How to Hike the Backcountry With Your Dog

Adventure photographer Ace Kvale and his trusty dog Genghis Khan embark on a milestone hike and share their advice for exploring America's wilderness

On his multiweek hikes through Utah’s canyon country, Ace Kvale always brings his custom GPS—his Genghis Positioning System, also known as his dog, an Australian blue heeler named Genghis Khan.

“He’s always very solid, always there, but never in the way. A really good partner at all times,” says Kvale, a longtime adventure photographer who has worked in more than 60 countries for National Geographic and many other publications. Genghis is no slouch, either; he “writes” about his expeditions with Kvale in his Desert Dawg Adventure Blawg.

Kvale and Genghis also star in "Ace and the Desert Dog," a new short film by Brendan Leonard and Forest Woodward that shows the special connection between the rugged adventurer and his soulful-eyed companion. (Watch the film here.) The film chronicles an epic 400-mile trek that the two hiked through the desert wilderness of Utah and Arizona. Genghis appears to be right at home in the hills and narrow canyons.

“It’s a feel-good story about the wilderness, about backpacking, and the man-dog bond,” Kvale says. “Our fervent hope is to inspire people to do that kind of backpacking. We have a vast, beautiful wilderness. The main thing is to get out there and enjoy it.”

Kvale chatted with National Geographic Adventure about planning his journey, his advice for exploring the backcountry with your dog, and how Genghis has his own rules for setting up camp.

In "Ace and the Desert Dog," you say you wanted a big celebration for your 60th birthday. Was that the main reason you planned this epic trek? How did you go about it?

It was. I’d been doing longer and longer hikes and had been putting longer and longer loops together. I’d looked at the Appalachian Trail, the John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail; I’d done a lot of long-distance hiking in the Himalaya, and a lot of climbing expeditions. All those other big routes in this country are fantastic, but they’re basically following the bread crumbs: There are guidebooks, there’s a trail, and there are other people out there. What I love the most is the wilderness—the untracked, untouched wilderness, with no trails at all, if possible.

So I spent years doing shorter hikes, around the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Navajo Nation. I slowly put together potential routes. I came up with a big loop about two or three years ago that I call the Desert Dog Trail, which was 27 days, but I realized that even that was too short! So for my 60th birthday, I came up with a 60-day loop.

How did you choose the route you decided to take?

Well, I wanted to go to and from my door. I’d done part of it with the Desert Dog Trail. One of the most wild and beautiful places left in the canyon country are the canyons of the Escalante River drainage. Another amazing place was Navajo Mountain on the Navajo Nation. I wanted to explore those as much as possible.

I came up with a huge loop that took me all the way down to the Navajo Nation and all the way back to my house. The door-to-door loop was meant to show people that even in this day and age, there is wilderness right here in the U.S., in Colorado and Utah. You can walk into huge wilderness for months at a time. It still exists.

In the film, you call backpacking really hard work and say that sometimes it’s just a means to get to places you can’t reach any other way. What makes it enjoyable for you?

Let’s say we go to climb a peak or go on a big hike, maybe in a park or wherever, at a beautiful spot. We have our picnic lunch. We’re looking over a waterfall or we’re on a summit—and then we have to leave. We got to get back home, because we don’t have everything we need with us.

So imagine getting to those beautiful spots when you’ve got everything you need to survive—and linking that together for days at a time. I love to be out there and experience the stars, the wind, the weather, and all the elements. Meeting nature on its own terms is really my goal.

What types of landscape do you prefer?

I really love searching for ancient trails. I try to envision the maps of the American West without the roads, without Lake Powell—what it was like before any of that existed. That takes you back to the cowboy trails, and they followed the Anasazi Indians who lived there a thousand years before. The Anasazi, in turn, followed the bighorn sheep.

My aim is to imagine the land before any grazing or the hand of man had done anything to it and treating it sacredly. I camp in places where we don’t leave a mark on the Earth whatsoever. I try to commune with nature in a deep and thoughtful way.

What did you bring with you—besides Genghis—so you could do that?

I carried a very small lightweight tent, just big enough for me and Desert Dog. He even had his own light, tiny sleeping bag, and his own pad to lay on. We had food for up to two weeks at a time, and the rest was just the regular backpacking gear but as ultralight as possible.

My personal gear—my clothes, my toiletries, maps, journal—was about 15 pounds. Food is around two pounds per day. Ten days of food is going to be 20 pounds. Genghis needs about half a pound of dog food per day, and with treats, that’s three-quarters of a pound. The maximum pack weight was about 65 pounds, including water, but every day I shed weight until I resupplied.

I resupplied about every two weeks—you can’t carry 58 days worth of supplies on your back. There were two or three places where we crossed roads, where we vectored out to a trailhead where people would meet us with their cars and additional supplies. People with me [on the hike] could leave if they needed to go home, or people could join me. At the most I had seven people with me; at the least I had two.

Did you bring any special gear for Desert Dog? How did he adapt to the route?

I have a harness for Desert Dog, because a lot of the time we have to go in and out of a canyon with a rope. He gets lowered up and down canyons quite a bit—usually just 10 or 20 feet.

Here’s an example of how smart this dog is. Some friends of mine had a sailboat on Lake Powell, which I crossed about three times. We would moor the boat 20 or 30 feet off a beach and get back and forth from the boat to the beach on a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP. Genghis would stand on the SUP with me, I’d pull us in with a rope, and he’d clamber aboard the boat or onto land.

He’s a dog, of course, but he figured out quickly that if he just got on the SUP by himself, we’d pull him out to the boat or to camp. I’d try to leave him on shore while we’d be on the boat having dinner or a beer, and I’d look out there, and he’d be standing on the SUP with a look like, “Why aren’t you pulling me up?”

How did Genghis’s personality emerge on the journey?

[In a group of people,] I’m usually the leader and navigator; I like old compass-and-map navigation. Genghis always assumes his position behind me. And if you’re walking behind me, you have to let him get in front of you. He’s always second, no matter how many people are there. He’ll kind of give you the stink eye until you know the protocol.

In camp, Genghis always has to have the tent facing the kitchen, downwind. Whenever we get to camp, I feed him, he lays down in his bag, in the tent, but he needs full view of the kitchen.

Then, he will just lay there until he hears the sounds of food wrappers. He never begs; he only comes over when it’s time for the cleanup crew. He does the “prewash” for all the dishes. Any food wrappers or plates, he does the first cleaning so our trash doesn’t have any food particles for rodents or animals.

It sounds like you two have a really symbiotic relationship—it’s not like you’re the owner, he’s the dog.

Well, he’s trained me. We’ve been doing this since he was just a little puppy, and we’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of days in the backcountry. He has it completely down.

What are your tips for successful backcountry hiking with dogs?

National parks are not dog-friendly. As soon as you get a dog, the national parks are off-limits unless he’s on leash and in the campgrounds. National parks and dogs do not get along.

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But a lot of state parks and other places are dog-friendly, and there are websites that list dog-friendly hotels, B&Bs, Airbnbs, and VRBOs so you can plan your route with those in mind.

Having a dog, and traveling with a dog, is a huge responsibility. It can be super-rewarding, but it can be superhard work. You have to be aware of things at all times.

I always have water for him. I have a first-aid kit that includes stuff for him. Benadryl for bee stings, tweezers, Neosporin, vet wrap—a bandage that sticks to itself: You can really close up a wound if you have to.

I don’t believe in packs for dogs, unless it’s on wide, easy trails. I used to use them, but I’d end up carrying it, so I just stopped. Where we go, the country is too bushy and rocky, and the dog’s body with the pack is too low and wide to get through that stuff. Then, they’re more likely to stumble, get a cactus spine stuck in them, or get a cut, and then your trip is going to be either shortened or over.

What’s the most important factor for choosing a dog-friendly trail?

I lead hiking trips for a company in Utah called Earth Tours, and I do dog-friendly treks. I will tailor the trips to people with dogs based on their capabilities, and all of those routes will have water—either a canyon bottom or creek or potholes in the sandstone.

We watch the weather just like you would if you were skiing—if it’s been wet, we know there will be plenty of water out on the trail. If it hasn’t rained in a month, we’re going to have to really stick to creek or river bottoms. Just like you’d know the ski or climbing conditions if you live in those areas, we know the desert conditions.

If you’ve got any kind of “water dog,” you’re going to need it for your dog all day. A lab or a retriever—they love water. Chihuahuas, maybe not so much. Genghis only swims when it’s hot, but any chocolate lab or golden retriever is in the water at any temperature.

What do you think Genghis Khan likes most about hiking out in the backcountry?

He’s a blue heeler, which is an Australian cattle dog. They’re a very loyal breed. He’s completely bonded to me. Other breeds can adopt a whole family, but he just wants to be with me, no matter what. Even if I’m packing the truck for a big trip, he’s out in the truck, waiting, because then he knows he won’t be left behind.

Then we just have to abide by the rules I mentioned earlier: Tent’s in the right place, I have all his food, he hikes all day, and then he sleeps until morning. He wants to be included, and that’s all that matters. The worst word in the world for him is “stay.”

But really, it’s not what we do together, it’s that we are together. He’s my copilot.

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