backpacking with dogs

Backpacking with Dogs for Families

A loyal trail dog can be a huge part of any family.  They provide companionship, protect us (sometimes against major life-threats like the mailman, garbage truck, or those villainous squirrels), provide free snuggles, and add a little chaos and excitement into our lives with their mischievous antics.  I don’t want to say it’s like having an extra toddler in the house who never grows up… but it kind of is. 

We love to be outside and on the trails with our families, dogs included!  Nothing is more rewarding than getting out for a long adventure on the trail, but, backpacking with dogs with the family takes some planning and practice.

Both dogs and kids refuse to sit still. Good luck ever getting a good picture of the whole family together!

Backpacking with Dogs: Start with the Right Dog

I’ve had two trail dogs in my adult life, and both were shelter rescues.  Scotty was a border collie/husky mix, who I rescued at about a year old, and he lived until he was almost 16.  He was a high-energy dog who needed loads of exercise and direction or he would come up with his own “jobs.” (ie: digging holes) He was also known for his friendly demeanor and selective hearing, but was smart as a whip.

Scotty the trail pro.

My current dog, Ripley, is an Australian shepherd/blue heeler mix, who I rescued about a year and a half ago. She has a major Frisbee obsession, has a high prey-drive, and is a little challenging to train.  She is also highly intelligent, stays very close by, and really wants a job to do at all times.

Ripley the trail-dog-in-training

There are so many different breeds of dog that make awesome backpacking companions, so don’t be afraid to try overnight backpacking if you have a dog who loves to hike, even if it’s a small terrier or a Great Dane.  Scotty and Ripley are incredibly different dog-personalities, but both absolutely love hiking and backpacking.

Take your pup on lots of day hikes and several car camping trips before you take them on any long, backcountry overnights.  This gets your pup familiar with the components of a backpacking trip (trails, tents, backpacks, boots, etc) before you put it all together into one trip. 

Practice Makes Awesome

We teach our kids to appreciate the solitude, self-reliance and experience that only comes from backpacking in the wilderness.  Just like we have to teach our kids to love and embrace overnight trips on the trail, we have to do the same with our 4-legged kids. 

Some dogs require very little teaching.  You can just strap a dog pack on and they will run until they fall over from exhaustion.  Most dogs require a bit more work to get them trail-ready. 

Another tent adventure with Scotty

The first time I put a backpack on my first trail dog, Scotty, he just stared at the floor in terror and wouldn’t move a paw.  After a little training and work, he became an amazing backpacking companion; tackling trips all over the US and Canada. 

Ripley is still learning.  She adjusted very quickly to the pack and the routine on the trail when we took her on her first couple trips this summer.  She also destroyed our ultra-light backpacking tent during her first outdoor thunderstorm, after trying to get inside when it was zipped.  She ended up wedged between the roof of the tent and rain fly and we ended up having to use half a roll of duct-tape to temporarily patch the holes and keep the cloud of mosquitoes at bay.

Just before Ripley gave our tent some new ventilation.

Exercise patience with your pup as they are learning, and remember that just like your kids, practice is everything! 

Take your pup on lots of day hikes and several car camping trips before you take them on any long, backcountry overnights.  This gets your pup familiar with the components of a backpacking trip (trails, tents, backpacks, boots, etc) before you put it all together into one trip. 

Practicing trail skills or camping skills will also make your dog feel more secure, since they generally prefer routines.  They will have a better time when they know what’s expected of them.

What to Pack for Backpacking with Dogs

It’s time to hit the trail!  Woohoo! Here’s a list of what our dogs usually carry and our backpacking with dogs gear recommendations.

Dog food

We suggest double Ziploc baggies, or pack it in a lightweight drybag if your pup loves the water!  (We like these Sea to Summit drybags.)  Consider a more calorie-dense food, or freeze/dried to help reduce weight if you are going on a longer trip.  To avoid any late-night tent diarrhea drama, be sure to make sure your dog is used to the food before you leave home. 

Water bottle

Your pup needs water too, especially on hot days!  If your route has lots of water access (stream crossings, rivers, lakes), you’ll probably need to carry less, since your pup can hydrate along the way.  I always pack at least an extra 1L bottle when I have my dog along, just in case.  Try a lightweight, collapsible style like the 1L Hydrapak Stow Bottle.

Backpacking dog Treats

Your pup will be burning a LOT of extra calories, just like you do on the trail.  Be sure to pack some snacks and dish them out every time YOU stop for a snack! We love Zukes PowerBones and Turbopup bars.

Leash

Even if leashes aren’t required on your trail, be sure to pack a leash, just in case! We love the Front range leash from Ruffwear (also available here on Amazon).

Dog light

It gets dark at night, and you don’t want to lose your dog in the woods on a late-night poop adventure.  We love the Nite-Ize Night Howl LED Safety Necklace for the long battery life and great 365-degree visibility.

Ripley, ready for bed in her Nite Howl Safety Necklace

Backpacking Dog bowls

Make sure they are lightweight and collapsible, like the Ruffwear Quencher, or the Kurgo Collapsible Bowl.

Poop bags and a trowel

When traveling in the backcountry, you have two Leave No Trace options:  Dig a hole for your dogs poop and bury it (the same way you would do for your own!), or pack it out.  I usually pack it out if we are close to the trailhead, and bury it the rest of the time.  Be sure to check with the local regulations where you are headed!

Bandanna

If you have a dog who gets hot on the trail, a wet bandanna can help keep them cool!  It’s also great for wiping muddy paws before getting in the tent, making a splint in an emergency, and makes a great spare “handle” in case your leash breaks.

Backpacking Dog Beds

We know they are “just dogs,” but don’t forget your pup will be warmer and more comfortable with extra insulation to sleep on top of.  Scotty would sleep on the feet of our sleeping bags and we would throw a fleece overtop of him for extra warmth if needed.  Ripley likes her own space. If you know your dog won’t chew it, we love this backpacking bed from Ruffwear that packs down small or this travel bed from Chuckit.

If you have a larger dog, you can cut an ultra-light and inexpensive Thermarest Z-lite Pad to the appropriate size.  If you know the weather will be cold, you can also bring an insulated coat or jacket for your pup. (See our review of D-Fa Dogs Puff Doggy Jacket)

Sally getting some well-earned tent snuggles

Dog First-Aid kit

Pups can easily get into trouble on the trail, so it’s best to always be prepared!  Pack a Ziploc with a roll of Vet Wrap, Tweezers, chicken bullion cubes (for dehydration), gauze, antibiotic ointment, a small comb to remove burrs and help with tick checks, and a pair of dog booties (in case of a paw injury, or if the terrain calls for it).

Or make life easier on yourself and just pick up a dog-specific first aid kit like this one from Adventure Medical Kits.

Dog first aid kit

Favorite Dog Toy

This isn’t completely necessary, but if you have a younger dog with tons of energy, packing a ball, bone, rope toy, or frisbee can help burn a  little extra energy and can help keep your pup from wandering too far from camp.  Just make sure it’s a high-visibility and durable toy, because it WILL get trashed on the trail.

Backpacks for Dogs

Your dog doesn’t HAVE to have a backpack.  You can carry all their stuff if you really want to.  BUT, we argue strongly for your dog having their own pack for several reasons.

Why Dogs Should Carry Their Own Packs

1. You have enough of your own stuff to carry.  You are probably carrying gear for your kids too.  Adding 5+ lbs of dog food, their leash, bowls, toys, and more can really add up. 

2.  The handles on dog packs can be really helpful.  For example, you can boost your pup over a big rock or log easily.  If you see a bear, horse, deer, marmot, or gopher, and you can also grab that handle and get a firm grip on your dog quickly.

3. If you consistently use a pack every time you go on a hike, your dog will associate that with “working,” just like a service dog or an avalanche dog.  It’s a routine and reminds them of what they are supposed to be doing (and not doing).

4. If you have an especially active or crazy dog, tiring them out can be a real challenge on a shorter, kid-friendly hike.  Just like if you were carrying a loaded backpack, adding a little weight will tire them out, which is a great thing!

Sally the dog, modeling the latest version of the Ruffwear Approach pack.

Best Dog Hiking and Backpacking Pack

There are lots of great dog packs out there, but we are particularly fond of Ruffwear’s Approach Pack for its’ durability, adjustability, and great-fitting design.  It’s not the biggest-volume pack, but we have found it carries plenty of gear for a multi-day trip.  I have owned 2 of these packs, and they last for years and years, even under heavy use, with rough-and-tumble pups.

>>>Read our Full Review of the Ruffwear Approach Pack here.<<<

How to get dogs to use a backpack

Practice at home

Like any piece of new gear, your pup will need to get used to a backpack.  Again – practice, practice, practice! 

We started both our dogs out by putting the pack on every time we fed them dinner for a week, so they associate it with a reward.  Then we practiced playing, hiking, and going on walks with it empty, until they felt comfortable with the dimensions of the pack. (Never underestimate how many times they will run into you with their pack on.) 

Add weight to the pack slowly

We would start adding minimal weight (carry their leash and bowl) before we started loading them up.  A great way to practice adding weight is to partially fill two water bottles.  That way, the weight matches on each side, and you can easily dump weight if you need to.

Make sure the weight is distributed evenly

As you pack up their backpack every day, make sure you pack each pannier with equal weight.  If it seems like one side is riding lower than the other, be sure to stop and adjust it. 

Adjust as Needed

You might need to make several adjustments over the first mile or so.  Straps should be snug, but not too tight.  Allow just enough room to slip 2 fingers under their ribcage at the widest point.

If you find your dog is really tiring out as the day goes on, don’t hesitate to take some weight out of their pack until they gain their “trail legs.” My friend, was teaching her young pup, Sally, to backpack this summer. She would carry some her dog’s food on long mileage days, but would load her up on short days.

Check for Comfort

As you start them in their pack, make sure you frequently check for hot spots, especially where straps intersect under their belly.  Water can increase rubbing, so if you have a pup that loves water, take it off to let it dry out throughout the day.

Ripley in her Ruffwear Approach Pack

Pick the Right Trail for your Pup

“Know before you go” and do some research on the area you are backpacking before you get there.  Most National Parks do NOT allow dogs on any trails in the frontcountry or backcountry.  Some wilderness areas have strict leash laws. 

Some areas are, unfortunately, not well-suited for dogs.  I’ve been up Mt. St. Helens four times, and I can’t tell you how many pups I’ve seen with painful feet after cutting them on the sharp volcanic rocks. 

On a hiking trip in Central Oregon, we once turned around after encountering ash and black sand in an area that had burned over in a fire.  That dark sand on the trail absorbed heat and burned our dog’s paws.   If we had done our homework before the trip, we would not have had to bail out and go somewhere else!

If it’s your dog’s first trip, you may not want to take on a really challenging trail.  Start with something smaller, then work up to longer distances and more elevation gain.  Be sure to check their feet frequently, to check for blisters, burrs, or other problems.

I did a 10-day, 100-mile trip in Montana with Scotty when he was in his prime.  He had been hiking with me for years, so I figured he would be ok.  He did amazing, but the next-to-last day was 23 miles, and I honestly wasn’t sure he would make it those last few miles when he got blisters.  Luckily, he did make it, and deservedly slept for 3 days straight when we were done. 

Always use a backpack for yourself that is big enough you could carry your dog in an emergency.  I found this one out the hard way, when Scotty got too tired in deep, fresh snow while we were backcountry skiing on Mt. Hood.  We had to carry him out the last 2 miles, when he rightfully laid down and wouldn’t budge as the sun was setting and we had to keep moving.

Ripley (left) and Sally (right) on their first backpacking trips

Backpacking with Dogs Trail Manners

Follow Leash Laws

Of course on any trail, be sure to follow local leash laws.  If it’s your dog’s first trip out, you might consider keeping them leashed if they have the tendency to run up and down the trail a lot.  That will help keep them from inadvertently doubling or even tripling the trip mileage, when they are excited and don’t know what they are getting themselves into.

Be respectful of other trail users

Don’t be that person who lets their happy dog run wild. As much as we LOVE our dogs, some trail users do not and other dogs are not always friendly.  Be sure to keep your leash handy so you can physically control your dog when you encounter other trail users, at least until you can ensure they and their dogs are dog-friendly. 

Be aware of animals and wildlife

If you encounter livestock, be sure to keep your curious dog away to prevent the animals from spooking.  My Scotty learned the hard way that some horses and mules in particular, don’t like dogs, and he was once chased by an angry mule that tried to stomp him.

Another big scenario you will certainly encounter with your pup is wildlife.  While it may not seem like a big deal when your pup chases squirrels, it will become a big deal when your pup chases a deer for a mile and gets lost, or barks at a bear or moose and then comes running back to you with that angry animal hot on their heels. 

Harassing wildlife is a major issue, especially in wilderness areas, so make sure you can quickly grab your dog, or that they have good recall when you ask them to come to you.  If you don’t have great faith in your dog’s recall, consider keeping them on a leash.

Scotty stopping to sniff the flowers

After Your Trip

Of course, the best part of any backpacking trip is the reward you get when you get back to civilization!  For us humans, that might be a cold beer and a burger or some pizza, but your pup deserves a treat too!  We are particularly fond of vanilla soft-serve ice cream, but if that bothers your dog’s stomach, you can usually buy frozen dog treats at the pet or grocery store. 

Remember that teaching your dog any new skill requires patience and practice.  We always tell my little boy that “Practice makes Awesome!”  The same thing applies for your dog. 

Practice getting them out on the trail, and teach them the routine and your expectations of them.  They will transform over time into a wonderful backpacking companion.  Just expect a few mishaps and shenanigans along the journey.

That’s one tired pup.

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