Fall is hiking and running season around the country, so I thought I would share my beginner’s guide to backpacking with dogs. I originally wrote this about two years ago as a magazine submission but it was never printed. I figure it’s safe to say that they’re probably not going to print it anytime soon. (However, if you know of a magazine that would like to use any of the materials on my page, please feel free to contact me for permission and terms.)
Backpacking with Dogs – a Beginner’s Guide
Throughout history, dogs have served in a huge variety of rules, from their early days as hunting partners and camp guardians, to more recent work as guides for the blind or detectors of explosive devices, to the many competitive venues dogs and their owners now enjoy, such as agility or dog sledding. One function, however, has been less covered by historians and dog enthusiasts – that of the dog as a beast of burden, the pack dog.
Images of dogs carrying pack baskets appear in medieval European manuscripts, where they’re sadly few and far between, and in the drawings and descriptions of Native American life written by European explorers. While dogs pulling sleds and carts are commonly referenced in both drawing and literature, dogs carrying packs or baskets are more obscure and less commonly seen. Nevertheless, dog packing (backpacking with dogs) has recently made a resurgence among outdoor enthusiasts and dog trainers.
Today’s dog packing falls into one of two categories – casual and serious.
Casual dog packing, the more common type, usually requires the dog to only carry small amounts of weight, maybe a few bottles of water, some poop bags, and his owner’s cell phone and keys. Maybe something a little more, to include treats, a First Aid kit, and possibly some other supplies. Casual packing is frequently used by many dog trainers to help an energetic or unruly dog feel like he “has a job” and to work off that extra bit of energy by adding a weighted pack on normal daily walks. But most commonly, casual packing is something people enjoy doing on their weekends off with their dogs. The average casual hiker goes for day hikes of ten miles or less.
Serious dog packing, the more uncommon type, requires the dog to carry supplies for an extended hike in his pack – food and water for a number of days, collapsible bowls, First Aid equipment, maybe a blanket on which to sleep at night, and so on. A serious dog packer would be someone who spends extended weekends or even weeks on the trail with their dog, racking up the miles as they go. Some folks even hike the entire Appalachian trail – like Rachel over at Solophile who did the entire trip with her dog Micah.
Serious packing is also considered a dog sport, which is primarily engaged in by Siberian Husky and Greater Swiss Mountain Dog owners who can also earn Working Pack Dog titles by participating in hikes for record and with a minimum weight requirement. (The pack dog titles offered by the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club is open to any breed of dog, however.)
Whether you’re hoping to pack casually or seriously, all dog packing starts off with two things: the right equipment and the right training.
Let’s talk about equipment.
Anyone who’s ever gotten serious about hiking has probably experienced what happens when their pack doesn’t fit quite right: packs that are too large, shoulder straps that just don’t sit right, or equipment that’s not holding up to the weight carried. Finding the right pack, especially for serious or extended hikes, is an important consideration for the human hiker, and it’s equally important for the hiking dog. Just like human packs, not all dog packs are created equal – there are vast differences in fit, features, and quality.
So what makes a good hiking pack for a dog, then?
Just as with human packs, you should consider the construction and materials, fit, and features when it comes to equipping your four-legged hiking buddy. A good dog pack will be made from quality materials, have padding in the places that come into contact with your dog, and will be designed to fit the dog’s anatomy well. A pack that has a Y-front harness, which looks similar to a Western horse’s breast collar in style, provides the most stability and allows for free movement. This type of harness also helps keep the pack steady, even if the load is not perfectly balanced. A good pack will also be designed in such a way that allows the dog’s shoulder and front legs to support the majority of the pack’s weight. This is important because dogs, unlike horses, have flexible spines, and putting weight onto the center of the dog’s back causes discomfort or even injury, especially if you hike with a lot of weight or for extended trips.
Aside from finding a well-fitted and well-designed pack, conditioning is the most important thing to consider before you head out on your first trip. If you’ve hiked any longer distance – maybe in your Army days – you might know just how uncomfortable carrying too much weight is, especially when you are carrying too much for too far when you’re not quite ready. You wouldn’t just wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to run a marathon today!” unless you’re already a runner and have been training for it. And you probably shouldn’t get off the couch on Saturday morning and decide you’re going to don a 60lbs pack and hike up Whiteface Mountain just because the fancy strikes you, unless you’re prepared and conditioned for the trip. Your dog is no different. You can’t just put 20lbs of weight onto a dog who’s never carried that much and expect him to go on a ten mile hike.
The Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club recommends that dogs should start out carrying no more than 5% of their body weight when they first start training to become pack dogs, which includes the weight of the pack itself. From there, you can work your way up by gradually increasing both the weight inside the backpack and the distance you’re hiking. A conditioned dog can easily carry 30% of his body weight on an extended hike, and most dogs can easily carry more than that if you consider items that are used up along the way, such as food and water, in your starting pack weight.
The pack itself isn’t the only thing to consider, of course – there’s also the things you might want to pack. That’s something that is going to vary a lot depending on the length and distance of your hike, whether you’re going to be camping out overnight, or whether you are going to hike an extended period with stops to replenish supplies.
On any hike, even a simple day hike, water is both the most important and the heaviest thing that both you and your dog will carry. Platypus bottles are great for dog packs because their non-rigid design is easily packed and can be rolled up once the bottle is empty to save on space. Many newer generation dog packs, such as the RuffWear Singletrack, now come already equipped with Platypus bottles. Speaking of water bottles – if your dog doesn’t know how to drink from a bottle opening (and not all dogs do), a collapsible bowl should also be on your packing list. These can be had in many different styles and colors and most are under $20. I like and use the Sea to Summit X-bowl, myself.
On any longer hike, dog food is also a consideration, and may add significant weight to your packing list. For a day hike, on the other hand, that certainly isn’t a necessity unless you will be missing your dog’s regular meal time. Many people recommend you bring along some snacks for your dog as well, but I’ve never packed any dog treats on hikes. (I just tend to share whatever it is I’m eating when we’re out on hikes.)
Another thing you may want to consider packing is a first aid kit for your dog.
In our years of hiking, we’ve been lucky in that we haven’t had any major injuries on the trail, but we’ve had our share of sore and damaged paw pads. Sometimes, these were due to sharp rocks – which can be unavoidable on some trails – and in one case, the cut was due to another hiker’s ignorance, having broken glass and left the shards. Luckily, treating a cut paw pad is relatively simple and easy if you’re prepared: clean it out, add antibacterial ointment (such as Neosporin or Bacitracin) and then wrap it securely. A good way to wrap a pad is by using a gauze pad on the cut and wrapping it with Vetrap or something similar, such as camo wrap if you happen to have any. I’m particularly a fan of the camo wrap because it tends to be thicker and more heavy duty than the Vetrap. Of course, it’s also more expensive. If you own dog boots, carrying them is a great idea – if for no other reason than to throw them on after an injury to allow your dog to hike back under his own power.
Speaking of first aid – if you’re hiking in an unfamiliar area, it helps to keep emergency contact numbers for nearby veterinary clinics on hand, just in case. Also, make sure your dog is wearing a tag that has a valid phone number for you, a relative, or a friend that can be contacted in case your dog gets lost.
In addition to all that, another important consideration for most dog packers are good trail manners.
The majority of us, unfortunately, will spend most of our hiking time on public trails, such as trails on National Park property. Some of those trails may see very little use and we may not encounter any other hikers while we’re out there. Some of those trails may also be very busy and we may encounter other hikers with and without dogs, bicyclists, horseback riders, even folks hiking with pack goats, which makes good trail manners an absolute requirement.
Unfortunately, many trails and National Parks are now off-limits to four-legged hikers due to complaints and concerns over dogs being allowed to run loose, chasing wildlife, frightening people, and generally being a nuisance. Sadly, there’s little we can do other than conform to the rules and try to leave a good impression so we’re not the cause of dogs getting banned from the trails on which they are currently allowed.
Being “courteous” on the trail means different things to different people – let’s just go over some general “trail rules” that help keep dog packers on friendly terms with other hikers:
- Keep your dog leashed unless the area specifically allows unleashed dogs. Having a leash on your dog helps prevent a couple of behaviors that get dog hikers banned, such as chasing wildlife and harassing other hikers. This is especially important if your dog doesn’t react to the call “COME!” in every situation – including when he’s halfway down the hill chasing a rabbit.
- Don’t leave your dog’s poop in the middle of the trail. Sure, it’s nature and poop is bio-degradable, but nobody wants to step in it. Either pick it up and pack it out, or move it a reasonable distance off the trail and cover it up.
- Don’t let your dog act aggressively toward other hikers, bikers, horseback riders, or other trail users. This means, no barking, lunging or growling at passers-by, even if it’s a horse, a bicycle, or another dog.
- Bear in mind that some people are genuinely frightened of dogs and may not appreciate your dog approaching them on leash and especially not off-leash. When approaching or passing other people, it’s always best to have your dog next to you and on whichever side will position you between the dog and other trail users you are passing.
A couple of other things worth mentioning are collars and leashes.
If you’re out hiking, your dog should wear a well-fitted flat collar with his ID tags securely attached to it – even if you are using a harness, head halter, or training collar to actually attach the leash to. Your dog’s ID should have a phone number for yourself that is current and can be reached even when you’re not home, such as your cell phone, or your veterinary clinic’s number. You can also get an ID tube, which unscrews to hold a piece of paper on which you can write a current contact number – like a local hotel where you’re staying during your trip – or a number for a friend or family member who can be reached in an emergency.
Leashes come in many different styles and materials, and for hiking, I’ve found that leashes made from climbing rope or similar material work great because they are comfortable in your hand and can, if needed, be tied to your pack or belt so you have your hands free. I like to cut the hand loop off my hiking leads – or make them myself from climbing rope so they have no hand loops to begin with. If your dog likes to chase wildlife, it’s recommended that you use a thicker lead so that you don’t suffer “rope burn” on your hands if your dog decides to suddenly take off on you. Thin, light leashes are great – but having nearly severed a finger with parachute cord, I’d rather use a rope lead these days!
They also make “hands-free” leashes that attach to a belt. Those are fantastic for running but I don’t like them as much for hiking as many of them are only about 4ft and when you’re on a narrow trail, that can be impractical. Extendable leashes (“Flexi Leads”) are generally a bad choice because they’re uncomfortable to hold and can easily snap if a dog “hits the end” when taking off after a squirrel or rabbit. (Actually, I don’t really like extendable leashes for anything. A flat long line is much nicer and doesn’t snap if the dog suddenly sprints forward. Plus, no fiddling with buttons to lock the mechanism and all that jazz.)
A Note on Camping With Dogs
One note at the end – if you plan to camp out with your dog or dogs, some special consideration has to be given to spending the night in a tent, too. Not all dogs understand the concept of a tent, and some are genuinely confused by the feel and sound of your tent bottom or the tarp underneath your tent. Some try to walk out of the mesh screen while it’s closed. (My dog is among those – she believes mesh doesn’t exist.) It’s always a good idea to try out the “tent experience” in your own back yard before taking it to the trail.
A simple flat sheet will prevent a lot of wear and tear from a dog’s nails, too, and help keep your tent floor intact longer, especially on those thin ultralight tents that are so popular with many backpackers. (We have the Eureka! Solitaire, for example.) Sure, it’s an extra thing to pack, but light enough not to make a huge difference and worth its weight in gold, compared to having to repair (or replace) your tent!
Dog Packing Resources
- Siberian Husky Club of America’s Working Pack Dog Program
- Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club’s page on Back Packing
- Dog Packs 101 – Guide to choosing, fitting, and training