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Boreal Emergency Preparedness Portal

Backpacking with Dogs: A Practical Guide

May 16, 2019 10:49AM ● By Editor
Hiking and backpacking with dogs can add a whole new dimension to your time in the wilderness. Dogs have such a wonderful knack of being endlessly positive and energetic, and their presence, when you’re tackling a tough section of trail, can be a real boost to your morale. Taking your dog backpacking is also a great option if you love camping but know that camping with your dog on a regular campsite just won’t work for your puppy. Some dogs totally relish the challenge of getting back to their wild roots and running riot for days on end in the middle of nowhere, but not all dogs will take to it so kindly.

Is your dog suitable for backpacking?

Before you go setting off on a 10 day trek with your darling Dachshund, it’s important to be realistic about your dog.

What type of dog do you have?

Some dogs are simply not suited to hiking. Consider British Bulldogs, Pugs and Chihuahuas – they might manage a hour or so around the park at their own pace, but from a physiological point of view they just won’t be able to deal with anything more than that. Some of the best breeds of dogs for hiking and backpacking include Border Collies, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds, but there are also many other dog breeds that absolutely love hiking and backpacking.

If you want to get out backpacking with your dog, your puppy pal should ideally be:

  • Strong
  • Energetic
  • Obedient
  • Easily trainable
  • Agile
  • Non-aggressive

How old is your dog?

Dogs that are less than a year old will still be growing. They’ll need to just stick with short hikes that don’t put any unnecessary stress on their developing bones and joints. Some dogs need to wait even longer than a year before they can start doing serious hiking, so make sure you check with your vet before you start lengthening your walks.

Equally,if your dog is getting on a bit, don’t push the miles. Look out for signs of tiredness and monitor it on each hike. If your old pup is getting tired more quickly than usual then it may just be that it’s ready for something shorter and more chilled out!

Will your dog run off if it catches the scent of a wild animal?

If so, then you need to be sure that he’ll return on your whistle or command. Otherwise you’ll need to keep him on a leash the whole time. For more thoughts on leashing your dog while backpacking and hiking continue to the section on dog leashing.

Is your dog OK on a leash?

Although it would be nice for your dog to roam free for the duration of your time in the wild, there will be times when being leashed is absolutely essential. If your dog isn’t so great with a leash then you’ll need to put some training hours in to get him accustomed to it before you head out into the wilderness.

The benefits of backpacking with dogs

If you’re confident that Fido is the backpacking dog of your dreams, then you’re in for a wonderful time out in the wild, with loads of benefits to having a canine companion at your side.

1. Good company

Whether you’re hiking solo or in a group, having your dog with you can be the perfect way to keep you distracted when the going gets tough. And someone to moan at who won’t complain back at you!

2. Safety

If you enjoy the solitude of hiking solo but want to feel a little more secure out on your own, then having your best friend at your side will bring you a load of confidence to get out there and explore more. If you have a well trained dog then he also may be your lifeline if something were to go awry.

3. They keep you warm at night

If you’re camping in chilly conditions, then your hairy hound will want some warmth from you as much as you will from him. So embrace the dog breath and enjoy the extra cosiness that comes with it.

4They are always entertaining

There’s a reason why so many humans seek the companionship of dogs — they’re just so funny! And having an extra source of entertainment for days out on the trail is always welcome.

The downsides of backpacking with dogs

But there are also a few negatives to taking your dog backpacking and hiking. No matter how much you love your puppy pal, there are times when having him around doesn’t always make sense.

1. You have to carry extra stuff

Some dogs will be able to carry their own food and water in a doggie backpack, but others aren’t strong enough to do this, or they simply don’t like it. So either you have to carry an extra heavy pack, or forego taking those few extra layers you need for yourself. Neither option is ideal.

2. You can’t ask them their opinion on things!

When big decisions need to be made out in the wild, like should I eat this berry, or should we go North or South, your dog won’t be able to help you out. If you’ve managed to train your dog on these essential communication skills then please tell us how!

3. You can’t hike everywhere with your pup

Some trails restrict access to dogs during certain times of the year due to breeding or nesting wildlife etc. And many national parks don’t allow dogs in at all. But there are plenty of dog friendly backpacking trails, so just make sure you check before you go to avoid disappointment.

Woman hiking with a dog in the mountains

Does your dog need a leash for backpacking?

The use of leashes when backpacking with dogs is always a tricky subject. Some people keep their dogs leashed the whole time, whilst others wouldn’t dream of it and let their hound run wild and free. Before you go dismissing one method or the other it’s worth considering the following and using your best judgement as to how much you use a leash.

Are dog leashes required on the trail you are hiking?

Some trails enforce the use of leashes for various reasons. It may be that the trail is popular with families with children, who may feel threatened by an unleashed dog. Or the rule might be in place to protect unleashed dogs from running into dangerous wildlife or high risk terrain.

Does your dog bound up to people and children to say hi?

No matter how playful and friendly the intentions of your dog may be, it can be really terrifying for small children to have a dog in their face, uninvited. Some people are totally fine with this but some are not, and you just never know.

How does your dog behave around other dogs?

Even if your pup is the perfect angel, you never know how other dogs will react to him, especially if one dog is leashed and the other isn’t. Will your dog just back away if things get aggressive, or will he fight back?

Does your dog stay at your side the whole time?

Some dogs have zero interest in other dogs or other people and are totally happy trotting as close to you as possible. If this is the case, then they will probably be just fine without a leash. But having one at the ready, just in case, is always advisable.

Training your dog for backpacking

Just like us humans, our doggie friends need to build up to long distance hiking trips too, especially if they are not used to them. Before you start a doggie backpacking bootcamp, be sure that your dog is fully grown and ready to start upping the exercise levels. If you are at all unsure of this then ask your vet.

Once you’ve got the go ahead, training your dog for backpacking should include the following:

  • Endurance training

    Start off hiking with your hound on short day hikes. Over the course of a few weeks, increase the difficulty of the hike, and then the distance. Be sure to monitor their progress and once you’re happy that they can deal with the real thing head out on an overnight trip. This will also be good to get your pooch into the habit of keeping you warm at night!

    It’s not just their general fitness that you’ll need to work on. Their paw pads will also need to toughen up to deal with the rough terrain that you will tackle along the way. If your dog is just used to stomping on soft grass in the park then as with fitness training, you’ll need to introduce varied and rough terrain slowly.

    Agility exercises

  • If you are planning on hiking in tough and steep terrain it’s a good idea to get your dog used to rock hopping and clambering in a more controlled environment. Set up some obstacles in your back yard that challenge balance and strength as well as agility. This will also help with reinforcing verbal commands that you’ll ideally already be good at as a team.

  • Water acclimatisation

    You may encounter river crossings when backpacking, so your pup will need to be comfortable in cold water and not scared or put off by running water. Start by getting them to paddle in slow running streams and shallow creeks. If they take to it then encourage them into deeper water where they’ll get to experience the cold. Most dogs absolutely love being in the water, but it’s key that you make sure they are comfortable in it before you encounter colder, faster water that you have no choice but to get into.

Dog pack carrying

For long distance trips your dog will need to carry his own food and water (at least), so it’s super important that you slowly acclimatise him to wearing a dog pack and carrying weight in it. Start by just putting it on around the house with no weight in. Once your dog is comfortable in it you can start slowing adding weight to it on walks.

Most dogs should be able to carry up to 25% of their own body weight. But this very much depends on the dog, so it is worth consulting your vet if you are unsure. It also depends on how long you and your dog are hiking for. Some dogs will have no problems carrying that much for a couple of hours but may start to struggle on longer hikes. If you build up the carry weight and walking distance slowly you’ll be able to gauge how your pup is coping and where their carrying limit is.

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