If you are a dog owner, and you enjoy hiking or backpacking, it’s only logical that you’ll find yourself wanting to take your dog along with you. After all, why leave man’s best friend alone at home — or a kennel — when they’ll probably enjoy your trip as much as you will? Hiking with dogs can be highly rewarding, but you’ll want to keep a few things in mind before you head out.
However, if you’re going to take your dog on a long hike or backpacking trip, there are a lot of extras to think about. Is your dog fit enough for the planned hike? Are they obedient and well-socialized enough to make a good trail dog? Will the weather be too hot? Have they had all of their vaccines, including leptospirosis? What kinds of dog hiking gear will you need?
Before we get started, make sure you know the rules of the area you’re heading to. For example, most national parks (including Great Smoky Mountains National Park) do not allow dogs on the trails, whereas nearly all National Forests and BLM areas do. That said, there are surely great dog-friendly hikes in your area.
Here are our tips for hiking and backpacking with man’s best friend.
Know the hazards. This can be tricky, especially if you’re going somewhere you’ve never hiked before, but certain obstacles may dictate that you go elsewhere or simply leave the dog at home. A moderate, knee-deep creek crossing for a human may be a significant swim for a dog, and dangerous if the dog isn’t a strong swimmer. Boulder-hopping and scrambling may be far more difficult (or scary) for your canine companion, especially if you have a smaller breed. You probably don’t need to try and camp in a fire tower.
For example, at Bear Rocks in West Virginia, we found ourselves having to pick our large dog up in several places; he’s also afraid of swinging bridges, and he’s comfortable being picked up and carried, so this wasn’t a surprise. It made for some pretty hilarious photos, too. This sort of thing can be dangerous, though, putting both you and your pet at unnecessary risk. Make good choices.
On a recent traverse hike of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, our companions had to carry their blue heeler up and down several dozen ladders, which was time-consuming and tricky; when the ladders became more extensive and more exposed, they had to bail on the remainder of the hike. With a larger dog that could not be carried, we’d all have had to turn back very early in the day!
Don’t forget to consider your dog’s overall fitness level when making this assessment. Your dog may be fine on beginner-level hikes, but unsuitable for peak-bagging trips that charge straight up a mountainside. Be honest about your dog’s abilities, then do your homework and make sure you’re headed somewhere that is within those abilities.
Shelter. So, if you’re actually taking your dog on an overnight trip, you need to think about shelter. You can certainly put a dog, especially smaller dogs, inside your tent, although I don’t like to bring my dogs in the tent because they’re somehow always wet and covered in mud and sand. I don’t want my down sleeping bag, and spare clothing all wet! You can’t really just leave them outside in the elements, though! Dogs get cold just like people do, and I find that mine are nervous if they can’t see my wife and I sleeping.
For me, the best solution has been a tent with a large add-on vestibule like the MSR Hubba Hubba “Gear Shed” or the Nemo “Losi Garage.” This way, the dog(s) are separate from the main sleeping compartment, but they’re still contained within a tent structure to protect them from the elements (and wandering off while I’m sleeping). Another option is using any backpacking tent with a large vestibule if you’d like to keep the dog outside the tent body. In our case, two large dogs made that impossible.
The photo at right shows a puppy-age Roydog sleeping on his Trail pad in an older version of the MSR Gear Shed, from an overnight trip in the Joyce Kilmer / Slickrock Wilderness here in east Tennessee.
I also have a couple of small (3/4 length) sleeping pads for them to use, which keeps them insulated from the cold ground. You CAN take dogs on overnight trips in cold weather, but at that point you’ll need to consider either putting your dog in your own sleeping bag (not happening with either of my 70-pound mutts) or bringing some kind of sleeping bag for the dog to use. Youth-size sleeping bags work well for this purpose, and synthetic is better than down since your dog will probably be wet from the snow.
Dogs are pretty terrible at keeping themselves dry, so you’ll need to take extra care that your pooch stays warm through the night. I typically treat doggie backpacking trips as a three-season sport, and leave them home in the winter months.
Have a leash ready. Beyond the fact that many hiking areas require dogs be leashed, you need to be able to control your dog around other hikers, other dogs or wild animals. Some dogs are great trail dogs off-leash, some are not. This goes hand-in-hand with how obedient the dog is, and if your dog isn’t very obedient you may not want to take him or her hiking in the first place! If you enlarge the photo below, you may notice that one dog is on a leash and the other isn’t. This is is not an accident.
When we hike together and the dogs are off-leash, I make them follow behind me instead of charging off ahead. I find both dogs behave better this way, perhaps because I’m establishing myself as the alpha and leader of the group.
I also trust myself to make better decisions when confronted with a hazard than the dogs do, like the time I nearly stepped on a timber rattlesnake but stopped just in time.
Even if you’re not going to keep your dog on a leash for the majority of the trip, though, you have to have one at the ready. This goes beyond simply making sure your dog is controlled when you encounter other hikers — some of whom may also have dogs along, and some of whose dogs may not be as angelic and well-behaved as yours.
A few years ago at a mostly-empty campground in Virginia, I woke up with Roydog to take him for his morning walk, but didn’t bother to put a leash on him. We were perhaps 15 feet from the black bear when we all simultaneously noticed each other; he (or she) had been eating food trash from an overturned garbage can. Everyone froze. Roy was just a puppy, and this was not a small bear.
I reached down, literally picked Roydog up and — luckily — the bear ran away. If my dog had responded differently, though, we might not have been so lucky. A leash would have given me more control over that response. Leashes can also be nice for making sure a smaller or younger dog doesn’t wash away at a swift creek crossing, as shown here. I basically towed him across, like a raft.
Carry plenty of snacks. This is going to vary pretty widely by dog, as some dogs don’t like to eat very much while they’re on the move. That said, your dog is burning a lot more calories on an all-day hike than he does on a regular day, just like you, except you can’t sit the dog down and explain the consequences of bonking on a big trip. Because of this, I like to bring a variety of snacks along. Even if Louie isn’t interested in his dog food, he’ll eat the treats I bring along. Feed them often, far more often than you would normally. This will mean taking some extra breaks for food and water, which brings me to our next point.
Don’t overwork your dog. Dogs can develop heat stroke very easily, so don’t bring yours along at all if it’s going to be super hot out. Unfortunately, dogs don’t really have a way of telling you if it’s too hot, and their instincts tell them to follow you until it’s too late. Take more breaks when hiking with dogs in hot weather, especially near water, and pay close attention to make sure Fido isn’t struggling to keep up.
And speaking of not overworking your dog…
Dog Packs. The general thinking is that, while small dogs shouldn’t carry much, most mid-sized (or larger) breeds can safely carry about 25% of their body weight in a pack. This presumes the dog is healthy, and relatively young. Weigh the pack, and the dog, if you’re not sure! I don’t like to make mine carry heavy loads, but I absolutely let them carry their own dog food and snacks, along with collapsible bowls. This also makes it easier to find those items when necessary instead of having to remove my own pack and dig through it.
My dogs both seem to behave slightly better with a pack on, especially Roy. Some working breeds like to have a task to do, after all, and by putting a pack on them they feel like they’re in charge of a task. Some dogs won’t like it, some will. Mine get pretty excited when we take their doggie backpacks out, as they know they’re headed somewhere fun!
It’s also important that you have your dog try on different packs, perhaps from different brands. One of my dogs is a great fit for his Ruffwear Approach pack; the other fits better in a Mountainsmith Dog Pack than anything else. Fit is important, as dogs vary widely in torso length and girth. What fits Roy (who is sort of barrel-shaped and wiggles when he walks) is very different than what fits Louie (who is rail-thin and lanky).
Don’t skimp here; my dogs are goobers and do things like bash their way through rhododendron thickets and scrape their packs along rocks, and if I’d bought lower-quality packs there would be nothing remaining but shreds of fabric. Some packs include useful features like waterproof pockets, or saddlebags that can be removed entirely for short swims or creek crossings.
Leave no Trace. This is an important one. Your dog is not a wild animal, it’s a dog, and you need to either bury its waste (just like your own) or bag it and carry it out. We have all stepped in dog poop on a popular trail, or ridden through it on our mountain bike. Don’t be That Guy. Most times, I bag it and let the dogs carry it out for me!
Other gear essentials for hiking with dogs. I like to carry collapsible bowls for their food and water. For some reason, Roy hates drinking out of his collapsible bowl, but sometimes it’s the only option if we need to go a long stretch between water sources and I have to fill his bowl from my own bottle or hydration pack. For some parts of the country, it’s also wise to have your dog(s) wear a bear bell around their collar.
Don’t forget poop bags, and extra first aid gear in case the dog has an issue. For snowy or cold hikes, some pets may benefit from a dog jacket or dog boots. This goes back to knowing where you are headed, your dog’s abilities and what hazards you might face. Be prepared!
If you’re local to Chattanooga, check out RootsRated’s article on dog-friendly hikes in the area.
About the author: Jeff Bartlett has plenty of experience hiking and backpacking in the southern Appalachians with his mutts Roydog (a 75-pound golden retriever + hound mix) and Louie (a 65-pound great pyrenees + hound mix)… and Leah, his wife of 12 years. All three are shown here. Photo is from a weekend-long hiking trip to Panthertown Valley, North Carolina. This was before it started raining. Then it rained. A lot.