Hitting the trails with your dog is a wonderful way to explore the great outdoors and reap the benefits of being outside and physically active. Hiking not only provides your dog with much needed exercise, but also gives their noses and brains a work out too. Plus, studies have shown that spending time outside surrounded by green space reduces human stress levels and has other medical benefits.
Going on an adventure together as a team builds the bond you share with your dog and makes your relationship stronger. Before you take your dog on a hike or on a longer backpacking or camping trip, take these steps to ensure your pup’s safety while on the trail and you can reap the benefits of a fun trip together.
Getting Prepared to Hike with Your Dog
Should Your Dog Go Hiking?
First, consider whether or not your dog is right for trail hiking. You don't want to take a puppy or adolescent dog on too strenuous of a hike until they've finished growing. Too much strain on a young dog’s growing bones can lead to pain and future issues with regular development. (Most of the "growth plates" in puppy bones close by about one year of age, but every dog and every bone can be different. Talk to your vet before starting any serious hiking or running program with your dog.)
Puppies also haven't built up their stamina yet — don't let their crazy play in the yard fool you — and will need some physical conditioning to get ready for the hiking adventure. Puppies also need some conditioning to get them used to warmer weather, as they aren't as efficient as most adult dogs at regulating their own body temperature and are therefore at increased risk for heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
Older dogs can suffer from arthritis or painful joints that would make longer hikes more damaging than beneficial, but it's important to still keep them exercised and moving to keep them healthy. Older dogs have lower stamina and strength than a dog in the prime of their life. You'll want to manage the difficulty of the trail and the duration of your hike, and give them frequent rest and water breaks. Connect with your veterinarian to find joint supplements and an arthritis treatment plan that works best for your older (and wiser) pup.
Brachycephalic breeds (short-nosed breeds like Pugs, French Bulldogs, Boxers, etc.) have shortened and narrowed nasal passageways, as well as other less-efficient aspects of their respiratory system, and are more prone to exhaustion and heatstroke during physical exertion. Hiking might not be the best choice of exercise with these breeds, but you can mitigate the risk by going at a slower pace, providing frequent rest and water breaks, using a cooling vest, and only hiking during cooler weather. Also, if your dog's nostrils are particularly narrowed, talk to your vet (or a board-certified veterinary surgeon) about brachycephalic obstructive airway surgery — it can make a huge improvement in a dog's life!
Build Up Your Dog's Stamina
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be able to go run a marathon today if you asked me to. And if I did go run a marathon without preparing, I’d definitely regret it tomorrow. I’d need to build up my endurance first (and learn to actually enjoy running). Just like us, dogs need to build up muscle strength before a strenuous activity to prevent soreness and injury.
Start with an easy hike, no more than one hour long with a small incline. Watch their energy level during and afterwards. If they seem really wiped out, shorten the next hike or choose an easier trail before adding more time and difficulty. Follow your dog's lead while on the trail — if they stop and lay down for a breather, let them rest and make sure they have plenty of water.
They also need to build up some toughness on their paw pads to prevent ripped or sore pads from a hike over different types of terrain. Dogs can also burn their paw pads on hot surfaces, so it's important to make sure they're protected. Check out our article How to Properly Care for Your Dog's Paw Pads for more in-depth information and tips. If your dog has sensitive paw pads, or you want to make sure their paws are protected on hikes, grab some paw protection wax, like Musher's Secret, or invest in some dog booties!
These Ruffwear All-Terrain Paw Wear boots provide excellent traction for hiking, but if you plan on hiking in colder weather, these Polar Trex Booties from Ruffwear offer insulation and winter traction.
You don't want to just throw boots on your dog without some preparation, as many dogs can't figure out how to walk normally with them on without some practice. In this video you'll see how to easily introduce your dog to wearing their boots:
It can be very useful to have your dog help carry their hiking supplies by having them wear a dog backpack. Not all dogs should wear a backpack though — check with your veterinarian to make sure your dog can physically handle and has the right body type for the extra weight of a pack. For example, my Corgi isn't a good candidate for wearing a backpack anymore because of her older age and long back, which puts her more at risk of a spinal injury. If you plan on using one on your hike, you’ll want to get them used to wearing it empty first, and then add weight incrementally to build up their stamina.
Choose a dog backpack based on your hiking needs — there are lots of options depending on whether you plan on backpacking, camping, or just going on a day hike. Ruffwear's Approach Dog Pack is form-fitting and the placement of the saddlebags is great for helping your pup keep their balance. Ruffwear also offers a great Core Cooler Chest Panel that can be clipped into any of their backpacks or harnesses — a great option if you're hiking in warmer weather. Other popular and quality dog backpacks include the Kurgo Dog Pack and Outward Hound's Denver Urban Dog Backpack.
The weight of your dog’s pack should never exceed more than 20–25% of their body weight — but don't start at that weight, start with an empty pack and then gradually build up the weight over several sessions/days to best condition and gauge what your dog can handle. Also, check that the backpack is fit correctly, and supplies are balanced evenly for your dog’s body.
Vaccinations and Parasite Preventatives
Your veterinarian will also make sure that your dog has any and all vaccinations they’ll need. Your dog might need additional vaccinations if you plan on hiking in certain areas.
Ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes also pose a risk to your pup, as they can carry some nasty pathogens (such as heartworm, which are transmitted through mosquito bites). There are lots of options for parasite preventatives, ranging from chewables to topicals, and even injectables. Your vet can recommend which parasite preventative(s) will be best for your dog, based on their environment, hiking plans, and other pets in your home.
See this article for tips on what to do (and what NOT to do) to remove a tick from your dog.
Supplies to Pack
No matter the length and difficulty of your hike, there are a few things you should always bring along for your dog:
- Water and Portable Water Bowl: Make sure you bring plenty of water for your dog to drink, along with a collapsible water bowl or water bottle so they have a way to drink it. Plan for at least one quart of water for every three miles of hiking. Never allow your dog to drink from streams, rivers, or standing water which can transmit waterborne pathogens. If you plan on a long hike and cannot carry the required amount of water for your pup, bring along a portable water filter or water purifying tablets.
- Dog Food or Snacks: Dry dog food or treats are easiest to pack and carry while on a hike. Just like you might need to replenish your energy with a protein bar, your dog needs to as well. Stash a few treats or a bit of kibble in your backpack so they can refuel. These Power Bones by Zuke's are easy to toss in your bag.
- Poop Bags: Remember — always pick up your dog’s poop and pack it out. Bring along plenty of poop bags and a larger plastic ziploc or other sealable container to store used poop bags until you can dispose of them properly.
- Dog First Aid Supplies: Pack a first aid kit especially for your dog or add some dog-specific supplies. You can purchase a travel-size pet first aid kit, or you can make your own. You want one that includes a pet first aid guide, saline solution, an antiseptic, antihistamines, gauze, heavy-duty stretchy bandages, antibiotic ointment, multi-tool with tweezers, tick removal tool (also useful for any ticks you find on yourself!), blood clotting powder, and cotton swabs.
- Extra leash: Bring an extra leash along in case your regular leash breaks, or you need to tether your dog with some extra leash length.
- Towel: Bring a dog towel along to dry your dog off if they get wet on your hike, and as a tool to cool down your dog if they are suffering from heat stroke.
- Dog Brush/Comb: Having a dog comb on hand is a great way to remove burrs and foxtails, and to help you check for any ticks on your dog throughout the hike and before returning home.
Training Considerations for Hiking
The Top 6 Dog Training Behaviors for Hiking
There are a few basic training behaviors that your dog should have down pat before taking them hiking with you. Click on the behavior to see a video for how-to instructions:
Always Leashed is Best
Keeping your dog on a leash — even if they’re off-leash trained — is important for a few reasons:
- A dog running off trail can damage fauna and cause distress to wild animals.
- Your dog could be injured out of your sight or get lost.
- Other hikers might be scared of dogs, and an off leash dog approaching can make them uncomfortable (or they have a dog that doesn’t do well with off leash dogs).
- If the trail you’re on allows horseback riding or mountain biking, you don’t want your dog to spook a horse, and you don’t want a mountain biker to crash while maneuvering around your dog.
- A leash prevents your dog from falling off a ledge or into a ravine, etc. Dogs can't judge whether jumping over a rock leads to ground or over a cliff. Every year there are heartbreaking stories of dogs falling off cliffs or getting stranded on ledges and needing to be rescued.
A hands-free leash is a great leash to use while hiking, or you can invest in a long leash to give your dog some more freedom while still keeping them attached to you. If you do decide to use a long leash, just be aware that they can catch on roots along the ground, get wrapped around trees, or trip other hikers up on the trail. Some hiking trails and camping grounds do have leash length requirements. It's easiest to stick with a regular 6-foot leash. This Knot-a-Leash from Ruffwear is my favorite to use for hiking trips because of the comfortable handle, tough climbing rope material, and a locking carabiner.
[Note: Retractable leashes are not the best leash for hiking — or at all, really. Read this article to learn about why retractable leashes aren't recommended for most dogs.]
Make sure your dog also has a well-fitting collar with their Rabies tag and ID tags in case they do get away from you. Having your dog microchipped is a great safety precaution — if they're already microchipped, make sure your contact information is updated with the microchip company. We show you how to update your contact info in this article.
Double check that the hiking trail you’re visiting allows dogs and see what rules apply. There are differences between where dogs are allowed in national, state, and local parks.
Alltrails.com offers trail guides and maps, and you can filter your search to include only dog-friendly trails. Try to avoid trails with rough or rocky terrain and other hazardous conditions, such as steep cliffs or drop-offs.
Hiking Trail Etiquette
Be a considerate dog owner by practicing polite trail etiquette:
- Yield to other hikers: Step off the trail with your dog, and ask your dog to sit while other hikers pass.
- Leave no trace: It’s very important that you pick up and pack out your dog’s poop while hiking. Leaving their poo along the trail isn’t only a potential mess for other hikers, but it also can do damage to the environment by introducing pathogens and parasites that aren’t endemic to the area. Be prepared with poop bags and always pick up your dog’s poop and pack it out to dispose of properly.
- No more than two dogs per person: If you plan on hiking with more than one dog at a time, make sure your dogs are well behaved on leash together and easy to control. Be aware that hiking with multiple dogs can make emergencies difficult. If you have one person per dog, you don’t have to worry about controlling one dog while helping the other. Hiking with more than two dogs at a time is discouraged, as three or more dogs together as a pack can be very overwhelming to other hikers and dogs, not to mention harder to control.
Now you're ready to have fun and stay safe on the trails with your dog — let us know in the comments below about your hiking tips and experiences with your pooch!
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