Every time I pull my backpack out for a hike, Josie, my dog, is beside herself with excitement. I’m pretty sure she thinks her sole reason for existence besides snuggling up with my family is to hike. In fact, if I’m heading to a trail that doesn’t allow dogs, I have to be incredibly sneaky about packing and getting out of the house. She throws a guilt trip like nobody’s business if I don’t take her with me!
Since I am a small animal veterinarian, I pay special attention to her unique needs when we’re in the backcountry. This post is all about paying it forward to the canine community, helping to educate their biped companions on what I feel are best practices when hiking with them.
Let’s get to it!
MY TOP 10 TIPS FOR HIKING WITH YOUR DOG
1. If there is any question in your mind if your dog is fit and agile enough to hike with you, have him/her checked out by your veterinarian. I can’t tell you how many dogs I’ve encountered on trails who look too frail, arthritic, etc. to hike with their owners.
There is a misconception by some folks that dogs don’t feel pain like humans do, and I’m always shocked when a pet owner inquires about this fallacy. Dogs absolutely feel pain. They may sometimes respond differently than humans, but trust me when I say pain is very real with dogs and you don’t want to be 5 miles in on a hiking trail and realize that your 85-pound dog is in too much pain to walk out safely!
In addition, make sure your pet is on an effective flea and tick preventive. And I’m not talking about something you found on the shelf of Walmart or the feed store, but a veterinarian-approved preventive (Bravecto is a great one). Some things are worth the added expense, and this is one of them. Also since mosquitos transmit heartworms to dogs and many intestinal parasites are acquired from soil, year round heartworm and intestinal parasite prevention are also strongly recommended for your dog.
Make sure your dog is up to date on vaccines and is vaccinated for leptospirosis. The leptospirosis vaccine is often only recommended for dogs who are more likely to be exposed to the bacteria. Dogs (and humans) are exposed to it through contaminated urine, usually from wildlife. Rabies vaccines are required by law (in the United States, at least), so always make sure your pets are up to date on this one. It’s not a bad idea to even carry proof of Rabies vaccination with you on a hike, on the off chance your dog bites a stranger.
2. Before you leave for the trail, check the rules and regulations of the area you’ll be hiking in to make sure dogs are allowed on the trail. Bringing dogs on a trail where they’re not allowed can result in a hefty fine as well as cutting your hike short since you’ll be asked to leave the trail. There are no hard fast rules for restrictions, but here are some general rules of thumb I’ve discovered over the years:
- National Parks are typically a big no-no with dogs on trails (at least in the United States). However, there are a few dog-friendly US National Parks and this website lists many of them.
- Forest Service land and trails are typically dog-friendly.
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land are typically dog-friendly areas.
With any of these jurisdictions, it’s wise to check before heading out, even if they have historically been dog-friendly. You never know when regulations might change and since trails are often far from our homes, it would stink to drive to a trailhead and discover you’re not hiking beyond the parking lot with Fido beside you.
3. Make sure you have identification on your dog in case you are separated from each other. There are a few different ways you can do this:
- Microchipping. I highly recommend that any pet you own have a microchip. A chip provides inexpensive insurance that your beloved family member will find his/her way safely back to you should they ever become lost, whether on a trail or in your own neighborhood.
- Identification tags on your dog’s collar are a great way to alert someone immediately that your dog belongs to you and is not a stray looking for a place to call home. Even if your dog has a microchip implanted, I still recommend identification tags on a collar.
- GPS collars add an additional layer of protection but they have a few limitations (possible fee for a monthly subscription, dog must be in cellular/wifi range to be tracked, battery life). The most popular one on the market these days seems to be this one and I’ve personally been tempted to give it a try so I can test it and give a review, so stay tuned for a potential future post on it!
4. Outfitting your dog with appropriate hiking gear is just as important as picking out a pair of comfortable hiking shoes for yourself. I am a big fan of harnesses for dogs. Josie, my dog, wears a Ruffwear Front Range Harness when we hike. It’s durable, easy to adjust to her body conformation, and I love that it comes in bright colors in case she should become separated from me (I’m much more likely to notice a flash of bright orange in the woods than green or brown). While on the trail, check periodically to make sure your dog’s harness isn’t chafing him/her while you’re hiking. The “armpits” are a common area for harnesses to chafe a dog.
In addition to a harness, there is no shortage of leashes to choose from (more on the controversial topic of “to leash or not to leash” on trails below). It’s easy to become quickly overwhelmed with options, but what has proven to work best for me is a hands-free leash like this one pictured below. A set up such as this allows me to hike with both of my trekking poles, and the resistance from the bungee style leash keeps Josie from pulling me over, should she forget her manners and decide to bolt after a squirrel abruptly.
I don’t recommend booties for dogs on trails unless you’re hiking in unusually rough terrain that might abrade or injure their foot pads or in prolonged snowy conditions. Most dogs won’t easily tolerate wearing them and they are a bigger annoyance than benefit unless the trail conditions dictate the extra protection. It might be wise to train your dog to get used to wearing them off trail though, in case you should ever need them. Ruffwear brand booties are highly rated, so they are what I would try if I should ever purchase some for Josie.
An alternative to booties is the highly rated and recommended Musher’s Secret wax that you can apply to your dog’s paws. Created for sledding dogs, it creates a breathable bond to foot pads and is especially good at preventing “snow balls” from sticking to the fur between foot pads. People swear by this stuff who hike regularly with their dogs.
5. Keeping your dog hydrated is just as important as keeping yourself hydrated, so offer your dog water at regular intervals, especially in warm weather. Cold water from a creek may not be as appealing to dogs as the water you’re carrying in your own water bottles or bladder, if you’re hiking in cooler weather, so keep that in mind too.
On that note, water-borne pathogens such as Giardia can affect dogs just like they can humans. Some folks only allow their dogs to drink water that they filter. I am admittedly not as rigid with this and feel that it would be nearly impossible to keep Josie from drinking from small streams that she looooves to cool off in as we hike; however, there is a risk in doing this, so just know it exists and make your own personal decision on this topic accordingly.
Hydration status can be a bit tricky to assess in a dog, if they’re only mildly dehydrated. Checking their gums for a tacky/dry feel is an easy way to check for dehydration.
A lightweight, collapsible water bowl is also a handy addition to your pack when hiking with your dog. These collapsible bowls make it very easy to offer water to your dog.
6. Make sure to bring a snack for your dog. Just like us, dogs are burning lots of calories when they hike and a nutrient dense snack is beneficial to their energy level. Dog snacks can be as simple as the kibble they eat at home to something more portable like these energy bars from TurboPUP. (I recently purchased some of these and will do a review on them soon, but suffice to say, Josie loved it!).
One question I am asked often as a veterinarian is how much a dog should be fed on a daily basis. A general formula to calculate a dog’s maintenance energy requirement is:
Dog’s weight in kilograms x 30 + 70 = recommended kcal/day
**to calculate your dog’s weight in kilograms, divide his weight in pounds by 2.2
If you take your dog on a moderate to strenuous hike, you’ll obviously want to increase the caloric intake that day. I typically recommend multiplying a working dog’s kilocalorie requirement by 1.25 to 1.5, depending on the particular hike. You can find nutritional information on your dog’s food bag, to calculate both daily nutritional requirements and how many extra calories your dog may need for a hike.
Of note, do not feed your dog a full meal’s worth of food and then immediately start hiking again, especially large breed dogs. Aside from it possibly coming right back up with exertion, large breed dogs, especially those with deep chests, are more prone to their stomach “flipping” and causing a life-threatening emergency situation. The fancy word for it is gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV for short) and it’s obviously not something you ever want to happen, but especially when you’re miles deep in the woods.
7. To leash or not to leash, that is the question. Seriously, if Shakespeare himself had a dog he hiked with, I’m gonna guess this would be a hot button topic even in the 1500s. In some areas, leashes are required on trail and you’re liable to pay a hefty fine if you don’t abide by the rules. Beyond any requirements for leashes though, opinions on this topic vary wildly.
My own personal take on leashing a dog during a hike: If your dog is very obedient and well-trained with voice commands AND you are hiking in a low-risk area (terrain isn’t sketchy, you’re unlikely to encounter highly dangerous animals like Grizzly Bears, few other hikers, etc.), there is some degree of comfort I have with dogs hiking off a leash. In other words, a tincture of common sense goes a long way. Even with good voice control and a well-behaved dog though, the risks are there for potential danger off leash, but they are certainly mitigated with preventive measures.
In addition, if Josie is off her leash (which is a minority of the time when I hike), I put her back on the leash if we are about to encounter other hikers. There is nothing worse than running across other hikers whose dogs are off leash that jump on you in excitement, or worse, show signs of aggression towards you and/or your own dog. I want to be respectful of others and their experience in the woods, and I especially want control over her if the folks I am encountering have a dog too (Josie is as sweet as they come, but it’s impossible to know how dogs will react to each other when they first meet).
And finally, if your dog hikes off leash, do your best to keep them on the trail. One dog traipsing off trail won’t make much of an impact, but compound it by hundreds of dogs and you start to notice the difference. It’s also better to keep them on trail to protect fragile ecosystems you might be hiking in.
8. If your dog poops on a hike, don’t leave it in the middle of the trail! At a minimum, find a way to move the feces off the trail and out of the sight (and smell) of others. The best way to do this is the “stick flick trick”–take a stick or two and flick it as far away from the trail as possible. However, if you want to really abide by Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, either pack it out in a disposable poop bag (do NOT leave the bag on the trail though!) or bury it according to LNT guidelines, just as you do for yourself (6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails).
10. Finally, when you get back to your car after a great hike, do a thorough “body scan” on your dog, checking for any chafing, foot pad abrasions, ticks, or other hitchikers. I also like to have a clean towel to wipe off any mud or let Josie lay on as we drive home.
Get out there with your four-legged friend and have some grand adventures!