Many of us are both dog owners and outdoor lovers, and being able to roam the trails with our four-legged compadres is about as fabulous as it comes. That said, hiking with dogs demands special preparation and considerations, and in some places isn’t allowed or recommended. The goal, naturally, is to have fun out there with your best buddy while keeping him or her safe and minimizing your dog’s impact on the environment as well as other outdoor users.
Read on for some basic tips for hiking with your dogs (and backpacking with dogs), one of the great joys in life!
First Things First: Check the Regulations
A no-brainer, you'd hope, but something overlooked or ignored by too many hikers: make sure dogs are allowed where you intend to go hiking. Most national parks prohibit dogs on trails; many wildlife areas prohibit them altogether. There may be seasonal closures to protect wildlife and other resources during vulnerable periods. In many places where dogs are OK, they must be leashed at all times. Abide by the rules so that you’re protecting native wildlife and vegetation—and ensuring dogs will continue to be welcome at a given spot.
Preparing Your Dog for the Trail
Check with your veterinarian to make sure your pooch is physically ready for the trail. If you’ve got a puppy, you may have to wait for him to get a bit older and stronger before you take him hiking, and certainly you should do so only after he’s gotten his requisite shots.
Physical conditioning for hiking (let alone backpacking) is as important for your dog as for yourself. Don’t assume a dog’s set for the trail just because he motors through its daily walks: his paws need toughening up for rougher, more uneven substrates, and he’ll need that much more strength and endurance for steep grades, exertion at altitude, and negotiating deadfall, streams, and other trail obstacles. It goes without saying that long-distance hiking for multiple days straight on a backpacking trip is a different order of business than your usual round-the-blockers back home.
If your dog will be wearing a hiking pack, he’ll need to get used to the pack itself and the weight. Have him haul around an empty pack at home at first, and gradually increase the load on neighborhood walks and trails.
Obedience training should also be part of readying your pooch for hiking, unless he’s already firmly under voice control and otherwise reliably well-behaved. You want to make sure not only that your dog stays close on the path, but also that he’ll be able to handle sudden encounters with hikers, other dogs, and trailside wildlife.
If you want to backpack with your dog, meanwhile, practice at home first with some backyard campouts!
What to Bring Hiking With Dogs
Here’s a basic list of doggie essentials for hiking and backpacking:
Food/Water Dishes: Collapsible dishes are a great option. Some dogs are fine lapping from a poured water bottle, though that’s a bit more water-wasteful.
Leash: Even if you’ll mainly be hiking with your dog off-leash (where that’s allowed and when your dog’s disposition and training allow), you’ll definitely want a leash for situations demanding more control. A short (six feet or less) leash is best to minimize tangling.
Doggie Hiking Pack: Having your dog tote some of his or her own supplies on the trail is a great idea for both day hiking and backpacking. Make sure to choose the proper design and size for your pup—the pack shouldn’t be over-tight, but also not so loose that it chafes or slips—and load it evenly for balance. Experts usually recommended the full doggie pack not exceed about a quarter of your dog’s body weight, though this can vary. Packs with handles on the back are widely available and recommended.
First-Aid Kit: This should include any important medications, antiseptics, bandages, and ointments (such as Tecnu) for treating plant rashes and insect bites/stings.
Flashlight or Glowstick: Have this on hand to attach to your dog’s pack for better low-light/nighttime visibility—even if you’re day hiking and not intending to be out after dark.
Booties: Depending on your dog, you may opt to have him wear booties whenever he’s hiking, but even if not, it’s a good idea to have a set at the ready for sharp rocky treads and other challenging stretches of trail.
Towels: These are essential for wiping off muddy or sandy paws before letting your trail buddy into the tent, and more generally for drying off after rain, stream crossings, or swimming sessions.
Nail Clippers: These are especially important on backpacking trips when you’re trying to avoid having your dog’s nails tear the tent floor.
Tent: Speaking of, if you’ll be backpacking with your dog, size your tent up one person.
Bedding: A foam sleeping pad and a blanket or sleeping bag make good choices for Fido’s backcountry bed.
Food & Water for Your Hiking Dog
You may be tempted to let your dog slurp from creeks and lakes on your hike, but—just as for you—such sources can expose him or her to waterborne pathogens. Better to treat any water your dog will be drinking with the same method you’re using (water filter/purifier, boiling, etc.).
Dogs may drink anywhere from a half-ounce to 1.5 ounces per pound per day. Offer your dog water whenever you’re slugging some and watch for signs of thirst and dehydration.
To determine how much food to bring along on a backpacking trip with a dog, start with the usual daily amount and then scale up by one cup per 20 pounds of body weight.
Safety Tips for Hiking With Dogs
If you’re able to keep your dog close and under control, you’ll avoid many of the potential dangers of taking him into the backcountry. Dogs running pell-mell off-trail may, at best, return covered in sticky and prickly seeds; at worst, they may run into patches of poison-ivy or poison-oak, take a bad fall, or tangle with a venomous snake, bear, coyote, or other wild critter (it's generally not a good idea to hike with your dog off-leash in areas inhabited by mountain lions, wolves, or bears, especially grizzlies). Dogs may also simply keep running, and you may lose them completely—especially if they give chase to a rabbit or a deer.
Check your dog closely for ticks at the end of your hike (in the height of tick season, check multiple times during the hike) and remove any you find, taking care to detach the entire tick—head included—if possible.
If you’re hiking during hunting season, make sure your dog is wearing blaze orange just like you: a brightly colored vest (or hiking pack), collar, and leash are recommended. For maximum safety, choose an area closed to hunting.
Trail Etiquette With a Four-legged Friend
If possible, avoid hiking with a dog on trails with heavy horse or mountain-biking traffic, mainly for the safety of your dog. Yield the trail to other hikers and equestrians. Advertise your dog’s friendliness to fellow trail users well in advance, and be respectful at all times of any dog phobias.
Pack out your dog’s waste; on a backpacking trip, you can also follow Leave No Trace practices and bury it as you would human waste (in a hole 4 to 8 inches deep sited 200 feet or more from water sources and trails).
Be a responsible pet owner and Leave No Trace hiker, and you can share some wonderful times with your pooch out on the hiking trail!