So You Want to Hike With Your Cat
Yes, really. Taking your cat hiking is easier than you think. Just follow these trail-tested tips.
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I was always more of a dog person than a cat person. At least, that’s what I told myself up until the morning Frederick wandered into my apartment in Moab, Utah. At about a year old, Fred was a fuzzball of a feral cat who would disappear for weeks at a time, popping up back at my door covered in desert dust just when I’d written her off. From the first day she wandered in, Fred was my constant companion, and when I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to take a full-time job as an editor at Outside, she came with.
In New Mexico, things were a little different. We lived in a bigger town with different hazards—a skunk hung out in the arroyo outside my living room window, and I often heard coyotes howling in the open space nearby. If I let Fred continue her wandering ways, I assumed, she wouldn’t be around for long. She adjusted all right to being a housecat, staking out a place on the windowsill and learning to love napping in sunbeams. As a compromise, I bought a harness and leash, and the two of us took to the local trails.
Being leashed took some getting used to for Fred. The first time she decided to bolt after a rabbit, she clotheslined herself, hitting the end of the cord and nearly landing on her back. Her first few encounters with other people’s dogs—they loved her, she loathed them—weren’t much better, and I ended up having to toss a couple of claw-shredded shirts. But over the course of dozens of walks over a few years, she figured it out. Soon, Fred was pouncing on junebugs and sniffing her way through sagebrush just like she used to.
Emboldened, I decided it was time to take the next step. People backpacked with their dogs; why couldn’t I backpack with my cat? With my then-girlfriend and her Norwegian elkhound—the first dog Fred had made peace with—as our shuttle drivers, we decided to tackle a section of the Continental Divide Trail near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a trip I’d later write about for Backpacker. After a few first frustrating miles that saw her refuse to hop a puddle and try to lead me off trail every few feet, we found our rhythm, me splashing through snowmelt and shimmying under deadfall, her alternately riding in a carrier strapped to my pack or cautiously padding down the path. It was worth all the extra trouble to see her exploring again, scratching at trees and following her nose into the underbrush.
Thinking of following my lead? Here’s my advice.
Start ‘Em Young
You don’t necessarily need to start with a kitten to train an outdoor cat, but it does help if your pet is still relatively young, healthy, and not too set in their ways. Get them used to the harness (never rely on a collar, which is easy to wiggle or break out of ) by having them wear it around the house; get ready for a lot of rubbing, licking, and rolling while they get comfortable with it.
The best place for your first few walks together is your backyard. Staying near your cat’s home turf minimizes the inevitable discomfort they’ll experience while they’re getting used to a new routine. Take them out in your yard, apartment’s courtyard, or local pet-friendly park. Your first few trips out probably won’t be walks, per se; be ready to follow your cat’s lead as they explore at their own pace.
Hikers need to bring essential gear when they hit the trail. Your cat is no different, though they won’t be able to carry it themselves. For a day trip, bring treats, a water dish, a first aid kit with tweezers and supplies to manage bleeding; if they’ll ride in a backpack, consider bringing one big enough for them to comfortably hide away in, along with a light blanket or extra layer to burrow into if the temperatures are brisk. For overnight trips, you’ll want to add in food and a carrying solution (see below).
Get Ready to Carry
Your cat’s legs are smaller than yours and their body wasn’t made for long marches. Cats also don’t really walk in a straight line; unlike dogs, they’re ambush predators, and their instinct is to hide themselves away in the brush on the side of the trail. If you want to make any kind of consistent forward progress, you’re going to need to carry them at least part of the time. There are many different ways to do it, but the easiest I’ve found was to strap a soft-sided carrier to the bottom of a pack with good suspension. Cats with a calmer disposition might also be willing to ride inside a cracked-open backpack compartment. Whatever you try, try it out at home first to see how they tolerate it.
Remember the Claws
Kitties have claws, and those claws have a habit of coming out when your cat is trying to make themselves comfortable. That can pose a real problem to down sleeping bags, not to mention inflatable pads. If your cat is sleeping in your bag (the best idea in everything but balmy weather), a cheap fleece or synthetic liner will help protect your sleep system. Likewise, I opt for a closed-cell foam pad to minimize the risk of poppage.
Get Ready for a World That Doesn’t Understand You
Backpacking with a dog? Normal, fine, everyone wants to pet them. Backpacking with a cat? For all the stares you get, you might as well be hiking in roller blades and a sequined top hat. Be ready to explain your situation to rangers and national forest offices (many, though not necessarily all, apply the same rules to cats as they do to dogs). Bank an extra half-hour or so to answer other hikers’ questions about what you’re doing. You’re an ambassador for catpacking now—make sure to represent it well.