Part 1: I will backpack with my dog
It was only with the arrival of our most recent furry friend that it was decided if we went backpacking then the dog came too. This is not to say family pets had not partaken in family adventures over the years, they certainly had. Just in a slightly different way.
Long ago (when I was born) family camping involved a heavy two-man canvas tent with a separate groundsheet (tarpaulin), giant sleeping bags, army blankets and bulging pillows. We also had a dog and a cat. And a boat. And where we went, they went.
If we decided to stop off in the Lake District on our way south from Scotland to see family for Christmas, we camped. It was usually icy; the tent would be full of frost and the gas would be too cold to make tea until we had driven several miles down the A6. Meanwhile the dog and the cat would sleep in the car.
However, when it came to our annual sailing trips to the Hebrides our furry friends were a little luckier. The cat had luxury at the foot of one of the bunks whilst the dog slept in his own bed under the salon table (which dropped down to make a bed), although a ponderous paw would often lead to the invitation for a mass of fur and legs to leap onto your head.
The family adventures with our various pets were many (and could get quite very exciting) but we did not have to carry anything and neither did they. The car carried the heavy camping gear, and the boat carried all the bedding and supplies.
Meanwhile, I also backpacked, quite a lot and from an early age. One of my first expeditions was round Cape Wrath with my school in the late 70’s. We carried our heavy Vango Force 10s and were expected to catch our own food – I was twelve. Many expeditions followed and nine years later, now armed with a degree, I headed off to trek in the Himalayas, India and Nepal. Travels in the Americas, Australasia, South East Asia, Africa, China and Europe followed. But not with a dog. It was not really that kind of backpacking. The dogs I met were often sad, dejected, neglected or someone else’s dinner. I would not have WANTED to take a dog and often fed scraps to those I met on the way. Or got chased.
As I could always visit my parents’ dogs it was not until the mid and late nineties that I gained two rescue dogs of my own (and consecutive husbands). The first rescue was a white and tan Border Collie/Heinz 57 cross, Chad, the second a long legged black and white Border Collie/German Shepherd cross, Shanti. And a further member of the family arrived, my amazing daughter Carmen. Sadly, my dear father passed away less than a year later.
Husband, daughter, dogs; they all tried to acquire sea legs, in varying degrees of success, and perfect the art of sleeping under canvas but, as before, the UK trips were tailored so that we did not have to carry food or gear. The dogs occasionally escaped as gales blew open or ripped tent doors and they each, to their surprise, found themselves going for an unexpected swim when misjudging a leap from shore to dinghy or deciding to chase a seal. There was much hilarity. But backpacking trips remained the foreign kind where the dogs stayed with family at home.
In 2006, I took on my first TGO Challenge to backpack across Scotland. But taking your dog is not allowed. My daughter had started school and I desperately missed them all.
Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying the peace of those days spent alone as I sweated and panted over the bogs, heather and hills, my pack heavy on my back, seeking a tranquil spot to erect my tent and rest my weary head. Yet I would find it strange walking without my dogs by my side. Year after year, as the hills called me back, I would wonder how easy it would be to take my family and dogs on such a journey. Sadly, I knew ailments and age precluded our faithful companions from such distances, but they continued their other adventures.
An unexpected chapter began in my life in 2012. Exactly ten years after my father had passed away, I became a single mum overnight with a 10-year-old daughter and 19-year-old dog. It was a traumatic, tough, horrible time which seemed to go on forever. Chad, bless him, who had seen me through so much, passed away just a few weeks later, 10 months after his soulmate Shanti. Chad had made it to nearly 20 and Shanti to 13½, may they rest in peace. Their loss was heart breaking. For the first time in years, we had no canine companion. It felt disjointed and wrong. We missed them terribly. Our occasional solace was when mum visited with her dog.
Six months passed then a phone call. A friend in Settle had heard that one of the local farmer’s working dogs had had a litter; they were looking for homes. I wondered how difficult coping with training a pup would be, but knew my daughter’s heart, like my own, had been shattered by so much loss in such a short space of time. Would this be the right or wrong thing to do, how would a new pup fit into our disjointed lives? Yet it felt right.
Enter our Border Collie Rowan. A bundle of red fur and sharp little teeth. A bundle of energy raring to go. There was little time to mope. This bundle of mischief put magic back in our lives and was soon getting far too much attention, to his delight. But he was obedient and intelligent, quick to learn commands and well behaved with other dogs. Initially I wondered if I should train him for Search and Rescue but realised my own plate was currently too full. A hill dog then.
Rowan has certainly proved to be a fantastic dog and terrific companion. Being brought up in the Dales he had to learn very quickly not to chase livestock as nearly all our local walks involved walking through cattle and sheep. This was something I never managed with my older rescue Chad – I simply could never trust him with livestock and he always had to go on a lead.
Rowan’s recall means that I can trust him to come back or stay and wait. If Chad saw a deer he was gone (that is another tale), although Shanti usually stayed nearby. In true Border Collie fashion Rowan often lies down ahead, waiting patiently until I have caught up with his nimble feet. And being a Border Collie means energy, stamina, and the tendency to want to herd. Having managed to prevent him from using this latter trait on livestock it is very useful when walking with large groups of people, whom I regularly guide. It means he stays with us often ‘herding’ end to end but never going so far he loses us, or we him. Building this kind of trust with your dog is a vital step if you want to maintain them within your control yet have some degree of freedom, especially if you decide you want them to accompany you on bigger adventures.
TGO Challenges and foreign trips aside, being able to take Rowan into the hills and on camping expeditions with my daughter was something I wanted to do as soon as he was physically mature enough to cover the distance. Border Collies need more exercise than many breeds, but they should still be between 1 and 2 years before tackling longer or more challenging walks. Heavy exercise in a very young dog can lead to joint and spinal problems in later life. And breeds differ in their needs; if you wish to get a dog to take into the hills it is worth researching as for some it may be too much!
The hill dog. Rowan soon proved this is exactly what he liked to be. Munros, Corbetts, Wainwrights, Hewitts, Marilyns, Tumps and Bumps. Beaches, fields, woods, rivers and the sea. For him if you are out and about walking, swimming or throwing him tufts of heather he is happy. And his agility makes popping up steep hills and crags look easy (most of the time); he often peers down at you from above as if to say, ‘come on, what’s holding you up?’.
But what of camping or backpacking? Like our previous furry friends, I thought the best thing to do was start off with car camping. We could turn up at a campsite with all our paraphernalia and head into the hills each day without the pain of carrying all his gear and food as well as ours. But when you enjoy backpacking it is often about the journey from a to b, somewhere off the beaten track, preferably in the hills. This precludes car camping.
Previous expeditions with friends who had brought their dogs proved it was quite feasible if you kept the trips either short enough to be able to carry their food or were able to restock en route. Generally, the dogs had also needed a bowl, towel, coat, and a mat to sleep on. And we stuck to summer.
For our first couple of short expeditions into the Lake District I pretty much did as my friends had done. We carried all the gear and food for dog and us, but his sleeping kit was minimal meaning the only major increase in weight was food. My daughter and I had a two-man tent and Rowan usually found himself in a perfectly cosy spot sandwiched between the two of us. But the hair! It got everywhere! And it was surprisingly difficult to get him dried off sufficiently. The result was you were constantly trying to keep your sleeping bag away from a damp muddy dog, which proved impossible. This, I decided, needed a solution.
The answer to that issue came in a roundabout way. One spring Rowan and I had joined a club meet in the Cheviots. It turned out to be a cold dreich weekend with lots of slush and snow. Despite Rowan having a coat it did not stop him from getting a chill on his tummy; his trait of lying down in wait on the cold wet ground the most probable cause. The effect of this is not great – he constantly needs a wee and cannot wait. The organiser of our meet also had his dog with him. His method of dealing with a bedraggled and muddy Spaniel was to put him in an Equafleece. This fleece has two front leg sleeves and so can cover the dog like a jumper. I had never heard of the brand but decided to give it a go.
On our next few wild camps Rowan sported his Equafleece PJs after a day on the hill, which kept him much warmer, reduced his need to pee every hour and contained all that moulting hair. But I had not solved his bedding issue. When car camping, he had a large doggy sleeping bag and one of my spare carry mats. But this was all too bulky for backpacks and so he continued to squeeze in between us. It did not make for a good night’s sleep.
The next step was to find out what equipment was available for a dog to carry some of his own gear. Fortunately, a fellow TGO challenger, Mike Knipe (more of his ventures in Part 2), already backpacked with his dog and had found that the Ruffwear pack - effectively dog panniers - worked really well. I bought one.
Armed with his own pack Rowan could now carry some of his own meals (Burns’ dry dog food), a fold-up water bowl, a quick drying towel, daytime treats and waste bags. This meant I could carry an extra foam mat, a spare dog towel, his Equafleece and any extra food required.
To put the pack to the test I just got him used to wearing it locally. His first real foray carrying his pack was into the Cairngorms with myself and a friend over three nights one August. This time I was in my small one-man tent so I did wonder how it would work out. But my main concern was Rowan managing river crossings or getting caught up in heather and rocks. As it turned out he was seemingly just as agile and oblivious to his extra load (and I would have removed it if there was any doubt). But you did need to ensure everything inside the panniers was double bagged or it got wet. So far so good.
My daughter and I then took him on a few more summer backpacks before deciding to try him out on a two-day Ennerdale Round with a bivouac in the hot summer of 2018. I still opted to take a basic tarp so that Carmen and Rowan could sleep under that whilst I slept out; I was worried Rowan might go walk about if not in some sort of shelter. It worked fine. Our biggest issue was carrying enough water for Rowan and ourselves – around 10 litres - as many of the tarns and streams had completely dried up. We still needed to top up from the feeble dribbles we found using our Sawyer taps (water filtration).
But we had yet to try backpacking with Rowan in sub-zero temperatures.
Roll on into the horrors of 2020 and months of lockdown and tragedy. Our first trip away was not until September - a brief foray into the Lake District hills as my daughter made her way back to Uni. But we did not camp. For the first time in years, I had not camped at all. I was supposed to have undertaken my 10th TGO Challenge in May but obviously that did not happen and sadly I could not have taken Rowan anyway.
With itchy feet and time available whilst rules allowed a friend agreed to meet me to undertake a mini three-day backpack in the northern Cairngorms. We could easily socially distance, had our own tents and could cook separately. Getting Rowan ready for this venture I noted his pack needed loosening. He had plumped out during lockdown! This time I ensured I had packed a thicker Paramo towel as well as his Equafleece, microfibre towel and foam mat; the latter I used to line my pack as I use a thermarest. I double bagged his food, treats and any other items that would be going in his pack and carried the rest myself, including a well-stocked First Aid kit and emergency gear.
It had been a while since Rowan carried his pack; I did wonder if I would have to relieve him of any weight despite my own bag being fit to bust. But he was fine and bounced along as if he had nothing on his back at all. All was well until night.
The temperature plummeted and everything outside froze; the temperature dropped several degrees lower than forecast. The problem was keeping Rowan warm enough. He had his fleece on, his mat under him, a dry paramo towel over him and my sleeping bag semi wrapped round him, yet he was cold. This also meant the inevitable need for him to pee. In and out the tent we went and we both got colder. I tried draping various items over him, but he shrugged them off. This was not a good situation. On past trips he had been snug, stretching his legs in all directions, a sign of being very comfortable thank you, even if a paw did poke you in the eye.
Morning came with a relief. Packing the tents, we continuously bashed our hands and arms together to warm up whilst Rowan happily chased tufts of grass. Back on the trail we defrosted, and Rowan bounced along energetically whilst I followed bleary eyed.
Our second night started off with quite a freeze and I busied myself trying to arrange whatever layers I had between Rowan and myself. I could see it being a long night. Fortunately, a warmer front brought higher temperatures through by the early hours. Our third night proved to be the most benign but sharing a long night in the tent required more thought. The reality was I needed a better set up for us both.
Once more I wondered what Mike used for his dog and suddenly remembered hearing that another TGO Challenger had had a similar issue and was now making doggy sleeping bags for this very reason. Enter Chrissie Crowther.
Chrissie makes woofbags. Essentially these are doggy sleeping bags made to fit. She upcycles and creates these to order. I contacted both Chrissie and Mike and a few others before making the decision that the bags Chrissie made were the best bet for dogs going backpacking. My intention was to do some winter backpacking with Rowan. Rowan received his doggy sleeping bag for such ventures at Christmas. Rowan loves it but we just need to wait until we are allowed back out to play for the real test. But what of others’ experiences of backpacking ventures and coping with a wet, cold canine and their night-time needs?
To find out read ‘Overnight Adventures with your Canine Companion, Part 2: Backpacking Experiences, Tips and Tales’