Sometimes hiking, backpacking and camping can get lonely without your furry, four-legged friend, so don’t leave them at home, they belong in the outdoors just as much as you do! Here at Pike to Peak we’re all about bringing our canine sidekicks along! While there are dog-friendly trails, it’s important to know where to go, what to bring, and what to do. Here’s our guide to backpacking with your pup.
Planning and Preparation
No matter where you’re headed, you should always look up the rules and regulations of your destination. Leashes are required almost everywhere and while most national parks do not allow dogs on the trail (even leashed ones), many national forests, state and local parks do. Look for shaded, dog appropriate trails (ones that are easy on the paws), and avoid off-trail routes. You can find a list of dog-friendly trails here.
After you choose your backpacking destination, you need to make sure that your dog is physically prepared for it, especially if you are planning anything more than a day hike. While you may think “my dog has so much energy, there’s no way he/she wouldn’t make it on a hike”, they also have to adjust to new terrain, and sometimes new altitudes. Your dog isn’t running around at home all day without a rest or nap, is he/she? Hiking puts a lot of stress on a dog's joints, just like it does on yours, so keep that in mind too.
You can start out by monitoring energy levels after hour long hikes and increasing the time when your dog remains relatively active after each one. You will most likely have a pack for your dog to carry on the trails, so don’t forget to incorporate its pack when you do endurance training. Increase the weight of the pack as you increase the time until you reach the target weight and time. Consult with your vet to see what an ideal pack weight is, but you can assume no more than roughly 25% of your dog’s weight.
It’s always a good idea to brush up on some obedience training before a trip with your pup. If you are planning on having your dog off leash (only permitted on some trails), or even on a leash, it’s always reassuring to know your pup has his/her commands down. You never know who or what you might encounter on the trails, and you’ll likely have to rely on how fast your pup responds to a command. Simple commands like sit, stay, come, drop it, and leave it will go a long way in the backcountry.
Visit the Vet
- Is your dog old enough? Depending on the breed, if your dog is still a puppy, their bones might not be fully developed or ready to take a hike.
- What is your dog’s immune system like? Depending on its age and typical lifestyle, they might not be up for more intense and long backpacking trips.
- What preventative vaccinations are needed? It's good to make sure that your pup's vaccinations are up to date. The most common ones are bordetella, hepatitis, parvo, lepto, parainfluenza, and ticks. This is important because not only are unvaccinated dogs susceptible to catching diseases, they can also pass it on to wildlife.
- Trim your dog’s nails right before your trip to avoid rips in camping equipment like tents.
In addition to your own backpack, these are a list of pooch specific essentials. You have your own stuff to bring, so your pup will most likely be outfitted with their own pack. Remember to distribute the weight evenly; a dog pack should never be over a third of their weight. For an in-depth guide on how to train your dog to wear a pack, click here.
- Leash and Harness. On more tricky terrain like stream crossings, it’s best to have your dog in a harness for their safety.
- First-Aid Kit. This should include paperwork (vaccination proof, copies of important medical records), hydrogen peroxide (to induce vomiting, always contact vet before using), antibiotic ointment for cuts and abrasions, old socks to protect injuries and cuts on their paws, and gauze and tape.
- Water Container. It’s best to bring a separate water container for your dog, or if you’re carrying for the both of you, make sure you have enough. Pack some collapsible food and water bowls to make it easier. Pro Tip: Do NOT let your dog drink from open water sources as they may be contaminated.
- Booties. Even if your endurance training includes toughening up your dog’s paw pads, it’s a good idea to bring booties for extreme weather conditions or if you’re approaching terrain they might be unfamiliar with. If the trail is relatively easy, a spare sock will suffice as a fix for an injured paw if there are any accidents.
- Towels. Great if your dog decides to take a dip in the water, and for cleaning his/her paws before entering your tent.
- LED Lights or Glow Sticks. You can also bring along an LED collar. It’s great for keeping track of your dog at night.
- Coat. Depending on the weather and your dog’s fur type, you may want to bring them a jacket.
- Food. On the trails, you need more than the usual amount of food for your dog. On top of their regular meals, you should pack at least one cup extra for every 20 pounds of your dog’s weight per day.
- Sleeping Systems. Depending on the temperature and their usual sleeping arrangement, your pooch might need an insulated pad and/or blankets. Make sure you have the right size tent (and sleeping bag if they sleep next to you) to accommodate you and your furry friend. Check out How to Choose a Tent for further guidance.
Leave No Trace
The leave no trace principles apply to your dog too! Depending on your destination, if the area requires to be packed out (i.e. no available trash cans nearby), do not leave any filled poop bags on the trail (double bag them in case you’re worried about breakage). If packing out poop isn’t for you, bury any waste in catholes 6-8 inches deep and at least 200 feet away from water sources, camps and trails.
Respect Other Hikers
There may be hikers that are scared or wary of dogs, so make sure to keep yours on a leash around people and other animals.
If you will be hiking or camping near water and your dog can’t swim, pack a dog-specific personal floatation device. If you’re crossing a stream or creek, lift and carry your dog instead. If you’re hiking in cool temps, keep in mind that the wet fur combined with the chilly air can make your dog very cold (just like humans).
If you see your dog take a bite of an unknown plant, your best bet is to stop the chewing immediately in case it’s poisonous. Watch out for nettles, poison oak, ivy, and sumac, which will all cause discomfort for both you and your dog.
Thorns and burrs are irritating, but “foxtails” are more serious. Found on a variety of grasses in spring and summer, these barbed seed pods can snag on fur and end up between toes or in more sensitive areas like nasal passages, ears, eyes, and genitals. You should avoid areas with grasses that have foxtails, and remove them with tweezers (also great for removing ticks) right away. Excessive sneezing, head shaking, eye discharge or an abscess are a sign that it’s time to cut things short and head back. Foxtails can work their way into a vital organ and be fatal.
Dogs can get altitude sickness just like humans can. Make sure to hike up inclines slowly and be look on the lookout for any signs of discomfort.
Heat Stroke and Dehydration
There are a lot of numbers people swear by, but in general, if you’re feeling thirsty, your pup is too. Just make sure to not let him/her drink too much at once - larger breeds of dogs like Labrador retrievers tend to gorge on water when they’re on the go, which may cause bloating. Always look out for signs of discomfort. You can tell if your dog is feeling parched if he has a dry nose and sunken eyes. It is always safer to take breaks often and give them plenty of water.
Pro Tip: If your dog seems slow and sluggish, it’s best to give them a rest. Your dog relies on you at home, and will definitely rely on you in the backcountry, so be careful and trek safely.