Visit the Vet: Ask some key questions before you and your dog head far into the wilds. Is your dog physically ready? For example, it is advisable to wait until a young dog’s bones are fully developed. That might be at a year of age, plus or minus several months, depending on size and other factors.
Ease into the routine of hiking, starting with hikes of an hour or so, then monitor the dog’s energy level afterwards. If your dog is still energetic and enthusiastic, increase the time for the next hike. This slow approach strengthens muscles (for you too) and also helps toughen up citified paws.
Bone up on obedience training and trail etiquette: You have to maintain control of your dog at all times while hiking. Step off the trail to yield the right of way to hikers, horses and bikes. Even if you have your dog on a leash, you need to be able to keep your dog calm as other people and pooches pass by. If you intend to hike with your dog off-leash, you need to be super-confident there will be no fights or threats and that your call will be listened to at all times. The last thing you need is a fight or for your dog to run off after an animal, get separated and become lost.
Always check on the regulations for the areas where you’ll be hiking or backpacking. Most U.S. national parks, for example, do not allow even a leashed dog on some trails. Many national forests, as well as state and local parks, do allow dogs on their trail systems, though rules vary.
These are additional pieces of equipment for longer hikes.
Booties: They can offer protection from sharp rocks, thorns and snow. Emme never used them and never suffered for it, although I did check her paw pads often. A problem with booties is that a dog will often lose one. So, if you choose booties rather than simply toughening up paws on training hikes, be sure to pack spares. You will also need to add time to put the dog booties on when preparing for your hike.
On a long hike it is a good idea to bring along a dedicated “hiker towel” to wipe off muddy paws before your dog joins you inside the tent.
A safety light for your dog can be a good idea if you are concerned that they may wander from campsite. These are lights you can attach to the dog’s collar, and it makes the dog easier to find in the dark.
A dog coat is a good addition if your dog lacks thick fur and temperatures will be low.
The Dog Pack
The dog pack, if properly sized, can help with a bit of the increased load for backpackers. It also can act like the dog vest I’ve mentioned before: it gives the dog a sense of being an official participant in the team and a work contributor, a role that most dogs love.
If you are interested in utilizing a dog pack, get a pack sized for your dog, fit it right with the adjustable straps and load it evenly on both sides. Advice abounds on how much weight is OK for the dog – personally I would go with no more than 15% of the dog’s weight. If we were talking about Emme at 20 pounds, she would carry 3 pounds. That would be about one liter of water plus dog food, although the dog food smells might have driven her crazy. I didn’t use the dog pack, favoring the bright orange dog vest instead.
If you go for a pack, do some prep before hiking. Start by having your dog wear it empty around the house, then on walks. As soon as wearing the pack becomes routine, load in a few pounds. Gradually increase pack weight on each walk after that until you reach your target weight.
Food and water planning
This is especially important on backpacking trips. Look for calorie-dense dog foods that provide more calories per ounce. Be sure to have your dog try out new foods well before your trip to make sure they eat it and that it doesn’t upset their digestion. Lastly, some backpackers suggest bringing freeze-dried dog food or dry food that is lighter to carry.
Emme was happy with a combination of dry dog food and one of my turkey and swiss sandwiches. As warned earlier, be careful of some people foods that are bad for dogs.
See Dogs and Hiking Food.
The first time you take your dog camping will usually be quite entertaining as they are experiencing a whole bunch of things for the first time. They will be completely our of their sequence as to food, food bowl, being outside in the dark, being around a campfire and familiarizing with a tent as their home away from home.
If you plan on grilling real food over the campfire, make sure your dog is trained not to go after it – that would be bad.
Leave No Trace
On backpacking trips, humans and canines have the same Leave No Trace rule: Bury pet waste in a 6- to 8-inch hole that is away from trails, camps and water sources. A small, foldable camper’s shovel is handy for that.
Your Sleep System
This starts with the size of your tent. Even when I am by myself, I prefer a two-person tent, and you definitely want the extra room with your dog along. Once you set up the tent and climb inside, your dog will likely want to fully check it out, sniffing everywhere before concluding they’ll want to snuggle up with you in or near your sleeping bag.
Some people bring along a crib-size comforter (down) to make a backcountry doggie bed, especially if you have a bigger dog who won’t fit in your sleeping bag with you. Plan to do a trial backyard sleepout if you sense your dog won’t be immediately comfortable with the new arrangements.
Trail Hazards for Dogs
I have commented elsewhere in this blog on potential hazards and they certainly apply to backpacking and camping, even more so as your outing is longer and partially in the dark:
Wildlife: Your leash is your best defense against big carnivores and prickly herbivores. Even though Lyme disease doesn’t show symptoms in many dogs, ticks are also a concern, so check your dog closely and remove any hitchhikers when you get to camp and after the hike. Bring along a tick remover – they weigh nothing.
Wild plants: Halting chewing of anything immediately is your best defense against poison or tainted plants, as well as digestive-system problems. Watch out, too, for nettles, as well as poison oak, ivy and sumac, which will cause discomfort for both you and your dog. Those are mostly found off-trail, so it works well if your dog is trained to stay with you on trail.
Thorns and burrs are irritating, but “Foxtails” are more serious. Found on a variety of grasses in spring and summer, these barbed seedpods can snag on fur and end up between toes, and in more sensitive areas like nasal passages, ears, eyes and genitals.
Avoid areas with grasses that have Foxtails and remove them with tweezers right away. Excessive sneezing, head shaking, eye discharge or an abscess are a sign that it’s time to cut things short, because Foxtails can work their way into a vital organ and be fatal. See: Common Hiking Concerns for Dogs.
Heat stroke: Dogs can only pant and sweat through their pads to cool off. Be conservative—rest and drink often, especially if your dog is constantly seeking shade.
Waterborne pathogens: Dogs are susceptible to most of the same waterborne pathogens as humans. The safest choice is to offer your dog the same water you are drinking – water you bring with you and then filtered water. See: Water Filters.
Water safety: Even if your dog is a good swimmer, do not let them try to cross a whitewater section of a creek: Lift and carry your dog instead. That is where a harness handle comes in handy for a bigger dog.
Care After the Hike
Check for ticks, fleas, burrs and Foxtails after a hike, and remove any that you find right away. Otherwise, just be a little extra observant for unusual behaviors that might otherwise signal that you need to give your vet a call.