Backpacking With Your Dog: The Complete Guide
Stop And Smell The Roses (and then pee on them)
If you’re as obsessed with your dog as I am, chances are you want to bring them everywhere with you, including on your backpacking excursions. But how can you know if your dog is suited to backpacking? Will they enjoy it? What kind of logistics will you have to confront to make this dream into a reality?
These were all questions I faced when deciding whether or not to bring my dog, Dobby, on my Long Trail thru-hike in Vermont.
Complete guide to backpacking with your dog:
- Is your dog a good fit for backpacking?
- Preparing for a backpacking trip with your dog
- Dog Dietary Needs For Backpacking
- Choosing A Pack For Your Dog
- Dog Backpacking Gear Essentials
- Choosing a Trail to Backpack With Your Dog
- Taking Your First Backpacking Trip With Your Dog
Is Your Dog a Good Fit For Backpacking?
This is the first and most important question when deciding whether or not to bring your dog on a backpacking trip. As much as we love our dogs, some of them are simply not suited to trail life. While there are some concrete examples of dogs that should not go backpacking, ultimately this is a complicated question that only you can really answer.
What Kind of Dog Do You Have?
Many different factors apply when deciding whether to take your dog backpacking. There is no perfect dog breed for backpacking, but there are certain kinds of phenotypes and personalities better-suited to the activity than others. It is best for everyone involved if we are brutally honest with ourselves when determining our dogs’ suitability to a backcountry adventure.
Physical Form and Fitness
Larger, working dog breeds are usually the most successful when it comes to backpacking. They are large enough to carry their own packs and have the stamina and drive to handle the strenuous days spent hiking over rough terrain. This is not to say that small or slender dogs cannot go backpacking, but be aware that many smaller canines will need more help crossing obstacles like downed trees, rocks, and rivers and may not be able to carry their own gear. Some examples of dogs that should be left at home are:
- Brachiocephalic dogs: Those breeds with a “smushed face” appearance, like pugs and bulldogs, do not typically make successful backpackers. Their severely shortened snout makes breathing difficult and they are much more likely to overheat. Both of these shortcomings can lead to life-threatening situations, so think very hard before bringing a dog like this on a long hike.
- “Low-riders”: Dogs that have short legs and a proportionately long spine, like Dachshunds or Corgis, are also incompatible with long hiking trips. Their short legs make crossing obstacles difficult. Their long spine significantly increases their likelihood of suffering a back injury and renders them unable to safely carry a weighted pack.
- Puppies: Young puppies are best left at home. Most puppies are not inoculated against many diseases they may pick up in the wilderness until at least 4 months of age and their growing bone structure is not yet equipped to handle the rigors of difficult backpacking. Dogs that are not full-grown (usually between 2 and 3 years of age) should not carry a pack.
- Elderly dogs: Like puppies, some elderly dogs are not capable of handling the rigorous activities that backpacking entails.
- Size: What if your dog needed to be carried due to trail obstacles or an injury? Would you be able to carry your dog to safety?
This list is not exhaustive. If you aren’t sure whether or not your dog is physically capable of backpacking, talk to your veterinarian and try a few practice hikes.
A Backpacking Dog’s Personality
Not every human enjoys backpacking. In that same vein, not all dogs seem to enjoy long, hard days covering rough terrain in all kinds of weather. Though we cannot know for sure if our dogs enjoy backpacking, we can do our best to observe their behavior and draw a fairly accurate conclusion.
The best way to ascertain whether or not your dog enjoys backpacking would be to take them on progressively longer hikes and judge for yourself if they appreciate the activity. Start slow, with shorter hikes and no pack. When judging their behavior, pay attention to some of the following factors.
- Body Language: A dog who is enjoying the trail will have a partially erect, wagging, tail. Ears will be perked, pointing forward and to the sides, taking in information about your surroundings. If your dog’s tail and ears are down and their body is drooping, they may not be enjoying themselves.
- Behavior: Your dog should appear excited to engage with the trail, taking in the scents and ready to see what’s around the next bend. If they are merely following you down the trail, or don’t even want to get out of the car at the trailhead, these may be clear indications your dog does not enjoy hiking as much as you do.
- Real-world experience: I am fairly confident saying that Dobby is suited to and loves backpacking. He doesn’t mind wearing his pack, he smells all the smells and races around peeing on everything. He’s excited to enter the woods and appears reluctant to leave. This is almost always the case, and I feel comfortable concluding that Dobby is well-suited to backpacking.
As 65 lbs of German Shepherd/Pitbull mix, Dobby’s broad, strong body and long legs leave him more than capable of carrying his own gear and clearing obstacles on his own. On our Long Trail trek, the only obstacles he needed assistance with were the ladders.
All that being said, there were a handful of days on our Long Trail thru-hike that Dobby did not enjoy backpacking. These few days, it poured rain and the temperatures hovered in the 40s. He was wet and cold; his tail hung completely limp, and he followed directly behind me on the trail. I know him well enough to know this behavior was not indicative of a dog enjoying his time in the woods.
We remedied this situation by purchasing a doggy rain jacket from Hurtta to keep him dry and warm, and he was soon back to his hyper self. Had his temperament not improved, I would have had to face the difficult decision of leaving the thru-hike incomplete.
Your Dog Doesn’t Like Backpacking
You may find that your dog doesn’t appear to enjoy backpacking. If this is the case, don’t worry! Maybe your dog enjoys a day-hike but not an overnight trip. Perhaps your dog prefers a nice backyard play session instead of sleeping in the woods.
Be open and honest with yourself about your dog’s needs and abilities. It is much easier to let your dog stay comfortable at home than to bring your dog and have to bail on a backpacking trip halfway through due to their inability to continue. Remember that backpacking is a physically and mentally grueling activity that we choose to undertake: your dog does not make that decision for themselves, you do.
Preparing For a Backpacking Trip With Your Dog
If whether or not your dog is suited to backpacking is the most important question, preparing for the trip is the most important step. Any backpacking trip involves an incredible amount of organization and research, but a trip including your dog involves significantly more planning.
Fitness and Training
Just like any human, dogs need fitness training to decrease the likelihood of an injury and ensure a successful backpacking trip. The first time your dog hikes 15 miles shouldn’t be your first day on the trail. Start with easier, shorter hiking trips and slowly progress to longer days and more rigorous terrain as they (and you) build stamina and endurance.
Progress to your dog wearing his or her pack. Make sure the pack does not rub your dog, especially under the arms or on the belly. Slowly add weight to your dog’s pack over time to build up their muscles and endurance.
In addition to fitness, any dog you plan to include on a backpacking trip should have strong basic obedience skills. Sit, stay, and come are bare-minimum essential commands your dog should be able to follow. A strong recall can enable you to call your dog away from hazardous situations like interactions with wildlife and with people who may not like dogs.
Remember that other hikers did not choose to bring your dog on the trail, you did. You are responsible for your dog and his or her actions. A dog who jumps on, steals food from, or otherwise bothers other hikers gives all backpacking dogs a bad name. Do not be that dog owner; make sure your dog is polite and respectful to all people and animals you meet.
It’s also a good idea to get your dog used to situations you may not encounter at home but will definitely encounter on the trail. If you plan to sleep in a tent with your dog, make sure to test that out at home first. Set your tent up in a backyard and see how your dog does overnight.
If you plan to leash your dog, get your dog used to walking behind you on the trail while you’re both wearing your packs. Your dog needs to get used to these situations before you step into the woods.
Vaccinations and Medications
Preparing your dog for the outdoors doesn’t stop with training and gear. Keeping your dog happy and healthy on the trail starts with keeping them healthy at home.
- Flea and Tick Preventative: Though something your dog should get regularly at home, a flea and tick preventative is even more vital in the wilderness. Not only can fleas and ticks cause a multitude of diseases, but they can also be transferred to you. Dobby takes Bravecto, a pill-form preventative that lasts 3 months.
- Rabies: Though we hope such an encounter never occurs, your dog may encounter wildlife on the trail. Your dog should always be kept up-to-date on their rabies vaccination.
- Microchip: Though not technically a medication, having a microchip implanted under your dog’s skin by a vet can help you find your dog in the event they get lost in the woods. Collars and ID tags can fall off, but a microchip will stay with your pooch.
Not to sound like a broken record, but if you have any medical-related questions regarding your dog, consult your veterinarian. Let them know where you plan to go and what you intend to do so they may best advise you on what your dog needs.
Dog Dietary Needs For Backpacking
Just like you, a dog’s dietary needs change when backpacking long distances. Dogs are prone to “hiker hunger” just like we are.
Dogs need to eat roughly double the calories of their regular at-home diet when backpacking. Consider breaking up their diet into more meals spread throughout the day to accommodate the larger quantity. There are several food options for dogs when undertaking a trek through the woods.
- Regular Diet: On shorter backpacking trips, you may just bring your dog’s normal food, especially if they eat dry kibble. Cans of wet food are heavy and take up a lot of space, making them difficult to bring along. If you choose to bring your dog’s normal, everyday food, make sure you bring enough to feed him or her double their usual diet.
- Calorie-dense food: Some brands of dog food are much more calorie-dense than others. Research different brands and see how much dry kibble they recommend per body weight. Some dog foods may recommend 4 cups of food per day for a 50 lb dog, while other brands only require 2.5 cups of food for the same size dog. The more calories per cup your dog food has, the less food your dog has to carry. Dobby eats 4 cups of Crave dog food each day while hiking, but only 2.5 cups at home.
- Dehydrated Food: Some brands offer dehydrated dog food. This is by far the lightest, and most expensive, option for feeding your pet on the trail.
- Snacks: Don’t forget the snacks! Just as you will take multiple breaks a day to eat a Snickers or down some jerky, bring along treat items to give your dog throughout the day. Not only will this break up the day nicely, but it will also give your dog a few extra calories and enable them to take a nice siesta with you. Dobby loves Greenies and any of my leftovers from dinner.
If you decide to feed your dog something different on the trail than what they eat at home, slowly adjust them to their new diet over the course of several days before you start your trip.
Tip: Consider adding olive oil or coconut oil to your dog’s kibble to increase the calories in their food.
When it comes to water requirements for a dog, a good rule of thumb is that they need approximately 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight per day. So a 50 lb dog would need approximately 50 ounces of water each day.
This is a very rough estimate; daily water requirements depend heavily on a variety of factors including activity level, temperature, humidity, hike difficulty, fitness, and breed.
Whether or not you need to carry water for your dog (or they need to carry their own) depends on the availability of clean water on your hike. Location and season can be very important factors when determining how often you will come across potable water sources.
Choosing a Pack For Your Dog
Before you rush off to REI to purchase an expensive pack for your dog, first consider whether or not your dog should carry a pack at all.
Should Your Dog Carry a Pack?
As previously discussed, some breeds and types of dogs are better suited to carrying packs than others. If you have a slender or small dog, carrying a weighted pack may lead to body pain or even serious injury. If you are unsure whether or not your dog can safely carry a pack, consult a veterinarian.
How to Pick a Pack For Your Dog
The gear heads in us love to obsess about each new piece of gear, and this is easy to do with all of the options available for dog packs. While it can be easy to get distracted by different features and designs, the most important aspect of choosing a backpack for your dog is fit. An ill-fitting backpack can cause chafing and even injury to your dog on a backpacking trip.
Some companies offer customized packs made specifically for your dog while others are pre-made. In both cases, a pack is fitted by measuring the circumference of your dog’s chest at the widest part of his or her rib cage. In the case of pre-made packs, the circumference measurement will correspond to available sizes.
Here is an example of a size chart from Ruffwear, a popular dog brand specializing in outdoor recreation:
When testing fit on your dog, you want the straps to be tight enough that the pack will not slip off or chafe your dog but not so tight that he or she is unable to comfortably breathe. Fitting your dog’s pack properly may take some trial and error. The best way to ensure proper fit is to have your dog wear their pack around the house and on shorter walks, looking for signs of discomfort or rubbing and adjusting accordingly.
When it comes to loading your dog’s pack, the amount of weight your dog can carry depends on age, breed, and fitness level. Some dogs can carry 25% of their body weight once they’ve been conditioned, while some types of dogs can only carry 10 to 15%. This is another instance where your veterinarian is a valuable resource for information.
Even though Dobby is built sturdily, I kept his Ruffwear Approach pack-weight between 8 to 10 lbs on the Long Trail, including 6 days of food. At 65 lbs, this put Dobby’s pack weight between 12% and 15% of his body weight.
Dog Backpacking Gear Essentials
The topic of gear can be overwhelming in any niche, and backpacking supplies for a dog are no different. It is all too easy to get inundated with options and soon feel like you are hemorrhaging money to prepare for your excursion. Here are some of the most essential items to consider for a backpacking trip with your dog.
- Collapsible Bowl: For food and water in camp. Some hikers choose to use a frisbee as a light-weight alternative. Dobby uses a collapsible dog bowl from Comsun that comes with a convenient carabiner to attach it to your dog’s pack.
- Sleeping Pad: Dogs need a comfortable place to rest their aching muscles just as we do. While some hikers choose to let their dogs share their sleeping pad, your dog may need or want their own. A cheap alternative to buying a product listed as a canine sleeping pad is to take a foam sleeping pad made for humans, like the Thermarest Z-Lite, and cutting it down to the appropriate size for your dog. One benefit of this is that you can use the small discarded piece leftover as a camp seat!
- Microfiber Towel: An essential item to clean off your dog’s feet before they enter a shelter or tent. This will also come in handy if your dog likes to swim and needs to be dried off before bed or due to cooler temperatures. A small microfiber towel (about the size of a hand towel) will do the trick, like this one from REI.
- First Aid Kit: Your dog doesn’t necessarily need an entire first aid kit devoted to themselves, but a few key items should be added to your standard backpacking medical supplies.
- An old wool sock, in case of foot injury (or bring a dog booty)
- Waterproof medical tape
- Benadryl (it’s dog-safe, but consult your vet regarding dosage)
- Styptic pencil (to stop bleeding)
- A picture of your pet (in case they get lost)
- Vet and vaccination info
- Fine-toothed comb
- A paw conditioner (like Musher’s Secret)
- Poop bags and Poop Vault: We’ll talk more about Leave No Trace in the “On the Trail” section of this post, but poop bags are essential. A poop vault is a place to store poop bags until you can dispose of them properly. As an alternative to purchasing a poop vault, you can use any sealable container like an old diaper wipes box or resealable treat bag like the one in which Greenies treats are packaged.
- Tent: Some backpackers choose not to bring a tent, especially on trails like the Long Trail or the Appalachian Trail that have shelters to sleep in. If you are bringing your dog backpacking, I highly recommend bringing a tent. Maybe you come upon a full shelter, or there are hikers in the shelter who are allergic to dogs. Many backpackers just don’t agree with the presence of dogs in the backcountry. These are just a few examples of scenarios where it would be better and simpler to sleep in a tent with your dog.
- Depending on the size of your dog, you will most likely need a bigger tent to accommodate both of you comfortably. On the Long Trail, Dobby and I had plenty of space in our 2-person ultralight Nemo Hornet.
- Sleeping bag: If your backpacking trip is taking place in summer, your dog may not need any sort of sleeping bag at night. If your trip is occurring during the shoulder seasons, however, your dog may need some help keeping warm at night. You can invest in a bigger sleeping bag that can accommodate you both, or supply your dog with their own. There are dog-specific sleeping bags available out there like the Ruffwear Highlands Sleeping Bag, but an alternative is to use a mylar blanket or camp blanket.
- I like using a camp blanket because it can have multiple uses and, depending on the brand, are usually a cheaper option than a sleeping bag. I wrap Dobby in a Kelty camp blanket, but often he becomes uncovered as the night goes on and ends up shivering or trying to climb into my sleeping bag with me.
- Leash: Even if you don’t plan to leash your dog for the majority of the trail, there will most likely be occasions where you either have to or you should. Always bring a leash for your dog. We use one from Leash Boss.
Gear to Consider
As stated above, the amount of gear you could potentially bring for a wilderness outing with your dog far surpasses the amount of room you will have in your collective packs. The following are gear items you might consider bringing along depending on your individual needs.
- Booties: Dog booties can protect your pooch’s feet from the hot ground and rocky stretches. They can also serve as a protective layer if your dog injures their foot on your hike; I carried one Ruffwear booty for Dobby and he ended up wearing it after developing a large blister on one footpad towards the end of our hike.
- Jacket/Puffy: If your dog has short hair like Dobby, they may require a jacket for a shoulder-season hike, especially for sleeping in at night. Though I have not done so myself, I have seen people make jackets for their dogs out of old sweatshirts or flannels. Dobby wears a Quinzee Puffy from Ruffwear.
- Rain Jacket: As mentioned previously, your dog may benefit from a rain jacket to keep them dry, especially during seasons of colder temperatures. Dobby’s rain jacket is from Hurtta and its bright orange color accomplishes the additional task of making Dobby very visible to both myself and hunters.
- Nail clippers and file: Keeping your dog’s nails neatly trimmed can reduce the risk of injury as well as keep your tent floor safe. If your trip is a short one, trimming your dog's nails beforehand could negate the need to bring these items along.
- Safety Light: These small lights attach to your dog’s collar and help you keep track of them at night.
- Bear Bell: Another collar accessory, a bear bell serves the dual purpose of helping you keep track of your dog if they are off-leash as well as alerting wildlife - and other hikers - of your approach.
- Cooling Collar or Vest: During summer months, especially if your dog has long hair, they may benefit from a cooling collar or vest. These products are activated with water and help bring your dog’s temperature down if you suspect they may be overheating.
- Brush or Comb: A good idea for dogs with long hair, giving any dog a good brushing before bed can neutralize painful knots and keep more dog hair out of your sleep system. From a medical standpoint, a comb can be used to remove burrs or look for fleas and ticks in your dog’s coat.
Choosing a Trail to Backpack With Your Dog
Now that you’ve crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s planning what to pack and how to pack it, it’s time to decide where to go backpacking with your dog. Here are some factors to consider when choosing a trail:
Is the trail dog-friendly?
The first item to consider is whether or not a trail is dog-friendly. Most national parks have strict rules about dogs, which are disallowed from the majority of the trails there. The same can be said for many state parks as well, such as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park.
In addition to the trail itself, if you will be resupplying or taking zero days, you will have to find dog-friendly accommodations in town as well.
Are there leash regulations?
Just because dogs are allowed does not mean they are allowed off-leash. Check the regulations of the areas you intend to pass through on your trip. On the Long Trail, for example, dogs are allowed off-leash everywhere but in the four designated alpine areas, where dogs must be leashed.
Follow rules and regulations regarding dogs in any area you visit, otherwise, we may lose the ability to bring dogs to these locations at all in the future.
What are the logistics of the location?
Some other factors to consider for a trail are factors like climate, weather, and season. Research what kind of weather patterns you may run into. If temperatures will be very hot, will there be sufficient shade and water sources for your dog to cool off and stay hydrated?
Distance is an important factor as well. Think about how many days of food your dog can reasonably carry. Does this match up with how often you will be able to resupply in town? Will you be able to find your dog’s specific food in these resupply towns or will you have to complete mail drops?
The decision to bring a dog on a backpacking trip is a weighty one. These are only a few of the questions you need to address.
Taking a Backpacking Trip With Your Dog
You’re finally ready. You’ve trained, packed the gear, and chosen the trail; now you and your canine companion are ready to head into the backcountry. Just as there are rules and etiquette that apply to every hiker, the same can be said for their hiking dogs as well.
Leave No Trace
Anyone familiar with backpacking has heard of the seven Leave No Trace Principles, but many may have not considered how it applies to their dog. A dog can have an even bigger impact on wild places than the people who choose to bring them there. When it comes to recreating in the backcountry, the defining principle is to pass through as if you were never there and maybe even leave somewhere better than you found it.
The biggest consideration for Leave No Trace when backpacking with a dog is their feces. Your dog’s poop must be treated the same way as any backpacker’s: feces should be buried 6 inches deep in a hole at least 200 yards from a water source or trail, or packed out. This is where those poop bags and poop vault from the gear section come in handy. Some sections of the Long Trail, such as the alpine mountain tops, have no place to bury poop because they consist of rock surfaces, so it all has to be packed out.
Safety Concerns When Backpacking With a Dog
Backpacking with a dog is the equivalent of bringing along a toddler capable of running 35 miles an hour. When you choose to bring your dog backpacking, you are responsible for their safety.
It is almost inevitable that your dog will encounter wildlife on a backpacking trip. This is where some of that recall training comes into play. You should be able to call your dog back or prevent them from chasing after wildlife. This is not only for the safety of the wild animals you see but for your dog’s safety as well. If you aren’t confident in your ability to recall your dog, consider keeping them on a leash. Some backpackers choose to muzzle their dogs on long hikes to prevent them from harming wildlife or ingesting potentially harmful vegetation, which brings us to our next safety concern.
If your dog is the type to chew on plants, keeping them on a leash is an even more appealing idea. Unless you are very confident with identifying plants, I would not let your dog chew on any vegetation.
We’ve all been there: we hike too many miles or otherwise push ourselves too hard, only to realize the next day that we can barely move. Dogs are not immune to “overdoing it,” especially when their sole desire is to keep up with you. This risk is why training before a trip is so important. Keep a close eye on your dog during a backpacking trip. Check for behavior changes, especially while taking breaks. If their breathing does not return to normal after a few minutes of rest, they may be experiencing fatigue. Limping is also a good sign that your dog is exceeding their limits and may benefit from a slower pace.
Dogs only sweat through the pads of their feet and their tongues. Coupled with their full-body covering of fur, this renders them much more susceptible to heatstroke than a human. On a hot day or in areas with little shade, be prepared to pace your day based on your dog’s needs. Monitor their panting, especially during breaks; if their breathing does not return to normal after a few minutes of inactivity, you need to slow the pace. These are instances when a cooling collar or vest may come in handy.
Make sure your dog is drinking plenty of water. One way I keep Dobby hydrated is to add water to his kibble when he eats, which encourages him to ingest more liquid.
Dogs are susceptible to water-borne pathogens like Giardia and Leptospirosis just like we are. Some backpackers train their dogs to only drink the treated water they supply.
Even the strongest swimmer can run into water-related trouble. No matter how large or strong, never let your dog cross a river or creek in white water. Find a calm crossing area for them to cross or be prepared to carry them to the opposite shore. Many dog packs, like the Approach Pack from Ruffwear, have handles that can help with this endeavor.
Be careful allowing your dog to swim when temperatures are cool, especially towards the end of the day. A wet dog can quickly become a cold dog during shoulder season excursions, another reason why having a microfiber towel to dry them off is encouraged.
Trail Etiquette With a Dog
Trail etiquette is arguably even more important when you hike with a dog. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be respectful of nature and other hikers so we do not lose the privilege of bringing our canine companions along on our trips.
Most hikers know to yield the right of way to oncoming hikers traveling uphill. When it comes to hiking with a dog, expect to yield the right of way every time, whether you’re traveling uphill or down. When yielding, try to step off the trail enough that the oncoming hikers do not have to interact with your dog at all: remember that some people are allergic to, afraid of, or just plain don’t like dogs.
Once you reach your destination for the day, take care of your dog before yourself. Remember, your dog didn’t choose to be here. No matter how tired, hot, cold, cranky, or sore you are, you will tend to the needs of your dog first. Chores like taking their pack off, giving them a snack, bowl of water, and comfy place to lay down, should all take place before you do anything more than remove your own pack.
Check Body Daily
Your dog can pick up a variety of hazards along the trail. You should check their body at the end of each day for things like cuts, scrapes, chafing, blisters, ticks, burrs, and foxtails. The sooner you address a problem, the less likely it will turn into a calamity that ends your trip early. Consider using a paw conditioner like Musher’s Secret daily to avoid cracked paw pads. If your dog likes to lick the conditioner off as Dobby does, put socks on their feet at night.
Backpacking With a Dog: A Lesson in Moments
Backpacking with a dog can be an incredibly rewarding experience. If your dog is a good fit for the activity, there is nothing quite like viewing nature through the excited eyes of your canine best friend. Dogs are a lesson in literally stopping to smell the roses (and then pee on them).