Archive for 2011 June

Adventures with Fido: How to Camp with Your Dog

This post is part of a series brought to you by RAM. For more information about RAM Series trucks visit us at: What’s this?
When John Steinbeck traveled with Charley, his standard poodle, the result was one of my favorite books. Fifty years after its publishing it's still a great read, and it wouldn't have been what it is without Charley. The companionship of a dog can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a wilderness traveler.  As opposed to humans, they are quiet, low-maintenance, and easy to please. Dogs cannot be jaded; everything is new to them.  If you don't believe me, watch your dog at a rest stop.  The pet exercise area is like a giant olfactory newspaper, and my dogs must read every article, especially the ones left behind by an interesting female. But like anything, the key to a successful trip is preparation, and then more preparation. There are many more considerations in your wilderness trip prep work when taking a dog, and failure in one of them can create drama.  You are responsible for the health and safety of your companion.


You don't need a dog with a Ph.D, but be honest with yourself.  Does your dog listen to you?  When you give a command, does she* listen and respond?  I spent a long time training Gracie, my Black Lab, to respond to the important voice commands.  She doesn't roll over or play dead, as they are cute tricks but have no value other than entertaining kids.The important commands that need consistent responses are: Whoa:  I use this for stop, freeze, don't move.  Useful for bird dogs so they don't flush a bird when they're on-point; it's also useful when they see a squirrel and start chasing it across the street.  Whoa can save a life. Come:  Self-explanatory. Down:  Lay down, don't move until I tell you it's okay. Okay:  We're cool.  As you were. Leave it:  Whatever is in your mouth, drop it.  If you're sniffing a dead crow, don't even think about it. Whatever words you decide to use, you need a dog that will stop, come back, lay down, and drop the thing in her mouth. Non-essential but useful is also the hurry up, which is basically urinate and defecate quickly.  Useful at rest stops. Of course, you don't need all these commands if you're going to keep your dog on a leash all the time, but that takes away a lot of the fun for both you and your dog.


Whether it be toward humans, other dogs or any wildlife, an aggressive dog has no place in the wilderness.  It doesn't matter if it only happened once.  If your dog is aggressive, leave her home.  There are too many ways this can go wrong.  I don't need to list them.

Breed and Temperament

Let's be honest.  We are asking a lot of a dog to do the things we want her to do.  If a dog hasn't seen a porcupine before and won't whoa, you better have your Leatherman pliers and a day off trail to spare.  My experience is that most smaller terriers don't handle things well.  Not that yours won't, but a Jack Russell that sees a porcupine will most likely bark bring it on! in dog language and go for the throat.  That's what they were bred to do, and they do it well. The dogs I have known who handle wilderness tripping the best are usually smart and compliant.  Retrievers of all sorts tend to do very well, as do Chesapeakes. Pointers and other sporting dogs can do well, but a lot of that is individual temperament.  Our German Shorthair, Winnie (R.I.P.), was great, but she was a very chill GSP.  Some are more high-strung.  Standard poodles tend to do very well with a good short clip.  With a show cut, other dogs and animals will mock them.   Our Great Pyrenees puppy Alice is yet unproven, but she does appear to be a burdock magnet, so consider coat maintenance when taking longer-haired dogs. Border Collies can be wonderful.  My friend Dana has a great BC who listens better than most teenagers.  Others would try to herd every animal in a five mile radius.  Again, individual differences.

Behavior Issues

Barkers Sound carries a long way over water.  I can recall camping on an island in the Boundary Waters and a dog barked constantly for hours.  It seemed like she was just across the channel, but in fact the campsite was almost a mile away, within earshot of a dozen campsites.  Non dog-owners would have wanted to shoot that dog; I wanted to shoot the owner. The dialogue went thusly: Dog:  Bark bark bark! Owner: You shut up! Dog:  Bark bark bark! Repeat for three hours. If your dog is a barker, leave her home.  If she becomes a barker, train her to not bark. I'm not a trainer, but it's possible.  Yappers (Yorkies, Maltese, Shih Tzus etc.) are likely to drive everyone nuts. Wanderers If your dog is a wanderer, you'll want to find a way to put her on a leash at night before bed time, and bring her into the tent when you turn in.  A friendly dog might visit the neighbors, and that can be a disaster.  Let the neighbors come to you.  If she steals a nice piece of hard-earned cheese off a rock near the campfire, you'll hope for a friendly chastisement.  You may end up with an earful of profanities.

Physical Capabilities

Just as a low-rider doesn't do well off-road, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that a Basset Hound would be a poor choice for backpacking over rough terrain.  Larger dogs are more suited for that sort of hiking.  For smaller dogs, consider smoother trails or canoeing. Like a person, dogs need training.  Don't use a backpacking trip as a weight loss program for your 90-pound Lab.  It's bad because your dog won't tell you she's out of shape...she'll just suffer, stoically. You will both lose weight naturally.  This is the time to increase, not decrease caloric intake for both of you.  If your dog is on a low-cal diet, consider mixing a little more caloric food in her regular chow.  Do it slowly: a radical change in diet creates a lot of stomach distress.  Gracie can't use words to tell me, so she lets her gas do the talking.  She can clear a room with one SBD.

Backpacking dogs should at least partially support themselves.  They should be able to carry about a week's worth of kibbles packed in a dog pack.  Again, don't make the trailhead the first time she puts on the pack.  Get it a month or two out, get her used to it, and gradually add a little weight.

Dogs are not wild animals, and some dogs may need something to keep them warm in spring and fall.  A small fleece blanket works for Gracie, but Alice doesn't need anything. In fact, she's a furnace and can add heat to your tent.  My buddy's Border Collie finds a way to slip into the foot of his sleeping bag without waking him up.  Smaller dogs may want to share, so consider a larger bag rather than a mummy. A canoe trip won't require the aerobic capacity that a long backpacking trip would, but you might need a dog PFD.  Canine personal flotation devices are a must for non-swimmers, of course, but even dogs that can swim could use a little help.  A friend has a Staffordshire Terrier (Pit Bull) that loves the water but swims like a U-boat.  Dogs can get tired too, and like people, they can drown if they don't monitor their fatigue level, and most energetic dogs don't realize they're tired until they're really tired. In some areas, I prefer to give my dogs water that has been purified.  This may sound overly cautious, and it's true that most dogs can drink stuff that would send us to the ER.  But in some urbanized areas, there are pathogens in the water that you wouldn't drink, so why subject her that same stuff?  Amoebic Dysentery can give your dog the runs.  Not good for disposal etiquette. Whether it's filtering or a chemical treatment, just consider it. So that's the dog stuff.  What about the owner stuff?

Trail Etiquette

You love your dog, clearly.  Not everyone does, so if you're backpacking, the etiquette is to step off the trail and control your dog.  An overly-friendly Lab can knock a backpacker off her feet, causing embarrassment at best and injury at worst.  So control your dog. A dog that runs back and forth on a trail is fine, if you're in a low-use area.  On some trails you'll see a lot of people, and some of them came to the woods or water to escape civilization.  Some of them don't like dogs.  Assure them your dog is under control and not aggressive.  I would stress the under control part first.  "Oh, she's harmless..." is subjective, and if the other hiker or paddler has had a bad experience with a dog in the past, "she's friendly" means nothing, whereas "she's under control" means everything.

About Poop

If you came across a hiker taking a dumper in the middle of the trail and walking off, you'd be mortally offended and likely grossed out.  Dog feces are not pleasant for anyone.  No one expects you to carry out the poop, but you should handle it as you would your own, depending on the environment you're in.  If you're in cathole country, dig a small hole and put your dog's little gift into the soil. Now I can hear some of you saying, "Does a bear, well, you know..."  Yes, a bear is an arboreal defecator.  You can choose to take your dog off into the woods and make a steamer, but you are bringing a different type of poop to an area that is not used to it.  If a gentleman takes a dog as a companion, a gentleman deals with the ramifications.

Dog First Aid

A dog can be injured just as surely as you can.  Your dog is not necessarily a good judge of what she can and can't do.  Winnie was cautious and trustworthy. Gracie is fearless, and she pays for it sometimes. Scrambling over rocks may be fun for you, but it's an invitation to an injury if you're not careful.  If your dog does hesitate, this means you should wake up.  Dogs can be smarter than you. The most common injuries are to a dog's foot pads.  They are not thorn-proof and a little thorn can cause a lot of pain.  Dog's feet have a lot of innervations, just like ours.  There's no walking it off. Whether it's a thorn or a fishhook, a lot of the first aid for dogs is the same as for you.  The big difference is pain management.  Dogs do not tolerate human NSAIDS or pain relievers.  Your veterinarian can prescribe a few good pain relievers, such as Rimadyl and Tramodol. Rimadyl is the equivalent of Ibuprofen for adults.  It can help with aches and pains and is good thing for your older dog the morning after an overly exuberant climb.  Tramadol is a synthetic opiate, so it's more powerful but can make your dog drowsy.  For aches and pains, my vet recommends Rimadyl.  For more chronic pain, Tramadol works well.  When Alice strained her shoulder we put her on Tramadol for a few days.  It helped her stay a little more relaxed so she would heal better. Then there are other critters, large and small, that can be a threat. Larger mammals such as bears and moose generally avoid humans if we avoid them, but a curious dog can be killed with a moose kick in seconds, especially if there are calves.  Porcupines, as previously mentioned, can be nasty.  Skunks and raccoons can transmit rabies with just a nip, and skunks have other capabilities that are unnecessary to explain.  Small mammals can scratch the nose of a curious dog. Ticks can be a problem in tick country.  We do tick inspection every night, and it might take a little bit of searching, especially with deer ticks, the carriers of Lyme Disease. Wood ticks are easier to find.  Treat them as you would with a human.  If they're not embedded yet, it's easy.  I throw them onto the fire grate, where they sometimes make a satisfying pop. Consider immunizing your dog for Lyme.  It's a controversial subject, but I have done it for years with no ill effects.  Your dog, your call. The big thing to remember when it comes to first aid and your dog is that if your pooch gets hurt when you're out in the wilderness, you will have to find a way to get her back home. Keep that in mind when you're planning your trip, thinking about the terrain you'll be covering and how far out from civilization you'll be, and calculating whether to take a risky detour.

All this shouldn't discourage you from taking your canine companion on a wilderness excursion.  It just requires more planning and a little more awareness of your dog's capabilities.  In finding that out during your pre-trip planning, you just may end up growing closer to your loyal pooch. Some of my best wilderness expeditions have been solo trips with a well-behaved dog.  Sometimes they're the perfect companion...they watch, they learn, they love, and they snuggle you at night. They'll sit and watch the glowing coals of a campfire and fall asleep on your feet. There's nothing better than that at the end of a long day. Do you take your dog camping or on other wilderness expeditions? Share your tips for navigating the great outdoors with a pooch at your side! *I use she because a) I hate the he/she thing, and b) all my dogs have been bitches.  My experience is that they tend to be smarter and lower maintenance once the plumbing has been removed.

How to Plan a (Successful) Canoe Trip

"The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past, and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” - Sigurd Olson
This post is part of a series brought to you by RAM. For more information about RAM Series trucks visit us at: What’s this?
Canoe tripping is part of the fabric of the North woods. It was the canoe that carried Native Americans throughout North America. Canoes brought the first Europeans into the interior of the frontier to trade and proselyte. And it was from the inside of a canoe that Lewis and Clark explored and mapped our new nation. So it is no wonder that the idea of paddling away from civilization and into the wilderness has always held great romantic appeal for men. What man has not sat at his desk, surrounded by the walls of his cubicle, and closed his eyes to imagine gliding through the water of a clear river, surrounded on both sides by emerald forests or vibrant fall foliage? But it needn't remain a mere fantasy. Canoe tripping is not only romantic, it's also a very practical way to camp. The utility of the canoe is undisputed. In the hands of a skilled paddler, it can carry amazing amounts of gear, navigate waters from tiny streams to vast oceans, and do it with a panache that is unquestionably manly. Last time, we talked about one of the advantages of car camping over backpacking; mainly, that with car camping you can pack more gear, allowing you to camp more comfortably and cook and eat more delicious grub. Of course the downside of car camping is that it lessens the feel of getting away from civilization and losing oneself in nature. Well, with canoeing, you can have the best of both worlds. You can plunge yourself deep into the wilderness, a la backpacking, while at the same time carrying 100 pounds of gear in your canoe. It is camping that is both rustic and luxurious, which makes it, in my humble opinion, the best kind of camping of all. By now I've convinced you that a canoe trip is in your future. But many men seem to find the idea of planning and executing a canoe trip intimidating. Loading a tent and sleeping bag in the car they can do. But heading down a river into the wilderness seems a bit more daunting. But it doesn't have to be. Planning a canoe trip is like a planning anything, you'll simply need to: • Decide what you want to do • Research what you need to know • Find the resources you need • Execute your plan The following elucidations are true for small groups or individuals, but here I'm focusing on group dynamics as well.

Step 1: Decide What You Want to Do

Where do you want to go?

Choosing the location is the first step, and it's critical. It's easy to romanticize getting into the wild on a month-long trip to the Northwest Territories with the guys from college, the ones you haven't seen in ten years. Don't. It's not romantic. At least one person in your party will die a grizzly death. Not grisly, grizzly. To start, shorter trips are better than longer trips. Flatwater trips are better than whitewater trips. Smaller bodies of water are better than larger bodies of water. Start slowly, or you may never start again. Somewhere like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the upper Midwest is a good place to start. That's my turf and I love it. Out west, some of the classic rivers like the Missouri across the northern states, the Green in Utah, the Rio Grande in Texas, or the Niobrara in Nebraska are good starts. Blackwater rivers and swamps in the south are gorgeous, especially in the off-season. The Ozarks have some wonderful rivers like the Current. There are lots of places to go that are both beautiful and beginner-friendly.

Who do you want in your group?

A friend of mine just went on a canoe trip. It was supposed to be a solo trip with a rendezvous in the middle of the trip. It didn't turn out that way. My friend ended up hauling out a friend who had misrepresented his abilities. Friend was unprepared, wore the wrong clothing, went hypothermic and joined the Liar's Club. It was a soul-sucking experience, not the rejuvenation he expected. Then his truck broke down on the way home. How do you avoid soul-sucking experiences? A good vetting process. Select a trip that is suited to the person in your group with the least amount of experience, or if a lot of people are experienced and one is not, make accommodations (put him in a canoe with a very experienced paddler). Better yet, convince Weakest Link to stay home this time. That isn't supposed to be humorous. No one will have fun if W.L. is holding everyone back. Assign a trip leader early on, or at least a team, all of which are of one mind on the goals and expectations of the trip. The trip leader doesn't set the agenda; the group does that. But early on, safety protocols are discussed and agreed upon by the group. When things vary from that protocol, it's the trip leader who says, "No, we're not cliff diving. We agreed on that early on." A trip leader can also say,"I don't feel comfortable with you swimming in the Lagoon of the Shrieking Eels." Before the trip, all agree that the trip leader's word is law. It's a hard place to be, and it has challenged friendships, but ultimately it has to be that way. Rule by consensus doesn't work in the wilderness.

Step 2: Research What You Need to Know

Once you have decided where you want to go, start collecting information. Maps, guidebooks, and online info is good, most of the time, but maps can be wrong, guidebooks out of date, and the internet is proof that even the dumbest person can present their opinions as facts. You don't know who they are, their experience level, or the nature of their preparation. Here's a hint about internet information: Generally, the more they talk, the less they know, especially if they had a bad experience. There's a local stream with mild whitewater that I paddle often, sometimes with friends with limited experience. There's also a local who insists that it is a horribly dangerous river and anyone who takes beginners there is negligent. I get an earful periodically, on how reckless and uninformed I am. He had a bad experience a few years ago (he swam). It's not about him; it's the river's fault. The best information comes first-hand. Use the telephone. Talk to people. You'll know immediately if they're credible. My experience is that we love talking to people about our favorite places to paddle, giving tricks and landmarks that may not be on the maps or in the books. Why we do this is puzzling, because it takes people to our favorite places. But we love these places, and want to share them. If you're planning a trip in a National Park, Wilderness Area, Scenic River or any other government controlled land, including BLM land, the local rangers and authorities are more than happy to give you information that is credible, often with maps and links sent for free. Their job is to get you into their domain, and they often have gear lists and other gear hints. Which leads me to...

Step 3: Find Resources

You need the proper gear to be safe and comfortable. Some of this information may be available from your previous contact, but outfitters are a great resource too. If you have no interest in using said outfitter, don't waste their time. They are in the business of outfitting, not being a free resource to people who won't use their services. For groups or first-timers, I would strongly consider using a guide or outfitter. This takes the burden of trip leader off one of the group, which is pretty sweet, and you have an instant expert who knows the area, the weather patterns, the local blueberry patch (this is key), and otherwise will enhance your experience. Spread across a group, it's a cheap expense and even experienced paddlers can enjoy this. I took a guided trip in Alaska a few years back with the whole family, and while we could have rented boats and done the trip ourselves, we used a guide service, and we didn't have to lift a finger. We focused on enjoying the scenery, not cooking ramen under a tarp in the rain. Hint: it rains a lot in Alaska. Instead, we ate salmon and green salads, halibut steaks, and stir-fry. Worth every penny. Choosing an outfitter or guide is easy, actually. This is where the internet is good. Customer testimonials are great, both on the outfitter website and in other places, and if you see ten great testimonials and one whiner, shun the whiner. My experience is that some people choose to be negative and miserable. His life is his own punishment. Ask about safety records. Ask about the training of their guides. Ask how long they've been around. Ask about the kinds of groups they service. Ask about their equipment. In short, you can't ask too many questions. If you choose to go without an outfitter, local specialty stores can help you the best. As the owner of a local specialty store, I am biased. The difference between a larger box store and a specialty store is the depth of knowledge. A box store employee has heard of the Boundary Waters. Our Assistant Manager has been to the Boundary Waters 30 times. He knows what to wear, how to pack, what to eat, where to go, and what works and doesn't work. It's a common conception that specialty store prices are more than box store prices. Not true. Don't learn how to set a tent up in the dark when it's raining. Nothing in your gear should have a price tag on it (a sure sign to me that it's going to be a very long trip). Dry runs are critical. Set up your tent in the backyard a few times. Maybe do it once in the dark with a headlamp. Know your gear. Don't find out an air mattress has a hole the first night you're out. Don't find out your camp stove doesn't work below 40 degrees when you're trying to boil some water. Don't find out rain pants don't fit over your regular pants during a downpour. Okay. Dead horse successfully beaten.

Step 4: Execute Your Plan

Of course, you've written down all this and have a plan, and you're ready to go. A few last things to remember: 1) Leave a float plan with your family, friends, and local authorities. If you are scheduled for three days and we're coming up on day five, you want someone to know you're behind. Not to worry them, but to allow locals to start searching. They generally don't start for a few days after the return date, especially if the weather has been challenging. 2) Consider a PLB of some sort. A Personal Locator Beacon is a nice little piece of insurance in the case of severe injury. Severe injury is defined as potential loss of life, limb, or eyesight. Cracking open a PLB because you're cold and hungry will earn you a visit from a helicopter, and helicopter fuel is expensive. Unnecessary rescues tax the system, leaving people with real emergencies exposed, and unless you have a roll of hundreds (about 250 of them) you're not fond of, avoid pulling the pin. Most PLBs have a "I'm okay" button, also called the DWH ("Don't worry, honey.") Pushing that button every morning sends a text or voicemail saying "I'm alive and loving it." It can also send a link to Google Maps, showing exactly where you are. For larger groups, a satellite phone is great, especially if the expenses are shared. I prefer PLBs because I don't go the Spanish River to order a pizza. 3)  There is water involved. Pack accordingly. The odds of things getting wet is significantly higher on a canoe trip.  This means you'll want to protect your gear with something besides Hefty garbage bags.  You can double them or triple them...but all it takes is one stray stick or an ember from your campfire and your waterproof system is severely compromised.  The answer to this is dry bags, and lots of them. Dry bags are tough, and you can bet your sleeping bag they'll be dry if used properly.  Dry bags function with a roll top system, where you fold the mouth of the bag over itself and secure it with buckles. The two guidelines are, first, don't fill them too full, as that makes the second guideline impossible.  The second guideline is to roll the top down at least three times, and make sure the flaps are all lined up nicely. Use lots of sizes and lots of colors.  I am not so meticulous that I have a system for all my colors, but I do have certain bags that are color-coded.  First aid is bright orange and I have written FIRST AID on the outside with a big Red Cross on it.  If I am incapacitated, I want the dumbest person in my group to be able to find it. The other is color coded bright green, and it is the toiletries bag.  Blue is often clothing, unless I have more clothing than I have blue bags.  Your system may be different.  I actually hope it what works best for you. Unless you want to carry everything in your arms, when you're done packing everything that must be dry in bags or other dry storage, you move on to loading them up in your packs. 4)  You will have to carry stuff. Most canoe trips require a portage.  This is pronounced either POOR-tuj (American pronunciation) or pour-TAJ (like in the Taj Mahal, the Canadian pronunciation).  Some Americans are Canuckophiles and end up pronouncing it pour-TAJ, myself included.  It just happened, eh?  A portage is necessary when you either go from one lake to another, or along the side of a river when it becomes impassible, due to a rapid or a dam. Portage packs are different than backpacks.  A backpack is narrower, and may be taller and longer, usually with a really fancy suspension system that shows that its primary purpose is carrying stuff all day.  Portage packs are usually larger, shorter, and have a less sophisticated suspension system.  The idea is to carry a lot of stuff a relatively short distance.  Considering the voyageurs of the fur trade era routinely carried two 80-pound bales of beaver fur, there is no sniveling here.  Don't complain about the weight, just suck it up.  You'll be happier later when you are baking your business in a reflector oven while you're backpacking counterparts are enjoying their dehydrated beef stroganoff that looks like the dog just got sick on the driveway. You will sometimes have to carry a pack and a canoe.  If my then 16 year-old daughter can carry a 70-pound pack and a 45-pound canoe, so can you.  Well...she is a rugby player and incredibly strong...even so... 5)  The trails you will be on will be unlike most hiking trails. Backpackers are mostly used to relatively defined trails.  Canoeists are used to mossy boulders, spruce roots, irregular scree along a riverbed and other less-than-hospitable trails.  Good footwear is essential on these sorts of trails. What good footwear means is a religious discussion.  Some prefer sandals with heavy soles (Chaco, etc.), some a sacrificial pair of always-wet boots, some use a specialized shoe with a neoprene sock that goes to the knees.  My theory? You're going to get wet, so plan on wet feet.  I use a pair of hunting boots (Red Wing or Filson boots are great), usually the 12-14" tall variety.  Good wool socks.  So long as you air your feet out periodically (usually at lunch and then dinner), you won't get prune toes and your ankles with thank you. I do take good care to make sure my boots are well cared for post-trip, and I do pull the insoles each night to let things air out.  They go nowhere near a fire.  Ever. I anticipate comments that will tear my system to shreds.  That's fine.  It has worked for me for 25 years.  Experiment with your own system. 6)  It's easy to get lost. In a place such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the lakes are amazingly similar.  Good map and compass skills are necessary, but so is deduced reckoning, often called dead reckoning.  It consists of being aware of your surroundings and making sure that the thing that's supposed to be there actually is.  If the trail is supposed to be at the end of a bay and it's not...consider for a moment you may be in the wrong bay.  Do not forge ahead.  Back up to where you last knew where you were.  If that's the put-in, so be it. Even though the route is picked for you by the current, rivers are tricky too.  Your ability to know how many miles you've gone is incredibly difficult.  The bridge where you are sure you parked your car may look like a bunch of other bridges.  You may think, "I should have been at the take-out by now," only to find you passed it hours ago. This is where hitchhiking skills and begging come in handy. GPS? Sure. It's useful to know where you are and where you're going. A GPS can also lead you down a path of surety that is not at all sure.  Just because there's a blue line on the GPS screen doesn't mean the water is navigable, and it won't show that the lake at that end is a mud pit when the water is low.  And the water is always low.

Step 5: Have a Wonderful Experience

You've done your homework, so you're confident and have no reason to fear. Fear comes from a lack of preparedness, so have a wonderful experience. Take only pictures, leave only footprints, and avoid Spam. Have you ever been on a canoe trip? Share your tips and experiences with us in the comments!

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