A Guide to Hiking with your Dog
Dogs are a natural fit for joining you on your hiking and backpacking adventures. Let’s face it, most dogs love to be outside. The sights, the smells, the sounds... did I mention the smells!? Just like you, your dog will benefit from the exercise and fresh air and can keep you in good company on the trail.
Conditioning - including puppies
It’s best to allow puppies to fully develop their bones and joints prior to starting any long distance hikes. Short day hikes are generally OK but you should avoid high impact activities and long miles. When will they be old enough? Probably sometime around a year old but it really depends on the breed and the best answer is to consult with your vet.
For adult dogs, conditioning is not much different than it is for humans. Start small, build mileage and weight. Your dog’s strength and stamina will build and his paw pads will toughen up. Remember, your dog can’t say when they’re tired and sore. You’ll have to watch for signs:
- Licking feet - are his pad’s injured or irritated?
- Excessive panting, stopping, lagging behind - is he getting overheated? Find some shade and work on hydration. Cooling products can also help.
- A tucked tail - your dog’s tail is always a good indicator of their state. Up and wagging? He’s probably doing well. Tucked between the legs? It might be time for a break.
Permits and regulations
Know the necessary permits and regulations before you head out.
- Are dogs allowed? Not in most National Parks but most other Federal Land is fair game. Be sure to check the area and know the rules. Fines can be hefty or your trip cut short.
- Do you need a special permit to bring your dog?
- What are the leash laws for the area?
- Do you need to pack waste out, or can it be buried? Most often, waste can be buried in a cathole just like yours. Know the rules though.
The great debate around dogs on the trail is on-leash versus off leash. Nothing will divide a group of outdoor loving dog owners faster. We like the idea of our dogs being able to freely explore the area, smelling and running and having a great time.
However, the reality is we have to share those spaces with other people, other dog owners, even wildlife. Consider these things -
- You might be sharing the trail with people who aren’t dog people or might even be afraid of dogs.
- After working up a huge appetite on the trail your dog might become more protective of food.
- How would your dog react to a rattlesnake?
- Would your dog chase after a deer and not able to be recalled?
- What if your dog encounters another dog who isn’t as friendly?
My older Lab, Huron, is well trained. In my younger days before kids, a demanding career and second dog, I spent multiple nights per week doing formal training classes. She is awesome on the trail - she has great recall and stays within sight. She responds to verbal and non-verbal commands. Letting her hike ahead and off leash was a point of pride for me.
One Memorial Day weekend in the Black Hills of South Dakota though, I found out the hard way that she had never seen a horse before and FREAKED OUT. She was barking, snarling and acting like a dog I hadn’t seen before. Luckily, I had her close and was able to get her under control before any damage was done. From that point on, she’s hiked on a leash. I realized I can’t control every situation we may encounter. I do opt for a longer stretch leash like the Ruffwear Roamer to give her some freedom and it allows me to wear the leash on my waist keeping my hands free.
Overall, trail etiquette is common sense. Don’t let your dog beg or get into anyone's food. Opt for tents over shelters to spare those that might have allergies (even after you leave), don’t allow your dog to charge up to unknown hikers or other dogs.
Cold, wet, hot, weather conditions
Sure, your dog is already sporting a nice fur coat but he’s not invincible. You have to know what range he is comfortable in. If it’s cold, get a coat to help keep his core warm both on the trail and at night. My dogs have thick coats and are fine down to about 35 or 40 degree days. When it starts to get colder than that I consider coats during the day depending on how hard they’re working and how sunny it is out (they’re both all black). For cold nights they’ll use a coat to stay warm.
Rainy weather is tough. It’s pretty hard to keep your dog dry. I pretty much give up and towel the dog’s off before we head into the tent. When it’s rainy and cold, try a coat like the Ruffwear Cloud Chaser that will shed water, block wind and keep the core warm. Your dog can get hypothermia just like a human, so play it safe.
Hot weather is probably the hardest. Follow the same precautions you’d take in hot weather. Hike in the morning and evening. Take it slow, rest in the shade and stay hydrated. Stop for swimming breaks where you can. Watch for warning signs like:
- Excessive panting
- Stopping and laying down/refusing to move
- Increased salivation
- Bright red tongue
- Red or pale gums
- Thick, sticky saliva
Leashes and collars - and night time/visibility
Leashes and collars really boil down to personal preference. On trips I prefer the non-stinking dry collars like the Ruffwear Headwater. I also tend to go with leashes that can be waist worn.
Nighttime visibility can be tough but there are plenty of products like LED collars and clip on lights, like the Nite Ize Spot Lit, that work great to help spot your dog in the dark.
Your dog’s normal kibble works well on the trail. I like to package each meal in zip lock bags to make it easy at breakfast and dinner time. Remember, your dog will be burning up more calories than normal and will need more to eat while on the trail. I like to add about 25% to 30% more per meal and supplement with treats like Zuke’s Power Bones during the day. Just like your food, dog food is a strong attractant to rodents and bruins. Be sure to hang all food and dirty bowls.
Just like us, our dog’s need constant hydration. Especially when it’s hot and we’re carrying packs. Offer water on a regular basis when you’re moving. Collapsible bowls or bottles specifically for dogs make that convenient. Offer plenty of clean water at camp as well.
I tend to filter water at camp but will let me dogs drink from streams and ponds while we’re hiking. Know the state of the water where you’ll be and play it safe with treated or filtered water if you don’t know.
Shots/vaccinations for outdoor doggies
Make sure your dog is up to date with all the vaccinations you and your vet have decided on. It’s not a bad idea to bring that paperwork with you on a trip. Most vets can give that to you on a single page. This could payoff if you need to make an emergency vet visit away from home.
Tick checking and removal
Ticks can be an issue in most parts of the country. Know the danger level before you go and carry a simple tick removal tool like the Tick Key. Check your dog, just like you’d check yourself. It’s a little tougher with the fur but a good pet down will reveal most ticks.
Products like Front Line are not an alternative for checking and removal. Front Line will kill a tick within a day or two but damage from something like Lyme disease could already be done. To help in the fight, consider repellants like Insect Sheild bandannas or natural repellant sprays.
The good news for your dog is that when they’re running through a patch of poison ivy, their fur will often block the oils from getting onto their skin. The bad news for you is that they’ll inevitable transfer those oils from their fur to your skin. I car camped with a buddy who a few years ago who let his Boston Terrier curl up between his legs at night. Imagine his surprise when poison ivy was all over the insides of his legs a few days later.
Choosing a backpack - sizing
How much can they carry?
When your dog is fitted with an appropriate pack he can carry a good deal of weight. Most medium and large dogs can carry all of their own gear. The general rule is 15% - 25% of his body weight. Don’t forget to include the weight of a pack and any water he might carry.
For dogs who may not be as fit (think those that spend most of their days on the couch) stick to 15% or maybe even a little less. For those that are very fit, getting solid daily exercise, 25% is not a problem. If your dogs are like mine who get most of their exercise on the weekends, we stick to 18% - 20%. Some other factors to consider:
- Dogs who are getting up in years and may be prone to sore joints
- Dogs with old injuries, especially to hips or leg joints
- Or if your dog is new to carrying a pack
Basically, it’s not much different from the weight you may carry. If you are prone to a bum knee or out of shape, you're going to limit your weight and mileage. Same goes for your dog.
Footwear for dogs
Protecting your dog’s feet is as important as protecting your own. Your dog’s pads should be well conditioned before hitting the trail. Not much different than building up your own endurance, your dogs paws need to be conditioned with gradual increases in distance.
I always hike with boots such as the Ruffwear Grip Trex. However, I only tend to use them if the terrain is rough - for me that mostly means rough granite rock. You might find that you need to keep boots on more in terrain with lava rock, thorns, cactus, or hot sand.
The bottom line is, keep an eye on your dog’s feet. Remember he can’t verbalize that he is hurting and you may not notice until it is a bad situation. Sizing for most boots is pretty easy:
- Have your dog stand on a firm surface like tile, concrete, or a wood floor.
- Place a piece of paper under one front paw.
- Lift the other front paw to put weight on the paw on the paper.
- Mark the widest part of the paw on the paper.
- Measure the distance between the marks.
That measurement will be your dog’s boot size. Unlike human shoes, there is no standard. A medium in one boot may be a Large in another or a small in a third boot.
Sleeping arrangements with your dog
My dogs crash in the tent with me. You might be saying “of course” or “think of the mess!”. Consider a couple factors:
- Personal preference
- Your dog’s preference (would he be comfortable outside without you?)
If you wouldn’t sleep outside the tent because of bugs, weather, etc., don’t make your dog do it. Have them sleep in the tent or leave them at home. If you and your dog will be sharing the tent, make sure your dog is keen on this idea. Set the tent up at home. Make sure they’re not scared of it and are willing to get in and lay down quietly. The last thing you want on your first night out is to find your dog is scared to be in the tent.
Consider a lightweight bed like the Ruffwear Highlands bed. A small fleece throw works well too. Either way, it’s a great idea to let your dog sleep on the bed or blanket at home before your trip so they recognize it as their own. In cold weather, consider carrying a piece of closed cell foam pad to insulate your dog from the ground. I’ll also bring fleece coats for my dogs to sleep in during cold weather. Make sure you keep those nails trimmed so damage is not done to your tent floor.
Finally, opt for your tent over trail shelters. It’s one of those cases where you may have to share the shelter with someone who’s allergic to, or doesn’t love our dogs as much as we do.
Editor's note: Please join me in welcoming Jason Booth to Brian's Backpacking Blog as a guest contributor. Jason is the founder of BackcountryK9.com a site dedicated to providing the best possible outdoor gear for dogs. Jason is an avid camper and hiker who knows more about properly outfitting dogs for outdoor adventure than anyone else I know. I look forward to digging deeper into this topic with Jason over the coming months. Be sure to check out his online store for the best gear at the best prices.