Have a dog and enjoy hiking? If you are new to hiking with your dog, then you are in the right place. Below you will find all the information you need to get started on a lifetime of adventure hiking with your dog.
Preparing for Your First Hike
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that you already have a dog. So the first step in your hiking journey is to assess what your dog is capable of (both mentally and physically) and start appropriate training for your pup. Let’s talk about the physical side first.
Is your dog physically fit for the hike?
While the average dog can go from the couch to a 5-mile + hike, not all dogs will be ready for every hike that you are considering. One of the best resources that you have to help you determine your dog’s physical fitness is your dog’s veterinarian. Dogs in good condition have been known to successfully hike 20+ miles a day with their people, but dogs with health concerns may not even be ready for a full mile.
A good veterinarian can take the time to talk to you about any specific health concerns you need to consider when planning hikes for your dog. He or she can also help you make a plan to help get your dog in better shape (if possible).
Some common health concerns in dogs that can affect hiking include the following:
- Extra Weight/Obesity
- Brachycephalic Airways (like a short-nosed Pug, Boston Terrier, or Bulldog)
- Back Pain/History of Intervertebral Disc Disease
- Soft Tissue Injuries, like a torn cruciate ligament
Depending on what your dog’s health concern is, you may need to hike flatter or shorter trails. And, especially if your dog is overweight or brachycephalic, you may need to avoid hiking in hot weather. Dogs who are overweight and/or brachycephalic are at a higher risk of heatstroke.
Your veterinarian can also help make sure your dog is ready for the outdoors by discussing safe ways to protect your dogs from mosquitoes and ticks. Both mosquitoes and ticks, in addition to being annoying, can carry serious diseases along with their bites. And there are many products on the market to help protect your dog.
Some of the products are prescriptions and you will need your veterinarian to prescribe them for your dog. These tend to be the most reliable and effective. But you can also pair up the prescription preventatives with over-the-counter options like Wondercide sprays and wipes or Insect Shield apparel.
Is your dog mentally ready for hiking?
Before you start hiking with your dog, it is important that your dog has the training and skills necessary to hike with you. These skills include the following:
- Loose leash walking
- Deference (the ability to listen to you for commands)
- Passing other dogs and people calmly
- A really solid recall (if you are on a trail where you plan to let your dog off leash)
All of these skills can be practiced in training classes, in your backyard, or on neighborhood walks to prepare your dog for a hiking trail.
Essential Items to Bring With on a Hike with Your Dog
Once you feel that your dog is ready, both mentally and physically to head out on a hike with you, it is time to gather your supplies.
Collar vs. Harness
The purpose of a collar or harness is twofold. One, it gives you a way to attach a leash or otherwise hold onto your dog when needed. Second, it is a way to attach identification to your dog.
When simply looking at a collar vs a harness as a leash attachment point, there are a few items to consider to help you decide which is best for your dog.
Many dogs join their people on hikes wearing a basic flat collar. This can work great for a well-trained dog on an average hike. The benefit of a collar compared to a leash is that it will have less impact on the way your dog moves. Since the collar is just around your dog’s neck, it will not restrain any movement of your dog’s shoulder joints.
However, if your dog is still working on loose leash walking, has poor impulse control and a high prey drive, or has a head shape that makes it easy for them to back out of a collar, you may prefer to hike with your dog in a harness. Harnesses are also helpful for dogs with decreased mobility, as you can purchase a harness with a handle on the back that you can use to lift and assist your dog over uneven terrain.
My dogs hike with both a collar and harness. Their collars hold their ID tags and I attach their leashes to their harnesses. My favorite harnesses are from Ruffwear.
- The Web Master harness is the perfect option for a dog who finds it easy to back out of harnesses. The Web Master’s 3rd strap can be adjusted to fit securely behind your dog’s ribcage, preventing them from slipping out of the harness.
- The Flagline harness has become my favorite everyday hiking harness. This harness is lightweight and has a full belly panel to make it more comfortable if I need to lift the dogs by the handle. Compared to the Web Master, the Flagline harness is easier for a dog to back out of, but neither of mine has ever escaped this harness.
- The Switchbak harness is essentially a Web Master harness with zipper pockets. So if you want your dog to help carry a few small items, this is the harness for you.
The following are affiliate links, I am an Amazon and Ruffwear affiliate so I earn with qualifying purchases. This is part of how I support this blog. But I do genuinely use these harnesses on almost every hike. So if you are interested in purchasing a Ruffwear harness, you can click one of these links to head over to Amazon or Ruffwear.com to browse these harnesses.
The importance of an ID tag
While microchips can be implanted, microchip scanners typically aren’t readily available on a trail, so it is best to have your dog wear an identification tag with your cell phone number on it. I keep these ID tags attached to my dog’s collars. But you can also attach them directly to a dog’s harness.
Make sure to keep the phone number up to date on the ID tag. And it never hurts to have a secondary number on the tag also. If you are traveling or camping, you can even make a temporary tag with your temporary address/campground information using a split-ring paper key tag. Cheap paper key tags can easily be found on Amazon.
This way, in the horrible case that your dog gets lost, someone can call you as soon as they find your dog. Or if you don’t have good service, if they have your lodging/campsite information, they can return your dog to your campground.
A dog without an ID tag will need to go to a shelter or veterinarian to be scanned for a microchip. A dog without a microchip or an ID tag has a significantly smaller chance of being returned home.
There are a lot of leash options available on the pet supply market and most of them will work for hiking. A lot of hikers like biothane leashes, as they hold up well to dirt, mud, and water. I haven’t used a biothane leash yet and instead stick to 3 main types of leashes.
A standard 6-foot hand-held leash
Most hiking trails with leash requirements will state that dogs need to be on a leash that is up to 6 feet in length. This is the case at US National Parks where dogs are allowed, at many state parks (including all of the state parks in my home state of Minnesota), and even on some long-distance hiking trails where dogs are allowed.
These requirements don’t require hand-held vs. waist-worn, but I really like a simple hand-held leash for navigating high-traffic areas where I need to communicate with my dog more quickly as we maneuver the area.
That being said, when we hike, I also like to have my hands free. So that brings me to my second category of leashes.
Waist-Worn Adjustable Length leashes
There are many different styles of waist-worn leashes. When hiking with just one dog, a convertible leash is an ideal compromise between a standard hand-held 6-foot leash and a hands-free waist-worn leash.
Good brands for this style of leash include the following:
- Zouga Rambler Leash: a 5′ 6″ long (when in hand-held mode) flat leash that has been strength tested to hold back 500# of force and has a locking carabiner leash attachment for safety.
- Ruffwear Flat Out Leash: a 6′ long, lightweight, flat leash with a traffic handle and swiveling Talon Clip attachment.
- Ruffwear Hitch Hiker Leash: This leash doesn’t work quite as well as a handheld leash, but can extend up to 12 feet in length if you need some extra length.
If you are hiking with two dogs and want a waist-worn leash, you will likely want a swiveling attachment point at your waist to help prevent the two leashes from tangling. In that case, you may prefer a leash like the TuffMutt leash that allows you to clip 2 bungee leashes to a single belt.
While retractable leashes can offer your dog more freedom when hiking, I don’t recommend this style of leash when you are just starting. The Hitch Hiker leash mentioned above is a better option for when you want a longer line.
Doggy Bags (or some way to pick up after your dog)
Don’t forget to also bring some dog bags with you to pick up after your dog. I don’t know about you, but my dogs almost always poop at some point on a hike. It is important to pick up after your dog for several reasons, including the enjoyment of other trail users and to keep an overabundance of fecal bacteria out of the environment.
So grab some bags and make sure you don’t leave any dog poop behind. Don’t want to carry it? Have your dog wear a harness with pockets (like the Ruffwear Switchbak) and make them carry it. Or consider placing it in a sealed, hard-sided container in your backpack so you don’t smell it.
There are a lot of creative ways to deal with your dog’s poop while hiking. Just don’t leave it on the trail.
Depending on the weather and the distance you are planning to hike, you will need to bring water along for you and your dog. Keeping your dog well-hydrated can help prevent/reduce the risk of heatstroke. And if you carry water with you, you can also reduce your dog’s desire to drink from streams, lakes, and puddles.
Why not just let your dog drink from the lake or the river? There are several waterborne pathogens, like giardia, leptospirosis, and blue-green algae that can cause your dog to become sick or even die in some cases.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I never let my dogs drink from natural water sources. For example, they always ingest some water when swimming. But if I wouldn’t drink the water due to health concerns, I try not to let my dogs drink the water. I don’t want either of us to end a hike with diarrhea or vomiting.
So in order to provide my dogs with safe drinking water, I bring a large water bottle or a water bladder and a dog bowl along on our hikes.
A pouch filled with training treats
Training your dog to hike well with you is a lifelong process. Since my preferred training methodology is positive reinforcement based, I always hike with a pouch full of training treats on my waist belt.
Recently with waist-bags becoming popular again, I have started to use a waist bag to hold extra poop bags, my phone, my wallet, and my training treats.
Having treats easily accessible means that I can reward for good behavior that I want to be repeated quickly and easily. It also means I have an easy distraction if my dogs fixate on something (like a squirrel) that I don’t want them tugging towards. Additionally, rewarding with good treats helps my dogs calmly pass other trail users.
First Aid Kit
While hopefully not needed on every hike, bringing along a few simple first aid items is a good plan for every hike (whether or not you are hiking with a dog). In fact, it is part of the 10 hiking essentials listed by the American Hiking Society which include:
- Appropriate Footwear
- A Map and Compass/GPS (or some type of navigation tool)
- Rain-Gear and Dry-fast Layers
- Safety items: Like an emergency lighter, a whistle, and a headlamp or other light source
- First Aid Kit
- Knife or Multi-Tool
- Sun Protection
- Shelter: this can just be a lightweight and inexpensive space blanket
There are many items that can double for both dogs and people, so make sure to put together a lightweight hiking first aid kit that is easy for you to carry with you on every hike. And when you pack extra food and water, make sure you have enough for both you AND your dog.
Finding a Trail
With all of the above knowledge, you should be ready to hit the trail. But before you drive to a trailhead, you should know that not all trails allow dogs.
For example, most national parks in the western United States, and some in the eastern United States, don’t allow dogs on hiking trails. State parks, on the other hand, will vary in dog regulations from state to state. But both national and state forests tend to be pretty dog friendly.
So always check the regulations before you head out. If dogs are allowed, find out if there are leash requirements or not. And definitely follow all of the local regulations. The last thing you want is to have another trail closed to dogs because too many people weren’t following the rules.
If you want your dog to hike off-leash (only recommended for dogs with advanced training, a low prey drive, no reactivity, and a really reliable recall in a safe area) take a look at national forests or BLM areas. But again, check the rules for each individual area closely before letting your dog off-leash.
Some good resources for dog-friendly trail inspirations include Pawsitively Intrepid’s Hiking Trail page or just typing “dog-friendly trails near me” into Google.
Follow Good Trail Etiquette
Once you get to the trail of your choice, make sure to follow good trail etiquette. Give other trail users plenty of space, keep your dog on a leash or under good voice control, don’t allow your dog to greet others unless you have their permission, and leave no trace by picking up after your dog.
If we are all good stewards of our existing hiking trails, these trails will hopefully exist for many years in the future.