Toward the top of my list of things most dear to me are my dog and being on a hiking trail. I am certainly not alone in this. Thousands of people take to hiking trails every day with their dogs at their side, tackling everything from short local hikes to thru-hikes on the Appalachian Trail (with kennel detours for the dogs for the restricted areas). Companies like Ruffwear answer the call for durable gear for hiking and camping with dogs, there are programs match hikers with shelter dogs to get the dogs out of the kennel for some much-needed exercise and stimulation, and websites like DogTrekker provide details on dog-friendly trails. In short, hiking with your dog is a much-loved activity by many, and something people are emotionally attached to.
That emotional connection, as well as the desire to find local dog-friendly hikes and information about preparedness and gear, is something addressed by a gorgeous new photo-centric project by photographer Natalia Martinez of The Labs & Co. Her new project is called 365DogHikes, a website that brings together gear reviews, tips and training, and gorgeously photographed field notes.
In selecting hikes, Natalia takes a wonderful approach: she asks people to invite her and her rescue dog Willow along on their favorite trails, where they act as guide and tell her all about why they love hiking with their dog in this particular place. As she shadows the hikers, she documents each turn of the trail and joyful moment.
Natalia is both an inspiration to me on the professional front and a kindred spirit and dear friend on the personal front. When she began her project, I was more than eager to jump aboard and go on a hike or two with her and Willow. So at sunrise one spring morning, we met up at the start of a trail where we were greeted by a most fantastic pink sky filled with low thin clouds. While she photographed the hike for her project, I turned the camera and the interview around onto Natalia about everything from how approaches her photography to smart tips for the hiking trail.
JH: What do you get out of hiking with Willow? Tell me a little about when this became a routine and what it means to you to get outdoors with your dog.
NM: I think this really became a routine when we moved to the North Bay. Our lab, Corbin, (who was a lot younger then) really enjoyed it. Through my old job, we made a really good friend who introduced me to most of the trails I know and love today. And when Willow came home with us as a behavior foster, hiking became a safe and stimulating outlet for her energy, a great way to teach her to enjoy being a dog and begin to form a bond based on trust and fun.
As a fearful and shy 6-month-old puppy, she missed out on a lot of things. But through hiking and having fun with Corbin and other dog friends, she got to experience new things and be introduced gently to new people and places in a gradual and fun environment.
Corbin has since retired from hiking nowadays (he prefers the beach), and after we claimed our first “foster fail” badge with Willow, she has now become my ultimate hiking buddy and my muse.
The funny thing is, I was so focused on observing how happy hiking made my dogs, that I overlooked how much joy I got out of it. You know what John Muir said about going into the mountains and washing your spirit clean? That’s it. If I can’t get out there and hike often enough, I feel my body and mind take the toll. The same way some folks take to running, or yoga, or meditation… hiking is the same for me, and sometimes a combination of all three.
The act of hiking is one thing, but being able to share it with my favorite dog in the world takes it to a different level. Seeing Willow happy makes me happy, we feed off each other’s joy when we are out in the wilderness. We make each other feel safe, we play, we create photographs, we face uphill challenges and savor conquering new heights.
I can hike without her, but it is just not the same, and I just don’t want to.
What was the catalyst for this project? How did the idea get started and build into what is now 365doghikes?
During my hikes with Willow, I started taking pictures of her with my iPhone. The best camera is the one that is with you, right? We would also work on our training together, mainly “stay,” “perch” and “recall.” After a dear friend nicknamed Willow as “ Willow the Wild,” calling out her wolfish nature, I started thinking more about my composition.
She gave my iPhone pictures more life and personality with her insanely graceful body shape, wolfish yellow eyes and her dark coat turning her into a walking silhouette that would contrast nicely against most backgrounds. I started sharing these photos on Instagram under #willowthewild and it started to grow from there.
I believe personal projects to be crucial, to keep you inspired and in love with your work. I had been looking for a project for sometime, and I had done a daily or weekly project before, but it didn’t fulfill what I felt I needed. One of my biggest pitfalls is having a deadline. I found that deadlines took the joy out of personal work for me; they became work and I became disappointed in myself if I failed to log my project for the day or the week. So, not having a deadline would be important. Then it just grew out of combining a few of my favorite things: Willow, hiking, photography and writing.
I let my imagination run wild and thought about what my “Everest” would be. Imagine being able to photograph, log and write about 365 different dog-friendly trails… Imagine if it weren’t just me looking for these trails, but people who share that interest, photographing them and their dogs… Why not?
I toyed with making it a 52-week project, but I’d been there, done that and I did not want that deadline. With our work and schedule, not to mention travel and life in general, I wanted something I could find refuge in and just do when I was able to. 365 is just a good and whole number, so that would be it, 365 Dog Hikes. No deadline, just that many different trails and experiences.
Then I just had fun with it, creating a brand for it, a website that would engage people and added one more aspect to it: testing and reviewing gear. Might as well be productive right? Before I knew it, my little personal project started growing wings of its own.
It would not longer be just for me and Willow, but a great channel to network with like-minded people, for anyone out there who shares those passions, an educational resource, and shining a light on great gear made to enhance an active lifestyle with your dog and above it all, following my bliss: photographing what you love.
What is compelling to you about hiking with other people and their dogs?
Being a super introverted person, I am not readily inclined to be the social butterfly at parties, networking events, etc. I value genuine, one-on-one conversations over small-talk. I would rather listen than talk, and I would rather chat about things I am passionate about.
If my job has taught me one thing, is that I am not alone in those values and interests, and that has been the greatest and loveliest surprise. So I wanted more; I wanted to hike with friends I knew shared my love of dogs and hiking and I wanted to meet new people and dogs who were willing to share their favorite trail and their story.
I am fascinated by all those little things we have in common, regardless of where we live, what we believe in and what kind of dog we have. It is a sense of community and I wanted to create something that pays tribute to that, inspires others and highlights those things we have in common.
I love listening to people’s stories as we hike. Barriers come down and I am honored to be able to catch some of the feelings and moments we talk about in photographs.
And if Willow is along for the ride, she gets to meet new dog friends and new human friends; and any positive experience I can offer her with others is very important to me.
An introverted girl with her introverted dog making new friends through shared passions.
What do you look for when photographing the hike? How do you manage to capture the feeling of the hike as well as the views?
It’s a bit of a game of balance and multitasking. I listen and chat, and often answer questions, but I am also always paying attention to the light. That is my job: seeing light and how it interacts with my subjects, in this case the dogs, the trail and the person.
I try not to interrupt a story and I let things happen organically, just photographing moments as I see them; but if I see a perfect ray of light, or tree or landscape, I bring my subjects into it.
Paying attention to what my hiking partner is saying about what they love about this place opens my eyes to seeing it, looking for it and ultimately capturing it for them, for us. Every hike is different, and lighting can change the mood in a scene dramatically.
I do try to get one good portrait of the person with their dog. Most of the people I have hiked with have no reservations around being photographed in their favorite place with their dog. I think they know how important this photograph will be as time passes and life happens. We may move away, our beloved dogs become stars in the sky, we form new relationships, etc. But this moment is all it should be, and my photographs will hopefully remind them of what the wind felt like on their face, how cold or warm it was, what scents were in the air and so on.
The same things apply even when Willow and I are hiking on our own. She and I are together in discovering this trail, and she adds that little touch of life and action to any of my landscapes. And at the very least, I am creating those memories for me.
What are some of your most memorable hike moments, or particular photos that stand out in your mind?
Magic hour (whether near sunset or sunrise) is always a surprise I look forward to, especially when someone is not used to hiking at these hours and suddenly gets introduced to this beautiful light. Their trail all of a sudden looks very different and they get to enjoy it in a new way.
Like the hike we did with you and Niner - we knew it would be lovely, but I had never seen such a pink sunrise and I don’t know that I’ll ever see anything like it again! What are the odds of us being there for that moment?
I love it when I have met someone for the first time after corresponding via email, scheduling our hike, etc, and you just hit it off. And not only that, your dogs hit it off too. Such was the case when I met Alta and her pack of Cattle Dogs. We had a blast, but Willow and her little girl Leilani took the cake, hiking side by side, tugging and watching over each other.
And catching little moments - unexpected and ones that you would never be able to fake or choreograph - I have so many of those so far and they might be my favorite: Niner jumping on Bill’s back when he was tying his shoe, Nalu putting his arms around Alta causing her to crack up and laugh, Pancake and Willow getting a case of the zoomies… too many to name.
What are your goals for readers with this project?
At the very least, to find a good trail to try out with their dog, maybe one they have never tried before and were inspired to try it because they saw our photographs and read about our hike.
To inspire others to take up hiking safely and responsibly with their dogs. To write about our experience with gear and products that can help enhance your time outdoors. To create a deeper sense of community by highlighting what we have in common, and not what makes us different. To inspire readers or visitors to want to form a deeper understanding of their dogs and have fun together.
Any big goals down the road? Like a book or guides?
The idea of a book or a guide book once the 365 hikes are complete is very tempting. We’ll have to see. It will at least be a good body of work.
I would love to keep networking, and testing and reviewing more gear. I get a lot of requests to travel outside of CA to document more hikes and I would love to do that, but since it is a personal project at this point, sponsorship would be the only way I could do that unless I happen to be traveling in the area.
This project has also helped me hone down my dream client and my dream target market: outdoor, adventure, active lifestyle with dogs. It has started to open a few doors for us, which is amazing.
I would also like to eventually open the blogsite to other contributors, so that more dog-friendly trails can be logged and written about, making it a well-rounded resource for dog hikers everywhere.
What are some of the most important tips you have for people who want to enjoy hiking with their dog?
There are a couple of investments to take very seriously to make the most out of hiking with your dog: a good pair of shoes and a good set of skills for you and your dog.
Invest time and effort in your dog’s training by making it fun for both of you. Gain important trail skills such as a reliable recall, polite walking when on leash, an “easy” or “wait” command when going down a steep hill on leash, and moving off to the side to let others pass you by in peace.
Never take your dog’s (or your own) safety and comfort for granted. Bring water and snacks, always.
Please be kind to others, please.
Mind leash laws, not just for the sensitive wildlife and ecosystem, but for those who need space from other dogs and people, and for your fellow dog-hikers. As more and more areas become less welcoming to dogs, I feel it important for those of us who love enjoying these places together to lead by example. Willow is not a dog park dog, she is not a “walk-around-the-neighborhood” dog either. We need these peaceful places away from the crowded streets to decompress and reconnect, and I know there are many dogs out there with similar needs.
But always, always be kind, to yourself, to your dog, to others and to the trail you are enjoying.
It is my sincere hope that being responsible with our dogs will allow us to go more places together.
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I have a blog post coming soon covering this last topic, which will address the ways we impact wild flora and fauna on the hiking trail without even realizing it and how to be an ecologically aware hiker with our dogs by our sides. By being aware and responsible when hiking with our dogs, we can play a big role in keeping trails open to our four-legged companions. In fact, this is one aspect of the 365DogHikes project I love; Natalia takes the time to discuss the care and thought that goes into everything from safety to having a light footprint. These are just as important to a joyful hike as the weather and the light in your dog's eyes as they take in the wilderness around them.
But I think what I love most about Natalia's project is that you feel like you've gone on the hike alongside her just through her images. She captures the details, the mood, the feeling of the hike -- as I say often, her images have soul. So if you have an emotional connection to dogs and the outdoors, you're going to see it reflected and amplified in her photo-essay Field Notes from each hike. You will certainly be inspired to try the trails out yourself, just to experience the same beauty in person.