Ask any outdoor enthusiast: There’s nothing better than leaving your busy life behind, shutting off the cell phone and truly breathing in the fresh scent of nature, whether you’re deep in the woods or about to summit a mountain.
What makes the unbelievable experiencing of hiking even better? Doing it with your dog. You won’t find a more loyal companion than your pup. They’ll tackle every trail, crest every ridge and wade through any stream you come across.
If you’ve never hiked with your dog before or are bringing a new trail buddy into the family, you’ve come to the right place. Before you head off the radar, though, know what it takes to be prepared.
Get in Shape (Both of You)
There’s no doubt you’ll be eager to throw a backpack together and find the nearest trail, but pause for a minute and evaluate the fitness situation of both you and your dog.
- Are you in shape?
- Do you regularly take long walks or jogs?
- Are you used to walking off-road on uneven terrain?
- Can you both comfortably carry backpacks while walking in hot and cold weather?
If neither of you sticks to a regular fitness routine, this should be your first step. Instead of going all-in with no base, build up your strength and endurance first.
- Go for routine walks at a steady pace.
- Carry backpacks with water, food and gear, as if you were hiking.
- Navigate between sidewalks and off-road paths.
As you get comfortable, slowly increase the distance, time and pace. Start with 1 mile and build to 3, 5 or more over the span of a few months. Without building a solid fitness base, both you and your dog will likely come away from your first hike either injured or discouraged (or both).
Check With Your Vet First
Even if your dog is in good shape, schedule an appointment with your vet. Discuss your plan to start hiking and ask them to evaluate your dog’s health with these considerations:
- Hip problems
- Age (too young or too old)
Check to see what preventative measures need to be taken after making sure all the basics are out of the way, like rabies, heartworm prevention and Bordetella. Ensure your dog goes through a full once-over and gets the OK from your vet — their well-being should always be the top priority.
Train for Trail Behavior
Once you know they’re healthy and in shape, make sure your dog is properly trained to interact with other people, animals and nature. If your dog doesn’t do well on a leash during regular walks, they probably aren’t ready to hike yet, where distractions are heightened even more. Your dog should know how to heel, sit, stay and all the other basics.
On top of that, they should be able to drop any foreign objects they pick up, stay still when asked (when encountering other wildlife, for example) and easily resist the urge to chase after squirrels or rabbits. They should be well socialized because there will be other people on the trails with their own dogs (who might be off-leash).
The best way to ensure your pup has fun on the trail? Preparation:
Once you and your dog have the basics down, it’s time to start planning the actual hike. Since your 4-legged family member will be joining you, several extra steps need to be taken.
Make Sure Your Dog Is Welcome
Some parks don’t allow dogs, regardless of whether they’re on-leash or not. There’s nothing worse than planning a big trip, heading to the trailhead and being told your dog isn’t allowed in. Always check ahead to avoid frustrating situations. Any park system should have an online database of trails that are and aren’t dog-friendly.
You can also run broader searches and plan your hikes based off the most dog friendly hiking trails in the country or even around the world. How you plan is up to you, but a little preparation goes a long way.
Check the Weather
No matter how prepared you and your pup are, there’s not much that’ll sway your plans more than bad weather. Regardless of whether it’s hot, cold or somewhere in between, never take your dog hiking when the weather isn’t suitable for it.
You might be able to layer up, strip down or use other methods to fight the climate, but consider the kind of weather your dog is used to. Are they routinely active in 80- or 90-degree temperatures (or higher)? Do they feel right at home on your brisk morning walks?
The weather their bodies are acclimated to will play a huge role in the kind of hikes they can handle, but even so, if it’s hot outside, save the hike for another day. If it’s snowing buckets and you think it’d be a fun challenge to hike through it, save the hike with your fur buddy for another day.
When you do go out in bad weather on either end of the spectrum, pack the necessities, like extra water bottles or rain gear.
Purchase the Right Gear
It’s easy to pack for yourself, but your dog is different. They can’t tell you what kind of backpack they like or when their feet hurt, so it’s on you to plan for any situation.
- Backpacks: A dog-pack is a great way for your pup to carry their own supplies, and even more so for them to differentiate hikes from walks or playtime. It lets them know it’s time to work and that you’re on a mission. Choose a bag that fits your dog perfectly to avoid chafing or any irritation. Find a pack that’s big enough to carry their necessary supplies (like a portable water and food bowl, waste bags and snacks) but no bigger than it needs to be.
- Hiking boots: Depending on where you’re trekking, your dog’s footwear needs to be a top priority. The pads of their paws need time to thicken, just like the palms of your hands do to protect themselves from manual labor. If the terrain you’ll be hiking through is exceptionally rough or different than usual, consider packing some booties for your dog. Use a boot fitting guide to find the right size, and get your pup set up with some boots leading up to the big hike.
- Water purifiers: Whether you’re going on a short hike or an overnight adventure, always have a backup water option on hand. Your trip might be short enough to carry all the water you’ll need, but there’s no reason to go out without a “just in case” option. Either purchase a water filtration system for yourself and use it for your dog, or bring a filter specific to your dog in their own pack.
- Dog first aid kit: Your dog’s medical and first aid needs are different from your own. However, the easiest way to create a first aid kit for them is by starting with a human-approved version, and adding in some dog necessities.
Dog-Friendly First Aid Kit Necessities:
- Phone numbers of veterinarians
- Paperwork of vaccinations and medications (in a waterproof container)
- Bandages that cling to themselves (and not your dog’s hair)
- Gauze and tape
- Antibacterial and antiseptic wipes
- Cotton swabs
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Ice pack
- Disposable gloves
- Scissors, tweezers and a tick removal tool
- Saline solution
- Benadryl (after checking with your dog’s vet first)
- Antibiotic ointment
- Rubbing alcohol
- Spare ID tag
Hitting the Trail
You can now (confidently) move on to the good stuff. With your fitness in check, the vet’s approval in hand and all the gear, know-how and equipment you’ll need, it’s time to talk trail rules.
Hikers tend to be a friendly bunch of people, and part of that is because everyone on the trail respects each other, their natural surroundings and those who come after them.
Hiking with your dog adds an extra factor. Not everyone likes furry, 4-legged creatures. Some people are allergic. Many will be out on the trails with their own dogs. It’s important to know proper etiquette to keep the trails peaceful, happy and all-inclusive.
- If your dog is off-leash, make sure they stay within close distance of you. If other people or pets are around, go ahead and clip your dog’s leash on out of respect (and to play it safe).
- Likewise, don’t let your dog wander up or jump on strangers, especially if they have a dog, too. You never know how another human or animal will react. It’s better not to find out until you know you’re in the clear.
- When you cross paths with other hikers, always lead your dog to the side and let the hikers pass. This continues off of point #2: Always give other hikers their space.
- Only feed your dog what you’ve packed for them (make sure to pack extra to replace all the calories they’ll be burning). Never allow them to take (or look) for food from someone else.
- The “leave no trace” rule you might have heard about applies to your and your dog. When nature calls, grab those handy waste bags you stowed in your dog’s backpack. Double-bag them if you need to, and carry them along until you’ve exited the trail and find a trash can.
- Stay on trail (this goes for the both of you). To keep our parks and forests as natural and beautiful as possible, keep your dog from tramping through any plants or wildlife off-trail.
- Practice safety first in all situations. Stay hydrated and avoid any dangerous rocks, boulders and steep cliffs. Hiking can get a bit treacherous. Never let your dog brush up against or run into anyone else, especially if they’re in a position to slip or stumble over uneven terrain.
After the Hike
Once you’re out of the woods and off the trail, check your dog for ticks and any injuries, especially on their paw pads.
Help them recover with extra water, food and sleep if necessary.
Lastly, give them a good rubdown with some pup-friendly shampoo in case they’ve rubbed up against any poison ivy. They might not show any signs of irritation due to their protective coat, but it can still easily transfer over to you after that big post-hike bear hug.
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