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A Guide to Hiking with your Dog

Dogs are a natural fit for joining you on your hiking and backpacking adventures. Let’s face it, most dogs love to be outside. The sights, the smells, the sounds… did I mention the smells!? Just like you, your dog will benefit from the exercise and fresh air and can keep you in good company on the trail.

Chocolate labrador on the hiking trail in water

Conditioning – including puppies

It’s best to allow puppies to fully develop their bones and joints prior to starting any long distance hikes. Short day hikes are generally OK but you should avoid high impact activities and long miles. When will they be old enough? Probably sometime around a year old but it really depends on the breed and the best answer is to consult with your vet.

For adult dogs, conditioning is not much different than it is for humans. Start small, build mileage and weight. Your dog’s strength and stamina will build and his paw pads will toughen up. Remember, your dog can’t say when they’re tired and sore. You’ll have to watch for signs:

  • Licking feet – are his pad’s injured or irritated?
  • Excessive panting, stopping, lagging behind – is he getting overheated? Find some shade and work on hydration. Cooling products can also help.
  • A tucked tail – your dog’s tail is always a good indicator of their state. Up and wagging? He’s probably doing well. Tucked between the legs? It might be time for a break.

Permits and regulations

Know the necessary permits and regulations before you head out.

  • Are dogs allowed? Not in most National Parks but most other Federal Land is fair game. Be sure to check the area and know the rules. Fines can be hefty or your trip cut short.
  • Do you need a special permit to bring your dog?
  • What are the leash laws for the area?
  • Do you need to pack waste out, or can it be buried? Most often, waste can be buried in a cathole just like yours. Know the rules though.

Trail etiquette

The great debate around dogs on the trail is on-leash versus off leash. Nothing will divide a group of outdoor loving dog owners faster. We like the idea of our dogs being able to freely explore the area, smelling and running and having a great time.

Hiking with you dog

However, the reality is we have to share those spaces with other people, other dog owners, even wildlife. Consider these things –

  • You might be sharing the trail with people who aren’t dog people or might even be afraid of dogs.
  • After working up a huge appetite on the trail your dog might become more protective of food.
  • How would your dog react to a rattlesnake?
  • Would your dog chase after a deer and not able to be recalled?
  • What if your dog encounters another dog who isn’t as friendly?

My older Lab, Huron, is well trained. In my younger days before kids, a demanding career and second dog, I spent multiple nights per week doing formal training classes. She is awesome on the trail – she has great recall and stays within sight. She responds to verbal and non-verbal commands.  Letting her hike ahead and off leash was a point of pride for me.

One Memorial Day weekend in the Black Hills of South Dakota though, I found out the hard way that she had never seen a horse before and FREAKED OUT. She was barking, snarling and acting like a dog I hadn’t seen before. Luckily, I had her close and was able to get her under control before any damage was done. From that point on, she’s hiked on a leash. I realized I can’t control every situation we may encounter. I do opt for a longer stretch leash like the Ruffwear Roamer to give her some freedom and it allows me to wear the leash on my waist keeping my hands free.

Overall, trail etiquette is common sense. Don’t let your dog beg or get into anyone’s food. Opt for tents over shelters to spare those that might have allergies (even after you leave), don’t allow your dog to charge up to unknown hikers or other dogs.

Cold, wet, hot, weather conditions

Sure, your dog is already sporting a nice fur coat but he’s not invincible. You have to know what range he is comfortable in. If it’s cold, get a coat to help keep his core warm both on the trail and at night. My dogs have thick coats and are fine down to about 35 or 40 degree days. When it starts to get colder than that I consider coats during the day depending on how hard they’re working and how sunny it is out (they’re both all black). For cold nights they’ll use a coat to stay warm.

Hiking with your dog - weather

Rainy weather is tough. It’s pretty hard to keep your dog dry. I pretty much give up and towel the dog’s off before we head into the tent. When it’s rainy and cold, try a coat like the Ruffwear Cloud Chaser that will shed water, block wind and keep the core warm. Your dog can get hypothermia just like a human, so play it safe.

Hot weather is probably the hardest. Follow the same precautions you’d take in hot weather. Hike in the morning and evening. Take it slow, rest in the shade and stay hydrated. Stop for swimming breaks where you can. Watch for warning signs like:

  • Excessive panting
  • Stopping and laying down/refusing to move
  • Increased salivation
  • Bright red tongue
  • Red or pale gums
  • Thick, sticky saliva
  • Weakness

Leashes and collars – and night time/visibility

Leashes and collars really boil down to personal preference. On trips I prefer the non-stinking dry collars like the Ruffwear Headwater. I also tend to go with leashes that can be waist worn.

Hiking with your dog

Nighttime visibility can be tough but there are plenty of products like LED collars and clip on lights, like the Nite Ize Spot Lit, that work great to help spot your dog in the dark.


Your dog’s normal kibble works well on the trail. I like to package each meal in zip lock bags to make it easy at breakfast and dinner time. Remember, your dog will be burning up more calories than normal and will need more to eat while on the trail. I like to add about 25% to 30% more per meal and supplement with treats like Zuke’s Power Bones during the day. Just like your food, dog food is a strong attractant to rodents and bruins. Be sure to hang all food and dirty bowls.

Hydration 101

Just like us, our dog’s need constant hydration. Especially when it’s hot and we’re carrying packs. Offer water on a regular basis when you’re moving. Collapsible bowls or bottles specifically for dogs make that convenient. Offer plenty of clean water at camp as well.

Hiking with your dog

I tend to filter water at camp but will let me dogs drink from streams and ponds while we’re hiking. Know the state of the water where you’ll be and play it safe with treated or filtered water if you don’t know.

Hiking with your dog

Shots/vaccinations for outdoor doggies

Make sure your dog is up to date with all the vaccinations you and your vet have decided on. It’s not a bad idea to bring that paperwork with you on a trip. Most vets can give that to you on a single page. This could payoff if you need to make an emergency vet visit away from home.

Tick checking and removal

Ticks can be an issue in most parts of the country. Know the danger level before you go and carry a simple tick removal tool like the Tick Key. Check your dog, just like you’d check yourself. It’s a little tougher with the fur but a good pet down will reveal most ticks.

The Tick Key Tick Removal Tool

Products like Front Line are not an alternative for checking and removal. Front Line will kill a tick within a day or two but damage from something like Lyme disease could already be done. To help in the fight, consider repellants like Insect Sheild bandannas or natural repellant sprays.

Poison Ivy

The good news for your dog is that when they’re running through a patch of poison ivy, their fur will often block the oils from getting onto their skin. The bad news for you is that they’ll inevitable transfer those oils from their fur to your skin. I car camped with a buddy who a few years ago who let his Boston Terrier curl up between his legs at night. Imagine his surprise when poison ivy was all over the insides of his legs a few days later.

Choosing a backpack – sizing

How much can they carry?

When your dog is fitted with an appropriate pack he can carry a good deal of weight. Most medium and large dogs can carry all of their own gear. The general rule is 15% – 25% of his body weight. Don’t forget to include the weight of a pack and any water he might carry.

Hiking with your dog

For dogs who may not be as fit (think those that spend most of their days on the couch) stick to 15% or maybe even a little less. For those that are very fit, getting solid daily exercise, 25% is not a problem. If your dogs are like mine who get most of their exercise on the weekends, we stick to 18% – 20%. Some other factors to consider:

  • Dogs who are getting up in years and may be prone to sore joints
  • Dogs with old injuries, especially to hips or leg joints
  • Or if your dog is new to carrying a pack

Hiking with you dog

Basically, it’s not much different from the weight you may carry. If you are prone to a bum knee or out of shape, you’re going to limit your weight and mileage. Same goes for your dog.

Footwear for dogs

Protecting your dog’s feet is as important as protecting your own. Your dog’s pads should be well conditioned before hitting the trail. Not much different than building up your own endurance, your dogs paws need to be conditioned with gradual increases in distance.

I always hike with boots such as the Ruffwear Grip Trex. However, I only tend to use them if the terrain is rough – for me that mostly means rough granite rock. You might find that you need to keep boots on more in terrain with lava rock, thorns, cactus, or hot sand.

Hiking with your dog - footwear

The bottom line is, keep an eye on your dog’s feet. Remember he can’t verbalize that he is hurting and you may not notice until it is a bad situation. Sizing for most boots is pretty easy:

  1. Have your dog stand on a firm surface like tile, concrete, or a wood floor.
  2. Place a piece of paper under one front paw.
  3. Lift the other front paw to put weight on the paw on the paper.
  4. Mark the widest part of the paw on the paper.
  5. Measure the distance between the marks.

That measurement will be your dog’s boot size. Unlike human shoes, there is no standard. A medium in one boot may be a Large in another or a small in a third boot.

Sleeping arrangements with your dog

My dogs crash in the tent with me. You might be saying “of course” or “think of the mess!”. Consider a couple factors:

  • Personal preference
  • Your dog’s preference (would he be comfortable outside without you?)
  • Bugs
  • Weather

If you wouldn’t sleep outside the tent because of bugs, weather, etc., don’t make your dog do it. Have them sleep in the tent or leave them at home. If you and your dog will be sharing the tent, make sure your dog is keen on this idea. Set the tent up at home. Make sure they’re not scared of it and are willing to get in and lay down quietly. The last thing you want on your first night out is to find your dog is scared to be in the tent.

Consider a lightweight bed like the Ruffwear Highlands bed. A small fleece throw works well too. Either way, it’s a great idea to let your dog sleep on the bed or blanket at home before your trip so they recognize it as their own. In cold weather, consider carrying a piece of closed cell foam pad to insulate your dog from the ground. I’ll also bring fleece coats for my dogs to sleep in during cold weather. Make sure you keep those nails trimmed so damage is not done to your tent floor.

Finally, opt for your tent over trail shelters. It’s one of those cases where you may have to share the shelter with someone who’s allergic to, or doesn’t love our dogs as much as we do.

Editor’s note: Please join me in welcoming Jason Booth to Brian’s Backpacking Blog as a guest contributor. Jason is the founder of a site dedicated to providing the best possible outdoor gear for dogs. Jason is an avid camper and hiker who knows more about properly outfitting dogs for outdoor adventure than anyone else I know. I look forward to digging deeper into this topic with Jason over the coming months. Be sure to check out his online store for the best gear at the best prices.

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  • smaktcat

    great article! gonna have to get the “tick key”. I almost lost a dog to a tick-born infection while camping on a beach in FLA, so I can’t stress enough the importance of daily tick checks anytime your not camping in your one back yard.

    • smaktcat – I completely agree. It’s a nuisance to have to check a dark brown lab for ticks after a long hike or backpacking trip, but with all of the places that she gets into on the trial it’s highly likely she has a tick somewhere. It’s part of being a dog owner.

      I’ve started paying much closer attention to the inside of her ears. The ticks love to get in there if they can. Not easy to remove them from ears, but the Tick Key is still the best tool I’ve found. And one that won’t break on you like all those crappy plastic tools.

  • TicTac

    You might want to consider clipping the carabiner to the harness from back to front. That will keep the flat, back side of the biner to the dog’s back, not with the gate down which can add a pressure point the farther out the dog is.

    I’ll be honest with you. I feel that any hiker that allows his dog to freely explore the trail – not under the direct control of the hiker – is irresponsible and self centered. I for one do not want to be accosted by a strange dog under any circumstances, on a backcountry trail even more so. I often yell at the dog to startle it and tell it to get away, when what I want to do – but never do – is yell at the hiker.

    • That’s funny TicTac, I hadn’t given much thought to the way I clipped the carabiner to the harness. I nearly always lift up the harness loop with one hand and swipe the carabiner down and onto the loop resulting in the way shown. Doing it the other way would be like clipping in on using backhand – but your point is completely valid.

      You’re definitely entitled to your opinion on the leash/no-leash issue. I’ll freely admit that my Lab who is trained to obey voice commands, and does so 98% of the time, gets too excited on new trails and ignores me occasionally I mention this because as good as she is, and she is amazing, even she will get distracted and approach other hikers if she is not on a leash.

      I address this by keeping her on leash at all times unless we are at a campsite on our own, then I let her roam and explore within eye sight of me. If other hikers wander into our camp then that’s up to them and she is just another hiker who is allowed to be free.

      My last point is this, you absolutely should yell at the owner of the dog if it’s lose and bothering you. The dog doesn’t know better, it’s the owner’s responsibility to control their pets and respect the trail and other hikers. In my experience, hikers with dogs that aren’t under control are pretty lax about a lot of other rules too. – Brian

      • TicTac

        I appreciate your understanding my feelings about loose dogs. I am often treated like a real weirdo when I make it obvious I want no attention from a dog on the trail.
        In addition to being a long distance backpacker, I am also a rock climber. Often the direction or orientation of the gate – of a carabiner – is critical to a placement, so it is second nature for me to look at how a biner is clipped.

        • I figured there was more to the biner issue that you had first let on. I love dogs (my dog) and lots of people do, but dog owners have to understand that not everyone does or is like them.

    • Jason Booth

      “I feel that any hiker that allows his dog to freely explore the trail – not under the direct control of the hiker – is irresponsible and self centered” – As much as I love dogs and want to see people outside with their dogs, I completely agree, TicTac. Additionally, being responsible is critical to keeping outdoor spaces open to our dogs.

  • Leon

    I was day hiking “The Chief” (Vancouver district) when I first saw a dog pack and thought thats really cool.
    On the return, the trail was much busier as it was late afternoon and the same dog was encountered. The dog squeezed between another person and myself and nearly knocked both of us over due to the dog not being “aware” it had the packs.
    The dog was not on a leash.
    The owner appologised.

    • It takes Coco, my lab, a little while to get used to her new found “width” with the pack on. It’s sorta funny seeing her try to squeeze through like normal only to be utterly confused as to why her body is not responding as normal :)

      One trick I like to do is to put the pack on her at home, slide open the patio door just wide enough for her to go through like normal and then let practice/learn that with the pack on she is wider than normal. After a few failed attempts and a look of “duh I have this thing on me” she backs up and waits for me to open the door some more. A few rounds of this before a trip has worked wonders in helping her associate being wider with wearing the pack.

  • TiffanyinTexas

    Normal kibble has worked great for short hikes but for a five day hike the weight & bulk of that much kibble is significant. I’ve been experimenting with adding ghee (clarified butter) to her kibble to raise calories so I can feed her less, peanut butter for snacks, a high calorie training food called Lakse Kronch Pemmikan Energy Bars, etc. And of course, all that balanced against the fact that I’m not rich.

    I don’t guess your new guest contributor wants to list out his dog treats with a weight to calorie to dollar comparison? Some things I looked at like Primal Freeze Dried Beef were crazy expensive. Peanut butter is dirt cheap and not bulky but is heavy.

    • Tiffany – There’s the added factor of how stable some of the higher density food additives like Ghee and PB are in hot weather! It’s one thing to drop some food weight and boost calories and quite another to be a sticky bug attracting mess for the hike!

      I’m also sensitive to the fact that my dog knows how much (quantity) she is normally given per meal, she does not understand that getting less food is okay so long as she’s getting the calories and nutrients she needs. The look of “why are you starving me” is hard to deal with when you are also encouraging your dog to put in a lot of miles.

      I’ll make a note to expand on dog food ideas for a follow up post, thanks for the suggestion.

      • TiffanyinTexas

        Anything you figure out, I’d love to hear. My problem isn’t with her starving. On two and three day hikes it has been trying to get her to eat. I put the Ghee on her food (or whatever liquid is left over from rehydrating my meal) on her kibble to get her to eat.

        Unless I want to spend an hour at a lunch break waiting on her to pick at her kibble I have to use Peanut Butter or the Pemmikan Energy bars. Hopefully by day 6 of or hike she will develop that hiker appetite I”ve heard about.

  • TiffanyinTexas

    And, I have to admit that I’m one of those who often doesn’t hold the leash. After the first mile, I usually tuck the end of the leash into the top pocket of her backpack and leave the other end on her collar. If a biker comes up then I grab the handle of her pack (ruffwear pallisade) and hold her till they pass which is much safer for both of us than having her wrap the leash around my legs trying to get away from the bike. If I think she is about to see something she can’t resist (squirrel) then I grab the leash and it pulls out of the pack pocket and we continue walking till temptation is out of site.

    The trails are normally too narrow for her to walk beside me so she walks right behind me. If I hold her leash then I have to keep it constantly taunt (which I can’t) or it gets caught up in her legs and I spend most of my time untangling her. I’d like to find a leash that would allow her to drop a distance behind me to sniff something, yet take up the slack when she’s walking with her nose in the back of my knee. Regrettably, can’t afford to buy multiple leashes looking for the right one.

  • Awesome post! I’m not in a spot to have a dog right now but cannot wait for that day to come… and you can bet I’ll be taking him hiking! This is a fantastic resource and the photos are gorgeous, too. Thanks for sharing!

  • Indira

    A glowdoggie is waay better than Nite ize. Bigger glow and I see my pup better.

    • Jason Booth

      Indira, I’ve never heard of the glowdoggie but I’ll be looking that up. Having 2 black labs of my own that are impossible to see in the dark I know how important it can be to have a good LED type light.

  • TiffanyinTexas

    I just placed an order for the turboPUP and one of your Ruffwear Roamer Leashes. It is a foot longer than what I think would work best but I’ll give it a try and see if she can manage not to get it wrapped around her front paws. Also going to try out the Zuke’s lamb Jerky and chicken powerbones instead of our normal Puperoni treats.

    Do you know the dimensions of the TurboPUP?


    1 bar – 125 grams weight – 500 calories – $3.45

    25 grams of weight for 100 calories

    69 cents for 100 calories

    • Jason Booth

      Very cool! Definitely let me know what you think of the bar. I don’t have a bar in front of me but I can definitely post the dimensions for you.

      I love the Roamer Leash and the handle is adjustable so you can shorten it up that way if you need to.

      • Jason Booth

        The TurboPUP bars are 3.75 x 4.5 x .5″

  • Audrey LaCrouix

    Kudos on dog hiking essentials! Do you carry a pet first aid kit too?

    • Absolutely! Well to be more accurate, I carry a combined First Aid kit with me when I go hiking with Coco that is blended to work for both of us – instead of a doggy only First Aid kit.

      One of my follow up posts will be about doggy first aid and will include a closer look at what I carry and things to be prepared for.

  • ocarol500

    Very informative article. You might want to add information about Hammock Hanging with a dog. Some larger breeds can be trained to spend the night in a Hammock, though mostly the medium and smaller dogs are the ones who more easily accommodate to Hammock Hanging.

    • John R

      Both my 38 lb doggies like sleeping in the hammock (only one at a time with me!). Took only minutes for them to settle down. It’s a Hennessy Expedition hammock – a little heavier but their toenails have never punctured it. I’d be more concerned about a lighter weight sil-nylon hammock but have no first-hand experience.

      I have several Ruff-Wear products for my pups – booties for the winter and a harness for an older doggy. I think Ruff-Wear make excellent, high-quality, durable products. For dog coats, I prefer Foggy Mountain Nylon Turnout Coat. Excellent quality. Not inexpensive. Too warm for hiking. But good in rain or sleety weather and for at camp.
      Unfortunately I don’t know how to upload pics of doggies in hammock…

    • Jason Booth

      I’ve never hammock camped with my dogs but I know there are plenty of people out there that do it. My girls are 75 and 90 lbs and I’m a big guy too; I don’t see it happening!

      A hammock will always be my first choice when I’m without my dogs though. I’ve only done it once but it was the best backcountry sleep I’ve had.

  • Awesome article. Is there a general rule of thumb, or chart, for how much water a dog will need? The power bones are a great tip. I bet my dog would love ’em.

    • Jason Booth

      Adventure Strong, that’s a great question and I don’t think I have a good answer. To be honest, I’m always hiking in areas with plenty of water so I’m never concerned about how much to carry. I can tell you for hikes of about 4 – 7 miles (I’m more of a go slow and take lots of pictures hiker), I use about 20 – 30 ounces of water for one dog. That’s normally in cool weather as well.

      • Okay. Thanks, Jason.

        • Jason Booth

          Weird timing, I was just reading a recommendation for one ounce of water per lb of bodyweight per day; more if activity is intense or it is hot out. So, my 70 lb lab would need a little more than 2 quarts per day.

          • Great timing! Thanks for sharing that. Nice and easy to remember too.

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  • james barrick

    Just wondering what is a safe distance for a healthy dog to hike each day. We a planning a 30 day hike trip and I just want to get a idea of a safe amount of hours to hike with Ellie would be.

    • Jason Booth

      Hi James. Much like a human, it all depends on fitness level, age, terrain, pack weight, etc. The best bet is to have your dog training right beside you before the trip so you can keep tabs on her fitness level and stamina as you prepare.

  • Cayla Mayer

    I’m trying to find anyone ideas on how to carry my 90 pound dog if nesisary. I try to keep her out of harm’s way but it is always in the back of my mind. If she gets hurt to the point of not walking herself how do I get her back to the car. I’ve thought about having a blanket but if she gets too upset she will either pull me down nomurus times or rip it. Any one else out there with this concern??

    • Scott

      It’s certainly not easy, but you would face the same challenge if your human hiking companion suffered an injury as well. You can shelter them, put a jacket on them, restrain them and then go seek help in taking them out. It might mean a trip home or a phone call to a friend while your dog (and you) wait for help to arrive.