Hiking With Dogs: Guide to Hiking & Backpacking with Your Best Friend

hiking with dogs
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Hiking is a great way of getting closer to nature and being physically active. Although dogs can be great hiking buddies, they need more care than usual on the trail. There are a number of reasons that can make hiking with dogs a rewarding experience, but you also need to consider the extra responsibilities that come with it.

We have already covered general hiking etiquette in detail in a dedicated post. This post covers how to prepare and take care of your dog, things to consider and basic rules related to hitting the trails with a dog. It’s usually dogs that slow down first, so hikers have to strike the right balance between safety, comfort and letting them do what they like.

Preparation

You need to make sure to only take your dog to a trail when he’s ready for it. Exploring nature can be a bonding experience and great fun with a dog, but you need to plan well ahead. Failing to plan well can turn an enjoyable trip into a costly mistake that can abruptly or in some cases tragically end the trip.

The first thing you should do is to visit a vet and ask these three key questions:

  • Is there any need for a preventive medicine or some vaccination that the dog might need out in the wild?
  • Is the dog physically fit enough for longer hiking trips?
  • Is the immune system ready to tackle the outdoors?

The dog must be mentally and physically fit for hiking and there are a number of things you can do to prepare him for your next adventure.

Start with Small and Easy Practice Hikes

A series of short and easy hikes or walks can help your dog work its way up and build up to longer hikes. Monitor dog’s response on flat surfaces and increase the difficulty/distance if the dog still has some energy left after an hour of walk (on a smooth surface). Build up stamina slowly and see how far your dog can go.

Dog’s feet need to be prepared for the challenge. Practice hikes not only help in this regard, but also toughen up paws and condition him for long hikes.

For some trails dog booties are recommended, initially, most dogs find it difficult to walk in booties, so give them some time to adjust and let them practice well before the hike. The nails also have to be trimmed before the trip so that your dog does not end up hurting itself or ripping the tent floor.

hiker with his dog on the trail

Health and Fitness Level

Hiking requires more effort and energy than walking, especially in a hot and humid climate and on uneven terrains. A dog that casually walks around the block might not be able to complete a 10-mile hike. Hikers need to be honest and realistic when making an assessment about the fitness level of their dog.

A dog that is not fit enough for all-day exercise should also not be going with you on long hikes. Hiking and backpacking requires a certain level of physical fitness, stamina, strength and ability to endure fluctuations in temperature. Some breeds such as brachycephalic breeds (short-muzzled) are not well equipped to deal with the heat and lack the endurance needed to hit the trails.

In fact, it can be dangerous to take some of these breeds for a long hike because of their narrowed nares and shortened muzzles. Exercise-intolerance and higher probability of heat stroke means it’s best not to take these breeds on a long hike.

Behavior

Dogs need some extra training when it comes to walking on trails, especially for multi-day hikes. The rules of the game are different from everyday life. Dogs have to be trained to respect the space of others, which also applies to trails. You also need to keep in mind that not everyone likes and wants to share the trail with dogs, since some people are afraid of them. Some uncontrolled dogs can even result in dogs getting completely banned from the trail.

You have an extra responsibility of training your dog the trail ABCs i.e. appropriate behavior, basis repertoire and control of dog impulses. Although your dog might not respond positively to the ‘down’ command when it’s very excited, it has to be trained enough to respond to words like ‘off’ and not jumping on people in such situations. For situations that can excite a dog, you can train your dog to touch all its four paws with the ground with an ‘off’ command.

Similarly, a dog can be trained to remain in an open vehicle through commands such as ‘wait’ or ‘stay’ until it has been leashed. Train your dog to sit-and-stay when stepping outside the home, coming inside or before a treat, which is essentially impulse control training.

Obedience Training

You need to keep your dog under control even if you are allowed to unleash it on the trail. You need to train your dog to keep within a certain radius in which it can hear you and remains within your sight. Dogs need a refresher even if they are already trained because of the excitement of new smells, settings and sounds and get them pumped up. A dog should remember the basic commands, including stay, sit and heel. You can also use a whistle to reinforce recall training.

Training for the Trail

Self-training a dog is the most cost-effective way, while it also allows you to control the training schedule. There is no shortage of books (Dog Training Revolution), videos and online resources that can teach you how to train a dog. However, novice owners might find it difficult to properly train a dog just by reading a book. In fact, it is likely that they’d end up creating some bad habits and confuse/stress the dog.

Inexperienced dog owners can get better results by attending dog classes in a group environment e.g. animal shelters, pet supply stores and kennel clubs where a dog can learn the basic obedience training. This also provides you with an opportunity to unleash the dog and let it freely walk for some time.

A qualified instructor can help you read and mold a dog’s behavior and give clear and positive messages or commands. Reward-based training has proven to work better than the dominating-master style training.

Consistent training is another important factor that leads to predictable behavior. ‘NO’ should always mean ‘NO’ whether the dog is at home or on the trail. Reward the dog when it responds positively to your commands and avoid using its name just to give him a reprimand. The word ‘come’ and dog’s name should only be associated with positive experiences. Other key areas where you need to focus include:

  • Good recall
  • Immediate heel
  • Should not pull on the leash
  • No lunging on other animals or people when on leash
  • No chasing of runners, bikers, horses and other animals when not on leash
  • No excessive barking
  • Should keep quiet and calm when the owner is meeting/talking to someone
  • Should not sniff people passing by or other animals
  • Should not dig holes when you are taking a break or pictures

two hikers and brown dog hiking on mountain under blue sky during daytime

Potty Training and Dealing with Poop

Your dog needs to be trained and conditioned to relieve on your command when leashed. Short commands such as ‘get busy’, ‘go potty’ or ‘hurry up’ work better because an overzealous tone might cause distraction. Being out in the wild does not mean your dog can poop just about anywhere, especially on the trail.

There are a number of reasons why your dog should not poop in the open. In addition to the obvious reasons, dogs pooping anywhere is disruptive to the native fauna and can disturb territorial claims of the native species. This causes them distress as they communicate through scent.

If the dog is well-trained, you can dig a wide and at least an 8-inch deep hole where it can relieve after which you can cover the hole. If your dog cannot do that, you have to bring bags for collecting poop. You can either pack it in/out or collect it and bury (without the bag) in at least an 8-inch deep hole.

You also need to be careful when dumping the poop and make sure to bury it at least 200-feet away from water sources, camping sites and walkaways. Hikers should avoid leaving bags filled with poop on the trail even if the bags are biodegradable. Other animals will stumble onto the bag and create a nasty mess on the trail in no time.

Biodegradable bags require perfect conditions to decompose, which can take a long time. Many hikers argue that they’ll start carrying dog poop when equestrians start doing the same, but it remains your own responsibility to Leave No Trace. Some trails require you to carry out dog’s refuse.

Consider the Breed

All dogs are not created equal, so be realistic and avoid risking their safety and health if they are not ready for a big challenge like thru-hiking. A dog will do its level best to keep up with you, but some breeds are not capable of hiking for extended periods of time, including puppies (less than one year) or old dogs (10 years or more).

Physically fit, well-trained dogs that weigh over 40 lbs. are generally considered to be fit for hitting the trail. Although many breeds of small dogs can also hike, they have to take a lot more steps to cover the same distance and might not be able to stretch up/down a rock as far as larger dogs can (you’ll have to lift them yourself).

Taking your dog on a hike is a judgment call and mainly depends on the length and difficulty of the trail. Some examples of dog breeds that love outdoor adventures and can be a great hiking companion include:

  1. Siberian Husky (high endurance, alert and gentle)
  2. Australian Shepherd (adventurous, intelligent and agile)
  3. German Shorthaired Pointer (the hunter dog, social and obedient)
  4. Vizsla (athletic, energetic and friendly)
  5. Australian Cattle Dog (full of energy, agile and obedient)
  6. Weimaraner (loyal, fun-loving and affectionate)
  7. Bernese Mountain Dog (powerful, active and gentle)
  8. Rhodesian Ridgeback (active, like exercising)
  9. Portuguese Water Dog (hard working, adventurous and affectionate)
  10. Rhodesian Ridgeback (rugged, strong and agile)
  11. Norwegian Elkhound (strong-willed, intelligent, created for snowy adventures)
  12. Old English Sheepdog (feel right at home in the forest)
  13. Corgi (energetic and playful)
  14. Great Pyrenees (stubborn, yet gentle wilderness companions)
  15. Dalmatian (energetic firehouse dogs)
  16. Chow Chow (mid-sized dogs, need some good upbringing to like the outdoors)
  17. Alaskan Malamute (muscular, strong and have endurance, created for snowy adventures)
  18. Samoyed (used to pull heavy loads in its native lands)
  19. Keeshond (playful, agile)
  20. Bluetick Coonhound (raccoon hunters, athletic, intelligent)

Local Regulations

Hikers have to be well versed with local trail regulations and should only hike with a dog where they are permitted to. Some national parks in the US don’t allow sharing the trail even with a leashed dog, while many local and state parks and national forests conditionally allow dogs. Almost all the trails require you to keep your dog leashed, but in places where you don’t have to, they must be in your line of sight and under control all the time.

The National Park’s B.A.R.K rule sums it up pretty nicely and stands for:

B = Bag the waste of your dog

A = Always keep the dog leashed

R = Respect the wildlife and natural flora and fauna

K = Know where you are allowed to go with your dog and under what conditions

Tips for Hiking with Old Dogs

If you must take your old dog on a hike, you need to take care of a few things. These include making sure the dog is not suffering from arthritis, which is common in older dogs. Symptoms include difficulty trying to rise up from a sitting position and soreness after exercising. When hiking with old dogs, let them dictate the pace, give them some time to catch their breath and plan hikes on trails that have a lot of water sources.

It’s also recommended to pick shorter and more gradual hikes, which can save you from a lot of trouble if you have to carry your dog back for some reason. When hiking in a group with your old dog, let other hikers go ahead, so you don’t slow them down because of your hiking buddy.

Depending on the health and fitness level of your old dog, you might have to avoid hiking in the midday heat, which is something that makes long hikes even more difficult. Dogs, especially the ones with a heavy coat are more prone to extreme temperatures, so it’s recommended to hike in the morning/evening when it’s cooler outside.

Less weight on an old dog means (including dog’s own weight) less stress on the joints and a happier hike. Give your old companion some recovery time between hikes, and in some cases he might need an extra day or night before he is fully ready to move on. That’s why you need to plan ahead of time and be willing to spend an extra night or two in the wilderness.

It’s better not to bring an old dog suffering from arthritis to hiking, but if you must, make sure to time the treatment well before the journey. When hiking with an old dog you have to plan your trips around it. Although hiking is a great way of keeping a dog physically active, you also need to consider the implications.

hikers hiking with dog on trail

Common Threats/Dangers to Consider

A lot of things can go wrong when you bring a dog accustomed to an urban environment into the wild. Just because it’s an animal does not mean it knows how to survive in the wild. Being responsible for their dogs, hikers need to consider some common threats and dangers including:

  • Wild creatures and predators such as snakes, scorpions, coyotes and ticks
  • Your dog should stay away from stagnant water, which might be contaminated with pathogens. Having a sick dog is the last thing you’d want in the middle of a trail. It’s better not to let the dog drink from water sources that other cattle also share
  • Plants such as poison ivy and oak, certain mushrooms, sumac and hemlock can be fatal. You should always keep your dog in sight and stop it from grazing near plants you are not sure about
  • Burrs and thorns are irritating, but not as serious as foxtails found on different varieties of grass in summer/spring. Avoid areas that have such variety of grass and remove foxtails with tweezers as soon as you spot them
  • Consider extreme weather conditions such as dehydration, heat exposure, freezing temperatures, slippery ice and snow. You’d have to carry extra water when traveling through areas with very few water sources
  • Dogs can get excited in new places and all that excitement can cause overexertion and exhaustion. You might have to camp early if your dog does not show signs of recovery after a break, and keep its heart and breathing rate in check.
  • Rough terrain and sharp rocks can cut or scrape the paws with limping being a clear sign of an injury. Booties can help minimize the risk of paw injury, so depending on the terrain, pack booties (preferably with spares)
  • You can help your dog with a dog backpack with handle or a harness to help it climb unstable or steep terrain
  • Avoid cliffs when hiking with a dog and don’t let it walk unstable terrain and steep trails all by itself. A dog is not likely to jump off a cliff intentionally, but bad things can happen when he’s too excited
  • Avoid trails that require you to climb with ladders. A dog cannot find an alternative route on a ladder, so you’ll have to carry your dog if you have to climb a ladder
  • Dogs have a harder time in hot temperatures because they don’t sweat, so avoid long hikes when it’s hot outside and keep plenty of water
  • Pack a dog PFD like the Outward life jacket (Personal Flotation Device) if your dog cannot swim well and you plan on hiking on a trail with water sections such as stream crossings. It’s better to carry your dog instead of letting them cross large water bodies or rivers by themselves. Cold water can also chill a dog and lead to issues.

Dog’s Hiking and Backpacking Checklist

Food and Water

  • The amount of food a dog needs depends on a variety of factors, but in addition to what a dog eats in routine, carry an additional cup of food per 20 lbs. of your dog’s weight per meal, which is around 30% extra
  • Carry protein-rich dry food like Blue Buffalo dry dog food with adequate fat levels, which can be up to 50% depending on the fitness level, terrain and hiking difficulty
  • Feed your dog in small servings throughout the day
  • Your own thirst is a good indicator of when your dogs need to drink water
  • Depending on the temperature and hike difficulty, you may have to rehydrate every 15-20 minutes
  • For reference, large dogs can drink 0.5-1 ounce/pound of water each day, while smaller dogs (up to 20 lbs.) will need around 1.5 ounce/pound each day. On average, a dog needs around 0.5 gallon per day.
  • You may have to carry more water when traveling on trails with very few water sources
  • Bring a collapsible water bowl that takes less space
  • If you have no other option, you can also boil water for at least a minute to kill most of the pathogens or use water purification pills

First Aid Kit

Hikers should carry at least a basic first aid kit. Most of the items of a regular first aid kit will also work for dogs, but you might want to consider adding items such as a bottle of Tecnu in case your dog runs into poison ivy or oak. Items to prevent heat stroke and hyperthermia include alcohol pads, a bandana or a cooling collar (can be applied wet to the neck). You might also want to have a look at our wilderness first aid guide to learn more.

Important items to consider including in a first aid kit when traveling with a dog include:

First-Aid Kit

Doggie Backpack/ Canine Backpack

Ask your vet if your dog is able to handle a dog pack because not all dogs can. Availability of a lot of options can make the buying decision difficult, so you have to consider your own requirements to pick the right product.

A dog pack enables the dog to carry at least some of its own gear, like water and food, but make sure that the dog backpack fits properly and is evenly balanced. Measure circumference of the chest around the widest part and match it with the corresponding measurement of the dog pack.

Let the dog wear the empty pack around the house and on walks and add some weight when it becomes a routine. Increase the weight gradually until the dog is comfortable with the target weight (20%-25% of the weight of the dog is the recommended maximum).

Most quality dog packs come with a built-in handle and it’s recommended to invest in one such as the Kurgo Dog Saddlebag if you plan on frequently hiking with a dog. The total weight of a dog pack should not be more than one quarter of the dog’s own weight, so it’s a good idea to weigh the pack before hitting the trail.

The harness should be adjusted such that it’s snug without being chafe and if the pack has the option, first remove the saddlebags. Both sides of the pack should weigh equally and be well balanced. Some packs have a built-in hydration bladder, allowing you to load water directly instead of a bottle, but you can also buy one like this separately.

Although dog packs are available as saddlebags and carrier bags, most of them are saddlebags, which helps distribute the weight evenly. Some dog packs look like a regular daypack, but these are actually meant to carry them and not for dogs to wear.

It’s important to buy the right size, so make sure to get one that fits perfectly and does not rubs/slips off your furry friend. Another thing is to consider is that manufacturers usually have different sizes, so check the specifications and instructions provided by the manufacturer. In case your dog is falling in-between two different sizes, pick the larger size because it’s easier to adjust a pack than to squeeze a dog into it.

Sleeping Pad/Blanket

Most dogs living in urban environments are not used to sleeping on hard/cold ground. You’ll also have to carry a sleeping pad and a blanket or a sleeping bag if you don’t plan on sleeping with your dog. A Dog-sized lightweight mat is easy to carry and lightweight. Depending on the temperature, you might also want to bring a dog-sized sleeping bag, but a feather blanket/fleece/wool will also work.

Other important items to consider include:

  • Booties or socks to protect the paws. It’s recommended to bring spares, especially on long/difficult hikes
  • You can also make a bootie using spare socks and duct tape to protect the paws
  • Poop bags or a small trowel to properly dispose of poop
  • A harness with a handle or a short leash (up to 6 feet / adjustable leash up to 10 feet)
  • A spare rope to tie your dog to a fixed object such as a tree
  • A towel to thoroughly clean/dry the dog, especially before entering the tent
  • A dog comb or brush
  • A glow-stick or a small flashlight that you can attach to dog’s collar, which makes tracking the dog easier at night
  • A collar with a tag on which you can write important information such as phone number, license information, rabies tag and the name

What are the Best Places to Hike with a Dog?

Hikers who want to hike with a dog that is capable of hiking need to carefully pick the trails. Dogs are allowed on some trails, while some trails require you to always keep a dog leashed. It’s recommended to look for trails that are easy-on-paws and have plenty of shade. Here is a good place to start to find some dog friendly trails.

National parks have strict rules when it comes to dogs and many do not allow them on trails. State parks are usually more lenient, but require hikers to keep them leashed on a 6-foot leash. Hikers need to do their research before the hike to avoid disappointment later on. There are plenty of sites that can help you find dog-friendly trails and more information including the difficulty level and other recommendations.

dog crossing a stream in the mountains

Dealing with Emergency Situations

Keep the contact information of the emergency vet nearest to the trail and consider purchasing pet insurance if you plan on frequently hiking with a dog. Avoid giving dogs ibuprofen because it can have serious and sometimes fatal side effects. Learn more in our article about essential wilderness survival skills.

Snake bites: Use antihistamine such as Benadryl until you reach the vet

The dog eats something poisonous: Always keep the dog in direct sight and immediately take it to a vet if he’s vomiting/gagging. It’s easier for the vet to treat your dog if you know what it ate. Although rarely, dogs with a thin coat can get a rash and transfer it to you, which is why it’s a good idea to keep Tecnu.

Ticks: Keep a tweezer, plug the entire tick out and clean the area with an antibiotic ointment or antiseptic. If you have a container, store the tick and get it tested later for diseases such as Lyme. Avoid digging into the skin (if it’s difficult to take the tick out) and use of unclean instruments.

Signs of exhaustion: Dehydration, rapid panting, drooling, sudden unresponsiveness, trouble focusing, stalling are all clear signs that you should stop and take a break otherwise, it can be fatal for your dog.

Trail Etiquette When Hiking with Dogs

You need to take special care when hiking with dogs and keep the safety and well-being of others in mind. Being an ambassador of everyone who likes to hike with his/her dog, hikers need to be extra careful to avoid an expensive dog rescue and more hatred from outspoken dog-haters.

  • One-dog-per-person, it’s very difficult to control two or more dogs, especially when hiking
  • When traveling in a group, it’s recommended to never bring more than two dogs
  • A full pack of dogs can negatively impact the environment and intimidate other hikers
  • Feed your dog well and keep it hydrated, so it does not have to beg from others
  • Bring well-trained dogs that you can keep under control
  • Only bring dogs or other pets on trails on which it is permissible to do so
  • Dogs can bite other animals and even humans, so don’t let them run free on the trail. Keep dogs on leash when on the trail and maintain a safe distance when passing by other hikers and animals such as horses
  • Avoid over-feeding your dog when on the trail, which can cause bloating. Keep plenty of water and feed them with small treats such as Nudges Grillers and power bars such as these
  • Always keep a signaling whistle so you don’t have to yell loudly in the middle of the forest
  • Yield to horses and other hikers. Command your dog to keep sitting until others have passed
  • Many people are afraid of dogs, so communicate proactively and let them know that they don’t need to worry when passing by
  • Follow the leave-no-trace rule as covered in the training section
  • Train your dog not to stray off the trail, play in water and go near the natural flora and fauna

Conclusion

There are a lot of things to consider when hiking or backpacking with a dog, including its health and fitness level, mental fitness, obedience, socializing and ability to tolerate the climate/distance/difficulty. It’s best not to bring a dog when it’s hot or at least avoid long hikes, as dogs can’t sweat like humans do and are more prone to overheating.

Moreover, only take your dog on hiking if you know how to take care of him on the trail. In addition to physical fitness, you also need to prepare him mentally for the challenge.  Always keep your dog on-leash in popular/crowded areas and make sure to keep him under control and in direct sight all the time.


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