure to arrival, then each separate airline will charge a separate fee for flying with an animal, which can lead to high unexpected charges. At layovers over two hours there may also be a fee for care. Dog crates will need to meet regulations for air travel. Always check each airline website for requirements and restrictions before booking.
Melan and I have been fortunate while dogpacking not to have any incidents. Most other dogs have been very friendly, or all-bark-no-bite. Occasionally, I will carry a small 2’ x 1/2” piece of PVC pipe tucked into my roll-top frame bag, to wave threateningly at persistent dogs. I will always keep Melan on leash when encountering livestock, or riders on horseback, since this usually happens when we are on a trail that crosses private land. I would hate for my travelling with Melan to be the reason that access becomes restricted to others, or to result in any kind of conflict or injury. If you are travelling through bear country, ALWAYS follow all sensible precautions, and be bear aware before departing.
Taking a dog on a bikepacking trip may seem like a lot of work, fraught with hazards for you both, and while it is certainly more work, the rewards can be tremendous. Riding through many small Spanish pueblos to the sound of people’s happy shouts “Mira, mira!” (Look, look!) as we rolled past, was awesome. The conversations started, all those miles and nights camped out with my best pal more than made up for the hard parts.
There will always be a few more ‘moving parts’ than a regular bikepacking trip, but the effort has been well worth it for Melan and me. Long miles, day after day, on the trail with a dog is a special and unique experience for any adventurous dog lover.
We’ve always been interested in bikepacking with a dog, so we thought we’d ask John a few questions to cap off the article…
Are there any first aid supplies or medications you bring along for Melan? Any maintenance meds you need to consider, i.e. heart worm, fleas?
Heart worm and a flea/ tick medication was prescribed on our last overseas trip. These are normal meds here in the Rockies for any dog. It was tasty a chewable given twice before we left. I have tried medicated collars and topical medication on him in the past with poor results. Pulling ticks is not fun.
Rabies medication is also required for most jurisdictions. The typical three year vaccination requires a current one year vaccination before it is administered to be considered valid.
The government vet will be very focused on these details. Be sure to confirm this with your personal vet when in for the pre-trip check.
Read all the instructions before you fill out your dogs travel documents. Missing something could waste of time and money.
Does Melan’s chariot (trailer) have a seatbelt or does he instinctively jump out when the going gets rough?
It took a bit of time for Melan to relax in his trailer and get the hang of jumping in while moving. Now he will usually jump out on hills if the speed is low or if I give him the “out” command. The Porcelain Rocket liner is a snug fit with high sides, this keeps him pretty secure and happy. I don’t connect him to the trailer since I want him to be able to jump clear incase of pilot error.
What does the radio collar do exactly… track him or zap him if he gets too far way?
The rechargeable radio collar has three functions operated with a small remote. Vibrate, nick or continuous shock. It has 100 adjustable levels so it can be dialled in as needed. Levels range from barely noticeable to “what the hell was that for?”. Obviously I use the lowest effective level. Simply putting it on is usually enough to improve Melan’s obedience.
Are there any signs or symptoms of dehydration in a dog to look out for?
If I notice Melan trying to lap up any small or dirty puddles I know I haven’t been doing my job and he needs more water. He will ask for water when I have a drink myself.
Symptoms of dehydration in dogs can include sunken eyes, lethargy, loss of appetite, dry mouth, and depression. If your dog’s nose is dry it may be more than simple dehydration. If some water doesn’t sort things it’s best to consult a vet.
How about hunger? Do dogs get hangry?
I’m the only one that gets hangry. Fortunately Melan doesn’t hold a grudge plus he loves queso and Jamón Ibérico.
Has Melan had problems with upset stomach during frequent diet changes?
Nothing out of the ordinary. Dogs will often eat some grass of they have some stomach upset. Every once in awhile Melan will do a little vomit. He always makes a big production about it so I have warning to get him out of the tent if needed. Then it’s as if nothing happened.
Do you have any idea how many calories Melan uses on a daily basis on a route such as the Altravesur?
I’m not usually a big numbers guy. It’s probably a lot. Melan leads an active life but I’m certain that he eats a bit more on a trip than at home. I keep his bowl available at rest stops and keep something in it all the time. I’m a human PEZ dispenser if I have treats.
You seem to really enjoy Spain. Is there something particularly dog friendly about the region? Are there other countries you might worry about bringing Melan along?
The spanish are great about dogs and cyclists. Often I can even bring him into restaurants or at least the terrace without any troubles. Not every culture is this cool with dogs. I often see some tourists here in the Canadian Rockies take a wide berth around dogs. Not everyone is going to like the idea of a dog or a cyclist for that matter.
Some countries have a lengthy quarantine times. I would avoid those ones. I would also be cautious large climate changes without leaving the time to adapt. That still leaves a lot of countries for us to visit.
About John Freeman and Melan
Melan and John first met five years ago in the Canadian Rockies at the SPCA. Many summer and winter climbing expeditions, countless trail runs, and cameo roles in two movies screened at the Banff Mountain Film Festival have prepared Melan for his latest adventure as an international dogpacker. After a second traverse of the Spanish Pyrenees late this summer, Melan and John will start dogpacking from Calgary to Patagonia loosely following the trails along continental divides. Follow Melan and John on Instagram at @melandog.