By Melissa Nelson

Bella and I have been hiking the trails in the Blue Hills Reservation often since August, and boy have we learned a lot since we started. One thing we learned is that preparation is the key to having a good time and avoiding trouble. Here’s how we prepare for our hikes.

1.   Know your dog

When going through puppy training with Bella, I soon learned that she is a forger, meaning she will almost always be trying to lead the way while on leash. She’s a muscular pup, so sometimes her pulling makes it uncomfortable to walk her. I’m never going fast enough! Our trainer recommended a special collar to help curb forging. It’s worked out great.

Bella trying to forget ahead along the wall bordering the Blue Hill Reservoir (the water is behind the weeds on the left).

I also wasn’t sure how she’d handle meeting people, dogs, and other animals on the trails. Once I learned that she’s a submissive dog and got her to respond to commands reliably, I knew we could hit the trails with confidence. If your dog tends to be aggressive toward other dogs or people, you may have to take extra steps to ensure a fun time on the trails. Talk with your trainer about it.

2.   Pack a bag

The first couple times Bella and I went hiking in the Blue Hills, I didn’t bring anything other than her leash and my phone. It was hot, and I quickly realized that wasn’t enough if we were going to be miles away from the car. Now I pack a string bag with:

  • Dog treats. If I accidentally drop the leash, I need a way to entice her back to me.
  • For an hour hike, I’ll pack just one water bottle. For longer hikes, I’ll pack more. I bring more during the dry summers than I do in winter when fresh water is running in the Blue Hills. Bella loves to drink from the streams we cross!

Bella loves drinking from streams that crisscross trails in the Blue Hills.

  • Collapsible water dish. Getting a dog to drink out of your hand wastes a lot of water. I got mine for a song at TJ Maxx.

Bella relies on her collapsible water bowl when streambeds are dry. This one came with a carabiner, so I can clip it to my belt loop or string bag.

  • Snack for myself. A granola bar, clementine, or other small snack is a good idea if you’re going to be out over lunch or for more than an hour or so.
  • Weather-specific gear. In the summer, this means sunscreen, sunglasses, and maybe a baseball hat. In the winter, it’s extra gloves and a hat for me, along with micro spikes for my boots if the ground is covered in snow or ice. For Bella, it’s a fleece jacket that she hates but will keep her warm if we’re out for a long time. She hasn’t worn boots yet (we’re not that hardcore), but if your dog has delicate paws, you may want to consider them.

Bella trying on her new fleece jacket and romping around the yard trying to shake it off!

  • There was one hike this fall right after we’d set the clocks back where we crested Buck Hill and realized the sun was setting (an hour earlier than it “should’ have). We still had at least a mile to go to get down and get to the car. I had my phone and its crazy-bright flashlight but had no idea if it would last long enough to get us out of there. I now bring a backup and am now considering buying a headlamp.
  • Small first-aid kit. Honestly, there’s not much in it except Band-Aids and Neosporin. I think I started this habit when we first began adding on the miles and I was still wearing sneakers. I was so worried about blisters!

3.   Bring a trail map—or two

For our first few hikes, I would just look up the trail map webpage on my smartphone when we came to an unfamiliar intersection (which was pretty much all of them). Then there was the hike in the Chickatawbut area where my battery died, and I had to wing it. Since then, I bring a printed map and reference a downloaded map PDF that I can pull up on my phone without using data. If it rains, I’m in trouble because my map was printed on an inkjet printer. Laminating a copy is now on my to-do list.

4.   Check the weather

This one’s so easy. If you have a weather app on your phone, just set Milton or one of the other Blue Hills towns as your location, and you can see at a glance what kind of weather may be coming your way. I’m mostly concerned about temperatures, so I know how many layers to put on, but knowing ahead of time about potential rain or snow showers will help you be prepared on the trail.

5.   Tell someone

I always tell someone at home when I’m heading out and approximately how long I’ll be gone. Having my cell phone handy is reassuring in case I twist an ankle, but what if your battery dies? It’s better to be safe than on the news.

6.   Wear the right gear

My advice around gear really comes down to dressing for the weather—wear layers and focus on fleece! Footwear is key, too. I hiked for most of the summer in running shoes and could feel every pebble underfoot. It was annoying and uncomfortable after more than a couple miles. I eventually invested in a pair of midpriced hiking boots that were recommended online. I watched for sales and coupons and picked them up at a local store for a lot less than retail. It’s the best investment I could have made.

My Columbia hiking boots have proven themselves to be a smart investment.

For more on hiking with Bella in the Blue Hills and beyond, check out Bella’s blog.

And to learn more about where to take your dog, download our free guide to hiking in the Blue Hills!