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Trail Running with Dogs - Tips and Tricks with Athlete Evan Birch

July 07, 2023
Trail Running with Dogs - Tips and Tricks with Athlete Evan Birch
Evan Birch and his dog, Nova

Sometimes the best trail running partners come with four legs and a happy tail. We met up with HydraPak Athlete and Trail Runner, Evan Birch and his dog, Nova to learn more about trail running with dogs.

As a competitive ultra-runner and mental health advocate based out of Alberta, Canada, Evan is no stranger to pushing himself on the trails and mountains during his training. He credits much of his success to Nova, his best trail running partner.

Meet Nova the Vizsla!

Nova is a 6 year old Hungarian Vizsla with a human trapped inside of her. The kind of human that makes a good pie and occasionally likes to run 50km + in a day. She is my running partner, unofficial therapy dog and the most amazing family dog you could ask for. Nova is no stranger to running, whether it is in the mountains, the single track or the pathways she is always up for an adventure. Having strapped an old GPS watch to her recently, I discovered that off-leash for every 5 km I run she runs 6. I also clocked her speed at over 30mp/h or 50 km/h. I may be biased, but I think she is the most incredible endurance dog around. 

Evan and Nova running
How did you and Nova start trail running?

I have always wanted a dog I could run with. As a long distance runner, I knew I needed a running partner that could keep up with me on the trail. I researched multiple different breeds of dogs and decided that a Hungarian Vizsla was exactly what I needed. 

Nova was introduced to the trails at 4 months old, we started off slow with small walks, hikes and eventually short jogs. It wasn’t until she was about a year old that we began our longer adventures, working our way up in distance as you would with any training program. After six years, we are inseparable on the trails, it is rare that I ever run without her. 

Tell us about some of your favorite adventure runs together.
We have had countless adventures during our time together, however, Rockwall Trail in September of 2021 was an incredible adventure that really sticks out. This high alpine trail in the Canadian Rockies is a 56km point to point trail that typically takes hikers 3-4 days to complete. Together, we ran that route in 9h56min with Nova stopping at high alpine lakes for swims and water. This was Nova’s first ultra distance effort after training with her for the better part of 3 years, it felt like all of that time and patience spent training with her came together that day.

This past June, we completed our first road/pathway marathon training day together while stopping for river dips along the way. We are next preparing for her next adventure at the Orcas Island 100 miler, as it is one of the very few ultra events that allows you to run with your dog. I truly don’t think she has reached her limits yet.

How do you keep your dog hydrated on trail runs?

Keeping Nova hydrated with HydraPak

Whenever I plan a trail run or long endurance effort I always plan my routes around areas where we can easily access water to filter with HydraPak’s 42MM Filter Cap and flask system. These lakes and streams are not only great for hydration but also for keeping cool on hot days as we are able to take a dip or swim. In the event that we can not access water I always carry 2 UltraFlasks 500mls and my 1.5L Velocity Bladder, either insulated or not depending on the weather. The bladder is primarily used for Nova as I trained her as a puppy on how to drink the light stream from the bite valve and tube. This little trick has been a lifesaver on high alpine runs where we have little access to water. There are many other hydration options such as a collapsible bowl or even a harness that has pockets where your dog can carry their own water. I have found my methods to be highly effective and allowed me to move with ease alongside Nova through any terrain while ensuring hydration is maintained for us both.

HydraPak products

Do you pack nutrition or snacks for Nova on longer runs?
There is a lot of conflicting information on this topic as a whole, such as time between feeding and runs, type of food, food during the run etc. Depending on our activities for the week or even the day I rarely increase or decrease food intake and I let her body tell me what she needs. If she is looking leaner than usual I may increase her food for a day or two and then go back to a usual feeding schedule. However dogs can last quite a long time without food although, I do bring treats with me on runs more for the training aspect and not as a meal replacement. There are also some serious considerations such as bloat or twisted stomach that can occur if a dog eats too close to a run or too soon after while gulping down excessive amounts of water. Consider educating yourself or talking to your veterinarian on the signs and symptoms of these conditions to be able to recognize them quickly in your adventure buddy.

What kind of supplies do you carry when trail running with your pup?
I have found over the years of running with Nova that there is an endless amount of options available to you when it comes to gear for your dogs. The basics I would suggest are a properly fitted harness (with or without pockets), hands-free leash, poop bags, first aid kit and a collapsible bowl. Living in the mountains means we are surrounded by wildlife so bear spray is something that is always with us. I have been considering carrying with me a dog rescue harness, which is essentially a sling that you place your dog into and you can carry them like a backpack using the straps. If you are an adventurer and routinely go longer, farther or higher I would recommend you consider one of these. Even with the added weight it could be a life saver for you and your dog should they get injured on the trail, or even if they are showing signs of exhaustion and the inability to continue the activity.

Evan and Nova

Is there anything else that is important for runners to know before starting to trail run with their dogs?
As someone who routinely runs in mountainous terrain. You should always consider the surface, terrain, distance and conditions before taking your dog on a run with you. There have been many times where I have decided to leave Nova behind due to less than ideal conditions and knowing that I could not guarantee her safety. Dogs are incredible creatures and they will do whatever we ask of them and more, even if it means hurting themselves in the process. Their number one priority is to please you. Only walking your dog during the week and then asking them to run 20km on the weekend is not sustainable and you are putting them at risk for injury and overexertion. No different than human training plans, you need to consider a plan for your dog and build them up to the distances you are wanting to cover with them. You need to have patience and an understanding with your dog as they are relying on you and you alone to have their best interest at heart when taking them on an adventure.

I recently came across the most beautiful word that describes the relationship between you and your dog. In Hawaiian you don’t call yourself your pet’s owner, you are their ‘Kahu’. Kahu has many meanings among them: guardian, protector, steward, caretaker and beloved attendant. Someone entrusted with the safekeeping of something precious. Something cherished. This is how I see the bond between Nova and I. I encourage you to expand your mind and your heart from being just an “owner”. Become the ‘Kahu’ in your dog’s life on every adventure you go on and every moment you share.

Thank you Evan! You can follow Evan's trail running adventures on his instagram - UltraBirch.