Pass/Fail: Take a Cat Backpacking

Can our scout coax his feline friend into becoming a true trail companion?
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Can our scout coax his feline friend into becoming a true trail companion?
Cat hiking

Illustration by Jason Schneider

I’m not usually one to let a little bit of water stop me. But today, I stand at the edge of an inch-deep puddle on the trail like it’s hot lava. I’m hiking the Continental Divide Trail, just south of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness in Colorado, and a combination of early-summer snowmelt and rainwater from a recent storm has created small pools and trickles on the path. Sure, I could tromp through. But my feline companion isn’t so sure about getting wet.

Fred, my long-haired tabby cat, is trying to pull me off the trail and into the brush—anywhere but across the puddle. When I pull on her leash, trying to tug her across, she turns around and digs her claws into the dirt. Apparently, she isn’t as excited about our weekend plans as I am.

I always preferred dogs to cats, and when I moved to Moab, Utah, after graduating from college five years ago, I planned to get a canine companion to take hiking and climbing. But when Fred, my apartment building’s resident feral cat, let herself in through my cracked front door and curled up on the foot of my bed, I was sold. She was a tiny desert explorer who would disappear for a week at a time before turning up on my doorstep, exhausted and covered in red dirt.

Later, when we moved to New Mexico, I trained her to walk on a leash (that is, I let her get used to not darting off whenever she pleased) and took her exploring in the arroyos near our home. But then we moved to Denver and three years cooped up in an apartment turned her into a pudgy housecat who’d rather sleep in a sunny window than chase lizards through the brush. I decided to take her on her first backpacking trip, a 17-mile overnight, in hopes of putting her back in touch with her inner mountain lion—and to show my dog-loving friends that cats can play outside, too.

Taking cats hiking isn’t a new idea—backcountry kitties are a fixture on Instagram, and at least one has appeared in this magazine—but it’s still a novel one. Like most beginner catpackers, I was going into it nearly blind, with only guesswork and advice from Adventurecats.org to guide me. The week before I hit the trail, I strapped on Fred’s harness and took her on a warm-up walk through our backyard. Unfortunately, a cat’s idea of a safe place (small, hidden) is very different from a human’s. After she tried to lead me into a thicket of waist-high thistles behind a shed, I decided that training was over. Time to go for it.

It’s midday when I clip Fred into her leash and strike out on the trail from Buffalo Pass. From the start, we’re moving slowly. Life in the desert has prepared Fred for a lot of things, but moisture is not one of them. She jumps daintily over the trickles of water that spiderweb over the trail; when we come to a puddle too big for her to leap across, she sits down and stares at it until I finally pick her up and lift her over. Every 20 feet or so, she stops to sniff a plant or investigate a vole’s burrow, and I have to nudge her with my boot to keep her moving. After half an hour, we’ve covered a quarter of a mile.

If we want to finish our hike this weekend, I’ll have to find another way. Luckily, I’ve prepared for this: I zip Fred into the soft-sided carrier that I’ve strapped to my pack with bungee cords and pick up the pace. I don’t know if I’ve wounded her pride by carrying her, but it sure seems like it. She protests vocally, her high-pitched mewls drowning out the birdsong and the mud squelching beneath my feet. Eventually, she goes silent, and when I take off my pack to check the map, she blinks lazily at me through the carrier’s mesh window.

We make camp near Grizzly Lake, in a clearing choked with yellow glacier lilies and white spreading globeflower. I let Fred out of her carrier and put her on leash, and she climbs up onto a fallen ponderosa’s trunk and scratches at the bark like she’s trying to mark her territory.

As I boil water for dinner, she eats her handful of dry food off the flat boulder that I’m using as a camp kitchen. Then she settles down between my feet, curling her lip back to expose the tip of one fang, and sniffs the mountain air. Here, at 10,200 feet in the mountains and hours from the nearest paved road, every scent and sound, from the smell of wet spruce to the din of the frogs, is something that Fred never would have experienced in her life as a housecat. That night, she falls asleep on a folded-up fleece blanket as rain drums the roof of the tent.

The next morning, after I’ve carried Fred past the worst of the mud, I take her out and clip the leash onto her harness. A scant 18 hours have passed since we started our hike, but Fred seems a world more comfortable and curious than when we started. She stalks down the trail like a panther, head low, nose sniffing the ground. When we come to another dead tree lying across the trail, she crawls under and I follow on my hands and knees. She stops to sniff a cluster of wildflowers, but I don’t hurry her. I’m busy planning our next hike.

The Verdict: Pass

For a cat that had never backpacked and hadn’t been on a trail in years, Fred found her groove fast. Next time, I’ll try to make the hike smoother—and keep her going on her own power for longer—by picking a drier route. 

Cat Hiking 101

Practice the basics: Get a harness, not a collar; the latter is too easy for felines to wiggle out of. Make sure it’s snug, but not tight. Practice with small excursions in your backyard or at your local park, then work your way up to short dayhikes. Always keep your kitty on-leash or in a carrier: He or she’s an easy meal for coyotes and any number of other predators, and is herself a predator to smaller critters.

Research the rules: Many areas apply the same regulations to cats as they do to dogs. If in doubt, call the ranger station or park office and ask. Be prepared for a lot of confused silences.

Plan ahead: Cats struggle with water crossings and big obstacles; plan your route accordingly. Think about how you’ll keep her warm (consider a fleece blanket or bag liner) if you don’t want her sinking her claws into your nice down sleeping bag. Pack plastic bags to carry waste out, or bring a trowel and bury it in a true cathole.

Prepare to carry: If you want to cover any significant ground, you’ll have to give your cat a lift at least some of the time. Use a backpack with good support and dial in your carry system before you leave. Our preferred method: Get a soft-sided, small dog carrier and lash it to the attachment points on your pack.