Lots of us have four-legged companions who love to spend time with us. For hikers, it's only natural to want to bring your pup out onto the trails with you. In fact, more and more people are taking their dogs on long hikes every year. Dogs, however, are just like humans when it comes to taking long hikes in the woods - it's not for everyone! Not all dogs are equipped to handle the rigors of distance hiking or long, extended weekends in the woods. If you've considered taking your dog out for their first long hike, here is a list of things to consider before buying the gear and taking the leap.
First of all, make sure where you are going is DOG FRIENDLY! Not all places will allow dogs on trails - most US National Parks are not dog friendly! And also, don't be that guy who gets fake permits to say your dog is a service dog just to bring them hiking with you. We all know someone who does it and it's not only illegal, it also gives hikers a bad name. Plan a trip someplace where dogs are welcome.
People need backpacks that fit properly and this is no different for your pup! While there are several commercial brands out there - Ruffwear, Mountain Smith, there are also some customizable dog packs available as well. Groundbird Gear makes many types of customizable packs for dogs as well. Knowing the proper sizing is key to making sure your dog stays happy and doesn't carry to much weight for his or her body on trail. Not only should you consider a backpack for your dog, you should also consider sleeping conditions. Will your dog be more comfortable on a sleeping pad or wrapped up in a sleeping bag for cooler nights? Does your dog have sensitive feet and will he need to wear boots? Where you're going may also have leash requirements. Even if your dog is well-trained off leash you may be required to keep him or her on a leash of a certain length the whole time you're hiking. Again, requirements are in place for a REASON! Don't be that guy and claim your dog is well-trained and the rules don't apply to you.
Mileage and Training
Just like people, dogs need to build up their mileage gradually as well! While dogs are commonly thought of to be strong runners and able to carry on for long distances, that doesn't always tend to be the case. If you're taking your first backpacking trip with your furry friend, it's a great idea to treat it like you're taking out a complete beginner. Try to limit hikes to the 5-8 mile range per day for your first trip out. If you're a super awesome pet parent, you should train your dog for hiking much like the way you began training to do longer hikes - and if you need some ideas for training, see my post about training for a long-distance hike here! Since my dog, Gracie, is getting older and can't quite do the mileage she used to anymore, we spend a week or so leading up to the hike by practicing with her backpack and gradually add a little weight to it to reintroduce her to backpacking.
The Happiness Factor
Does your dog actually like hiking? Sure, most dogs love taking walks and might even enjoy an hour or two out on the trails during the day, but how does your dog sleep at night in the woods? If you're planning to keep your dog in your tent with you at night do you know how he or she sleeps in one? Is your dog hypersensitive to sounds at night? Is he a natural guardian and feel the need to protect you all night? If your dog is suffering from lack of sleep at night it can hinder their performance during the day, just like a person! This is why I recommend short mileage days and limited nights in the woods when training with your dog. Chances are you're an amazing pet parent and your dog loves you and would do anything to make you happy - including packing up and taking a hike of any distance for you. If your dog isn't cut out for longer mileage days they may not eat well or sleep well in the woods but will hike as many miles as you ask of him. Watching for change in mood or normal behavior is incredibly important for backpacking with a dog! Dogs cannot speak to us. They can't tell us when they're hurting or when they don't feel well and it is up to us to determine if they're suffering.
The decision to take a long hiking trip with a dog is an incredibly personal one. While I love my dog and know she loves to go hiking, I know that backpacking long distances day after day is definitely not for her and that is okay. I was broken hearted missing her during all my thru hikes, but in the end I know leaving her at home was for the best - best for her health and well-being! While I have seen many people backpacking or even thru hiking with dogs, at some point your dog's body will begin to break down just like yours will. It is so critically important to be in tune with how your pup is feeling to ensure they're still happy and having fun.
Do you take your dog backpacking or trail running? Are you someone who once backpacked with a dog but maybe can no longer take your four-legged friend with you? I'd love to hear how you feel about it! Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!