Some of the best hiking companions have four legs. Dogs and backpacking can go together like peas and carrots—assuming you take some steps to assure both you and your furry friend are prepared for the backcountry. Before your pup sets paw on a trail, ask yourself if they’re really a good candidate for spending a […]
Some of the best hiking companions have four legs. Dogs and backpacking can go together like peas and carrots—assuming you take some steps to assure both you and your furry friend are prepared for the backcountry. Before your pup sets paw on a trail, ask yourself if they’re really a good candidate for spending a night outside. Are they well-behaved and physically fit enough for the trip? Consider how your dog might affect other campers’ experiences. Read this article on how to get started backpacking with your dog and what gear to bring.
Once you’ve decided that your canine companion is ready, follow these tips to help ensure both you and they enjoy a lifetime of excursions under the stars.
Make sure your pup is allowed to be on the trail you’re interested in. Dogs aren’t allowed in national parks (unless they’re certified service animals), and regulations vary in state parks. Check out this article for more info.
Make sure to keep your dog leashed on trail. Not only will you be complying with regulations, you’ll be making other hikers happy. Not everyone is an animal person (some people, particularly kids, have a fear of dogs), and some dogs don’t do well being approached by an off-leash dog.
Just because your dog can rip around the house or walk around the neighborhood for an hour doesn’t mean they’re ready for serious mileage. Animals need to work up to distance and elevation just like people do, so take your pet on some training walks and day hikes before trying to tackle anything too strenuous. Dogs also won’t tell you that they’re exhausted until it’s possibly too late, so pay close attention to their breathing and behavior when you’re out, particularly in the heat. Look for excessive panting or drooling, glazed eyes or lethargy.
Fido might have perfect recall in your backyard, but that doesn’t guarantee he’ll listen when a deer dashes by on the trail. Make sure you know how your dog will respond to commands in a variety of environments.
Sleeping in a tent might be old hat for you, but to your dog it’s a potentially scary, flappy thing that she has no interest in being around. Expose her to the gear she’ll be sleeping in, wearing or carrying before you hit the trail. Set up your tent in the yard or your living room and let your dog go inside at her pace. Let her wear her dog pack inside for a few minutes inside and treat her, then progress to wearing it on regular walks at least a few times before going out for real. Dogs should only carry about 10 percent of their body weight, so make sure you’re not overloading the pack.
Leave the super-ultralight gear at home—trust us on this one. Your gossamer tent might be great on a solo trip, but Sparky’s foot is going to go right through it. Same for delicate blow-up pads. Protect your tent floor from their claws by bringing two tent footprints. Put one underneath as usual, and put the other one inside your tent. Taking a larger tent than normal is also a good idea, as sleeping dogs seem to take up twice the space they should.
Some trail surfaces, like lava rock or shale, are too rough or get too hot for a dog’s unprotected pads. Dog booties are a challenge for most pups to get used to, so plan for a long adjustment period before heading to terrain where they’re necessary. Patience and treats are key. Musher’s Secret, a protective pad cream, can also help.
If your dog is uncertain about your fellow hikers, particularly when they’re wearing big packs on their backs, bring extra tasty treats. If people are willing, have them give a treat to your pup to show them that there’s nothing to fear.
Per Leave No Trace principles, dog waste should either be packed out in poop bags or buried in cat holes (oh, the irony) just like human waste. Don’t leave poop bags along the trail planning to pick them up later. They’re an eyesore for other hikers and the odds are they will be forgotten.
Bring an extra camp towel to wipe down muddy paws and bellies. If your dog has a longer coat, small scissors and a brush will help deal with trail debris. Always check between pads for thorns and irritating sticky stuff.
Wild animals aren’t the only critters that are interested in your food. Your tasty trail snacks are just as appealing to your pup as they are to you. Make sure to keep food in a place where your hungry canine can’t help herself to a feast.
Most dogs instinctively explore their surroundings when they sense you’re staying put for the night. Make sure they don’t wander far by rigging up a cable line—this allows them to have some space to roam without leaving camp. Tie a static line to two trees and use a carabiner to connect your dog’s leash.
You don’t want to sleep on the hard ground after a long day on trail, and neither does your dog. Old foam sleeping pads cut to size make great camp dog beds, and serve the extra purpose of protecting your tent floor from your pup’s feet. Bringing something that smells like home, like a small blanket or a stuffed toy, can also help your dog feel more comfortable.
Pack a first-aid kit tailored to your canine companion. Many things work for both people and pups, like gauze or tweezers to remove ticks. But you should also pack items like super glue to patch torn pads, EMT gel that seals wounds and promotes healing, vet wrap, a dog-safe antihistamine in case they get stung by something, and Gas-X for bloat (particularly important for barrel-chested dogs). Always check with your vet about dosage, and if you want you can ask about canine-specific pain meds.
Want even more tips for backpacking with dogs? We've got ’em.