Hiking is one of the most rewarding activities you can share with your dog. There are so many health benefits for both you and your pup. But just like anything, there is a point where too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. So how do you know how far a dog can hike in a day safely? We spent some time searching for guidelines and are ready to share our results with you.
How far can a dog hike in a day? If properly conditioned, up to 20+ miles a day. Seasoned hikers report covering up to 25-30 miles in a day, with their dogs likely logging more miles when off-leash. Without specific conditioning, the average in-shape dog can happily hike up to 5-10 miles, but may not be able to keep that pace up for multiple days in a row. Additionally, consider that if your pet is overweight, out-of-shape, young, old, or has other health conditions, they may not be able to make it even a single mile.
Like people, it does take proper conditioning and training to be ready to log the big miles. And how far a dog can hike is certainly influenced by weather conditions and a dog’s genetics. So the real question is not how far can a dog hike, but how far can a dog hike safely.
How Far Can Dogs Hike Safely?
Dogs can be amazing athletes. Did you know that elite sled dogs can cover an average of 100 miles a day for 8-10 days in a row? But even among these well-conditioned dogs, injuries can occur when dogs stretch themselves to the limits of their speed and endurance.
So how far a dog can hike safely in a day is dependent on many factors. The most important factor is an individual dog’s overall health condition.
You may be asking this question because you are new to hiking with your dog, it is important to take it slow and work up to long hikes. If you are just starting, my general guideline for a young adult dog used to walking 2-3 miles in the neighborhood, is to only hike 3-5 five miles the first hike. If your adult dog is overweight, arthritic, or a flat-nosed dog breed, start with a mile on a flat easy trail. We will talk about puppies later in this post.
It is important to consider breed constraints, like short legs and short noses when starting an exercise routine. I truly believe that any dog can hike, but remember that shorter legs mean that your dog has to take more steps to keep up with you. If properly conditioned, small dogs can be great hiking partners, just make sure you don’t overtax them at first. And short-nosed dog breeds (brachycephalic) may have a harder time getting air in when they are panting. Make sure to watch your dog for any excessive panting during hikes.
And don’t forget that weather conditions and terrain can greatly impact how far your dog can hike. A good general rule of thumb is that in hot weather, hiking lengths should be cut in half. Dogs can overheat easily, creating a life-threatening situation quickly. Terrain also matters, because hiking up a mountain requires more exertion than hiking along a flat dirt path in a forest. If your trail has lots of elevation change, decrease the length of the hike until your dog is used to hiking that terrain.
And remember, many dogs will not tell you when they are tired. Some might stop and wait for you to carry them home. But others will push themselves to the point of injury or over-exhaustion. Do your dog a favor and make sure you have a proper plan to condition them prior to planning that 20-mile hike in the mountains.
How to Condition a Dog to Hike Long Distances
It is important to have a plan in place before starting a new hiking exercise program with your dog. Most of us can not hike every day, but hopefully, you can hike at least once a week. On the days in between hikes, you can use your daily neighborhood walks to help increase your dog’s overall fitness level.
We found some great guidelines for slowly increasing walking/hiking distance on SportsVet.com. As they note, a dog’s physiology is designed for endurance, so often dogs can attain appropriate conditioning levels faster than their human hiking partners.
A starting distance of one mile is recommended if your dog is not used to daily walks of any length. The distance of the exercise is then increased by one-half mile for each subsequent workout. But at some distance, the current physiological limit of an individual dog will be reached.
At that point, it is recommended to start at a distance that is one-half of the last distance increase.
For example, if the distance of the last workout was 2 miles and the dog started showing fatigue signs at 2 ½ miles, the next workout distance should be 2 ¼ miles. It will take about 4 – 6 workouts for the dog’s physiology to adapt and be ready for the next distance increase. – The Canine Workout Companion
Robert L. Gillette, DVM, MSE
After your dog is ready for the next distance increase, start increasing in increments of 1/4 mile. Hike or walk the new distance 4-6 times before increasing again. If your dog shows signs of fatigue during or after these longer hikes, back down to the previous distance for a few hikes or walks before increasing the distance again. Did you know that the first sign that a dog is tiring, is a sigh?
You may also notice your dog start panting as their body heats during exercise. If your dog begins panting continuously, slow down and turn around. When your dog starts to seek out areas of shade, that is a sign your dog is getting too hot and needs a break. If your dog is shade seeking and reluctant to continue, it is time to discontinue your hike right away. Bring water with on your hikes to offer when your dog seems warm. And educate yourself on the risks of heatstroke.
And remember, dogs vary in how fast they are able to respond to a conditioning program. So go at your dog’s pace. But whether your goal is thru-hiking 100s of miles with your dog or just getting them ready for a 10-mile day hike, proper conditioning is the biggest key to preventing hiking related injuries.
Preventing Injuries When Hiking Long Distances
Conditioning your dog properly to hike long miles is the biggest key to preventing injuries when hiking. Don’t just let your dog be a “weekend warrior.”
Some of the common injuries dogs obtain when hiking are to their paws and muscles and tendons. If dogs are conditioned to terrain as well as distance slowly, their bodies should be able to adapt to new conditions.
Hard surfaces like asphalt or mountain rock will affect the paw pads the most. While softer surfaces, like sand, are harder on muscles and tendons. If your dog is injured and unable to walk and hike for a few weeks, remember to start slow again. Cut the distance in half for a few walks before working back up to the longer hikes.
It is interesting to note that most dog sports-related injuries occur during the final day/period of an event when the dog is most fatigued. So rest periods should be incorporated into your long hikes. And if you are planning on hiking multiple days in a row, make sure some of your hiking days are “rest days” where you aren’t hiking long distances. These rest periods allow for both mental and physical rebuilding.
Another great way to help reduce injuries is by helping your dog with a warm-up and cool-down period. VetBloom.com has some excellent advice on this topic. Go check out their complete blog post for all the details, but here is a quick synopsis.
Warm up activities should be low intensity, so starting your hike on a flat surface on-leash at a slow pace for 10-15 minutes should suffice. If your entire hike was low-intensity, then you probably don’t have to worry about a cool down period. But if you are both warm and tired, incorporate 10-15 minutes of slow walking at the end of your hike as well. And consider giving your dog a post-workout massage.
How Far Can Puppies Hike?
And finally, a special note for puppies and adolescent dogs. We found a great summary of exercise guidelines for these age groups in an article by Lynn Nalepa posted on Innovative Veterinary Care.
Growth plates, the soft areas at the end of long bones, are susceptible to injury until they are closed. This is generally around 12 – 18 months of age, but varies by breed. Also note that if a dog has been spayed or neutered, it can be recommended to wait until around 20 months of age for heavier impact activities. In hiking, heavier impact activities would include hikes with lots of jumping, scrambling, and/or elevation change.
Long hikes can be classified as repetitive exercise. So keep hikes for puppies short, just a mile or two until those growth plates close. More specifically, try to follow the general guideline of no more than 15 minutes of daily exercise per month of age.
Additionally, don’t allow jumping or jump downs higher than “wrist” height until a puppy is six months of age. And don’t allow them to jump from higher than elbow height until 18 to 20 months of age.
Is hiking good for dogs? Yes! Hiking is a great activity for most dogs. Check out our blog post all about this topic to find out more about how hiking benefits dogs. And when hiking might not be good for a dog.
What items are essential for an everyday hike with your dog? Make sure you have a collar, leash, dog identification, and water along on every hike. For more details read “6 Essentials for the Everday Hike with your Dog.”
Can dogs hike in national parks? Overall, no. But there are a few national parks that allow dogs on the hiking trails. Some of the dog-friendly national parks include Grand Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Acadia National Park, Hot Springs National Park, and Shenandoah National Park.