Dog Hiking FAQs
What’s the best breed for hiking and packing?
As with any activity, there is no best breed. Some breeds tend to be poorly suited for hiking and carrying a load- long backed breeds such as Bassets and Dachshunds for instance. Some have coats that pick up burrs and debris, or coats so thick they can’t handle high temperatures, or so thin they can’t be out in the winter without a jacket. Others, like sighthounds, are adapted for speed and not distance. This is not to say they can’t be great companions–and I have personally met Greyhounds with working pack dog titles– but that there may be breeds that take to the task more readily than others. Scenthounds are bred to travel great distances, but have a prey drive that many people find hard to deal with on the trail. Many herding breeds (especially the drovers) are great for packing and hiking as they, too, are bred to travel great distances, but many (Collies and Shelties in particular) can’t structurally handle much weight. Typically, breeds in the Working group (Rottweilers, Malamutes, Saint Bernards, etc) do the best with heavy loads as those breeds were developed to pull sleds or carts and carry packs. A trade off for the weight they can carry is that many are slower paced when on the trail.
Another consideration is that a large dog can be hard to evacuate if it gets injured or sick, while a small dog is easier. If you’re looking for a trail dog to be a deterrent toward “bad” people (which is not really a good reason in this day and age) small dogs can be just as effective as a big dog since they make noise and draw attention to your situation. Small dogs can also be just as robust on the trail as their larger counterparts, but may need help getting over some obstacles (rivers, rocks, downed trees). That’s okay since they’re small they’re easily helped! Small dogs also fit into most tents better than larger dogs.
The best thing to do is pick a breed that fits into your lifestyle and preferences. Everyone is going to have a ‘perfect’ traildog. (For me that is the Catahoula, where others would hate the prey drive and assertiveness inherent in the breed). Don’t get a dog for a few weeks or months of trail companionship and then realize the dog doesn’t work for your at-home lifestyle. That is, if a Border Collie doesn’t fit in your at-home life, (when a Mini Schnauzer would be better in your apartment), it’s not fair to you or the dog to own one just because they can be good trail dogs.
How much weight can my dog carry?
It is generally accepted that a normal, healthy adult dog can carry up to 1/3 his body weight. I prefer to not go above 20-25% except at the start of a long trip. Even then, I feel 25% is pushing the comfort level.
A puppy should not begin to carry any weight until at least a year old as his bones have not finished growing yet. Some breeds are upwards of two years. You can get him used to wearing an empty pack in the meantime, however.
How old should my dog be before he wears a pack?
A dog should be at least a year old (some breeds it’s 18-24 months!) before he wears a pack. You can fill a pack with crumpled newspaper or empty cans for bulk to get him used to the extra width of the pack.
You want to wait until the dog is done growing before letting him wear a loaded pack so as to not stress growing joints, bones and muscles. Not having your adult dog limp into retirement is well worth waiting a few months for bones to harden.
How do I train my dog to wear a pack?
You can start to train your pup to have something on his back by placing a towel across his shoulders. He may try to pull it off, but eventually he’ll get used to it. From there you can put a pack on him and fill the panniers with crumpled up newspaper or empty cans for bulk. You don’t want to start out with anything heavy as he’s not ready for it yet and he may sour. Let him wear the pack around the house or on walks for about an hour so he gets used to the added width. After he is used to the pack you can start with physical conditioning.
Most dogs take to packing immediately, but some will need some encouragement. Don’t wait until you’re ready to hit the trail to find out.
How do I get my dog in shape?
Slowly work up with distance and weight. Start out with a few ounces of water in bottles in each side of the pack. Watch your dog closely for signs of fatigue (panting, licking feet, hanging back on the trail, lying down, etc). If she shows any signs, take a break. Working in cool weather to avoid overheating is best. You can also work your dog off a bicycle on soft surfaces to improve overall condition. Agility is good practice for climbing over rocks, steep hillsides, navigating streams and the like. You don’t have to be a competitor, but it’s good fun to play if nothing else.
Be careful that if you train on roads that the surface isn’t too hot. If you can walk barefoot on it comfortably it’s fine for your dog. If you don’t, she can seriously hurt the pads on her feet (the same goes for rough surfaces).
What about the pads of her feet?
Typically just walking on rough surfaces- like concrete or any pavement during distance/weight training- will toughen feet naturally for the trail. You can also use items like Tuff-Kote, Rhino Hide or extra strong (4 bags/cup) black tea to accelerate the process.
If the pads do become injured- blistered, cut or torn- apply an antiseptic and cover with a bootie.
Doesn’t hiking cause Hip Dysplasia (HD)?
I’ve read this in many books about long distance backpacking. I believe some authors are either misinformed on what HD is, or they don’t want dogs on the trail so they try to scare dog owners off with threats of injury. HD is a polygenetic disorder which affects the growth and growth patterns of the hip socket. A dog cannot develop hip dysplasia unless it has the genes for it. If the dog does have the genes for HD, many environmental factors, including diet, rapid puppy growth, excessive weight, and inadequate or improper exercise, can affect the onset and/or severity of HD. Many dogs with mild HD are able to hike, do agility, swim, and do other vigorous activities. Some research has indicated that the less exercise a dog gets, the more likely it is to develop the clinical signs of HD. For more information, please read this article at peteducation.com.
Keeping your dog fit is important no matter the condition of its hips. Other types of joint problems, not just HD, can affect your dog. Some of these are genetic, some may be a simple injury. If your dog DOES have any type of joint problem (HD, luxating patellas, elbow dysplasia, ACL tear, strains, sprains, joint injury, etc.) keep an eye out for any signs of stiffness, soreness, or change in temperament, which can indicate pain. Basically, if your dog wants to keep going, let it go. If it’s limping, scale back and consider retiring him completely.
It is always a good idea to visit your vet for a checkup on your dog, especially when you are doing physically-demanding activities.
What type of training does my dog need?
Although there is nothing special to learn apart from what is taught to any companion animal, you should make sure she has obedience training–that’s not competitive obedience, that’s manners. She should sit and wait for people to pass her on the trail, come when called, stay in place, and walk on a leash. She should be trained to ignore distractions like other animals, (especially horses and other dogs), hikers, food and to accept petting from strangers as there is always someone on the trail who wants to play with your pooch. You should also make sure she is comfortable sleeping in a tent outside at night. This is easily accomplished when testing out your sleeping gear in the back yard. Some off leash training should be done, in case your dog is off its leash for any reason.
You will want to make sure your dog is good around strangers, other dogs and minds on a leash. Check for local training facilities and, if there are none by you, try looking at books from your local library. If you train your dog yourself, talk to the local 4-H club about taking the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test. It’s a good test for any and all dogs to take, especially those who will be in public on a regular basis. The testing offered by Therapy Dogs International is also a great step as it adds a few other testing requirements to the CGC exam, including leaving food alone. Any dog that could possibly share a shelter with strangers should be able to pass these exams. Many dogs are not welcome in trail shelters because they make noise, jump on people and gear, and steal or beg food. A dog that can pass one or both of these exams goes a long way towards improving traildog-human relations.
Can my dog get a backpacking title?
Most breeds are eligible for a backpacking title. I compiled a list of many organizations and their titling requirements here.
What type of gear should I get?
My list of gear is a good place to start. (also check out the interactive guide to dog packing equipment.) You should have a pack, dishes, booties, food and water, leash, collar (not a training collar- semi slip or flat/full circle), sleeping pad and a blanket of some sort. Find the best gear for you. What works for one person may not work for another.
- Packs should have two panniers directly over the shoulders, not the back, and padded buckles. Straps should be easily adjustable and quickly undone- side release buckles are the best for this. Panniers should be easily accessible with either self-repairing coil zippers or velcro. The fabric and stitching should be tougher than what you have in your own pack as it will see more abuse. Depending on your hiking conditions a bright color is a good choice and all packs should have a reflective strip on the side. If you have a drab color and are hiking during hunting season you should attach a hunting vest or blaze bandanna to the dog and pack. It’s better safe than sorry.
- Booties should velcro around the top and completely cover the dew claw so as to prevent chafing. Get a lightweight material that is abrasion resistant (cordura is good) and only use them on rough or hot surfaces. In the winter fleece booties to protect feet from snow and ice should be sufficient. If abrasion on the fleece appears to be a problem, double up with fleece inside cordura, or order special made boots that are fleece uppers and heavier abrasion-resistant material under. Unlike humans, dogs don’t need boots all the time when hiking. It is usually best to carry several pairs of boots on a long hike. They are also good for first aid to keep the dog from messing with its dressings.
- Blankets should be lightweight, big enough to cover the dog completely and made of material that will insulate even when wet. Good choices are polyester fleece and Thinsulate. If you are using a vest, get one that has a waterproof nylon exterior and reflective tape.
- Sleeping pads need to be closed cell foam to keep moisture out. It is necessary to have one for the dog especially when the ground is too cold for him as he’ll just try to steal your pad anyway. Cut it down to 1/2 or 3/4 length to save weight. A full length pad is unnecessary. For many Nordic breeds who have been trained to sleep in the cold you don’t need a pad, but for the vast majority of house dogs it is a needed item. Some companies are now making self-inflating sit pads that are a nice size for a small to medium dog.
- Collar and lead at least the collar should be reflective if not the leash as well. Collar should be a limited slip, full circle or flat buckle collar. A full slip collar can get caught on something and hurt the dog. Besides, a full slip collar is a training collar only. The trail really shouldn’t be the place to train the dog to walk on a leash. Lead should be 4 to 6 feet in length or adjustable/retractable. Most hiking areas only allow a maximum of 6 foot leashes and anything shorter than 4 feet does not allow sufficient maneuverability for the dog when there are obstacles on the trail.
- ID Tag needs to have your name, her name and a contact phone number. If you get separated you can get her back. A current photo is also a good idea, just in case she does get lost. Before I go out on a major trip I make a luggage tag (3M makes heatless laminating tags) with info that usually includes a family member (sometimes 2-3) or other local contact (trail clubs are good for this), my veterinarian, the dog’s microchip information, and where & when we’re hiking.
Can I let my dog run without a leash?
Just as there are dangers for your dog in the city, there are dangers in the woods. He could get hurt by dog-unfriendly outdoors-persons, wild animals (like skunks), vehicles, trail hazards, or poison. Not to mention that if he runs off he could very likely come back sans pack. If he’s carrying all of his food and/or some of your gear you might end up cutting the trip short. If you are unsure about your dog’s training, the only time you should take the leash off your dog is when it hinders his safety, such as with narrow bridges and stream crossings. The leash needs to go right back on him on the other side.
If the area is designated as off lead then you can let the dog off leash, but never anywhere else. If the area is cleared for off-lead activity, make sure your dog is friendly with anything he might encounter. Make sure his recall is good. Don’t scream repeatedly to get the dog to come to you. When in doubt (or when it would be extremely good manners) leash your dog.
What kinds of first aid should I know?
I highly suggest contacting your local Red Cross branch about taking a first aid class for both people and animals. Snake bite prevention classes are a good idea (plus, it takes the worry about what to do if the dog is snake bit away).
Carry a basic first aid kit on all outings. This should include moleskin, vetwrap buffered or baby aspirin (never give regular aspirin to a dog- it will hurt their stomachs), band-aids and other similar items. Single dose tubes of antibiotic ointments and hydro-cortisone cremes alcohol and peroxide wipes are available. 3-M’s “Steri Strips” are very cool.
Steri Strips are a tape that can be used in place of a suture to close a clean wound (irrigate with filtered water and peroxide if you have it). I haven’t tried them on a dog yet, but if you think you may have to in an emergency make sure the area is shaved so the strips will stick (a razor might be helpful). I’ve had them used on me many times and always have some in my kit. They’re virtually weightless.
Something you might consider for some trips would be tissue glue (VetBond and the like). Glue cracks in the pad together, cover with moleskin and have the dog wear a bootie. This will help on minor cracks and abrasions but if the wound is bad seek veterinary care immediately. I’ve not yet found it for over-the-counter use, but some vets will let you have some if you provide good reason–like a 2 week backcountry trek.
Tick remover or tweezers are good to have (you might even have these on your multi-tool).
If you have a multi-tool which includes a wire cutter you might be able to use them on a broken toenail. Diagonal cutters work really well for that- the nail doesn’t have to get touched as much as with guillotine-type trimmers and are fairly lightweight. Having a small tube of blood stop (or cornstarch or flour) is good for what ails ya.
Blue-Kote (or Purple Lotion) is a great antiseptic for critters and, though the labeling says otherwise, can be used on people in a pinch.
Hydrogen peroxide will take care of cleaning most wounds, and 1-2 Tablespoons of it will induce vomiting in dogs- good in case of ingestion of chocolate or toxic plants.
What about bugs?
Should I feed my dog extra food?
Yes and no. Do not give him the leftover camp food from dinner (you don’t want to upset his stomach miles from medical attention), but for a trip longer than a day (depending on your dog it may trips longer than a few days) an increased ration is a good idea. If you want to save on weight/bulk, puppy food and performance food has more calories and nutrition per ounce than regular kibble and is usually easier to digest. There are dog energy bars out there (Zuke’s is a very good one) or you can make your own snacks at home with a dehydrator. I also supplement with fish oil pills (no refrigeration needed) and also recently found dehydrated egg powder in bulk, but haven’t used that for myself or my dogs yet.
Some dogs, like some people, actually eat less food on the trail, so the best way to decide if you need to bring more or less food is to take a number of shorter hikes to get a rough estimate. As a plus it helps your dog get accustomed to the trail, physically and mentally.
While on the subject of food, there are several kibble diets that are primarily meat-based, 30% or greater protein content, and little or no grains. This means the food is much more digestible and callorically dense. For example, one such kibble has the same calories in 1/2 to 2/3 the weight of a grain-containing kibble and was around 40% protein. I used this food when planning a 10-day hike with Beau. Instead of needing to carry 20-25 lbs of grain-containing kibble and supplements, Beau had 10 lbs of kibble, snacks, and fish oil pills in his pack. That’s quite a difference! The food will cost more per pound than a grain-containing kibble, but is comparable in price on a per-serving basis, rather than on dry weight only. Also, dogs did not evolve to eat a diet high in grains, so I feed my dogs grain-free or low-grain food. There is an increasing number of grain-free diets on the market, so you should be able to find a formula that meets the needs of your working dog.
There are also several freeze-dried raw meat meals on the market for sled dogs (weight matters in races, too!). While dog mushers are concerned more about weight in a race than “keeping” food in high temperatures, the food lends itself perfectly to backpacking, either for people who feed raw, or for anyone wanting to supplement their dog’s trail diet. The downside (I know you were waiting for it) is that the food is expensive.
The upside to either of these diets (grain-free kibble or freeze-dried raw) is that with less by-product or filler, there is less waste to deal with!
Which leads me to…
What do I do with the poop?
Typically this is a matter of personal preference. If you pack it out, dispose of it properly. If you bury it, make sure it is 6-8″ deep, 200 feet from any water sources, campsites, and trails. This goes for you too! Pack out TP and try not to pee on any plants. NOT doing this is the main thing that gets dogs banned from areas.
If you can get your male dog to not pee on things, either, that’s fantastic! That’s great when you’re around other hikers and, frankly, many people don’t want to get pee from trailside pit stops smeared on their legs.
It’s also a good idea to pack out any trash you find on the trail. It’s good PR for the dogs, makes life easier for trail crews, and other hikers will thank you for it!
How do you know if a trail is dog-friendly?
As a rule National Forests are okay, National Parks are not. State, county, and local properties vary. The BEST way to know for sure is to call the agency in charge of the trail you’re interested in and ask. Most ask only that you leash and scoop poop.
How did you get into hiking with dogs?
Honestly? It’s hard to pinpoint, but it started with wanting a sled team. I didn’t get one, but I got a little red spotted dog who needed me almost as much as I needed her. I decided that if I saw a dog on TV/in magazines/movies/books doing something, my dog could learn that task as well. No one told me a dog can’t do everything.
I obedience trained her as part of my contract for keeping her, then tried to train her for: Frisbee (didn’t work); sledding (another that didn’t work); agility (oddly it DID work, though she was never competitive- she loved ‘hup!’ and ‘walk it!’); showmanship (she DID it, but didn’t live for it); guard work (I saw armed forces K-9s working in a WWII documentary- it was a fun game for her); therapy (THIS was her calling- she worked heavily with Alzheimer’s patients); raccoon hunting; cattle herding.
One of my favorite TV shows is due SOUTH. it stars a husky named Lincoln (later Draco) playing a half-wolf named Diefenbaker. I didn’t realize that there were several stunt dogs doing the things Dief did- I thought it was just one. I thought if that ONE stunt dog could do a bunch of things (jumping, bite work, sledding, tracking, climbing and so on) MY one dog could do it.
One episode featured Dief in a dog pack. That sealed it. I would make Lucy a pack and we would go hiking. Beau came from a friend some time later and started out ‘right’ since I learned so much from Lucy and didn’t have to make the same mistakes with him.
Number one thing not to do with a new dog owner– tell them they can’t do something. If they want to, they’ll do it. They might even surprise you with what they got the dog to do. You just never know.