Four legs are better than two, especially when it comes to hiking. Not only do dogs make the ultimate adventure pals, hiking with your dog helps build strength, gives them exercise and can be a great bonding and trust-building tool. Your pawtner is likely ready to follow your lead anywhere, so it’s important to make sure you’ve covered every detail. That way, you can tackle the adventure that’s best and safest for both you and your dog. Check out these 10 tips for hiking with your dog to make sure you have a successful, safe and fun time.
Hiking with your Dog:
From crawling, to taking first steps, walking and eventually hiking, the road to acquiring the needed skills for adventures takes time. Think about the first time you attempted a summit, or stepped into a rock climbing harness, or decided to run a marathon. You can’t expect your dog to have all the skills he/she needs for their very first hike. There are plenty of ways to prepare to go hiking with your dog for the very first time, including working on basic skills your pooch will need to be safe in the wild.
- Come – If you plan to have your dog off leash, then good recall is crucial, especially in the wild.
- Heel – If you plan to have your dog on a leash, towing you up and down the trail is dangerous, not to mention frustrating.
- Sit/Stay – Especially from afar, these two commands can keep your dog out of harms way.
- Off/Down – Jumping on other hikers/you can be particularly dangerous on steep/muddy terrain, not to mention it’s rude.
With good obedience training, you’re off to a great start to go hiking with your dog. Now for the fun part. As you and your dog fall in love with hiking together, you’re going to want to try out more challenging hikes and trails. These can require more complicated training than basic skills while meandering down the path. Taking your dog to the playground can help identify obstacles you may encounter on the trail and how to overcome them together.
- Up – Depending on the trail, your dog will need to be comfortable with being picked up, boosted, or with using you as a stepping stool.
- Under – Fallen trees and other obstacles can sometimes create the need to go under, especially with sharp branches on top.
- On – Teaching your dog to jump up onto things and working on their height will help with mountain scrambles.
2) Leash, or No Leash
First things first, whether or not you choose to hike with your dog off leash, you should always bring one along. Numerous situations could arise where having your dog restrained by your side will be the safest action. Don’t get caught without a leash.
Harness vs. collar?
If your dog has mastered it’s commands and will be off leash, a collar is fine. The concerns with a collar arise if your dog is a puller because the tension on their neck can cause hair irritation, nerve and thyroid damage. If you’re worried about pulling, a harness can be a great option. If your dog is the type that drags you to the excitement, get a harness that clasps in the front. That way when you give a little tug, it pulls from their front, changing the trajectory of their walk and gets them to stop. A clasp from the back, up between their shoulder blades, is their strongest point and makes it easy for them to “mush” you all the way up the climb. If your dog doesn’t pull, a harness that clasps from the back is great or a collar is fine too.
When is it okay to have your dog off leash?
- Make sure you pick a dog-friendly trail. Always read up on the most recent trail postings too. Some areas require dogs on a leash during certain times of the year.
- Does your dog have good recall? If you’re going to let your dog off leash and out of sight, you need to be absolutely confident they will come back when you call.
- What is the trail like? If there are steep drops and cliffs, it might be best to keep your dog on leash, especially if they are new to hiking.
- Is your dog okay with other people and animals? Keep in mind you’ll be sharing the area with other people and animals (including wild ones). It’s also possibly, while your dog is nice, they’ll encounter another dog on trail, that is leashed, that isn’t nice. Be confident your dog will know to leave them alone.
- Are there hazardous plants in the area? Keeping your dog on leash is the easiest way to keep them out of places you don’t want them, such as poison ivy, thorny bushes and even massive mud puddles.
The freedom of an off leash dog might seem like a better experience, but sometimes, leashing your dog for your adventure keeps things fun and stress-free. Plus, every dog and trail is different. Be sure to continue to train your dog and work on trust, as well as assess each trail to determine what you’ll be most comfortable with.
Keep in mind: Trail etiquette is very important and your dog needs to be in control at all times, especially if you’re sharing the trail with horses, people and bikes. Familiarize your dog with these things beforehand so that you can ensure they’ll be calm and in control on the trail.
3) Picking a Trail
Not every hike you are capable of is going to be suitable for your four-legged friend. Here are some things to think about when it comes to choosing the right trail for hiking with your dog…
- Dog-Friendly – Make sure the trail is dog-friendly and be familiar with the trail/park regulations before heading out
- Terrain – Steep drops and cliffs, scrabbles, sharp ground and types of plants can all have a negative impact on your hike. Choose terrain that is suitable for your dogs paws and experience level.
- Water resources – Carrying water for both you and your dog can be challenging on a long/overnight hike, so drinking water resources on the trail might be necessary.
- Stamina – Be realistic about the healthiest trail length for your dog, and their strength. Just like us, they need to build up to big hikes!* Just because they keep moving, doesn’t mean they should. As your best fur-friend, they’ll follow you anywhere and might not be able to tell you when they need a break.
*Dogs bones and muscles often aren’t fully developed before one year of age. Be sure to consult with your vet about the right age to start hiking with your dog. Immune system readiness is also important!
4) What to Pack
Now that you’ve got a hiking pal, you’re going to need to bring along a few extra trail necessities for them.
- Leash and harness.
- Food – Think of how hungry you get on the trail and after the hike. They’re burning extra calories and will need extra food.
- Water – Especially if there is no clean water source, you’ll be packing water for two.
- Water bowl – Collapsible is great for backpacking… You can also train your dog to share your Camelback.
- Doggy First-Aid Kit: This should include doggy sunscreen, pet-friendly antiseptic and liquid bandages for pads and paws. Musher’s Secret is an awesome paw protection ointment to put on your dogs paws before, and throughout, the hike if the terrain is rocky or hot.
- Towel – travel and hiking towels are lightweight and make all the difference if your destination is a lake, or you hit some mud.
- Collar light – If you’re planning on an overnight hike, or a full day excursion, you may want to make your pooch visible at night.
- Booties – Just like humans wearing hiking boots, you can spare your dog the pain of rough terrain with booties to protect their pads.
- POOP BAGS – Be prepared to pack them out full by bringing a large ziplock to put them in… Leaving poop bags beside the trail for the way out is frowned upon. I suggest doubling up on the ziplock and even consider including dryer sheets to help with the smell.
Seem like a lot? You can always consider getting a dog pack to share the weight. During an overnight hike, it might be too much for you to carry all the extra food and water you’ll need, so lightening the load could be necessary. Check out this REI article about Hiking or Backpacking with your Dog for more about choosing the right dog pack.
5) How Much Food and Water
Just like humans, a dog will consume more when exerting itself physically. That means you’ll not only need to pack your dog’s usual food and water, but increase the amount to ensure they have their strength. How much exactly? That will vary depending on the size of your pooch.
Here’s a general rule:
Usual amount + 1c/20 lbs of dog extra.
For example, I have an 80 pound Golden Retriever. If we were on an all day hike, I’d be feeding him an extra 4 cups of food on top of what he normally gets.
Water follows a similar rule of thumb, although you can tell if your hiking pal is under-hydrated by their nose (dry = under-hydrated) or tongue (dogs tongues begin to hang further out of their mouth, the more dehydrated they get).
Large Dogs: 0.5-1.0 ounces per pound per day
Small Dogs: 1.0-1.5 ounces per pound per day
Again, using Zephyr as an example, I’ll be packing an extra 80 ounces (roughly 2.5 liters) for him on a day hike.
Keep in mind that hotter days mean more water. Chances are if you’re tired, thirsty, hot or hungry, your dog is feeling the same way.
6) Overnight Camping Trips
While most points covered above will apply to hiking with your dog overnight, there are a few extra considerations.
Sleeping Arrangements: For one thing, you’ll probably want a roomier tent. Help prepare your dog for your new digs with a couple of backyard camping experiences first. Also, remember that sharp nails tend to ruin lightweight tent fabric, so a paw-spa day before the hike might be best.
Cold Temperatures at Night: If you have a dog that lacks insulation, a doggy coat might be required. Don’t forget to pack along a backcountry dog bed (aka. an extra blanket or cozy to keep them off the ground), or maybe even a shared sleeping bag.
Leave No Trace: Remember, again, how much extra food and water you’ll be packing along, with the addition of poop bags. Leave no trace applies to dogs on the trail just as much as humans. If you’d rather bury your dog’s poop in a hole, go for it.
7) Animal Safety
Again, the ultimate safety tool for your dog is their leash. If wild animals like bears and wolves have recently been in the area (look for fresh scat, postings online and bulletins), you might want to make it an on-leash hike. Hike with a bear bell or spray if you’re worried about larger animals, too. During cub, fawn and pup season, you’ll want to keep your dog on leash and be wary – a startled mama is the largest threat when it comes to wild animals. Finally, if your dog tends to put on a good game of chase, leashing them might be best.
For your own safety, be sure to read up on what to do if you encounter bears, cougars, or wolves in the wild.
Hiking with your dog means you need to look out for yourself and your pooch. Many things to be wary of are the same as for yourself. Keep an eye on the following things:
- Heatstroke – fur and the ability to sweat only through their pads makes this a pretty big threat. Pack along a cooling collar, find shady spots and break often. Carry even more water if hiking on a hot day.
- Poisonous Plants – look out for thorny bushes, poison ivy and other hazardous plants that could hurt your dog, or make them sick… Look up plants in your area beforehand and watch for signs, in your dog, that they may have run into something dangerous.
- Wild Animals – see tip #7
- Over Exertion – if your dog is panting extensively, drooling excessively, limping, or continuously hesitating and trying to stop, it might be time for a break.
- Terrain – Remember, pups don’t have hiking boots like us. Hiking in the snow, on sandstone, or other types of terrain might be dangerous for your pup’s pads. Be sure to get them booties, or at minimum Musher’s Secret, as they will be sensitive to heat, cold or rough rock and inspect their paws regularly during the hike.
- Falling – be aware of the terrain and ensure your dog stays away from steep cliffs and drops.
- Water – while fresh drinking water on the trail can be a great thing, you do also need to be wary of things like giardia etc. Just like humans, contaminated drinking water from a river or creek can lead to vomiting, diarrhea and exhaustion in your dog.
- Water (again) – if there are areas of strong currents, rapids, or if your dog can’t swim, consider packing a dog life jacket and be aware of your dog’s position on the shore, or during a water crossing… You may have to carry them over certain areas.
Keep close tabs on your own body and remember that if you feel too hot, too hungry or too thirsty, your fur-covered, more energetic and likely more enthusiastic hiking dog probably is too.
9) After the Hike
Remember all those feelings you experience when you finish a hike? Like… sore muscles, hunger and exhaustion? All of those things can apply to your dog as well. Be sure to up their food to help restore that burnt off energy and give them plenty of rest. In fact, don’t be surprised if they want to sleep away the entire next day. If you notice your dog seems really sore, or limps the next day, talk to your vet about giving them some children’s aspirin to help make them more comfortable.
There are a couple things you should also look for with your dog after the hike, too:
- Ticks – Lyme disease is a real threat, and ticks live in wooded places. Be sure to check your dog all over for ticks, and be especially attentive to long-furred dogs where they will be easy to miss
- Thorns etc. – check out your dog’s feet and pads, plus between the toes to make sure thorns and other uncomfortable things didn’t make their way up there during your adventure – this can quickly become infected and cost you both in hikes and vet bills!
10) The Ultimate Tip for Hiking with your Dog:
Enjoy yourselves! The more you go hiking with your dog, the better experience it will become. Hiking is a great bonding activity and leads to increased trust. Plus, your fur-baby will be stoked at the idea of being by your side every step of the way.