Hiking with your furry friend can be one of the most rewarding experiences that you share together. If you’re a solo hiker, a dog can make an excellent companion and even offer some form of protection against human or wildlife threats.
No matter your group size preference or your level of skill, dogs and humans can both benefit from this incredible bonding experience.
Whether you are considering taking your dog with you on the trail for the very first time, or you’re looking for some fresh tips and suggestions for having the best and safest experience possible, you’ve come to the right place!
In this guide, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know to hike safely with your dog, including determining your dog’s physical ability, how to figure out which trails allow dogs, what to pack, trail etiquette, pre-hike and post-hike tips, and more!
How to Hike Safely With Your Dog
Determine Your Dog’s Physical Ability
Before you take your dog up a snowy mountain or through an arid desert, determine his physical ability.
Ensure that you are familiar with how he reacts to simple walks and then steadily increase the length and challenge the terrain. Get to know his limits and don’t push them further than you’d push your own.
Below are some things to consider about your dog’s physical health and ability before hitting the trails.
Is your dog too old or too young?
Puppies should be at least 5 months old with all of their shots before setting foot on a trail.
Older dogs might struggle with stamina, but exercise is crucial as they age. Understand that if you take an older dog onto the trail, you should prepare to follow his lead and meander at his pace, which might be significantly slower than you’re used to on your own. You should hike shorter trails with less incline and choose a time of day and year that isn’t too hot or cold.
Any dog with health issues or isn’t physically fit enough to spend the day hiking or can’t handle the temperature or terrain changes might not make the best trail companion.
Certain breeds don’t have strong endurance and don’t do well in the heat. This could cause them to get heatstroke.
If your dog isn’t trained properly or gets overly excited in nature, he might be a risk to himself, other hikers, and wildlife. Ensure that he is leash trained and will stay with you at all times.
Your dog needs to be up-to-date on vaccinations and on preventative medication. Ticks are a major issue on many trails.
Figure Out Which Trails Allow Dogs
Before you set foot on the trail with your four-legged companion, ensure that dogs are allowed.
For a variety of reasons – usually for the safety of the dogs, wildlife, landscapes, and plants – certain National Parks, State Parks, State Forests, and other public lands will prohibit dogs on some or all of their trails.
If dogs are allowed, a posted sign will usually indicate whether or not leashes are required; it’s typically safe to assume that they are. It’s crucial to follow all of these signs; never take your pet into a park or onto a trail that prohibits dogs.
National Parks are notorious for not welcoming dogs, and this isn’t without reason. National Parks are wild spaces with dangerous terrain and unpredictable wildlife. Though dogs may not be allowed on the forested trails for their safety, there are sometimes paved trails and developed campgrounds that welcome pups.
No matter where you’re wanting to go, take the time to do your research before you take your dog into a park and onto the trails. You can almost always find out whether a park, public land, or trail allows dogs online, but if you are on a road trip and spontaneously wish to visit an area, consult a ranger or simply read the posted signs to ensure that you are following all rules and safety measures.
Prep Your Dog For the Trail
Just like humans, dogs need to be prepped before a big hike.
Take him on a short walk each day to build his energy, strength, and stamina. Just as a human would increase training based on a positive response to the regime, slowly take your dog on longer and more difficult walks. Monitor his response to determine if he’s capable of taking it to the next level and joining you on a big hike.
Trail Etiquette for Hiking With Your Dog
Keep Your Dog Under Control
Whether the trail requires a leash or not, it is a good idea to keep your pet controlled on one.
If your dog is prone to running away from you at the first sighting of another hiker, dog, or wild animal, your dog is at risk. To prevent the wildlife from attacking and to keep dog fights from occurring amongst all of the pups on the trail, keep your pet under control and by your side at all times.
Also, plants off-trail may be poisonous or fragile, and dogs could harm themselves or the plants.
If you are passing another hiker, let them know if your dog is friendly and inform them whether or not your dog can be pet.
If another hiker wants to pass you, step off the trail with your dog and allow them to pass.
If you are passing another hiker with a dog, communicate with that hiker to determine who will step off and who will pass. This will prevent any unhealthy interactions between the dogs.
If both hikers determine that the dogs are both friendly, you can cautiously allow them to greet each other. Always be prepared to pull your dog away at the first sign of hostility.
Leave No Trace
Always pick up your dog’s poop and pack it out. If you are backpacking overnight and don’t want to bag it, use a trowel to bury it at least 8 inches under the ground and at least 200 feet from water sources, campsites, and trails.
What to Do With Your Dog’s Waste
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace applies to your dog.
Dog waste can attract unwelcome attention from wildlife and put your pet in danger. Animals often leave waste in a particular area to mark their territory. Leaving a dog’s waste behind could not only damage the fragile plants but cause distress and disruptions in the natural environment.
Pack It Out or Bury It
Carry plenty of waste bags to pick up your dog’s poop and pack it out. Simply turn the bag inside out, pick up the poop, and flip the bag right side out so that you can tie it securely. Double bag it if you are worried about smell or leakage.
If you are backpacking overnight or don’t want to haul it in your backpack, bring a shovel to bury the poop 8 inches under the ground and at least 200 feet away from water sources, campsites, and trails. Do not put the poop in a bag if you are burying it.
What to Bring When Hiking With Your Dog
Just like humans, dogs need fuel to boost their energy levels.
When you feel hungry, your dog probably is too. The harder the hike is and the more energy you’re burning, the more fuel you and your dog will need.
Your dog’s food portion should be increased by up to 50%, depending on his fitness level and the difficulty and duration of the hike. Consult your veterinarian if you are unsure of the exact amount to bring.
Ensure that your dog gets fed before your hike and frequently throughout the hike.
Water, Filter, and Collapsible Bowl
When you feel thirsty, your dog probably is too.
Offer your dog water at least every half hour, possibly more frequently depending on the weather and trail difficulty.
According to Backpacker and REI, larger dogs might drink 0.5 – 1 ounce of water per pound, per day; smaller dogs (20 pounds and lighter) might drink closer to 1.5 ounces per pound, per day. These guidelines are general; always monitor your dog, especially on a hot day or on a difficult hike. A dry nose indicates the dog is under-hydrated.
If you will be hiking all day or overnight and don’t think you will be able to bring enough water, carry a filter. Chances are you already have that in your backpack anyway. Try to avoid letting your dog drink from natural water sources, as they may contain bacteria or pathogens.
A collapsible bowl or Aqua Dog are both good options to allow your dog to drink anytime he’s thirsty on the trail.
Your first aid kit is going to look similar to your dogs’, so I usually just add a few special items to mine when hiking with my pups.
Instant cold packs and bandanas are already in my first aid kit, and they can be used for dogs as well. Cold packs can be applied to paws if they get overheated; bandanas can be soaked in cold water and wrapped around your dog’s neck to cool off and prevent heatstroke.
A few dog-specific first aid items to add to your pack would be a tick key to remove ticks before they can bury in the skin, paw salve to soothe irritated or cracked pads, and booties to slip over the paws if the ground cuts them.
Clean your dog’s paws or keep them warm if they need to be bundled up.
Collar and Glowstick
Ensure that your dog’s collar is around its neck and secured with up-to-date contact information and a rabies tag.
If you will be hiking before dawn or after dusk, attaching a glowstick to the collar will help you locate him if you get separated.
6-Foot (or Shorter) Leash and Harness
Bring a short, retractable leash to keep your dog controlled.
Harnesses not only make it easier for you to keep control of your dog, but they are safer than just strapping a leash to a collar. Harnesses prevent choking and neck injury.
Poop Bags and Trowel
Carry poop bags to pack the waste out. Alternatively, bring a trowel to bury the waste.
Pros and Cons of Dog Backpacks
Dog backpacks are quite common. Avid hikers’ reliable furry companions will often be seen sporting a pack on its back.
If you’re unsure about whether or not to strap one on your dog’s back for your next hiking adventure, here are some pros and cons to consider.
Pros of Dog Backpacks
- The extra weight helps to build muscle.
- The task makes the dog feel useful, causing happiness and better behavior.
- Carrying a backpack causes the dog to concentrate and not get distracted.
- They help to lighten our pack load.
- Your dog will rest better. The load will drain his energy and allow him to rest and not be bored once you get back to the car or to your campsite.
Cons of Dog Backpacks
- Packs can stress some dogs.
- Some dogs don’t like the weight on their back or will constantly try to shake it off.
- The extra weight can cause injury if the pack is too heavy.
- The extra weight can drain your dog’s energy too early on the trail.
If you have decided to give it a shot and strap a backpack onto your dog’s back, here are some tips:
- Do not let the pack exceed 20% of your dog’s body weight.
- Don’t put a backpack on a growing puppy or an elderly dog with back problems.
- Stuff light things like poop bags, a first aid kit, a toy, food/water collapsible bowls, food, and treats into the pack.
- Lighten the pack if your dog shows signs of fatigue or exhaustion. An overweight pack can cause injury to the dog.
Common Dangers on the Trail While Hiking With Your Dog (And How to Prevent Them)
Overexertion is caused by overexcitement and results in early burnout.
To prevent overexertion, keep your dog controlled and take frequent breaks to slow his heart rate and catch his breath.
With the millions of plant species that exist in the world, it is nearly impossible to know which ones pose a threat and which ones don’t. Unless you are a botanist or study the flora of the particular area that you will be exploring in advance, you probably won’t be able to tell what’s what.
To prevent exposure to poisonous plants, keep your dog on the trail as much as possible, and don’t let him venture away from you. Don’t allow your dog to feed on any of the plants. Established, maintained trails will typically be safer than backcountry, wilderness areas.
Ticks, snakes, scorpions, coyotes, bears, and other wild predators pose a threat to your dog. To prevent unpleasant encounters with wildlife, keep your dog leashed and controlled, and always be on the lookout for not only the big predators but the little ones that could be scurrying under your dog’s paws.
Make sure your pup is on a tick preventative medication and check his fur for ticks after your hike.
Bacteria in wild water sources can pose a major threat to your pup. If he drinks from a contaminated stream or standing puddle, your dog could get very sick.
If he does drink contaminated water and begins throwing up, having diarrhea, or showing signs of fatigue and weakness, immediately get off the trail and consult your veterinarian.
Never allow your dog to drink stagnant water, and be careful with lakes and streams.
To prevent contamination, try to keep your dog away from natural water sources and consistently allow him to drink the clean water from your backpack; filter water, if necessary.
Always check the weather or ask a ranger before stepping onto the trail. Know what your dog can handle and bail early if the temperatures become too extreme for him to handle.
To prevent hypothermia or heatstroke, carry bandanas and instant cold packs and continuously monitor your dog’s current condition. Look for signs of drowsiness, dilated pupils, rapid breathing, and bleeding.
Steep cliffs and rigorous rock scrambles are dangerous for dogs in the same way that they’re dangerous for humans.
To prevent falling, avoid narrow, steep trails and unstable terrain, and keep your dog on a harness and leash. Help your dog up unstable rocks or across narrow cliff faces to avoid accidental falling.
Paws are fragile, so they are susceptible to injury. Rough terrain, sharp rocks, or downed logs could scrape the paws. Whether or not the paws begin to bleed, your dog could still be in pain. Watch for limping and listen for whimpering.
Consider strapping booties on your dog to prevent paw injuries, and if your dog’s paws do begin to bleed from a cut or scrape, sprinkle baby powder on the bloody wound. If the bleeding persists, end the hike and carry him if you’re able.
Your dog might not be comfortable in unfamiliar territory. Though some dogs thrive in new places, other dogs are hesitant and timid. Watch his reaction and always make sure he’s comfortable. Never put your dog in situations that make him scared or uncomfortable.
Signs that dogs are hesitant or scared about the trail would be walking at a slow, cautious pace, backward walking, or stopping and refusing to proceed any further.
Since you chose to hike this trail with your dog, keep his needs ahead of your own and adapt to what he wants. Just because dogs are animals doesn’t mean they’re always going to thrive in nature. Find a trail that makes both you and your dog happy!
Reacting to Your Dog’s Injuries on the Trail
You Find a Tick
Spread the dog’s fur and use a tick key to get as close to the skin as possible. Pull straight upward, gently, and in a slow, steady motion. You don’t want the tick’s mouth to break off and remain embedded in the skin.
Never use your hands; squeezing the tick will cause unwanted infectious matter to get injected into your pup.
Your Dog Gets Bitten By a Snake
Give your dog Benadryl or another antihistamine to reduce the swelling and allergic reaction. Bail on the hike right away and take your dog to the vet as soon as you get off the trail.
Your Dog Eats a Poisonous Plant
If he begins gagging or vomiting after eating a plant, take your dog to the vet right away. If you know what plant your dog got into, bring a sample of it in a bag to show the vet so that they can give your dog the best treatment.
A Foxtail is Embedded in Your Dog’s Fur
Remove it with tweezers right away. Foxtails can work their way into vital organs and become fatal, so watch for signs of excessive sneezing, head shaking, or eye discharge.
What do you like to do after a long day of hiking? I like to pull off my boots and slip on a comfy pair of sandals, change into loungewear, crack open a can of Diet Coke and munch on a yummy snack, and rest my body and feet. Well, your dog probably wants something similar! Okay, not Diet Coke. But he will be anxious to lie down and rest after sipping some water and munching on some calories and protein.
Here are some trail habits you should get into, post-hike, with your dog:
- Brush your dog and inspect for ticks, injuries, and foxtails.
- Give him another snack.
- Allow him to drink plenty of water.
- Let him get comfy and rest.
- Continue walking your dog daily to keep him fit and ready for the next adventure!
The tips in this guide were intended to help you and your dog stay safe before the trail, on the trail, and after the trail. I hope you feel more comfortable and ready for an adventure with your four-legged friend!
Wherever your adventures take you and your dog, hike safely!