If you are a dog owner, and you enjoy hiking or backpacking, it’s only logical that you’ll find yourself wanting to take your dog along with you. After all, why leave man’s best friend alone at home — or a kennel — when they’ll probably enjoy your trip as much as you will? Hiking and backpacking with dogs can be highly rewarding, but there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind before you head out.
Is your dog fit enough for the planned hike? Are they obedient and well-socialized enough to make a good trail dog? Will the weather be too hot? Have they had all of their vaccines? What kinds of dog hiking gear will you need?
Before we get started, make sure you know the rules of the area you’re heading to. For example, most national parks (including Great Smoky Mountains National Park) do not allow dogs on the trails, whereas nearly all National Forests and BLM areas do. That said, there are surely great dog-friendly hikes in your area.
Here are our tips for hiking and backpacking with your furry friend.
Know the hazards
This can be tricky, especially if you’re going somewhere you’ve never hiked before, but certain obstacles may dictate that you go elsewhere or simply leave the dog at home. A moderate, knee-deep creek crossing for a human may be a significant swim for a dog, and dangerous if the dog isn’t a strong swimmer. Boulder-hopping and scrambling may be far more difficult (or scary) for your canine companion, especially if you have a smaller breed. You probably don’t need to try and camp in a fire tower.
For example, in places with especially rocky or technical terrain, you may find yourself having to pick your dog up to help him over obstacles. For some dogs this could be no problem, but might a bigger issue if your dog is very large or doesn’t like to be carried. Many dogs are wary of bridges, especially ones that aren’t solid, so this is something to keep in mind when selecting a trail. These sorts of thing can be dangerous, frustrating and time consuming, putting both you and your pet at unnecessary risk. (Left: Roo doesn’t love swinging bridges, but after lots of practice she manages pretty well.)
Don’t forget to consider your dog’s overall fitness level when assessing where to go. Your dog may be fine on beginner-level hikes, but unsuitable for peak-bagging trips that charge straight up a mountainside. Be honest about your dog’s abilities, then do your homework and make sure you’re headed somewhere that is within those abilities.
So, if you’re actually taking your dog on an overnight trip, you need to think about shelter. You can certainly put a dog, especially smaller dogs, inside your tent, although it’s worth considering that outside dogs are somehow always wet and covered in mud and sand. You definitely don’t want your dog getting your down sleeping bag and spare clothing all wet! You can’t really just leave them outside in the elements, though! Dogs get cold just like people do, and many get nervous to be separated in an unfamiliar place.
Often, the best solution has been a tent with a large add-on vestibule like the MSR Hubba Hubba “Gear Shed” or the Nemo “Losi Garage.” This way, the dog(s) are separate from the main sleeping compartment, but they’re still contained within a tent structure to protect them from the elements (and from wandering off in the night). Another option is using any backpacking tent with a large vestibule if you’d like to keep the dog outside the tent body.
It’s also a good idea to have a small (3/4 length) foam sleeping pad for your dog to use, which keeps them insulated from the cold ground. You CAN take dogs on overnight trips in cold weather, but at that point you’ll need to consider either putting your dog in your own sleeping bag or bringing some kind of sleeping bag for the dog to use. Youth-size sleeping bags work well for this purpose, and synthetic is better than down since your dog will probably be wet. (Left: Roo snuggled in a puffy camping blanket [like the Kelty Bestie Blanket] on a chilly night at camp.)
Dogs are pretty terrible at keeping themselves dry, so you’ll need to take extra care that your pooch stays warm through the night.
Have a leash ready
Beyond the fact that many hiking areas require dogs to be leashed, you need to be able to control your dog around other hikers, other dogs or wild animals. Some dogs are great trail dogs off-leash, some are not. This goes hand-in-hand with how obedient the dog is, and if your dog isn’t very obedient you may not want to take him or her hiking in the first place.
Even if you’re not going to keep your dog on a leash for the majority of the trip, though, you have to have one at the ready. This goes beyond simply making sure your dog is controlled when you encounter other hikers — some of whom may also have dogs along, and some of whose dogs may not be well-behaved even if yours is. (Left: A leash was definitely necessary in this well-traveled canyon in Grand Staircase Escalante.)
Carry plenty of snacks
This is going to vary pretty widely by dog, as some dogs don’t like to eat very much while they’re on the move. That said, your dog is burning a lot more calories on an all-day hike than he does on a regular day, just like you, except you can’t sit the dog down and explain the consequences of bonking on a big trip. Because of this, it’s good to bring a variety of snacks along. Even if your dog isn’t interested in his dog food, he probably won’t say no to his favorite treat. Feed them often, far more often than you would normally. This will mean taking some extra breaks for food and water, which brings me to our next point.
Don’t overwork your dog
Dogs can develop heat stroke very easily, so don’t bring yours along at all if it’s going to be super hot out. Unfortunately, dogs don’t really have a way of telling you if it’s too hot, and their instincts tell them to follow you until it’s too late. Take more breaks when hiking with dogs in hot weather, especially near water, and pay close attention to make sure Fido isn’t struggling to keep up.
And speaking of not overworking your dog…
The general thinking is that, while small dogs shouldn’t carry much, most mid-sized (or larger) breeds can safely carry about 25% of their body weight in a pack. This presumes the dog is healthy, and relatively young. Weigh the pack, and the dog, if you’re not sure. Don’t make them carry heavy loads, but absolutely let them carry their own dog food and snacks, along with collapsible bowls. This also makes it easier to find those items when necessary instead of having to remove your own pack and dig through it.
Some dogs even seem to behave slightly better with a pack on. Many working breeds like to have a task to do, after all, and by putting a pack on them they feel like they’re in charge of a task. Some dogs won’t like it, some will.
It’s also important that you have your dog try on different packs, perhaps from different brands. One dog may be a great fit for a Ruffwear Approach pack, while another fits better in a Mountainsmith Dog Pack than anything else. Fit is important, as dogs vary widely in torso length and girth. What fits a dog who is barrel-shaped and wiggles when he walks is very different than what fits a dog who is rail-thin and lanky.
Don’t skimp here; dogs are goobers and do things like bash their way through rhododendron thickets and scrape their packs along rocks, and if you bought lower-quality packs there will soon be nothing remaining but shreds of fabric. Some packs include useful features like waterproof pockets, or saddlebags that can be removed entirely for short swims or creek crossings.
Leave no Trace
This is an important one. Your dog is not a wild animal, it’s a dog, and you need to either bury its waste (just like your own) or bag it and carry it out. We have all stepped in dog poop on a popular trail or ridden through it on our mountain bike and know how aggravating it is. (Left: Nowhere to bury dog poop in a place like this means packing it out.)
Other gear essentials for hiking with dogs
It’s useful to carry collapsible bowls for their food and water. Of course, dogs will drink from streams and rivers, but sometimes a bowl is necessary if your dog needs to drink from your own water supply during dry stretches. In some parts of the country, it’s also wise to have your dog(s) wear a bear bell around their collar.
Don’t forget poop bags, and extra first aid gear in case the dog has an issue. For snowy or cold hikes, some pets may benefit from a dog jacket or dog boots. This goes back to knowing where you are headed, your dog’s abilities and what hazards you might face. Be prepared!