Read my original nature poems right here!

Read my original nature poems right here!

11 Tips for Backpacking with a Dog

Backpacking is one of the great joys of outdoor adventure: it’s a self-sufficient scramble into something relatively unknown (even if you’re returning to a favorite trail or park, you’ve got to be prepared for some uncertainty) and sensational. Unknown and sensational. Sights, smells, sounds, and tastes all join the adventure of thousands of steps, dozens of miles, toward a deeper connection with ourselves, and the natural world.

Adventurous times like these – packing up for a few nights and heading away from plastic and concrete – always calls for good company. While I’ve done some solo overnight trips, there’s something more special about sharing it with anyone who would dare to spend that much time surrounded by trees, dirt, and sunshine.

I’ve found there’s no better company – no one who appreciates backpacking trips more – than our four-legged, furry friends.

Ready to pack up and go backpacking with your dog?

First of all, can me and Cowboy come?

Second of all, here’s five things Cowboy wants you to know about backpacking with a dog:

My dog, Cowboy, loves backpacking. Pictured here on Virginia’s Triple Crown Loop.

1. Water: Don’t Run Out!

Obviously when spending so much time under a weighted pack, you want to keep your setup light. That’s one of the biggest conversations around backpacking: how can we keep our gear ultra light?

Well, adding a furry friend to the trip doesn’t have to overload your back and legs on the up hill climbs (or send you tumbling downhill). In fact, you can keep your pup’s gear pretty light.

The most important piece of backpacking with a dog is food and water. You don’t want to ever be low on water, but it’s even more important to keep an eye on your water levels when trekking with a dog. Why? Because dogs get very hot, and burn a lot of puppy calories, out on the trail. They’ll be burning a lot of energy the whole way (even in the winter), and need to stay hydrated.

Dogs don’t know how important it is to stay hydrated (they’re just excited to be out in nature), so you’ve got to give them plenty of opportunity to rest and drink. Just keep water in front of them as often as possible.

If you know your dog well, you can tell when he or she is thirsty, or when he or she has had enough water.

I like to always have about two liters of water on-hand for myself, and I add an extra liter for my dog. A water bladder and bottle (I like 48oz bottles like this Nalgene) for me, and one bottle for Cowboy. That’s what I like to keep on hand (and maybe a good bit extra in the summer). I let Cowboy drink water from higher-altitude streams, but I always purify mine (well, usually. I’ve tasted some fresh trickling mountain streams before, and it is so refreshing). Tap here to check out my favorite purification tablets with 20,000+ reviews on Amazon.

How to hydrate your backpacking pups by season

  • Winter: Don’t think just because it’s cold you and your dog don’t need lots of water! You burn calories keeping warm, you sweat under all those layers when the sun comes out, and you’re working hard with a heavy pack and steep trails. Hydrate up, and offer your dog plenty of water, especially if streams and rain puddles are frozen. You’ll be glad to have this handy collapsible bowl for your furry friend. While backpacking in the winter, I try to make sure I’ve got two liters at all times, plus an extra liter for my dog. This really means you’ll have more than this, so that you’ve always got some in reserve.
  • Spring: If you’re adventuring in the mountains, there might be lots of water for your dog to help himself or herself to. Streams way up high or fresh puddles of rainwater and snow melt (not puddles that have been sitting for hours or days or weeks) are acceptable for slurping during the trek. Look at these water sources before letting your pup have at it; you should be able to discern if the water is safe. Any doubts? Move on and offer fresh water. I’ll follow the same rules here as I do in winter, I like to have two extra liters of water for myself and one extra liter for Cowboy.
  • Summer: LOTS OF WATER!!! Streams may be dry, fresh rain puddles and trickles might not exist, and you’re going to sweat. Water is so important in the summer, and you’ll want to make sure your dog has plenty of opportunities to drink his or her fill. I offer Cowboy a bowl every 30 minutes or so–more often if it’s particularly hot–and let him rest. Summer backpacking with a dog can feel a bit slower, but it’s worth it to let your furry best friend experience the great outdoors. I fill all my extra crevices in my bag with water in the summer, dress light, and hike slow. I recommend about 6 liters of water on-hand between you and your dog. That’s kind of a lot, but it’s better to be safe than thirsty.
  • Fall: Ahhh, some relief from the heat. I treat Fall pretty similar to Spring. Hopefully you get a little rain to keep your pup cool and shaded, and the cooler weather means you can spend a bit less time concerned about your dog’s hydration. Similar to winter and spring, I’ll try to keep 3 extra liters on me at all times to get through any stretches with few water access points.

The bottom line on hydration

Be smart and use common sense. If you’re thirsty, it’s pretty safe to assume your dog is, and may need to rest. How about a midday snack and some laying in the shade? Slow down, let your pup enjoy the experience, and remember to fill up every chance you get, even if it’s cold and rainy…the sun may be right around the next bend!

I’d avoid desert hiking with dogs, and you may want to reconsider summer excursions. Can you push your trip a few weeks or months in favor of cooler weather? If so, consider it! Your dog (and therefore you) will have a much better experience with less to think about.

Backpacking Hydration Essentials from Amazon:

  1. Osprey Hydraulics 2-3L hydration bladder
  2. 48oz Nalgene wide-mouth bottle
  3. Collapsible dog bowl
  4. Potable Aqua purification tablets
  5. Liquid I.V. electrolyte drink mix pouches (for humans)

Pooches get pooped hiking long miles. Stop for a big bowl of water and a midday snooze!

2. Food & Nutrition: Keep it Light and Nutrient-Dense!

When backpacking with your dog, food comes right after water on my priority list.

Food prepping for your backpacking trip with your dog can be pretty simple. You want to keep the foods light and nutrient dense, just like your own food supply. Think about it, when you’re getting your meals and snacks ready, you keep everything as compact and energizing as possible. Foods that are high calorie, provide a protein pick-up, and have minimal packaging (more packaging = more weight and things to pack out).

Your pup’s meal plan is no different!

My backpacking dog food checklist:

  • Wet food: I always bring wet food for Cowboy on our long hiking or backpacking trips. It gives me confidence that he’s getting as much hydration as possible, and the wet foods tend to be made with more hearty, protein-packed, real ingredients. Kibble crumbles, has no water content, and it’s more tricky to transport than some of my recommendations below.
  • Cans are out: cans are heavy and take up way too much space after they’re used. You’ll want backpacking dog food packets that you can stuff into a trash bag when you’re done, without increasing that trash bag’s volume by much.
  • Easy to pack: Look for packs of wet dog food that will sit well in a heavy, loaded pack. I don’t buy anything with a plastic bottom and peel back top, they’re too fragile. Think more of a vacuum-sealed approach: no extra space, packed tight, and a simple, light package.
  • Nutrient-dense: I try to opt for real ingredients, minimal fillers, and high-protein when shopping for backpacking dog food and snacks. The easiest way to do this is to check out the ingredients label. Do you know what most of those words mean? If the ingredients look good enough for humans, they’re probably good enough for backpacking with a dog. Sometimes I say “Wow, this sounds like Thanksgiving dinner.” That’s a good sign.
  • Backpacking dog food recommendations (meals)

    My favorite backpacking dog food is from Portland Pet Food Company. “Crafted by Humans, Loved by Dogs,” their generous 9 ounce packets (massive compared to most other wet dog food options – your pup will love the hearty meal!) are super nutrient dense. With no more than 11 individual ingredients per packet, you know this company is serious about quality.

    No thawing, no refrigeration, no need to add water: just the best dang backpacking dog food there is!

    Always introduce your dog to new food gradually before going on a big trip (though of course your dog will love hearty, real ingredients).

    I usually plan for 3 packets per day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That might be more than you’re accustomed to feeding your pup, but they’ll appreciate the extra calories & your attention to their nutrition while on the trail.

    Treats & snacks for backpacking with your dog

    For treats and snacks, I prefer something soft (no crunchy, crumbling foods in my pack!) and (again) nutrient dense. I’ll always spend a bit more on my backpacking dog food and treats than Cowboy’s normal, daily food, but I think it’s well worth it. I want him to enjoy the trip as much as I do, and I know great nutrition can improve anyone’s trip.

    I love Shameless Pet’s soft baked biscuits for backpacking, hiking, traveling, and daily use! They have awesome flavors, are seriously committed to sustainability, and they’re super nutritious, especially important for long days on trails, in the sun, and sleeping under stars. All that tail-wagging requires a lot of energy!

    I usually buy a few flavors and take just one bag, mixing in a variety of Cowboy’s favorites (like Blueberried Treasure, Lobster Rollover, and Duck Duck Beet).

    Shameless Pets is an awesome company making nutritious treats that are great for backpacking with your pup, and I highly recommend their products (and they’re not paying me to say this, I just genuinely think they’re great. More importantly, Cowboy thinks they’re great).

    Pro Tip: peanut butter packets make great snacks for dogs and humans! I’ve actually brought a whole jar to share with Cowboy before, but it was a bit overkill (and pretty heavy). But he loves peanut butter packets when we stop to rest.

    3. Shelter, Sleeping, Camp Etiquette

    So you’ve reached camp for the night after an awesome first day on the trail. Your pup is probably pretty tired, so you don’t worry about keeping them entertained. Take them to explore the area a bit, let them drink water to their fill, and have a meal.

    By this time, your dog might have trouble keeping his or her eyes open. I like to stake my Mountain Dog “Amazing Versatile Leash” in camp, somewhere the leash won’t get too tangled if your dog walks around a bit. Now that you’re in camp, be mindful of a few things:

    • Not everyone likes dogs, even outdoorsy people. Just because someone is out there backpacking doesn’t mean they’re a fan of dogs, and yours should be on-leash. Keep in mind that someone who has been attacked by a dog might have their time ruined by yours wandering around off-leash, so it’s polite and correct to be very careful with allowing your adventure-loving pup off-leash in camp (and everywhere else on your trip–including trails). It doesn’t matter how much your dog loves people, there will be folks hiking that will be upset by your relaxed stance. It’s also usually illegal to have your dog off-leash, or on anything shorter than 6 feet. Use your best judgement, pay attention to laws & regulations, and always put fellow hikers & backpackers first.
    • Animals are attracted to areas with lots of human traffic. The first time I took Cowboy backpacking on Virginia’s Triple Crown Loop, we saw a huger timber rattlesnake at our first campsite. Humans carry food, food attracts rodents, and where there are rodents, there are snakes, bobcats, lions, tigers, and bears oh my! Keep your eyes open for snakes and pay attention to your dog’s behavior; even just chasing a squirrel can lead to stepping on a sun-basking rattler, or running into something higher up the food chain.
    • Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. If your pup is afraid of thunderstorms & lightning, you’ll need a plan to keep them calm and cozy. Will your dog join you in your tent or hammock? Can you keep him or her dry in adverse weather? Have a plan!

    I love seeing wildlife, and I think snakes are awesome. But when backpacking with a dog, keep your distance and make sure your pup isn’t wandering into danger.

    Where will your dog sleep?

    I prefer hammock camping when doing multi-day, distance trips. Cowboy, though, can get spooked by thunder, people, and other things out-of-the-ordinary while we’re backpacking. He jumped into a hammock before (pretty out of character), and made sleeping that night a bit more interesting. It wasn’t his preference, but he seemed to like that more than curling up on the ground.

    While adding a dog to a hammock isn’t terrible, I’d recommend getting your pup accustomed to your preferred sleeping shelter/setup before trekking out into the wild. Cowboy was pretty uncomfortable when he jumped into a hammock (he’d never been in one), and it’s something we should’ve practiced beforehand, expecting that he might get spooked.

    I think tent backpacking is the way to go with a dog, but if your dog is comfortable in your hammock (and you appreciate the snuggles), it is certainly feasible.

    Have a plan, and keep your dog’s personality and preferences in mind when prepping your shelter/accommodations for your adventure together.

    Checklist: Make your dog is secured via leash, comfortable, and out of the elements when backpacking.

    Cowboy jumped in the closest hammock when the thunder started on our Triple Crown Loop hike.

    4. Dog Poop while Backpacking

    I think this is one of the most popular topics when backpacking with a dog, and it’s actually pretty simple. What to do with dog poop while backpacking? Follow the simple rules below:

    1. For day hikes and short multi-day hikes, consider packing out your dog’s poop. If your dog is wearing a “backpack” (like this one), there are often attachments to connect used poop bags. Old peanut butter jars or tennis ball cylinders are also great alternatives to avoid floppy, smelly, tearing bags (seriously, works great). Bag it, put it in one of these sealed containers, and forget about it. Packing out dog poop is a great way to commit yourself truly to Leave No Trace, the core value that keeps our favorite wild places beautiful and open to our furry friends. You can even get a reusable poop tube to maximize sustainability and reduce the waste and trash from your trip.
    2. Dog poop should always be buried (if not being packed out) in a 6″ to 8″ deep hole, about 100 steps (200 feet) from any water source, campsite, or trail. It’s also best practice to avoid plants; you don’t want to uproot or trample anything alive. TheTentLab Deuce is a great trowel for digging an appropriate hole. With these guidelines in place, it might make more sense to pack it out. Go on, don’t be afraid to embrace the dirtier sides of backpacking with a beloved dog.
    3. Use common sense. Read local, state, and park rules, and be ready to take care of your dog’s poop. Some parks require all poop to be packed out, so pay attention to signs and regulations. If your dog is legally off-leash, keep an eye on them and make sure they stay close by. It only takes a few seconds to bury the poop.

    Poop essentials for backpacking with your dog

    5. Recovery for backpacking with your dog

    Your dog will be happy to be home and sleep a lot after a backpacking trip.

    After a backpacking trip with your dog, let them rest plenty (especially older dogs). Lots of treats, they’re favorite joint supplements (something you should include in any active dog’s diet), and gentle walks are in store. Even active dogs that seem ready to get right back out there–let them chill out for a couple days. Backpacking is a tough exercise, and it’s one you’ll want to do together for many years to come. Just as you might take some extra rest after a big trip, let your dog do the same.

    My favorite way to recover from backpacking trips with my dog? Laying in the sun! Nothing tires Cowboy out like soaking up a few hour of good ol’ Vitamin D.

    Smoothie bowls are great post-backpacking treats, and Cowboy likes the bananas.

    Other Tips & Tricks for backpacking & hiking with a dog

    1. It’s your dog’s hike. Your dog will be the one to choose distance, duration, rest stops, food & water breaks, and everything else. That’s the way to approach backpacking with your dog: they’re in charge. That’s the best way to guarantee a great trip.
    2. Keep your dog’s vaccines and medications up to date. Lots of pests live along hiking trails and in campgrounds, including ticks and other parasites. Wild animals also carry rabies and other diseases that are deadly for your pooch. Make sure your dog has an awesome trip by making sure he or she is up to date on all vaccines, and is safe against parasites.
    3. Some parks have specific trails where dogs cannot go. Shenandoah National Park is one that comes to mind: they allow dogs on most trails, but not the super popular, boulder-scrambling, often crowded ones. Others are restricted for various reasons, but there are a few that cannot be visited with dogs. Do research! Even if you hear a park is pet friendly.
    4. Carry a first aid kit for your dog. Ticks, splinters, thorns…these can often get stuck in your dog’s paws and fur while hiking & backpacking, especially in more rugged areas. Plan ahead with this awesome first aid kit for adventurous pups.
    5. Many parks cross game lands and hunting grounds. Even if you’re not traveling through areas where hunting is legal, it’s a good idea to keep your dog super visible. For your sake, and others! More than once Cowboy has slipped from my grip when I’m daydreaming and a squirrel crosses our path. Check out a reflective vest or high viz collar for your pup.
    6. Protect your gear from your dog’s nails. Hiking and backpacking gear is often lightweight and thin. Tents, hammocks, and sleeping bags can all become victims of your dog’s nails. Consider putting socks on your dog when in tents or on hammocks, and grab a few gear patches for those times when a puncture or tear happens.
    7. Off you go!

      Remember, backpacking with your pup is all about enjoying that which is already your favorite activity with your favorite furry friend (who also probably loves exploring trails and mountains). Make it the best trip for both of you! That’s how you get the most out of taking your pup along for a backpacking adventure.

      I’d love to hear where you’ve taken your dog backpacking, and about all the good times (and the struggles) along the way. Leave a comment below with your experiences, or with a product you love for adventuring.

      Happy trails!

      Backpacking with a dog: FAQs

      Is it safe to take my dog backpacking?

      Absolutely! And you may feel safer when you do. Just make sure to be mindful about local regulations, make water & food a priority, and always keep them on a leash.

      Is a 10+ mile hike too long for a dog?

      The correct answer: it depends. My cattle dog can run and hike all day (and the next day, and the next, and the next…), but different breeds excel at different types of physical activity. Always build up in volume when doing any kind of activity with your dog, and keep in mind that short legs will tire out very quickly.

      Note: puppies and senior dogs should not hike this long! Be mindful of your dog’s age when planning multiday hiking trips.

      What do you do with dog poop while backpacking?

      Always practice Leave No Trace: pack it out or bury it, but never leave it just sitting there. Keep nature beautiful and smelling like pine trees and dirt!

      Check out “Dog Poop while Backpacking” above for tips about poop while backpacking with your dog.

      What do dogs sleep on when backpacking?

      The best places a dog can sleep while backpacking are on a small sleeping pad, in your tent (nice and cozy), or in your hammock. Giving them some kind of insulation is necessary, as they can move about to thermoregulate if they’re too hot or cold. The ground can be very cold for dogs, so give them a buffer! Just because they have fur doesn’t mean domestic dogs aren’t affected by the cold.

George Callahan is the creator of Pine Tree Poet. He is an author of fantasy stories and an adventure poet. He prefers mountains and pine trees to most other things, and usually takes his dog Cowboy along for the ride.

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