Before we decided which long-distance trail we were going to attempt we knew that Bella, our Border Collie, would be joining us. This decision was one of the first certainties of our journey and it was what drove most of the decisions that followed. If you are considering taking your dog with you on your adventures then you must take an approach to planning that puts them first. This means setting goals for distance, terrain and weather that will be different than for if you were setting off without your animal companion as part of your team!
Bella is a 6 year old Border Collie and is used to multi-day treks in the UK. She has always slept in the porch of my tent during these adventures, that sometimes last up to a week, with distances of up to 30km a day. Living in the UK means Bella is used to walking in heavy rain, some snow and generally mild conditions but she has not had much experience of walking in hot, dry weather; I would say that anything over 20C is getting too hot for her. Importantly Bella walks well on and off the lead and never ventures more than 10M away from us. She is very good with wildlife, cows and horses but although I trust her, I would never walk her off the lead near sheep. Bella's training and past experiences all prepared her for a longer adventure and, just like with humans, meant that she had the right background to be comfortable with something longer. In order for your dog to enjoy a thru-hike as much as you they need to build up to it over a number of years and be happy sleeping somewhere new every night, which is a big ask for a lot of dogs.
One major consideration is food. Bella eats dry kibble for every meal, with small amounts in the morning and evening. This is sometimes supplemented with our leftovers as a treat. When completing a long-distance trek you need to increase the amount of protein that your dog consumes to ensure that they stay healthy. We chose to carry Evolution Naturally Complete Dog Food, which contains 30% protein and is 70% meat. This food was ideal as you do not need to feed your dog a large amount to get the right nutrients. We carried enough of this for 12 days, along with some high protein treats. Additionally, when we stopped for a meal at a cottage or town we always put aside some of the meat for Bella as extra treats.
Of course there is no real way of knowing what you will find for re-stocking on a long-distance trail but this uncertainty can be managed in a number of ways. If your dog has a sensitive stomach, changing food brands can be very uncomfortable for them, so you may want to arrange for their brand of food to be dropped in advance at specific points along a trail. This takes a lot of planning but could be worth it for your own peace of mind and for their continuity. We decided to buy food along the way, which meant we had to be a little more flexible with Bella's diet. If there are no shops and you find you are running low, one option can be to seek out a house with a dog and ask to buy some food from the owners. Similarly, on one occasion the owners of our accommodation for the night helped us out with enough food for a week. In most towns with convenience stores it is possible to find dog food, but it is harder to buy high protein options. When we had the chance, we bought small dog food or puppy food, which is generally higher in protein than medium-sized adult food.
You need to decide well in advance if your dog will help carry the additional Kg that their food will add to your kit. Carrying a small rucksack can be enjoyable for a dog, especially Border Collies who generally like to have a job to do! By the time we set off on our walk Bella would get excited about putting her rucksack on because she knew it meant going on a fun adventure. As a general rule, medium sized dogs can carry about 1/4 of their bodyweight. Bella weighed 18kg when we started walking and initially carried 12 days of food that weighed approximately 2.5kg. Despite being within her range, this turned out to be a bit much for her and so we reduced it to 8 days and we carried any additional food. If your dog becomes uncomfortable you have to be able to potentially carry all of their food if needed. It rained for the first week of our journey, which caused Bella's rucksack to rub as she couldn't get dry; so we carried everything until we felt it was appropriate for her to try again.
Rucksacks vary in price massively. I have read many good reviews of Ruffwear packs and seriously considered their Palisades Pack as a high quality option. Before investing in a more expensive pack, we decided to train Bella with a cheaper version and upgrade if necessary. We chose the Outward Hound Quick Release Backpack. Bella got on so well with this pack that we stuck with it for the trail and it was absolutely fine. You do need to make sure it is perfectly balanced with weight on either side, but if you split up the dog food into portions this is easy to do.
In addition to Bella's rucksack, we also carried booties for her. These came in useful on days with lots of walking on forestry roads or tarmac as her feet did get a little sore.
In your med kit you may want to carry some extra crepe bandages, and saline solution for washing wounds. We agreed that if Bella started to show signs of being unwell or suffered an injury we would get her off the trail and to a vet as soon as we could and so the usual contents of our med kit would suffice.
Once you are sure your dog is trained and has the right food and kit then you can decide on a trail. We aimed to start walking at the end of September and used this as a jumping off point for research. We needed a trail that would have fairly regular options for re-stocking or evacuating if something happened but still wanted to get out into some wild, mountainous terrain. Bella can do some easy scrambling as long as it is not too exposed or sustained but anything requiring ropes was not an option. The weather needed to be fairly mild, snow is OK but too much heat would cause us problems. All of this brought us to the Pyrenees.
There are three options for long-distance hiking in the Pyrenees, the GR10, the GR11 and the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP). The GR10 stays on the French side of the mountains, and mostly travels through steep, forested hills and farmland, with easy to access accommodation at the end of each stage. However, you are not allowed to take dogs in any of the French National Parks so this was an instant no for us. The GR11 sticks to the Spanish side and varies in terrain massively from rolling hills, to karst, boulderfields and granite mountains. The HRP has considerably more scrambling and stays high so there are less options for restocking and Bella may have had issues with the terrain. After researching a number of options we decided that the GR11 was the route for us and it was perfect.
Autumn is a great time to walk the GR11 for foraging and mild weather. The weather can of course change quickly, but no more so than in the summer when you can set your watch by the afternoon storms. Heat was a concern for us with Bella, but by the time we reached the eastern sections of the trail, the weather had cooled considerably and it was just warm enough for comfortable walking.
You can read more about the GR11 in Autumn in my November blog post.
Thru-hiking with your dog means you will have to wild-camp for the majority of the trail as there are only a few dog-friendly options. We wild-camped for 22 nights out of 41 and only stayed in accommodation such as hotels and Casa Rural (B&B's) for 5 nights. The Refugios (Mountain Cottages) along the GR11 do not allow dogs at all, not even into the boot area while you have a meal. We left Bella outside a couple of times while we stopped for lunch but only if the weather was fine. There are a number of Bothies/unmanned refuges that you can stay in, and out of season they should be quiet. Our favourites were Refugio D-Anglios and Refugi De Baiau both of which were immaculate. Although Bella slept in the porch of our tent most of the time, when the nights were particularly cold she slept inside with us and kept our feet warm!
Here are the dog-friendly hotels and B&B's that were all very welcoming:
Casa Rural Valle De Tena, Sallent De Gallego: There are no options for camping at the end of stage 11, despite information that says otherwise. The wonderful hosts at Valle De Tena opened just for us, cooked a great meal and helped us out with some dog food for Bella. Our room was stunning, with a large en-suite and nice decor.
Hotel Vallferrera, Areu: A lovely hotel with good quality en-suite rooms and excellent food. All of the staff were fantastic and went out of their way to help us out.
Hostal Estacio, Puigcerda: There is a campsite before Puigcerda but they do not allow dogs so we continued into town. Hostal Estacio is just off the trail next to the train station. It is convenient, quiet and the en-suite rooms are clean and pleasant.
Hostal Ter, Setcases: A family run B&B that were delighted to receive Bella as a guest. The room was a little noisy through the night because of the old heating pipes, but it was clean, warm and we had an en-suite.
Off-season you can expect to pay between €50-€60 for a double room, with an extra charge for your dog of around €10 in some places.
In addition to those mentioned above most campsites allow dogs along the trail, with some allowing dogs in cabins.
If you are willing to plan your journey around your dog as part of the adventure of long-distance walking, it is certainly worth the effort. Bella was our motivator, film-maker, comic relief and comfort. She coped with everything the trail threw at us and managed better than us a lot of the time! She made friends wherever we went, with friendly walkers and locals stopping to chat about her and her rucksack. Bella was an essential member of our team and we are looking forward to our next adventure together!