By Elena Sipe
Want to go backpacking with your dog? It can be an amazing bonding experience! It takes some preparation, but this adventure doesn’t have to be daunting or dangerous.
A lot of what determines how well your trip will go is in the preparation stage – making sure you have enough water, food, clothes appropriate for the season (your dog may need a coat too!), and that your backpack isn’t too heavy.
Much of this comes with practice, but generally, the less stuff you carry (while still serving your basic needs), the better.
If you’ve never been backpacking before, it’s a good idea to do research, take a class, or go with a more experienced friend.
Make sure the trail you choose is not beyond either your skill level or your dog’s, and that dogs are allowed on the trail. Check the weather, too—you don’t want any unexpected surprises!
Remember – if the going gets too rough, you can always turn back!
How do you get your dog ready?
First, you want to determine if your dog is ready for backpacking. Are they fully grown? In decent shape? Have they been hiking before? Do you want them to wear a backpack to give them a job to do and help share the load?
If all your answers are yes, then it’s time to size your dog for a backpack. Measure your dog’s length (neck to rump) and their girth (around the widest part of their ribcage). You can use these measurements to determine their backpack size.
Try on a few at a pet store and determine what things you are looking for—specific colors, handles, etc. Once you have your backpack, introduce your dog to it by letting them sniff it. If they are acting okay around it, put it on them. If they back away, try again, slowly, with treats.
Adjust the backpack so the straps are snug but not tight on your dog’s body. This will prevent chafing. Let them walk around the house with the empty backpack on for a few hours, and take them on several walks. Once they are okay with this, start by adding a little bit of weight to each side and going for more walks with this weight.
To add weight evenly to both sides, try adding a bit of kibble or rice to plastic bags (same amount in each bag) and putting one bag on each side of the backpack. Over time, you can increase the amount of rice/kibble and thus the amount of weight.
Gradually build up the weight in the backpack over the course of a few weeks. Make sure to have your dog go up, down, and over things, so they can get used to maneuvering with the extra weight.
At maximum, your dog (and you!) should carry only 25% of your weight.
Say your dog is 100 lbs. The math looks like this: 100 x 0.25 = 25 lbs.
The bag weighs something too, say 2 lbs: 25 – 2 = 23 lbs. In this case, your 100 lb dog can carry a maximum of 11.5 lbs on each side of the backpack, but it’s better for them to carry less than this.
Assess how much food and water you will need based on the weather and difficulty of the terrain. Use a map to determine water sources along the way, so you can bring a water filter and add to your supply as you go.
Keep in mind that both you and your dog will need more food than normal, as you will be expending more energy.
For water and food, pack two small collapsible silicone bowls for your dog. You can measure out the amount of food you think they will need in a bowl beforehand and mark where on the bowl the food reaches. This eliminates the need for a measuring cup! Make sure their food goes in waterproof bags and that you hang both their food and yours downwind and away from your tent when you set up camp.
Another item that is useful to pack is dog booties. Sure, they look silly, but those pads get worn out with days of long mileage, pointy rocks, and hot surfaces. Get your dog used to these the same way you would with their backpack—gradually.
Make sure to have first aid supplies for both of you, and take things slowly. Keep an eye on how your dog is doing as you go along. If your dog is laying down to rest at rest stops, they are getting too tired and it may be time to call it a day or head back.
For sleeping arrangements, consider bringing your dog their own sleeping bag if they can’t fit in yours. That way they will have their own bed and won’t get yours dirty.
Before you go, make sure you leave your trip details with someone you trust in case of an emergency. Give them emergency vet contact info, where you are going (what trails, how many miles), when you are leaving, when you expect to be back.
Don’t forget a camera to capture that smiling doggy face!
On the trail
Be mindful of other hikers and backpackers on the trail. Not everyone is a dog lover, so make sure your dog is polite around new people and other dogs. Do not (repeat: do not) allow your dogs to chase wildlife.
Unless your dog has perfect recall, keep them on a leash. Many trails only allow dogs on leash anyway. It’s worth investing in a leash that has a hands-free option and adjustable length.
Make sure to bury your dog’s poop (this goes for you as well), and try to keep it off the trail. It’s best to do your business 200 ft away from water, so as not to contaminate it.
Your dog may need something to do at camp, so it’s a good idea to bring them a chew toy or bully stick. Remember to keep your dog tied up at camp and keep an eye on them at all times.
When you’re ready to head out, make sure to leave your campsite how you found it.
With practice, this will all become second nature. Good luck and happy trails!
Elena is an adventure-seeker, world traveler, foodie, and all-around nerd person that is rarely seen without her rescue dog, Alfie, by her side. When not hiking or spending time near water, Elena can be found eating, cuddling with Alfie, enjoying nerdy books, and learning, which they both love even though only one of them gets treats for it.