You love the outdoors, and you love your dog. So when you are planning a backpacking trip it’s natural to want to bring your best canine friend along for the adventure. As long as you’re prepared, backpacking with dogs can be a wonderful activity for both you and your furry companions.
Along with double checking that your backpacking gear checklist includes your hiking tent, down sleeping bag, light sleeping pad, and everything else you may need on the trail, be sure to check out our guide to backpacking with dogs to make sure you and your pup have a safe and happy trip.
Keep reading to learn:
Whether your dog will enjoy backpacking or not depends entirely on the dog. While most dogs do enjoy being outside, smelling new things, and getting exercise, not every dog has the same tolerance for hiking.
Some dog breeds are more homebodies and naturally feel more comfortable inside, sitting next to you while you watch TV. Pomeranians, pugs, and bulldogs are examples of dog breeds that are naturally inclined to prefer lounging to hiking. That doesn’t mean your English Bulldog will hate hiking, but it does mean you shouldn’t rush into a backpacking trip with your dog before testing the waters with a longer walk or even a short nearby hike.
There are other dog breeds, however, that love to be outside and will hike and run until the sun goes down. If your dog has any sort of hunting or herding blood in them—a collie, shepherd, or hound, for instance—the chances of them loving a backpacking trip are pretty high.
Another important factor is your dog’s lifestyle. The more sedentary a lifestyle your dog lives, the more resistant they are likely to be to multiple days of long hikes and sleeping outdoors. If your pup hasn’t been very active in a long time, you should think carefully about this when planning your trip.
As we mentioned, certain breeds have traits and personalities that make them natural and happy hikers. According to the American Kennel Club, these are best dog breeds for long hikes and backpacking:
Backpacking can be a risky activity for dogs, just as it can be for humans. Here are four main risk factors to be aware of when backpacking with dogs:
So, is backpacking safe for dogs? Just like with humans, backpacking is completely safe, as long as proper precautions are taken. If you work hard to keep your dog safe, comfortable, and happy, backpacking is an excellent activity and a great way to vacation without leaving your pup at home.
In the next section, we’ll discuss all the steps you should take before you leave to make sure that your backpacking trip is safe for you and your dog.
Before you hit the trail, there are many things you need to do to ensure that your dog is ready and to mitigate the risks of being out in the wilderness. The following tips are important for training and preparing any dog for a hiking trip, but they are especially critical if your dog isn’t accustomed to hiking or being outside for long periods of time.
A visit to the veterinarian’s office should be one of your first orders of business. Tell them about your backpacking plan, have them evaluate your dog, and ask them if the trip is a good idea for your pup. Take their advice seriously; they will know exactly what your dog is capable of and can likely even advise you on appropriate trails, distances, and more.
While some dogs are natural hikers, most are not going to easily transition from spending lazy days inside or in the backyard to hiking 10-25 miles in a day.
As soon as you’re able before your planned trip, start walking with your dog for longer distances and on varied terrain. Your dog needs time to build up muscle and joint strength, same as you do. It’s wise to include your dog in your training schedule as much as you can. Are you on a three-month workout plan for backpacking? Make sure your dog is, too!
A good piece of advice for distance runners is to never increase the distance of your runs by more than 10 percent at a time. This is sound advice for hikers and dogs, too. Start by taking your dog on a normal walk. The next day, go out for a walk that is 10 percent longer and see how they respond. If they’re still happy and not panting excessively, add another 10 percent for the next walk, and so on.
If your dog has a tough time after a long walk, breathing heavily with lots of panting, that’s a sign you’re approaching their limit. Similarly, if your dog is especially tired and inactive after a long walk, you know you’ve hit their ceiling. Dial back the walk distance by 10 percent and stick at that distance for a week or two until they’ve adjusted before increasing the distance again.
If your dog isn’t accustomed to being around lots of unfamiliar people and animals, backpacking can be a challenge. Even the friendliest of dogs can turn aggressive when they’re out of their element and being forced to respond. Try to get your dog out into the world to meet people and other animals in safe, controlled environments. The more they learn to socialize now, the better they’ll be able to handle running into fellow hikers, other dogs, and the occasional woodland critter.
Once you’ve properly trained and prepared your dog, it’s time to hit the trails. Here are some things to remember before and during your trip:
There are two important questions you must ask when choosing a trail to hike with your dog:
The first question is important because many trails, especially those that are part of a National Park, have strict rules about who and what is allowed on the trail. Most are designated for humans, horses, mountain bikes, dogs, etc., but few trails are designated for all-purpose use.
Check the website of the organization or department that manages the trail you’re considering to find information about whether it allows dogs. There are plenty of dog-friendly trails, so you don’t have to worry too much. But, failing to check beforehand and bringing your dog to hike a trail they aren’t allowed on can be dangerous for you, your dog, and other nature lovers—and a real bummer.
The second question helps you narrow down your list of potential trails. Use what you know about your dog’s breed, exercise tolerance, and overall health to single out a trail that will be just right. Because every dog is different and every region has different offerings in terms of nature, it’s hard to give a blanket recommendation for the types of trails that are best. However, in general terms, trails that are mostly dirt rather than rock and have less than 3,000 feet of elevation should be safe for most healthy dogs.
When you decide to take your dog hiking, know that your backpacking checklist is going to expand—and we’re not talking about just food. Dogs are domesticated, so it’s important not to make the mistake of overestimating your dog’s instincts out in the wild. Just as you need to pack your own essentials and comfort items in order to have a great backpacking trip, your dog also needs a few specific things to keep them happy, safe, and comfortable:
Even if your dog is trained to walk without a leash, it’s rare to find a trail that allows unleashed dogs. Furthermore, your well-trained dog may lose a bit of discipline in a new area, surrounded by unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. Beyond that, you always have to worry about other animals and visitors who you cannot trust to be as well-behaved as your beloved pup.
So, what are you to do? It’s simple: keep your dog leashed at all times. It’s necessary for their safety, for the safety of others, and is almost always required by parks and forests. Using a leash is also good for peace of mind; you’ll always know where your dog is and have them within reach if anything precarious, dangerous, or unexpected arises.
When leashing your dog while hiking and backpacking, it’s recommended to use a harness over just attaching the leash to the collar. Harnesses allow greater control over your dog without hurting the neck.
Dogs are, among many things, very good at communication. If they’re getting tired, thirsty, or hungry, they’ll let you know by whining, with audible huffs, and through other non-verbal cues. If you notice your dog slowing down, panting a lot, or getting antsy, it might be time to stop and rest.
The last thing you want to do is to wear your dog out by pressing on when they clearly need a break. Successful backpacking with dogs happens when all parties are having a good time. Fortunately, there will be far more for your dog to enjoy than dislike, but it’s still critical to keep an eye on them for any signals that they need to stop.
If you notice your dog is getting out of breath quickly, plan to give them longer breaks during the hike. It also helps to have a backup campsite plan in place just in case they can’t handle the number of miles that you thought they could.
The point is this: your pup will let you know how they’re feeling as long as you’re paying attention to their communication. Listening is the skill that matters most when it comes to backpacking with dogs.
Again, knowing how far and long to hike with your dog really does depend on your specific pup. Some dogs have a tolerance and preference for high mileage. Others might only be able to take 3-4 miles per day. The key is to train them well, avoid overwhelming them with a huge backpacking trip the first time around, and listen! Observe how they do on an easy trip instead and work your way up to longer hikes.
Generally speaking, a healthy, active dog should be able to handle 10-20 miles, sometimes more, in good weather. Older dogs, puppies, and dogs with health issues should not be expected to tackle that kind of mileage. The best way to determine how far your dog can hike is by training with them and seeing how they respond to walks that last one hour, two hours, or longer.
Hiking in bear country does have a little bit of added thrill to it, as you know it’s unlikely you’ll see one, but the possibility of an encounter always looms. Backpacking with dogs requires you to have a little bit more awareness, as dogs and bears aren’t always going to be friends.
If your dog starts to act anxious or alert, they may have smelled or heard a bear somewhere nearby, even if the bear is still a long way off. If this happens, pay attention to how your dog is behaving, grip their leash a little tighter, and keep moving. There is most likely nothing to worry about unless the bear is extremely close and your dog’s fight or flight instincts are triggered.
If you do end up in a potentially dangerous encounter with a bear, having bear spray handy is essential. You should also shout at the bear to stay away in a loud, calm voice. Most bears have just as little interest in a fight as you do, so they’re more likely to keep away than start trouble.
In bear country, you should be storing your food in a bear canister—and the same goes for dog food. Don’t leave any food out overnight or near your tent. Your dog might enjoy a midnight snack at home, but leaving food out for them to eat at night is advertising an easy meal for any local bears.
Simple answer: we say, yes! Unless you’ve got yourself a true wilderness dog, it’s unlikely that sleeping outside of your tent is going to be better than being inside. This means that you need to think about getting a tent that is a little bit bigger, since there is effectively another person using the tent at night. Just be aware that your pup's paws could damage the bathtub floor of your tent or other technical gear. If your dog's nails are long, or you are worried about potential damage, consider purchasing thin mittens to cover their paws at night.
One alternative is to let your dog sleep on a blanket or sleeping pad in your tent’s vestibule (the doorway area), protected from the elements and most wind but not fully inside the tent. You can even cover the vestibule with a space blanket or small tarp to close it in and convert it into an extra room for your pup. Many two-person backpacking tents have two vestibules, making it easy to convert one of them into a secure and warm backpacking dog house.
Backpacking with dogs is incredibly fun, but it also requires you to take on a lot of extra responsibility—just like everything else that comes with owning a dog. If you think your pup would enjoy a backpacking trip, make sure they’re properly prepared and trained and watch over them on the trail to make sure they’re safe and happy.
Have you been backpacking with dogs before? Do you have any questions or tips for other hikers? Feel free to leave them in the comments below!
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