Anytime I dust off my hiking gear or get ready to go backpacking, my dog, Lulu is always excited to accompany me. She loves getting outside and enjoying the experience almost more than me. While backpacking with dogs can be a great experience, it’s important to make sure you know your pet’s physical limits and have taken all the necessary precautions to keep them safe.
After miles of trails with Lulu, we have a firm grasp of what works for us to make the experience go smoothly. I’ll outline everything we’ve learned so you can enjoy the experience too.
Before Your Hike
Check the trail rules
Nothing is more of a disappointment than getting ready and getting your dog excited just to find out you can’t take them on the trail. You can usually find the rules for your trail online. The majority of U.S. national parks do not allow hiking with dogs, but many smaller trails are more lenient.
Just being allowed to have your dog on the trail isn’t quite enough. Make sure you keep your dog on a leash and keep your dog as calm as possible when passing hikers. Choose a leash sturdy enough for your dog and make sure it fits the regulations of the trail. Most trails require a leash of six feet or fewer.
Teach your dog how to behave on the trail. For beginners pick low-traffic trails or go during down times. Take the opportunity to learn how your dog reacts to new people, animals, and other dogs.
Keep in mind, that even though your dog may be great on walks through your neighborhood, there will be new situations and stimuli on the trail that could make them excited or aggressive. If your dog is prone to pulling or behaving poorly on a leash I would recommend fixing those issues before hiking together.
Make sure your dog is fit for the trail
This should go without saying, but make sure your dog is in good shape for hiking. Start off by taking short trails with minimal inclines before more impressive adventures. While you think it might be fun, if your dog is not fit enough, they would be much safer and happier staying with friends or family.
If you plan on splitting the load with your dog make sure to start light. Your dog will tire much quicker with even a small load. I would recommend no load for first time hikers. We’ll go into more detail on packing and fitting your dog’s pack later.
Make sure your dog is properly vaccinated for the trail. While the only required vaccination is rabies it is important to make sure your dog is fully protected before venturing into the wild. Keep your dog vaccinated to protect them and all the dogs they interact with.
You should consider vaccinating your dog against Bordetella and completing the DHLPP inoculation. Heartworm and tick protection is also vital on trails. Talk to your veterinarian to find out what is important in your area and what the best course of action is to make hiking with your dog safe.
Pack food, water, and first aid equipment
Keeping your dog fed and hydrated is crucial to your dog’s health. Do your research! If the trail has no options to filter water, make sure you bring enough for you and your dog. On warm days a little extra water will go a long way for both of you. Collapsible bowls are small, lightweight, and cost effective.
Check with your vet to make sure your dog is getting enough food. An easy way to prepare is to bring twice the amount of food you usually feed your dog. This will ensure that you are prepared even if the trip is more tiring than you expected.
Ask a vet to make sure you are feeding your dog the right amount and type of food. The vet is your most valuable resource for preparing to hike with dogs. Make a few stops to feed your dog. Try to keep on the same feeding schedule you keep at home with opportunities for a few small snacks if needed.
Your dog can most likely handle the weight of their food and water in their pack. The weight restrictions you should follow will be outlined later. For the top backpacking gear for dogs, see our article on this topic.
Check the conditions and come prepared with vests and boots
Check the weather conditions and the walking conditions on your trail. If the temperature is on the cold side or it is expected to be wet, come prepared with a coat or vest for your dog. You might think it looks silly, but it will keep your dog comfortable and safe.
Finding a coat with good underside protection will make a big difference, especially when hiking with dogs in the snow. If you are planning an overnight trip, make sure to bring something warm for your dog to sleep in. A kid’s sleeping bag is usually a good option. Don’t let the cold at night surprise you!
Another important accommodation for your dog is boots. It may take your dog a while to get used to them, but they are extremely valuable in the wet, cold, and on rough terrain. It may be difficult to find a pair that fit correctly, but don’t give up.
Your dog will thank you for them. If your dog does end up with a cut on their paw, you should put the boots on them immediately to pad their step and prevent anything from getting in the cut. Make sure to keep your first aid kit handy!
If you have a dog pack make sure to fit and load it properly
Don’t overload your dog! Typically, healthy dogs can carry about a quarter of their bodyweight. Some breeds of working dogs are known to carry significantly more while other breeds are unable to carry much. Do research on your dog’s breed to determine how much they can carry. Again, make sure to consult your vet.
To fit the pack you start with taking their chest measurement to help pick a size. Once you have found a suitable pack simply lay it over your dog’s back and fasten the straps. Typically, the straps will tighten around the waist, chest, and neck.
Tighten the straps similar to their collar. Leave room to breathe, but make sure the pack doesn’t flop around. Watch your dog walk with the pack to see if any adjustments need to be made. Packs can be used to carry items, water, and even as an exercise tool for your dog.
It’s always nice to split the load with your friend. Different packs will have different features like built in dishes, organizational tools, cooling inserts, and handles. Shop around to find the pack that best meets your needs.
On the Trail
Keep your dog on leash or in close proximity
This should go without saying, but make sure to keep your dog close with you. If they venture off on their own they can get lost, hurt, or cause trouble. Most trails will require that you keep your dog on a leash, but not all. If you plan on hiking with your dog off leash, make sure you trust them to come when called, stay close, and not run after any animals or people.
For beginners, I would recommend keeping your dog on a leash even if the trail regulations allow you to let your dog off leash. Make sure to ease your dog into hiking. While you have them on the leash, take the opportunity to teach them trail etiquette and set boundaries for what they are and aren’t allowed to do. It could save you a lot of trouble down the line.
Even if you typically walk your dog off leash I would recommend keeping them on for the first hike. You never know how they will react to the new stimuli. If you do decide to let your dog off the leash make sure to keep a close eye on them.
Do not let them wander off the trail. You never know what is in the brush and it allows you to set a clear boundary for them. Hiking with dogs is especially fun once your dog is able to follow your rules and enjoy the hike with you.
Make stops to let your dog rest, eat, and drink
Make sure to plan stops along your route. You may not tire as quickly as your dog, but it important for them to stay rested. A small break now will save you from having to stop your hike early. Watch your dog closely to monitor if they are tired, thirsty, hungry, or if they have another form of discomfort that requires a stop.
Don’t rush back to your hike after you take a break. You don’t need to go quickly to make up for lost time. Enjoy the hike and find a pace that is comfortable for you and your dog. Once you have a better feel for how your dog walks you will be able to plan your trips better, but in the beginning always plan to move slower than you expect.
Try to stop and feed your dog at their regular feeding times. They will naturally be hungry then and it will keep them on track once you get home. If they seem hungry or tired throughout the day don’t stray from giving them a few small snacks in addition to their normal meals. Try to portion your food and water to prevent running out before the trail does.
Take precautions letting your dog play in water
On hot trips you should give your dog a chance too cool down. Often spots by the water are the coolest and nicest places. If you are planning on enjoying a lake, pond, creek, or shallow river with your dog you need to be prepared.
First of all, bring your dog a personal flotation device. Not all dogs are strong swimmers, which is why a life jacket or PFD for your dog can be important. Fitting a PFD for your dog is very similar to the way you fit your dog’s pack.
Measure their chest to determine the size and tighten the straps to a comfortable fit. If you do not know your dog’s swimming strength you should stay away from water. There are better places to learn.
After your dog is in the water, make sure to wash them off. There are undoubtedly chemicals, viruses, and in some cases salt in the water that can get caught in their fur and cause skin problems.
Make sure to give your dog a chance to rest after swimming. It is far more strenuous than walking and can potentially wear them out significantly quicker than you expect.
Hike with proper etiquette
When you first start out, make sure to hike on low traffic trails to give your dog an opportunity to get accustomed to the demands and stimuli of hiking. Take the opportunity to teach your dog not to run up to hikers, children, or other dogs. If a large group approaches keep your dog close to you. You don’t want to block the trail and make it a pain for everyone.
If you hike at a slower or faster pace than other hikers make sure you do not pressure them to speed up out of their comfort zone or annoy them by slowing down and taking up the whole trail with your dog. If your trail is shared with bikers I would recommend keeping your dog on their leash to keep them from being in the way or chasing after a biker.
Be prepared for people to ask to pet your dog. You know your dog’s temperament and should answer accordingly. If in doubt, you can always say it’s been a long hike and your dog is getting a little grumpy. Make sure to assure your dog that other hikers are friends and nothing to be afraid of.
When You Get Home
Let your dog rest
Hiking is a serious workout for your dog. It’s good to get them out to keep them active and healthy, but it is important to make sure you let your dog get the rest they need when you return home. Let them lay to rest their legs and make sure you plan enough time between hikes for them to fully recover before hitting the trail again.
Give your dog some food and water
Make sure you give your dog plenty of food to help them replenish their muscles and stay healthy. If you ran out of food on the trail make sure to monitor your dog to make sure they are not acting any differently or eating at a significantly different pace than usual.
If you do run out of food on the hike make sure to make a note of how much to bring next time. Water will also help your dog replenish. After workout your dog will undoubtedly be thirstier than usual. Keep their water bowl full and if you’re returning after a hot day a cool bowl will help them maintain a healthy temperature.
If you ran out of water on the trail make sure to rehydrate your dog as quickly as possible. If you notice any behavioral or energy changes you should see your vet immediately.
Monitor your dog for any cuts, limping, or new itching
Keep an eye on your companion. There’s a potential for your dog to get ticks or fleas on the trail. Keep any eye on them and treat with the appropriate medicine recommended from your doctor if you notice anything.
If you notice your dog is injured on the trail make sure to monitor their healing once you return home. If a cut becomes infected or if limping worsens you should contact your vet immediately.
Keeping your best friend safe and healthy is the most important part of hiking with dogs.
Hiking with dogs can be a great way to get them active while you enjoy one of your favorite hobbies, but is incredibly important that you keep them safe and healthy.
Make sure to plan ahead, follow your plan on the trail, and nurture your dog when you get home. See also our review of the best backpacks for dogs to give you more options.
How has your experience hiking with dogs been? Do you have any tips for hikers about bringing their four-legged companion along for the first time? Sound off in the comments!+