So you are ready to take your dog on his or her first camping trip. Your dog is used to road trips and long day hikes, but this is the first time he is going to sleep in a tent.
Sure, you could just purchase a tent, pitch it at a campsite, and put your dog inside the tent. And while this may work for many dogs, all dogs will benefit from a little bit of preparation and training ahead of time. If you don’t prepare your dog you are increasing your risk of ending up with a dog that paces all night, won’t settle down, scratches at the tent, or even bolts through the thin tent fabric.
Consider these11 tips to help your dog’s first tent camping experience go smoothly.
Tips 1 -5: Start These At Home
Just like most new items or training skills that you want to introduce to your dog, tent training should start at home.
Setting your tent up in a familiar environment allows your dog to get used to the tent without the additional stressors of a new environment. The sounds and smells on the trail or in a campground can be very different than the sounds and smells in a dog’s normal sleeping space. Since you don’t want your dog’s first introduction to the tent to be associated with a lot of other changes, set up your tent at home to start your dog’s tent introduction.
Tips 1 through 5 can all be accomplished in the comfort of your own home.
1. Let Your Dog Explore the Tent
Set up the tent and let your dog sniff all around the tent. No pressure, just let them explore the new object in their house.
Sometimes people will use an old or inexpensive tent to practice with first and then transition to the tent they will actually be camping with. That way, if your dog scratches at the tent walls or tries to push out of the tent while they are getting used to it, they don’t damage your nice tent.
After your dog is comfortable walking around and sniffing the outside of the tent, ask them to enter the tent. If your dog isn’t sure about going into the tent, toss some treats inside as an incentive to enter. This can become a fun game. Ask them to enter, toss treats and then let them sniff the treats out inside the tent.
For added positive vibes, feed your dog in the tent for several meals in a row. Nothing says this is a “good space” like getting a whole meal while there. I mean, just think about how much people like restaurants.
2. Set Up a Sleeping Space for Your Dog in the Tent
Think about how your dog likes to sleep at home and try to make a similar set up in the tent. Is your dog a lover of blanket piles? Do they have a favorite dog bed? Are they crated?
Think about what you will be able to bring along on your camping trip. If your dog is used to being crated and you are car camping, why not bring your dog’s crate with? If your dog sleeps in a dog bed or on some blankets at home, use those in the tent to make the tent feel more like home.
If you are backpacking, this can be a little bit more difficult. When we car camp, I bring a dog bed for my dog. But when we backpack, I need something smaller. So, I bring along a blanket from home and set it up on the end of my sleeping pad. It ends up a little crowded but works for both of us to sleep through the night.
We haven’t invested in a dog sleeping bag yet, but the three systems I would love to try are the Whyld River Dog Sleeping Bag, Groundbird Gear’s Turtle Top Quilt, and the Ruffwear Highlands Sleeping System (Amazon link).
Please note that for Amazon links, I am an Amazon Associate and earn from qualifying purchases.
Regardless of what type of sleeping system you use for your dog, set up a spot for your dog to sleep that smells and feels like home. If you will be using new gear, place the new lightweight blanket or sleeping bag into your dog’s normal sleeping place at home for a few weeks before transferring it to the tent.
Once your dog is used to the new gear, place it in the tent at home so your dog can relax inside the tent.
3. Consider some Mat/Relaxation Training
Another way to help your dog relax in their spot in the tent is to work on mat and relaxation training. One of the biggest problems people complain about when tent camping with their dog is that their dog is on high alert all night.
To help your dog relax and stay in their bed at night, consider working on a good place command. This helps your dog know she needs to sleep in her spot all night. And also helps you train a command so that you can ask her to return to her bed if she gets up at night.
Consider your dog’s bed a “mat.” Then read the following article by the SPCA or watch the following video to help you train your dog to love relaxing on their bed/mat.
4. Teach your Dog About Screens
Before closing your dog inside the tent, make sure your dog is aware of the screen portions of the tent. Show them the resistance and let them touch the screen with their nose.
There are many stories about dogs ignoring screens and busting right out through the screen of a tent. In fact, I have one of my own stories about this involving a 2 am visit from a porcupine. That story is included in our post titled “The Great Backpacking Misadventure.”
5. Close the Tent Flap
Now that your dog is comfortable in the tent and understands that screens are barriers, start closing the tent flap and asking your dog to spend some settled time in the tent.
You can go in with your dog at first if you want to. You can also give your dog something to do in the tent, like chewing on a filled Kong toy. But ultimately, you want your dog to be able to relax in the tent quietly without you and without any other distractions.
This is also the perfect time to teach your dog some tent threshold skills. Make sure your dog waits to be released from the tent when you open the tent flap. You don’t want your dog to rush past you as they exit the tent. This can create a dangerous situation for your dog if they are running around unleashed in a crowded campground or running into the wilderness.
Once your dog has accomplished this, it is time to take the tent outside.
Tip 6: Consider a backyard camping trip first
If your dog is a more high-vigilance, anxious type of dog, consider a backyard camping trip as an in-between option from inside your house to a campsite.
Spending a night sleeping outside in your own backyard allows you to test how well you and your dog can sleep together with the night sounds outside your tent. If you are able to spend a successful night in your backyard, then you are on the right path to spending a good night on the trail or in a campground.
Tips 7-10: Time to Hit the Trail/Road
Now that your dog is accustomed to the tent, has learned to respect the screens and tent flap, and has slept outside in the backyard, it is time to take your dog on an adventure. Regardless of where you will be setting your tent up, the following tips can make your first night in a tent away from home even more of a success.
7. Tire your Dog Out before Bedtime
There’s a saying that “a tired dog is a good dog.” And I couldn’t agree more. Glia and I always sleep best when we have had a good day filled with outdoor activity before we crawl into our tent at night.
While our preferred activity is hiking, it doesn’t really matter what you and your dog do. But I recommend exercising both your dog’s mind and body before you settle in for the night. Don’t just hop from the car to the tent and expected your dog to relax well at night.
8. Bring Something for Your Dog to Do in the Tent
In case your dog is still ready for more adventure once you settle into your tent, consider bringing something for your dog to do in the tent. Rawhides, kongs, puzzle treat toys, or other toys to keep them busy in a small space are great additions to a camping trip. These items are especially nice to help bridge the time between your daytime activities and bedtime.
9. Consider booties to protect the tent/bring a towel to wipe paws before entering
Consider how you will protect the tent floor and keep it clean during your camping trip. Some dogs are trained to wear booties in the tent to reduce the chances of nails scratching the tent. Personally, I have never had any issues with my dog’s nails in the tent. But if you do want to try dog booties, our favorites are the lightweight and affordable DogBooties.com dog boots.
Whether or not you are worried about your dog’s nails, it is important to keep the tent clean. And paws can carry in a lot of dirt. So we set a towel inside the vestibule to wipe off paws before the dogs enter the tent. This keeps our sleeping space cleaner. And having a towel along can come in handy when/if your dog gets more than her paws dirty.
10. Consider sleeping tethered
Depending on where you are camping and how much of a flight risk your dog is, consider sleeping tethered to our dog.
Glia and I typically sleep tethered to each other these days (we use a lightweight paracord rope attached to her collar that threads underneath my sleeping pad). We started this after the episode with the porcupine, as it gives me better peace of mind at night. I sleep a lot better knowing that if a wild animal does come up to our tent, Glia is already leashed.
I also found the following quote on a forum on WhiteBlaze.net:
“Tethering the dog is a good idea. I read in the book A Walk With Sunshine about a man whose dog tore through the vestibule of his tent … to chase down a skunk in the middle of the night. The following few days were not pleasant for either party.”https://www.whiteblaze.net/forum/showthread.php/91719-Teaching-dog-to-sleep-in-tent/page2
11. Have a Back Up Plan
And finally, have a back-up plan. If your dog isn’t doing well on his first camping trip, knowing how you are going to handle this is important. Can you sleep in the car with your dog? Are you close enough to home to abort the tent camping and bring your dog home?
Make sure you think about this ahead of time so that you can avoid pushing your dog into a bad experience. It is always better to shorten a camping trip and try again later than it is to make your dog’s first tent camping trip a bad experience.
Want to read other suggestions for tent camping with dogs?
We hope that this article is a complete guide to getting your dog ready to excel on their first camping trip. But if you are looking for another good blog post to read as you prepare for your dog’s first camping trip, check out this article on AllDogsAreSmart.com.
And if you are ready to hit the trail and are one of our Minnesota readers, consider planning your first camping trip to one of Minnesota’s premier camping destinations, the North Shore. For backpackers, we specifically love and recommend the Superior Hiking Trail.
Or if you are reading this during a period of COVID-19 shelter in place orders, consider an adventure in place as a perfect way to work your way through the first 6 tips on this list.