How to Safely Hike, Camp, and Backpack With Your Dog
Dogs can be excellent company on outdoor adventures, but only if you plan properly. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know, bring, do, and avoid to optimize the fun for both you and your pet.
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Dogs can be excellent company in the outdoors. Exploring the wilderness with a furry friend can be an incredibly fun and bonding experience, but only if you plan ahead. If you don’t, bringing your dog could be a dangerous mistake, one that ends abruptly, unpleasantly, or even tragically.
What do you need to know, bring, do, and avoid when camping or hiking with your dog?
- First, you’ll want to determine if your dog is capable of making the trip.
- Next, locate dog-friendly outdoor adventure spots.
- Prepare your dog physically for outdoor adventures.
- Learn proper trail etiquette for dogs and their owners.
- Learn how to deal with dog poop on a long hike or backpacking trip.
- Know the most common dangers and threats to dogs while hiking.
- Learn how to load a dog’s pack properly (and what to bring to ensure your pet’s comfort and safety).
- Make your own dog booties (if you want) dog bootie instructions.
- Find answers to other frequently asked questions about hiking with your dog.
Below, you’ll find everything you need to know to adventure safely and optimize the fun for both you and your pet.
Can I Take My Dog for a Hike?
First, it’s important to recognize that not all dogs are capable of hiking. Since your dog will do her best to keep up with you, possibly at the risk of her own health or safety, it’s up to you to be realistic about what you’re asking your pet to do.
- Dogs that are very young or old may not only lack the stamina and strength for the trip, but their immune systems might make them even more vulnerable. (Old dogs might still go on hikes if you keep these tips in mind.)
- Any dog that has health issues or isn’t physically fit enough to exercise all day and endure temperature fluctuations might not make the best hiking buddy.
- Brachycephalic breeds (short-muzzled dogs)—like pugs, boxers, and Boston terriers—do not do well in heat and are not known for their endurance. Their shortened muzzles and narrowed nares actually make it quite dangerous to take them out in the heat or on endurance hikes. These breeds are at higher risk of heat stroke and exercise intolerance. That doesn’t mean they can’t kill it on shorter jaunts; just use caution.
- Breeds that might get overly excited in nature, like scent and sight hounds or dogs with high prey drive, are not ideal in the wild. Some can be conditioned out of these behaviors and learn to obey whistles and commands, but these dogs are more likely to take off after something and ignore your commands.
- Dogs that are not properly trained and don’t follow commands can be a danger to themselves, to other hikers, and to wildlife, so they should be left at home.
- Don’t overestimate your dog’s capabilities, even if she regularly accompanies you on walks. Consider the terrain and weather conditions of that specific trail. Is the ground steep, jagged, icy, or slippery? Will it be extremely hot, and will there be enough shade?
- Check with your vet to see if your dog is ready for action. Make sure you are up-to-date on vaccinations and ask the vet about medical or preventative measures to take for waterborne pathogens and the treatment of snakebites and parasites (like ticks). If you microchip your dog, then you’ll have some way of locating her if you get separated on the trail.
Is my puppy too young for hiking?
Michelle Richardson, a vet in Helena, Montana, advises waiting until your puppy has received all her shots (about five months) before taking her on the trail, and keeping hikes shorter than one hour to start. DHPP, a combo vaccination administered serially, will be required, as is a rabies shot which is given at 4 months. You can also elect to get the Leptospirosis vaccination, which will protect her from pathogens found in wildlife urine.
The only way to avoid waterborne pathogens is to prevent dogs from drinking stream water, and the only way to treat them is with prescription meds from a vet (done in-house). Offer your dog clean, filtered water often so she’s not searching for other sources.
Where Can I Take My Dog Hiking or Camping?
Once you’ve determined that your dog is indeed capable of hiking, the first thing to consider is location. Many trails and campsites require leashes or don’t welcome dogs at all, so you’ll need to do your research ahead of time. Most national parks don’t allow dogs, and if they do, they require leashes at all times and sometimes require that you keep your dog on paved trails. Take some time to get to know the rules and regulations of that specific trail or campsite, and familiarize yourself with the wildlife (and possible dangers and hazards) to watch out for.
Look for places that are “easy on the paws,” advises Craig Romano, author of Best Hikes with Dogs Inland Northwest. Pick shady trails with soft, leaf- or needle-covered terrain; avoid paths littered with sharp rocks, off-trail routes with steep drops, and any surface that gets very hot. “Stay away from areas with heavy horse use and mountain bikes,” he adds, since they increase the risk of injury.
How to Prepare Your Dog for Camping or Hiking
In order to get your dog mentally and physically prepared for the trip, you’ll want to do the following:
Practice by taking small hikes ahead of time.
Build up to longer trips with a series of shorter hikes. Start small, with easy or short walks, and work your way up from there. Begin on a relatively flat and smooth surface, monitoring your dog’s response. If she still has energy after an hour or so, increase the next hike’s difficulty and add distance, slowly building up stamina and strength.
Prepare your dog’s feet to go the distance.
The small practice hikes are also your opportunity to toughen up your dog’s paws or get her used to wearing those snazzy hiking booties you bought for her. A paw salve might help to condition her feet for longer treks. If she’ll be sleeping in a tent, be sure to trim her nails pretrip to prevent rips in the tent floor.
Reinforce your dog’s obedience training.
It’s your job to keep your pet with you and under control at all times, both on- and off-leash. Even if you think you’re alone on the trail, your dog should always be within sight and close enough to hear your commands. No matter how well-trained she usually is, the excitement of the new setting is likely to require a refresher course in obedience. On practice hikes, make sure she remembers how to listen, sit, stay, heel, and come. Consider recall training with a whistle that can be heard 400 yards away.
Teach your dog the rules of the trail.
Even the most well-behaved dog will need to learn some new tricks for the trail. See the section on proper trail etiquette below, and read “How to Train Your Dog For the Trail.”
Rules and Proper Trail Etiquette for Hiking With a Dog
- Keep your dog under control at all times. She should always be within eye- and ear-shot. If the trail requires leashes or if there is any risk that she might run into or jump up onto other hikers, keep her on a short leash (six feet or less) since a long leash is more likely to get tangled on brush. Even if you’re sitting safely at a campsite, your dog should not be allowed to roam freely. Here’s more information about hiking off-leash.
- Yield to other hikers and riders. Always step off the trail make your dog heel when others approach.
- Communicate proactively. When you meet someone on the trail, let them know that your dog is friendly and communicate that calmness to the dog.
- Don’t try to manage more than one dog. If you need to bring two, bring another human to help. But no matter how many hikers are in your group, don’t try to manage more than two dogs, because three or more becomes a pack, and packs of dogs may be harder to manage.
- Leave no trace. Bring bags to collect and carry out your dog’s poop. If you’ll be backpacking overnight, bring a shovel to bury it at least 8” deep and at least 200 feet from walkways, camping sites, and water sources.
- Protect the wildlife. Don’t let your dog stray off the trail to chase animals, run through the foliage, or play in water. The natural flora and fauna will need to be protected from your pet’s curiosity and enthusiasm (and not only that, but some plants are poisonous, and some creatures bite back and may host dangerous viruses or diseases).
Leave no trace: Dogs are not wild animals, so their poop is not “natural” to the environment and must be removed.
How to Deal With Dog Poop on the Trail
Although a bear can poop in the woods, your dog definitely shouldn’t. Dog poop is extremely disruptive to native fauna. Many wild animals communicate via scent (fecal, too), and dog poop can interrupt territorial claims and cause distress. So if you care about the nature you’re walking through, you’ll avoid this disruption.
The old rule ‘pack it in, pack it out’ also applies to dog poop. Don’t forget to bring bags to collect it all and carry it out. If you’ll be hauling it long distances, bring extras for double-bagging to ensure against leakage. If you’ll be camping overnight or don’t want to carry it, bring a shovel to bury it at least 8” deep and at least 200 feet from walkways, camping sites, and water sources. If you bury it, don’t use a bag.
Can I Leave the Poop Unburied If It’s in a Biodegradable Bag?
Even if it’s biodegradable, it’s certainly not okay to leave it on the trail. Why? Because you’ve just left a ticking time bomb for someone else to stumble into. It’s not okay to leave your trash in nature, no matter how inconvenient, or how bad it smells.
The Most Common Dangers and Threats to Dogs While Hiking
- Temperature and weather extremes. Freezing temperatures, snow, slippery ice, heat exposure, and dehydration all pose a danger. Keep her out of the sun and midday heat. Pack extra water.
- Overexertion. All the excitement can be exhausting. Keep an eye on her breathing and heart rate. If she can’t recover sufficiently after a break, consider making camp early.
- Falling. Avoid cliffs, steep trails, and unstable terrain. With a harness or doggie backpack with a handle, you can help her climb.
- Paw injuries. Sharp rocks and rough terrain make your dog’s paws vulnerable to cuts and scrapes. Pack booties (plus spares) if needed. If she’s limping, that’s a sure sign that you need to stop for the day.
- Creatures, including ticks, scorpions, snakes, coyotes, and other predators.
- Plants. Poisonous ones (poison oak, poison ivy, sumac, certain mushrooms, and hemlock, among others) and prickly ones (burrs, foxtails, thorns, and cacti) can all do damage. If you see her grazing on any greenery, stop her immediately.
- Pathogens. Drinking water contaminated with Leptospirosis, coccidia, or giardia will make your dog sick (signs include diarrhea, vomiting, and weakness). In high-risk areas where there are lots of cattle or campers, don’t let her drink from lakes or streams. Stagnant water is always a no-no.
- Unfamiliar territory. When you put a city dog in a wild country setting, anything can go wrong. Don’t assume that just because your dog is an animal she will know how to survive in nature.
If your dog’s nose is dry, that’s a sign that she needs to drink more water.
Packing List: What to Bring When Hiking With a Dog
- Food. Opt for a dry food with high protein content and fat levels to give your dog extra energy. Michelle Richardson, a vet in Helena, Montana, advises increasing the portion size by up to 50% based on your dog’s fitness level, the hike’s difficulty, and how much extra exercise she’ll be getting compared to her regular routine. (Rule of thumb: on top of your dog’s usual daily food total, bring an extra cup of kibble per 20 pounds of dog per day.) Give her a small serving about an hour before hiking for extra energy, and feed her small and frequent portions throughout the day. (If you need a snack, she probably does, too.) If you’re going for a long trip, consider packing a high-protein dehydrated dog food (which weighs less) instead.
- Water and a collapsible water bowl. Use your own thirst as a guide and offer water when you stop to drink—every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on trail difficulty and temperature. A large dog might drink .5 to 1 ounce of water per pound, per day. Small dogs (20 pounds or lighter) will drink closer to 1.5 ounces per pound, per day. An average-sized golden retriever might need a half a gallon of water per day. Remember that she will certainly need a lot more water than usual, and she shouldn’t drink from water sources that might contain pathogens, so pack extra. Note: boiling water for a minute will kill most pathogens.
- Doggy first aid kit including gauze, heavy-duty bandages, a liquid bandage for split or cut paw pads, pet-friendly antiseptic, antibiotic ointment, pliers or tweezers for thorn and tick removal, styptic swabs, an antihistamine like Benadryl in case of snake bite, canine sunscreen, and a bottle of Tecnu in case you run into a patch of poison oak or ivy.
- Hyperthermia or heatstroke prevention including instant ice packs or alcohol pads that can be applied to her paw pads to cool her off. A bandana can be wet or wrapped around an ice pack and tied around the jugular vein in her neck or pressed against the femoral artery on her inner thigh.
- Poop bags and/or a trowel to bury poop. As mentioned, don’t bury poop bags, and never leave any kind of bag on the trail.
- Socks or booties to protect her paws from friction, especially if she cuts a pad or tears a claw. Bring extras in case one gets lost.
- Foot care. Consider bringing a paw salve to give her sore, dry, or cracked pads some relief. It might also help to condition the skin on her feet.
- Short leash (six feet or less) or a harness with a handle. The best dog packs have built-in handles.
- Dog pack. Your dog can help carry her own gear with a special canine backpack. Make sure it fits her and is balanced evenly (see instructions below).
- Collar with a tag that has your dog’s name, rabies tag, dog license info, and telephone number on it in case you get separated.
- Sleeping pad and blanket. Unless your dog is used to sleeping on the cold, hard ground or you’re planning on letting her sleep with you, you’ll want to bring a lightweight foam pad for her to sleep on. If temperatures require, they sell dog-sized sleeping bags, but a fleece, wool, or crib-sized feather blanket will also work.
- Towel. Amy Devine, founder of the 300-member NOVA Trail Dogs Hiking Club in Alexandria, Virginia, advises bringing a camp towel to clean and dry dogs thoroughly before letting them in the tent.
- Dog brush/comb. To keep her deburred and foxtail-free.
- Flashlight or glowstick. Attach one to a dog’s collar to keep track of her at night.
Make a routine of brushing your dog each night to check for injuries, ticks, and foxtails.
How to Fit and Load a Dog’s Pack
- Adjust the harness so it’s snug but won’t chafe (remove the saddlebags first, if the pack allows). You should be able to fit two fingers under it.
- Load the bags with dog food, treats, water (some packs come with hydration bladders), bowls, and extra gear.
- Make sure both sides are weighted equally.
How heavy should a dog’s pack be?
The total load shouldn’t exceed a third of your dog’s total body weight. Before you go on your hiking trip, weigh the bag to make sure it’s balanced and not too heavy.
How to Make Your Own Dog Booties
Prevent paw-pad cuts and scrapes with this easy DIY project. You’ll need fabric (mid-weight nylon, fleece, denim, or thick rubber) and 1” wide Velcro strips.
- Cut four rectangles of fabric. Each should be an inch wider than your dog’s paw and 5” to 8” long, depending on how tall your dog is.
- Cut four strips of Velcro as long as the circumference of your dog’s ankle plus 1.5 inches.
- Fold each rectangle lengthwise and sew it together on three sides, leaving a .25-inch seam.
- Turn the sock right-side-out and sew the Velcro strip to the top edge of the bootie, hook-side-up (so it won’t irritate your dog). Leave enough extra Velcro to secure the bootie around your dog’s ankle.
In an emergency, if you lose a much-needed bootie and all you have is one of your own clean socks and some tape, you can make her a bootie, but tape it very carefully. If a dog’s paw gets occluded by tape (taped too tightly), it can cause edema.
What if my dog gets seriously injured while we’re hiking?
Before you leave on your trip, it would be wise to locate and note the contact info of the nearest emergency vet and to check the coverage on your pet insurance policy (or consider purchasing insurance if you don’t have it).
What if my dog gets bitten by a snake?
Take your dog to the vet immediately. In the meantime, use an antihistamine like Benadryl to reduce the allergic reaction.
What if I find a tick on my dog?
Use tweezers to pluck the entire thing out, including the head, then clean and treat the area with antiseptic or antibiotic ointment. There are many canine tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, so if you can, save the tick in a container so it might be tested later, if symptoms develop. If you don’t manage to get the whole thing out, don’t try to dig into the skin, especially with unclean instruments, as this increases the risk of infection. Your dog’s body will push it out eventually.
What if my dog eats something poisonous on the trail?
If she is gagging or vomiting, it’s time to go to the vet. If you can, find out what was eaten, as this will help the vet determine how to proceed. Bring the plant in to show to the vet, if possible.
Can my dog get a rash from poison oak or ivy?
It’s rare, but it can happen, especially if her coat is thin or sparse and her skin is unprotected. But even if she doesn’t develop a rash, her coat might pick up the oils and transfer them to you, so it’s smart to keep Tecnu on hand.
How do I know if my dog is getting too tired?
If she is panting rapidly, drooling, dehydrated, suddenly unresponsive, stalling, visibly exhausted, staring, or having trouble focusing, it’s time to take a break.
Do I need to leave my dog on a leash while hiking?
If the trail rules say that dogs must be leashed, then yes, you must leave the leash on, even if you don’t see other hikers. Leashes are mandatory in many areas, but even if a leash is not required, it still might help you protect your dog from danger, including dangerous animals and plants, and will definitely help you protect defenseless flora and fauna from your dog’s nosy curiosity.
How much food do I need to pack for my dog?
On top of how much you usually give her, add an additional cup for every 20 pounds of dog weight for each meal.
Does my dog need a sleeping bag?
It might be a smart investment if you camp regularly, but a warm fleece or wool blanket or crib-size feather comforter will also do.
How much water should I bring?
A large dog might drink .5 to 1 ounce of water per pound, per day. Small dogs (20 pounds or lighter) will drink closer to 1.5 ounces per pound, per day.
Can I let my dog drink from a creek, pond, lake, stream, or river?
It’s never a good idea, as untreated water might harbor harmful organisms and chemicals. Avoid stagnant water at all costs.
What kind of food is best for a hiking dog?
Since your dog will be expending a lot of energy, opt for a dry food with high protein content and high levels of fat. Remember that your dog will probably get hungry more often.
What kind of first aid do I need to bring for my dog?
Your first aid kit should include gauze, heavy-duty bandages, liquid bandages, pet-friendly antiseptic, antibiotic ointment in case of ticks, pliers or tweezers, and styptic swabs. Probably also smart to bring some canine sunscreen and a bottle of Tecnu in case you run into a patch of poison oak or ivy.
Here is a quick checklist of ten things to remember when hiking with your dog.