In the backcountry, just as much as in most other places, dogs tend to be the best people you come across. Setting out on a backpacking trip with your dog makes for a good time, but it comes with a few extra considerations for a worry-free outing. Here are 10 tips to ensure an enjoyable time for both you and your companion.
1. Scope Out Dog-Friendly Areas
First things first, picking a trail or area that allows dogs should be priority number one. As a general rule, National Parks in the U.S. don’t allow dogs on trails or in the backcountry (even leashed). State parks, national forest lands, and wilderness areas all have their own regulations that vary in each location, so researching their dog restrictions ahead of time can prevent any surprises when you hit the trail. Dog restrictions are usually put in place to protect fragile environments or wildlife, so risking a trip somewhere dogs aren’t allowed can carry serious consequences—think fines, being asked to leave the area, or unpleasant encounters with local fauna.
2. Get That Pup Into Shape
Depending on how much trail experience your dog already has under his paws, you may be looking at some training days before heading out for an overnighter. If your dog isn’t yet used to hiking, start with one-hour trail outings and gradually build up the mileage and difficulty from there. Get to know your dog’s way of signaling that you may be overdoing it. Excessive panting or drooling, frequently stopping to sit, and limping and drooping eyes are all signs that it’s time to ease off the pace. Even the sturdiest of dog breeds need time to condition their hiking muscles, just like people.
3. Introduce New Gear at Home
Just as you wouldn’t want to commit to multiple days in the backcountry with an ill-fitting pack or boots that aren’t worn in yet, your dog will also benefit from getting comfortable with new gear in small doses. Even dogs with the utmost trust for their humans might be wary of the new buckles and straps when they don a pack for the first time. A generous helping of treats or a meal as soon as you put on the pack can help them see it as a positive thing. Even better, take the dog out for a walk right away so it quickly learns to associate wearing a pack with having a good time.
Once dogs get acquainted with the pack, you can start loading it to get them used to carrying the extra weight. Introduce the idea with light loads on short walks, and gradually add more weight and miles. As a rule of thumb, keep your dog’s pack at around 20 to 25 percent of their body weight.
Few things are funnier than watching a dog take their first tentative steps in a brand-new pair of booties. Imagine some intriguing combination of Frankenstein walking while grape stomping. At any rate, prepare to laugh and feel a tinge of guilt, but rest assured that they’ll get used to it within a few miles. If the trail conditions necessitate dog booties on your backpacking trip, you’ll be thankful that their first time donning these unfamiliar things won’t be at the trailhead.
4. Study Up on Canine First-Aid
Having a couple doggie first-aid tricks in your arsenal can make the difference between solvable mishaps on the trail and having to high-tail it out of the backcountry. Fortunately, many of the items in your first-aid kit will work perfectly fine for your pup as well. Tweezers, gauze, and antiseptic wipes are worth their weight in kibble when it comes to removing ticks or treating torn paw pads. Toss in a few dog-specific essentials, like canine-safe antihistamines and some paw salve (coconut oil or Vaseline will do), and you should be set to tackle whatever is thrown at you.
5. Let’s Talk About Food
Just like your appetite surges from long days on the trail—seriously, who only eats half of those freeze-dried meals?—so will your dog’s. Measure out meals at home and make sure you have a way to portion them out each day at camp. The uber-organized backpacker will prepare ready-portioned packages for easy serving. How much to bring? Start with their usual amount and throw in one additional cup for every 20 pounds of dog weight per day.
6. Keep Your Pup Well Hydrated
With the all-day activity, it’s crucial to supply ample water for your pup, especially in hotter weather. Arm yourself with the tell-tale signs of oncoming dehydration: excessive panting or drooling, dry gums or nose, and loose skin around the neck. They tell you it’s time to drink up. While some dogs may be used to drinking freshwater from streams and lakes, many of the same waterborne illnesses that affect humans, like giardia, can hurt your dog, too. To avoid potential contamination, filter or treat your dog’s water just as would yours. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t let your dog.
7. Round Up the Other Essentials
Unlike human trail companions, dogs can’t pack for themselves. Always bring a leash, drinking bowl (collapsible ones work like a dream), and a reflective collar or a small LED light for their collar to spot your dog easily at night. Depending on your dog’s coat type and the weather, bringing a doggie jacket can be crucial to their camp comfort.
8. Know How to Leave No Trace
When the inevitable happens, remember that Leave No Trace principles apply to your dog’s waste, too. Bury it in holes at least 6 inches deep or pack it out in doggie waste bags if the environment necessitates it. Make sure that their waste is at least 200 feet away from trails, camps, and water sources.
9. Master the Art of Tent Sharing
If this will be your dog’s first time sleeping in a tent, it’s worth testing out their comfort with it at home. It may take some cajoling and treats to get your dog to feel happy inside a tent at first. Again, a positive association is key to ensuring a lifelong love for sleeping bag cuddles. Figure out an adequate sleeping system based on the temperatures you’ll encounter and your dog’s cold tolerance. A dog-sized section of foam sleeping pad and a blanket—or a jacket of yours to wrap around puppers at night—can make cold-weather camping comfortable for all involved.
10. Mind Your Manners
Even though you and your pup are letting loose to enjoy nature, the backcountry is no place for bad manners. Good trust in your dog’s obedience is essential to keeping you, your dog and other people safe and happy on the trail. Nobody likes a garbage-rummaging hound at camp, a tent companion who just spent the past hour rolling in poison oak, or unwelcome exchanges between pets and wildlife. Situations like these can all be avoided by always having your dog on-leash or under reliable voice control. Knowing what piques your pup’s curiosity and what makes it anxious can help prevent hairy situations before they start.
Written by Jenna Herzog for RootsRated Media in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.