I feel like it’s safe to say that most, if not all, outdoorsy people like dogs and have at least one or know someone that has at least one. If you’ve got a dog or you know a dog, and you’ve ever wanted to take it hiking with you, that’s awesome! Hiking with dogs can be very rewarding. You’ve got guaranteed company, a built-in alarm system, and some enhanced security at the end of that leash. There are sketchy people on the trail, just like in the rest of the world. They’ll probably think twice before they mess with you if you have a dog.
That said, there are many things to take into consideration before just grabbing the leash and putting on your boots. Just like you, dogs need water, snacks, and breaks. They can’t safely go from years of playing fetch in the yard and napping on the couch to walking ten miles. They need to build up their strength, stamina, and flexibility just like us. The difference is that a dog won’t tell you when they’re tired, or hurt. If you’re moving, they’re moving because they want to stay with you.
Here are some tips for a happy hiking experience for both you and your favorite pup! But first, let me introduce you to my trail dogs: Riley and Aggie!
In this picture Riley is the lead dog and Aggie is following with the pack. Riley is my old mutt who I’ve posted about previously in this blog. At the time of this picture, Riley is 11 years old and Aggie is almost 4 years old (3 and 10 months). And this picture demonstrates our first point:
*HIKING WITH MULTIPLE DOGS
At 50 lbs, Riley COULD carry up to 16 lbs of equipment, but he REALLY DOESN’T LIKE TO. I’ve tried the pack on him a few times with all sorts of treats and positive encouragement, and he is NOT A FAN: he gets extremely stressed out and crab walks and shies away from everything. However, he does make a FANTASTIC lead dog. We got Aggie when she was a puppy (10 months old-ish) and Riley was 7 years old. She’s developed into an adult dog by following all of his examples, and she instinctively follows him in our yard, in the house, during neighborhood walks, and on the trail. If you’re hiking with more than one dog, it’s advised to teach them to walk single file so that they don’t take up the whole trail or encroach on passing hikers’ space. Luckily I never had to teach them this because they do it naturally.
*HOW MUCH SHOULD THEY CARRY
With any pack, it’s generally agreed that a dog can carry up to a third of its body weight. Aggie weighs 62 lbs, and can thus carry up to 20 lbs of equipment. When you’re introducing your dog to hiking with a pack, start with a fraction of that limit and gradually increase it over future trips. You would never load 50 lbs of gear into your pack, hike several miles and expect good results. Same thing for your dog!
The above picture shows my daypack on the left and Aggie’s pack on the right. We’re planning a trip in November that will involve some hiking days, and I haven’t properly backpacked in several years. In the interest of not hurting myself and in continuing Aggie’s training, here’s what I packed for us today:
In my pack I had a 40 oz insulated steel bottle of water, 2 sandbags that weigh 9.85 lbs each, and a pair of 3 lb hand weights (not shown, under the sand bags.) That’s about 28-29 lbs of weight, and reflects what I’ll be carrying during our day hikes in November.
Aggie’s pack for today’s hike included 2 liters of water (1 liter in either saddlebag), the dogs’ steel water bowl (we’ll have a collapsible bowl for the November day hikes), poo bags (LEAVE NO TRACE!!!!), and a baggie of treats. Just like with your pack, do your best to make sure the saddlebags are equally weighted otherwise the pack will not sit correctly on the dog. This could lead to injuries.
*MAKE SURE THE PACK FITS CORRECTLY
Hopefully your outfitter made you bring your dog in to the shop to be measured and to try on the pack before purchase. Hopefully you measured correctly when you purchased the pack online. Hopefully you tried the pack on your dog AT HOME and adjusted the fit AT HOME BEFORE YOU WENT TO THE TRAIL.
O.o (DO THOSE THINGS.)
The harness structure of the pack should fit snugly on your dog without cutting into their circulation or prohibiting natural movements AND should not shift around excessively when weighted. The pack should have a belly strap, a chest (or girth) strap, and a padded neck strap. If it doesn’t, return the pack and get you one that has all three. Each of these should be adjustable so that you can properly fit the pack to your dog. Aggie models a proper fit below:
The weight in your dog’s pack should be 90% carried over the shoulders. If this is not the case, adjust the pack forward or back along the dog until it is the case, and adjust your straps accordingly. If the straps will not allow for this position, return the pack and get a different one. EVERY DOG IS A DIFFERENT SHAPE. Every dog measures differently. Pack brands do their best to construct products that work universally, but you as the owner MUST do your part to make sure the pack fits properly. If it doesn’t, you can injure your dog, and it won’t be the pack company’s fault.
As I mentioned above, a properly fitted pack will not hinder your dog’s natural movements. They should be able to stand, turn, walk, trot, jump, duck, and lie down as if the pack isn’t even there. Thanks for modeling, Aggie!
*SOME GENERAL TRAIL RULES FOR DOGS TO FOLLOW
Do not encroach on passing hikers’ space. Teach your dog to go to the side (mine know “Left Side” and “Right Side” as commands and will go to the indicated side of the trail/obstacle/tree/whatever when told) or to sit and politely let people pass. It is NOT okay for your dog to lunge at people or other dogs. NOT ALL HIKERS LIKE DOGS. Be respectful of your fellow people, and your dog’s fellow dogs because not all dogs like other dogs in their faces. It’s true.
Leave no trace. Always pick up your dog’s poo in a baggie and dispose of this baggie when you come across a trash can. Even the backwoods has trash cans if you’re in a state or national park. I promise. They’re usually near shelters or bath houses on the main trails. Hold onto that baggie in a pouch or tied to the leash or wherever until you get to a trash can. DO NOT leave the baggie on the trail.
Keep your dog on a leash. I know everybody wants to feel that connection to THE WILD THOUGH and have your dog rambling along with you off leash. But, as above, not all hikers and dogs like other dogs. I can’t tell you how many dogs I’ve come across on trails that are bounding around off leash and the owner is shouting “It’s okay, they’re friendly!” as their dog comes charging up to my dog. My dogs are also friendly. But my old dog Riley has been attacked by smaller dogs before and gets skittish, and my rottie Aggie is very protective of both me and Riley and doesn’t take kindly to some stranger in her face. She won’t start a fight, but you know damn well she’ll finish one if that “friendly” dog doesn’t like her suspicious side-eye. For your dogs’ safety and other dogs’ safety, keep your dog on a freaking leash.
And always, ALWAYS, whenever you train your dog in a new behavior (and both hiking with you and carrying a pack count as new behaviors) REWARD YOUR DOG!!!
Hiking with your dog should be an enjoyable experience for both of you. If that means they can carry a pack, great because that means YOU don’t have to carry their food, water, and stuff! (Although you better make sure you’re carrying the stuff that exceeds that 1/3 body weight ratio.) If they aren’t comfortable carrying a pack, then you’d better be prepared to carry their necessities along with yours. IF YOU AREN’T, then don’t bring your dog hiking. Really.
Feel free to post pics of your hiking dog in the comments below! For reference, Aggie’s pack is the Palisades Pack from Ruffwear, and Riley’s harness is the Front Range Harness, also from Ruffwear! They’re a brilliant dog gear company and I highly recommend them.