Everything to Know About Hiking With Your Dog

Woman with Golden Retriever dog enjoys the silence at the waterfall in the Alps
DieterMeyrl / Getty Images

Dreaming of a backcountry trip with your favorite four-legged buddy? Any day spent adventuring with your dog is likely to be fun for you and a true highlight for them—not only will your pup get to explore, smell, and see a new part of the world, they'll also get to do it with their best friend (you!) by their side.

Of course, just like humans need to prepare for a hike, so too, do dogs. And since they’re, well, dogs, the onus is on their owners to make sure they’re safe and healthy on the trails. Here’s what you need to know when planning a hike with your dog, from must-have gear to Leave No Trace principles. Be sure to consult with your vet before setting out, as he or she may have extra recommendations specific to your dog’s health or environment.

Planning and Prepping

Fortunately, with the right prep and planning, humans and dogs can enjoy the great outdoors, whether you’re on a multi-day backpacking trip or a short hike through a state park.

Choosing the Right Trail

As with human hikers, it's important to start your dog on easy trails and work your way up to steeper and longer hikes—that way, you know what your dog can handle and what his or her fitness level is. Smaller or older dogs may not be able to walk for longer than a mile or two, while younger dogs full of energy should have no problem joining as you rack up the miles. Judge your dog conservatively to start with, unless you want to end up carrying them back to the trailhead.

You'll also need to make sure the trail you choose allows dogs (pro tip: most trails in national parks don't), and be aware of that trail's leash laws. Most urban parks and areas require dogs to be on leashes, whereas trails in more remote areas often dictate that your dog be under voice control; on these types of trails, you can expect mostly off-leash pups.

Training and Baseline Health

Whether your dog will be on a leash or casually stroll by your side, you want to make sure he or she knows a few key commands: stay, come, and "leave it." The latter is especially important if your dog is known to "follow his nose." Certain things that smell good to a dog—bear poop, trash, or dead animals—can end up making them ill. Be sure to practice these skills with your dog outside your home to ensure your pup responds even when distracted or over-excited.

Unlike human hiking partners, who are often all too quick to tell you when they're exhausted, your dog isn't going to complain if they're overexerting themself or pulled a muscle—that's why it's essential to know your dog's baseline health hiking. Does he or she pant frequently? How fast is their heartbeat typically? Does your dog often engage with other people, or is he or she more standoffish? Knowing your pet's baseline health stats can help you notice injuries more quickly and better evaluate the extent of the injury on the trail. You can schedule an appointment with your vet at the start of hiking season to help better understand your pet's everyday health.

Medications and Vaccinations

Depending on where you live, your dog may need additional vaccinations or medications before beginning a hiking trip. You may want to carry a rattlesnake antidote for your dog if you're hiking in the desert, or ask your vet about a leptospirosis vaccine if you and Fido are likely to encounter standing water on the trails. Remember that your dog is susceptible to bug bites, sunburn, and allergic reactions just like a human. Here's a handy cheat sheet of medications most dogs can and can't take. You can also take dog first-aid classes in person or online through the American Red Cross.

On the Trails

Confident that your pet is set for the trail? Here’s what you need to pack before heading out.

Food and Drink

Just like you, your dog is burning energy on the trails. Even if your dog normally only eats twice a day, you'll want to bring a snack for him or her to keep their energy up (a handful of their regular kibble will likely do just fine). You'll also need to bring extra water. Since dogs don't sweat, panting is usually an indication that your dog is well on the way to dehydration.

Don't let your dog drink from a natural water source unless you'd drink from it yourself. While dog's stomachs can generally tolerate more than human stomachs can, water-borne diseases are common, so it's best to err on the side of caution. You'll need a bowl or container for your dog to drink from, and be sure to overestimate how much water you'll both need.

Gear

For most dogs, hiking in a harness will be far more comfortable than hiking with a leash clipped to their collar. Make sure to choose a harness with proper padding and breathability to avoid overheating and chafing. Large and very energetic dogs may be able to wear a harness with attached saddlebags to carry their snacks, dog-safe sunscreen, or whatever else they may need.

Many hikers find it advisable to carry a backup leash, especially if you'll be at a trailhead with heavy vehicle traffic. Depending on the terrain and weather, your dog may need booties or a sweater. Make sure your first aid kit has the proper medication and supplies sized for you and your dog. If you’re driving to the trailhead, use a harness and doggy seat belt to keep your pup safe on the road.

Dog Trail Etiquette

While most people enjoy seeing dogs on the trails, it’s still important to be respectful of your surroundings and other hikers. Here’s how.

Wildlife

While it may be tempting to let your dog run free in the wild, be sure you can keep your eye on them at all times. Dogs can frighten wildlife, separate woodland parents from their newborns, and interrupt animals’ natural behaviors. You wouldn’t let a human destroy a groundhog’s burrow, so don’t let your dog.

Leave No Trace

Humans should always practice Leave No Trace principles when hiking, which means you'll need to pick up your dog's waste on the trails. Carry biodegradable poop bags and pack 'em out, just like you would with trash and plastic. Part of Leave No Trace also involves keeping food away from wildlife so they don't begin to associate humans with food. Safely store your dog's food out of reach of wildlife when camping (this may require a bear bin in some more remote locations), and don't leave kibble behind after your pup's mid-day snack.

Fellow Hikers

Even on off-leash trails, your dog needs to be under your voice command in case you encounter fellow hikers who dislike dogs, wildlife, or other pups who aren't as friendly as your own. Make sure your off-leash dog knows how to calmly approach people and dogs, and ask owners if their dogs are friendly before allowing your pup to say "hello."

Dog owners know that their pet’s personality, likes, and preferences are just as varied as humans are, so keep in mind that your particular dog may need accommodations beyond what’s listed here. And don’t forget that there’s one thing every dog likes after a hike, regardless of age or breed: a good nap. Give your pup plenty of time to recover (and plenty of positive reinforcement) before hitting the trails for another day of exploration.

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