Man backpacking with dogs in the forest

Backpacking with Dogs: A Practical Guide

Hiking and backpacking with dogs can add a whole new dimension to your time in the wilderness. Dogs have such a wonderful knack of being endlessly positive and energetic, and their presence when you’re tackling a tough section of trail can be a real boost to your morale. Taking your dog backpacking is also a great option if you love camping but know that camping with your dog on a regular campsite just won’t work for your puppy. Some dogs totally relish the challenge of getting back to their wild roots and running riot for days on end in the middle of nowhere, but not all dogs will take to it so kindly.

Is your dog suitable for backpacking?

So before you go setting off on a 10 day trek with your darling Dachshund, it’s important to be realistic about your dog.

What type of dog do you have?

Some dogs are simply not suited to hiking. Consider British Bulldogs, Pugs and Chihuahuas – they might manage a hour or so around the park at their own pace, but from a physiological point of view they just won’t be able to deal with anything more than that. Some of the best breeds of dogs for hiking and backpacking include Border Collies, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. Ideally if you want to get out backpacking with dogs, they should be:

  • Strong
  • Energetic
  • Obedient
  • Easily trainable
  • Agile
  • Non-aggressive

How old is your dog?

If he’s less than a year old then just stick with short day hikes that don’t put any unnecessary stress on his developing bones and joints. Equally, if he’s getting on a bit, then don’t push the miles. If he’s getting tired more quickly than usual then it may just be that he’s ready for something shorter and more chilled out!

Will your dog run off if he catches the scent of a wild animal?

If so, then you need to be sure that he’ll return on your whistle or command. Otherwise you’ll need to keep him on a leash the whole time.

Is your dog OK on a leash?

Although it would be nice for him to roam free for the duration of your time in the wild, there will be times when it is essential for him be leashed. If your dog isn’t so great with a leash then he’ll need some training to get him accustomed to it.

The benefits of backpacking with dogs

If you’re confident that Fido is the backpacking dog of your dreams, then you’re in for a wonderful time out in the wild, with loads of benefits to having a canine companion at your side.

1Good company

Whether you’re hiking solo or in a group, having your dog with you can be the perfect way to keep you distracted when the going gets tough. And someone to moan at who won’t complain back at you!


If you enjoy the solitude of hiking solo but want to feel a little more secure out on your own, then having your best friend at your side will bring you a load of confidence to get out there and explore more. If you have a well trained dog then he also may be your lifeline if something were to go awry.

3They keep you warm at night

If you’re camping in chilly conditions, then your hairy hound will want some warmth from you as much as you will from him. So embrace the dog breath and enjoy the extra cosiness that comes with it.

4They are always entertaining

There’s a reason why so many humans seek the companionship of dogs – they’re just so funny! And having an extra source of entertainment for days out on the trail is always welcome.

Hikers with a dog with a sea view

The downsides of backpacking with dogs

But there are also a few negatives to taking your dog backpacking. No matter how much you love your puppy pal, there are times when having him around doesn’t always make sense.

1You have to carry extra stuff

Some dogs will be able to carry their own food and water in a doggie backpack, but others aren’t strong enough to do this, or they simply don’t like it. So either you have to carry an extra heavy pack, or forego taking those few extra layers you need for yourself. Neither option is ideal.

2You can’t ask them their opinion on things!

When big decisions need to be made when out in the wild, like should I eat this berry, or should we go North or South, your dog won’t be able to give you his opinion. If you’ve managed to train your dog on these essential communication skills then please tell us how!

3You can’t hike everywhere with your pup

Some trails restrict access to dogs during certain times of the year due to breeding or nesting wildlife etc. And many national parks don’t allow dogs in at all. But there are plenty of dog friendly backpacking trails, so just make sure you check before you go to avoid disappointment.

Training your dog for backpacking

Just like us humans, our doggie friends need to build up to long distance hiking trips, especially if they are not used to them. And it’s not just their fitness and endurance that they’ll need to work on:

  • Their paw pads will need to toughen up to deal with the rough terrain that you will tackle along the way.
  • You may encounter river crossings when backpacking, so your pup will need to be comfortable in cold water and not scared or put off by running water.
  • For long distance trips, your dog will need to carry his own food and water, so it’s important that you slowly acclimatise him to wearing a dog pack and carrying weight in it.

So start off hiking with puppy on some short day hikes. Over the course of a few weeks, start to increase the difficulty of the hike, and then the distance. Once you’re happy with their progress, start doing overnight trips, which will also be good to get your pooch into the habit of keeping you warm at night!

Woman hiking with a dog in the mountains

Does your dog need a leash for backpacking?

The use of leashes when backpacking with dogs is always a tricky subject. Some people keep their dogs leashed the whole time, whilst others wouldn’t dream of it and let their hound run wild and free. Before you go dismissing one method or the other it’s worth considering the following and using your best judgement as to how much you use a leash.

Are dog leashes required on the trail you are hiking?

Some trails enforce the use of leashes for various reasons. It may be that the trail is popular with families with children, who may feel threatened by an unleashed dog. Or the rule might be in place to protect unleashed dogs from running into dangerous wildlife or high risk terrain.

Does your dog bound up to people and children to say hi?

No matter how playful and friendly the intentions of your dog may be, it can be really terrifying for small children to have a dog in their face, uninvited. Some people are totally fine with this but some are not, and you just never know.

How does your dog behave around other dogs?

Even if your pup is the perfect angel, you never know how other dogs will react to him, especially if one dog is leashed and the other isn’t. Will your dog just back away if things get aggressive, or will he fight back?

Does your dog stay at your side the whole time?

Some dogs have zero interest in other dogs or other people and are totally happy trotting as close to you as possible. If this is the case, then they will probably be just fine without a leash. But having one at the ready, just in case, is always advisable.

Dog wearing a backpacking dog pack

Dog backpacking gear

Once you’ve got the endurance levels of your pup up to a good level and you’re both ready for a multi-day backpacking trip, all that you need to do is make sure you have the right dog backpacking gear.

The best leash for hiking with your dog

The type of leash you use for hiking and backpacking with dogs largely depends on your preference, and what works best for your dog. There are a few types to choose from:

  • Extendable dog leash for backpacking

    Extendable leash

    These are great to give your pup a little bit of freedom whilst being on the leash. But they are not as strong as rope leashes and are cumbersome to carry when not in use.

  • Running dog leash

    Hands free leash

    Connecting a leash to a waist harness is ideal for hiking. Choose one with clips at both ends and you can connect it to your backpack waist belt instead of a separate belt.

  • Rope leash for backpacking with dogs

    Rope leash

    Rope leashes are really robust for the rough and tumble of the backcountry, and good to keep your dog close to you and in total control.

  • Shock absorber dog leash for backpacking

    Shock absorber leash

    Having a little give in a leash is good for dogs who tend to pull without much notice. It will be less of an impact on them as well as your shoulder socket!

Dog pack

As mentioned, carrying food and water for your hound on top of all your own gear is less than ideal. And if at all possible, you’ll need to get Fido to pull his weight too. Most dogs should be able to carry up to 25% of their own body weight. But this very much depends on the dog, so it is worth consulting your vet if you are unsure. A good dog pack for backpacking should:

  • Fit snugly, but not tightly
  • Have good padding for comfort when carrying a load
  • Have easy access pockets and compartments
  • Distribute weight evenly on both sides of the pack
  • Have a handle on top to lift or hold your dog easily
  • Have a clip to attach a leash
  • Ideally be waterproof, especially in rainy or snowy conditions
  • Ideally have some reflectors for hiking in low light or when visibility is limited
  • Ruffwear dog pack for backpacking

    Ruffwear dog pack

    Ruffwear are renowned for their excellent quality and well designed dog packs and backpacking gear for dogs. It is always worth trying a couple of dog packs if possible, but this Approach Full-day Hiking Pack is available in 5 different sizes to suit your pup. It is designed for long day hikes in the backcountry, but will also hold enough for short multi-day backpacking trips.

Dog hiking boots

If you are hiking in cold weather, or your pup’s paws are susceptible to cuts and grazes, doggie booties will really help to keep him going for longer. He’ll probably hate them to start with, so make sure you trial them on short trips first. It may be that you just take the booties with you to use as and when they are needed – that extra bit of protection at the end of a long day will be a big relief for your pooch’s paw pads.

First aid for your dog

Having some basic knowledge of doggie first aid is a must if you plan on heading out into the backcountry. Their natural curiosity and endless stoke for fresh things to smell and new places to explore can lead them into some pickles that their doggie brains aren’t able to anticipate. Make sure you pack a dog specific first aid kit, but the best course of action is to try and prevent things from going awry in the first place.

Keeping control of your dog will help prevent potential mishaps like running into dangerous wildlife or having confrontations with other dogs.

Check for ticks at the end of every day. To minimise the chances of the tick transmitting diseases to your dog, they need to be removed within 24 hours of them latching onto your pup. Tick keys make extracting them really quick and easy.

Make sure your dog drinks plenty of water. It’s really easy to miss the signs of dehydration as they will most likely be panting the whole time anyway. So get into the habit of giving your dog water whenever you have water. If you are hiking a long way then it’s essential that the hike you choose has plenty of running water that you can filter, as carrying enough for both of your will be far too heavy.

It’s important to know when to stop. Over time you will learn to read the signs that your dog is giving you to tell you that he needs a break. But if you’re not sure then keep an eye out for the following:

  • Slowed pace
  • Lying down
  • Tail down or tucked under
  • Licking of paws

Some dogs just don’t know when to stop and will keep going forever, regardless of how shattered they are. This might be OK for a day hike as they can chill out the day after. But on multi-day trips you need to help your dog pace himself.

Taking your dog hiking and backpacking is such a great way to let your dog just be a dog. And so long as you are prepared and use the trail with respect, then everyone else will love your darling doggie being there as much as he will.

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