There’s a saying amongst dog trainers, “there’s no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner.”
This may seem like an accusatory statement, but as a dog owner and avid hiker, I agree. Having my trusted companion with me when I’m hiking and backpacking is a real treat, but dogs will be dogs, and it is up to me to ensure his safety and enforce trail etiquette.
I’m sure there have been many instances where you’re hiking, with or without your pup, and a random dog has run up to you unwarranted. Or you’ve nearly stepped in dog poop unwittingly. As frustrating as those situations can be, keep in mind that you and your dog may be a nuisance to other hikers and area wildlife if you’re not careful.
What’s worse is that untrained and unleashed dogs can be a hazard to themselves. Rocks, plants, and wildlife could and have all lead to tragic accidents.
How to hike and camp with your dog is a delicate balance. Dog’s love to be outdoors and love to be with their human companions. Knowing their limits, adhering to area regulations, and providing clear instructions to your dog is up to you.
As outdoor enthusiasts, we should respect and protect our outdoor spaces. As dog owners, we have an obligation to care for and minimize risk for our companions. These two things go hand in hand, and with the proper knowledge base, how to hike with your dog will become a routine and rewarding experience.
How to hike with a dog
Before we jump into how to camp with your dog, let’s break down a few hiking basics.
Know your dog’s limitations
While our dogs may be full of energy and ever willing to run for miles, that doesn’t always mean that they should. Knowing your dog’s limitations on the trail is the first consideration before taking even a short hike.
The three main limiting factors dogs have when hiking are age, breed, and overall fitness level.
Both puppies and older dogs (8+ years) will be less capable when it comes to hiking. Young and old dogs alike may lack stamina and strength required for hiking.
If your dog is less than five months old, socialization should also be limited because they do not receive all of the vaccinations until then. Some hiking areas and dog parks may require identification and proof of vaccinations.
While puppies need a fair amount of exercise, they can also easily be injured if they overdo it. They need enough time to sleep and recover in between playtime. The best advice we can give is to check with your veterinarian before heading out on a long walk or hike with your puppy.
After they receive all of their required vaccinations, they should be ready to start hiking, but understanding their physical limitations is also important.
As our dog’s age, their mobility and general physical ability will change. With some breeds, like Labradors and German shepherds, hip issues may arise as early as age 5-6. Osteoarthritis is also a concern in elderly dogs.
At some point, you will need to decide whether it is safe for them to be hiking. As much as they may love being on the trail, if their bodies do not allow for it, taking shorter walks or sticking to flat trails may be the best option.
Certain dog breeds are also better equipped for hiking than others. For instance, a German shorthaired pointer will have a much easier time than a pug. For one, most pointer breeds are bred for endurance activities and extended periods of running.
They have long snouts, long legs, and an overall athletic build. Pugs, on the other hand, are a short-muzzled breed (Brachycephalic breed), making it hard for them to participate in strenuous activities. They also have much smaller legs and a less athletic body.
Ability levels usually come down to body size and athletic ability of your dog. Small dogs are capable of hiking, but they may need to be carried from time to time. Many short-muzzled breeds should not participate in strenuous activities like hiking as they have low exercise tolerance and have a much higher likelihood of experiencing a heat stroke.
Other breeds will also be more hyperactive or more prey drive than others. When you’re hiking, you will inevitably see wildlife like birds and squirrels.
These small animals can trigger some breeds causing them to chase. In these situations, even the best-trained dog may not have perfect recall. Although this is not necessarily a physical limitation, it could mean that even in areas that do not require leashes, your dog is leashed anyway.
Just like humans, dogs can be out of shape and it’s important to know how far you can hike with your dog. Just because you take your dog for a short stroll once a day, doesn’t mean they’re ready to tackle a 10-mile hike on rocky terrain. Building up mileage gradually is just as important for our dogs as it is for us.
If your dog is overweight and does not exercise often, a hike will be much harder for them. These physical limitations could damage their joints and result in a higher likelihood of heat exhaustion or stroke.
Learn and teach trail etiquette
Our dogs only know what we tell them to know. That’s why before we ever go hiking with or without them, we need to be well versed in trail etiquette. Once we have a good idea of what is acceptable while hiking, we can translate those rules to our dogs.
Leave No Trace (pick up your dog’s poop)
All of the seven leave no trace principles can be applied to hiking with a dog. However, one of the most problematic areas of hiking or backpacking with a dog is what to do with their poop. As a dog owner, get used to picking up and carrying their dog poop. Under no circumstances should poop be left exposed on the trail.
Wild animals, like coyotes, poop and don’t pick it up, so why should we pick up our dog’s poop? After all, they’re animals too. The answer is simple– domesticated dogs are not wild animals and our dogs usually are all pooping in the same places.
Leaving their poop creates pollution that is hazardous to plants, humans, and animals in the area. Dog poop is not fertilizer so do not treat it as such (unless it is properly composted at a heat high enough to kill bacteria). It is estimated that a dog’s poop contains about 23 million fecal coliform bacteria. Dog poop is also often a carrier for other hazards like whipworms, hookworms, types of coronavirus, giardia, and more. Bacteria from dog poop has been known to pollute water sources that are vital to both humans and the ecological area.
In some areas, you can bury your dog’s poop. When using a cathole to dispose of their waste, bring a trowel and bury the waste no less than 8” deep. The hole should be covered entirely and be slightly mounded. At the very least, dog poop should be buried 200 feet away from the trail and any water source.
Adhering to the proper protocol for catholes can take a fair amount of time, and you cannot bury dog poop when it is inside a poop bag. Even if the bag is labeled as biodegradable or compostable, do not bury it. These terms are not regulated and often have differing meanings.
The easiest thing to do is to invest in a poop bag dispenser and carrier. These small bag dispensers will ensure you have enough bags for your hike, they attach to a backpack or leash easily, and a filled poop bag will attach to it so you won’t have to carry their waste as you hike.
Other hikers have the right of way
In most circumstances, hikers going uphill have the right of way. You may need to yield to bikers and horses, but with a dog, you always yield.
Because dogs are somewhat unpredictable, it is best practice always to have your dog heel when someone passes. Use yourself as a barrier between your dog and the other hiker or biker as they pass.
If another dog is passing, use your best judgment, and if it doesn’t appear as if they are stopping for you, stop for them. If your dog is on a leash, this is much easier. But if your dog is off-leash, they need to be well trained enough to not only heel but to stay, no matter the stimuli.
Stay in control
The easiest way to stay in control of your dog while hiking is always to keep them on leash. If your dog is just being introduced to hiking, this is often the safest option. As they learn the rules of hiking, keeping them on a leash and walking them with a harness will give you more control.
If you have multiple dogs, it can be helpful to designate one dog per person. While it may be difficult always to find hiking partners, hiking with multiple dogs when you’re alone is not advised.
As your dog gets more comfortable hiking and has a better understanding of the activity, hiking off-leash may be an option. However, always bring a leash and harness with in case they become unmanageable off-leash.
Keep your dog on the trail
The last aspect of trail etiquette that your dog needs to learn is to stay on the trail. Just as all human hikers need to stay on the trail, our dogs do too. This is easier if they are always on a leash.
Keeping your dog on the trail protects them from dangerous plants, animals, and situations, but it also protects our wild spaces. Dogs are curious creatures. They like to dig, chase, and romp through vegetation. All of these habits may be enduring to their personalities, but they are detrimental to the ecology of the hiking area.
If your dog is off-leash, the best way to do this is to either always have them hiking directly next to you, in front of you, or behind you. Allowing them to run in front may be okay, but be sure that they are visible. When you can no longer see them, call them back to you.
Most hiking areas are wild spaces. That means there are poisonous plants, insects, animals, and wildlife that could transmit disease. Keeping your dog on the trail and in sight protects them and preserves the area.
Invest time into proper training
To help your dog learn trail etiquette, plenty of time will go into training. Before you ever bring your dog hiking (especially off-leash), at the very least, they need to know commands like come, sit, heel, and stay.
Beyond that, their recall should be almost instant. If your voice doesn’t carry very well, consider training them to come back to you with a whistle or clap.
All of these things take time and practice both on and off the trail. Obedience training can help you and your dog develop these commands early on, and dog trainers will provide exercises to practice with at home.
In some areas, snake training is also beneficial. Venomous snakes are not uncommon in many hiking areas. While there are preventative measures you can take to protect your pup, consider taking a snake training course with your dog. These courses help to teach your dog not to interact with snakes if they encounter them. If successful, they will learn not to stop and sniff them, and instead to back away slowly.
Research area rules and regulations
Leave no trace rules apply to all hiking and camping spaces, but not all hiking areas even allow dogs to be present on trails. Most National Parks do not allow dogs outside of parking lot areas, so before you plan a trip with your dog, always double-check to make sure they are welcome.
Other than that, the biggest regulation for dog-friendly trails is if they need to be leashed or not. If a hiking area requires dogs to be on a leash at all times, it is often due to safety concerns. This could be because there are large predatory animals like wolves and bears, or because they know a lot of dogs frequent the trail.
Whatever the reason may be, if the park or trail requires dogs to be on a leash, keep your dog on a leash. In some cases, when leash rules are broken repeatedly by hikers, dogs will no longer be allowed at all.
Even if your dog is well-behaved, don’t ruin a chance to get outside for others, and keep your dog on a leash.
How to Camp With a Dog
Getting your dog used to short day hikes is one thing, but backpacking is another endeavor altogether. To prepare your dog for the backpacking world, doing a mix of hiking and camping is ideal. Hiking will help build up their endurance for longer backpacking treks, and car camping will get them comfortable with camp rules and environments.
Follow hiking standards
Most hiking rules and trail etiquette applies to camping. Leave no trace, keeping your dog in sight, and keeping them in the campsite are of the most important standards to uphold. In most cases, keeping your dog tethered is ideal.
It’s easy to get distracted when setting up camp, cooking, or enjoying the fire with your friends. Those few moments when you’re not paying attention are the perfect time for your dog to wander off following a scent or even chase after a critter.
Your awareness is not always going to be fixed on them, so provide some security by packing a camp tether to attach them to.
Hiking And Camping Gear For Your Dog
Whether you’re hiking, camping, or backpacking, your dog needs some gear of their own.
Of all three activities, hiking will require the least amount of gear. For hiking, invest in a harness. Even if you take your dog for walks around town with just a standard leash and collar combo, for hiking, a harness gives you more control and is far more comfortable for your dog to wear.
When choosing a harness, padded harnesses are more comfortable and versatile. If your dog pulls a lot, a harness may limit the amount of pulling, and you can get a harness that has a front leash attachment.
Although almost any leash will work for hiking, a runner’s leash will be the nicest. These attach around your waist, providing a hands-free experience. This is perfect for when you take water breaks or have to stop and pick up dog poop.
Speaking of poop, always pack more poop bags than you think you need. It isn’t uncommon for dogs to poop multiple times throughout the hike, and you should always be picking up their waste. Plus, if you want to be an extra responsible dog owner and steward of the Earth, you can pick up dog poop left behind by other, less responsible, hikers.
As mentioned earlier, some dog poop dispensers attached to your pack and have a carrying hook. That way, you don’t have to hold the used poop bag the entire hike.
The next item to remember to pack is enough water for your dog to drink. You can opt to bring an extra water bottle and a collapsible bowl for them or a water bottle bowl combo. The amount of water you pack for your dog will depend on the climate, weather, and hike’s length.
If you have a small dog, a dog carrier may be required for long or strenuous hikes. This goes in tandem with knowing your dog’s limits, but if you genuinely enjoy being outside with your dog, a carrier is a good investment.
When taking your dog backpacking, hiking will also be involved. So, plan to bring all of your dog’s hiking gear along for the trek. In addition to those items, plan to bring dog food, treats, food carriers, collapsible bowls, dog booties or paw wax protectants, saddlebags, and a dog-specific first aid kit.
Some dog harnesses are specially designed for hiking and backpacking. If your dog is able, they can carry some of their gear. Just keep in mind that they should not carry very much weight, so expect to carry some for them. If you’re unsure of your dog’s abilities, consult your veterinarian about fitting and packing the backpack.
All breeds will be different, but a general rule is that dogs can carry 10% of their body weight (5-6 lbs for a 50 lb dog, or 2.5-3.0 kilos for a 25-kilogram dog). Some resources may recommend 25%, but that is only for large working dogs and is not advised, especially when just starting out.
You may need to get a different harness for backpacking that includes the saddlebags, whereas others have detachable bags.
Whichever harness you choose, have your dog practice wearing it while packed before you go. You also should not guess the weight of the pack. After you’ve added their gear, weight the harness to ensure it is not too heavy.
Pack plenty of food for them as well. They will be expediting more energy than usual, so they’ll be hungry. Be sure the food they’re eating is high in protein and fats to keep their energy levels up. You should also plan on packing a few trail treats for them to have during the hike. This will keep them from getting fatigued and can help with obedience.
While almost any bag can work to carry dog food while backpacking, they do make backpacking specific dog food bags, these tend to be more durable and will compress down easily for packing. Their design also makes it easy to hang to keep away from bears.
The last backpacking item we’ll discuss in this section is paw protectant. If you are hiking in a cold climate, dog booties can be used. Although you may have heard dog boots should be used in hot climates, this is not the case. The only place dogs can sweat is through their paws.
Although a bootie may protect them from the scalding pavement, they should not wear them for extended periods as it could cause them to overheat quickly. If it is hot, maybe just rethink the practicality and safety of the backpacking trip.
Another excellent option for backpacking is a paw pad protective wax. This can be applied daily or even multiple times throughout the day. It will moisturize paws and provide a protective layer as they hike over rocks and through the forest.
Since backpacking involves camping, you’ll also want to bring the items listed in the section below.
Dog-Specific Camping Gear
When you bring your dog camping, you may or may not need the same hiking gear. However, most of the supplies will overlap. So, plan to bring all of the equipment listed in the hiking and backpacking sections, plus a tether, LED dog collar light, sleeping pad, blanket or sleeping bag, and some bug spray.
A tether is recommended for keeping your dog in the designated camping area and your sight at all times. While they may not always need to be hooked to this, it is handy for those moments you can’t have your full attention fixed to them. Make it long enough for them to enjoy the area, and so it is easy to hook to a tree or your vehicle.
An LED light or dog collar is handy for visibility at night. If your dog is always tethered, this may not be necessary, but if they are wandering around the campsite, having a small light on their collar will ensure they’re within sight no matter the time of day.
Bug spray is handy for camping specifically because your dog will spend a fair amount of time lying around. When they’re hiking, their movement will usually keep most bugs at bay. However, when they’re lounging in camp, they become more of a target for mosquitos and ticks. Find some bug spray that is safe for dogs to wear and that you can easily reapply.
Finally, get a good sleep system for your dog. Although dogs are rugged and capable of sleeping on the ground, they still deserve a warm and comfortable place to sleep each night. If they sleep in your tent with you, make sure your tent has a reinforced floor to prevent their nails from ripping the tent’s bottom. When car camping, this can be as simple as a thick blanket or tarp.
They’ll also want a sleeping pad of some kind. This adds some cushioning, but it mostly provides heat retention. Depending on your dog’s breed and the nightly temperature, a blanket or sleeping bag may be required. This is even more important if they are sleeping in the vestibule of your tent, and they can’t cuddle up with you to stay warm.
Dog first aid and trail hazards
There’s no question that our adventure dogs love being outdoors and on the trail. There also is no question that dogs are prone to injury, especially when they’re overexcited and undertrained. All of the trail etiquette details we’ve outlined above will help keep your pup safe, but accidents still happen.
So, what are the most common hiking injuries? How can we prevent them and treat them when they do happen?
Dangerous plants and animals
Staying on the trail is extremely important for both humans and pets. The main reason is to preserve the area’s environment, but the other primary consideration is that there are poisonous plants, large predators, or venomous animals/insects.
The trail is usually well-traveled and cleared of vegetation. So, dogs running through or eating poisonous plants is very unlikely. Since they should be within your line of sight at all times, this is easy to monitor.
Depending on the traffic level on the trail, most wild animals will steer clear of the path to avoid humans and dogs. When your dog romps through the woods off-trail, the likelihood of encountering wildlife is much higher.
In desert areas, rattlesnakes easily hide off-trail in bushes or on rocks. In the mountains, bears will sometimes seek out parks and campgrounds in hopes of finding food. Whatever the animal may be, respecting their space is necessary, not only for their safety but for the protection of your dog.
By far, the most common area for dogs to injure while hiking is their paws. Whether it be hot ground, rocks, or sticks, there are plenty of things to cut your dog’s paws.
In some cases, dog boots are necessary. However, these should only be a go-to solution for protecting dog’s paws in cold, snowy environments. They have been suggested for hot weather as well, but depending on the climate, their paws can still be burnt while wearing boots, and they are more likely to overheat because their paws are the only area of their body they can sweat.
A great alternative to dog boots is paw salve or balm which we discussed earlier in the gear section of this article.
With paw injuries in mind, it is necessary to check their paws periodically. Not all dogs will alert you to injury, and they’ll carry on making the wound worse as they hike.
Packing a first aid kit stocked with materials like a tweezer, gauze, and tape is a must for a dog that hikes often.
Overexertion and overheating
If you live in a hot climate, avoid overheating and overexertion by hiking early in the morning or close to sundown. Temperatures should be lower during this time of day, and it will be easier for your dog to regulate their body temperature.
Hiking in areas where water is prevalent can also help your dog cool off. Having a stream or lake to jump into partway through the hike can save them from a heat stroke.
Overexertion is mostly a concern for young dogs and elderly dogs. That’s not to say that a dog of any age can’t overexert themselves. Most dogs will run and run until you tell them to stop. They are unable to monitor their endurance or capabilities and are very likely to run themselves to death if it means time in the woods with their human.
It is up to you as the owner to monitor and regulate your dog’s excursion level. Be aware of what they are capable of and make them rest periodically.
Hydration is epically important when it comes to bringing your dog hiking, camping, or backpacking. Some dogs will be capable of carrying their water, but not all dogs should. So, be prepared to bring some extra water for your dog.
Although it is tempting because they’re a dog, do not let them drink from lakes, streams, or ponds. They especially should not drink from standing water of any kind. All water that they drink on the trail should be treated the same way as the water you drink. If you filter your water, filter their water.
There are pollutants, and potentially toxic algae bloom in numerous water sources, even in the most remote locations. Dogs die each year after swimming or drinking in contaminated water.
If you are camping near a water source, monitor your dog to ensure they are not drinking water that you’re not providing for them.
Beyond that, every time you stop to drink, offer them water. If it is hot in the area you’re hiking, provide them with water more often. At the very least, they need access to water at the beginning and end of the hike. If you’re going on a short 1-3 mile hike, this should be sufficient, but if you’re backpacking, allow them more access to avoid dehydration.
Another hazard to dogs while hiking and camping is the risk of falling. When we are talking about falling, we mean falling off a cliff. Some dogs are very prey-oriented, which can lead them to chase a critter off of steep landscapes.
If your dog does not listen well and chases critters regularly, the best thing you can do is keep them on a leash at all times.
If your dog does experience a fall of some kind, be prepared to carry them out. Small dogs may be easy to carry, but if you have a large or medium-sized dog, carrying an injured dog back to the trailhead is a tall order.
Even if you aren’t worried about your dog falling off a cliff, other injuries could result in you having to transport them off the trail. They do make compact and easy to use dog rescue harnesses. These often look much like a sling or harness that you can wear as a backpack.
How to prepare your dog for hiking, camping, and backpacking
Both you and your dog need to be prepared before you hit the trail. Proper training, conditioning, and gear are essential tools for a successful outdoor trip with your pup.
It may take a few times to get used to the new rules and trail etiquette, but they’ll catch on quickly. Most dogs love hiking, and they keep up with the rules, but only if they are enforced.
After all, there is no such thing as a bad dog.