Dog hiking with a backpack on

Hiking with dogs

As a dog owner, you know that your four-legged furball is the best walking buddy out there. If you plan to take your dog hiking, it’s important to watch out for your dog’s health and wellbeing – and to consider the other hikers, bikers and animals you share the trail with.

Here are some things you should ask yourself before you and your trusty sidekick set off:

  1. Is your dog physically prepared for a hike? Think about age, breed and fitness level.
  2. Do you have everything you’ll need? Things you never thought twice about in the city could be a deal breaker on the trail.
  3. Is your dog trained for the outdoors? From hiking etiquette to sleeping in tents, you need to know the basics.
  4. Can you keep your canine companion safe? Ensure your dog – and the environment – stays happy and healthy.

1. Physical fitness

First things first: what kind of dog do you have? Dogs were originally migratory pack animals, and are built to walk alongside their masters for long stretches. That said, more strenuous hikes are best suited to breeds and mixed breeds weighing over 18kg (40lb.).

Small breeds can make awesome hiking companions, but you should keep in mind that each step for you might be three steps for them. And chances are they’ll need more help with steep climbs, drops and other obstacles.

Hiking for older dogs and puppies

Age is an even bigger concern. Although breeds age differently, it’s a safe bet that dogs over 10 years of age are senior citizens. Complications such as arthritis, diminished senses or hip dysplasia (which leads to doggie arthritis) can slow down an older dog. Be realistic about what your dog can and cannot do, and if you have any reservations, ask your vet for advice.

With puppies, you have to patient. They need time for their bones to develop (at least one year) before attempting any serious hiking; steep slopes and bumpy ground aren’t good for their still-growing joints. Little ones also have to build their immune systems and get their vaccinations. Don’t go out on the trail if the vet hasn’t given you the green light.

2. Things you’ll need

If you’re heading out for a hike, bring the 10 essentials for hiking and get set with some pre-hike planning. Along with the basics for yourself, you’ll want to bring some basics for your dog, too:

Food and water

Don’t leave the house without plenty of nutritious dog treats (the more protein the better) and make sure you bring enough water. Dogs need to stay hydrated too, so fill a large water bottle (or two), and carry a lightweight collapsible bowl.

Some experts suggest offering water to your dog every 15 minutes, while others say that half-hour intervals are fine. A good guideline? If you’re thirsty, your dog is probably thirsty too. Some other things to keep an eye out for are dry noses, sunken eyes, rapid panting and an increased heart rate – all signs that a drink is long overdue.

Dog backpacks

With a good dog backpack, you can offload some supplies onto your partner. Here are some rules of thumb to remember when picking one:

  • Once all the straps are fastened, the backpack should be snug – not loose enough to chafe, but not so tight that your dog can’t breathe normally. You should be able to slide two fingers underneath.
  • Dog backpacks are designed like saddlebags, and should be loaded so that both sides weigh the same.
  • At the most, dogs can carry 25% of their total body weight, though this depends on the factors we talked about before – breed, age and fitness. Start light and slowly work your way up to a desired weight on shorter walks, so your dog gets used to wearing a backpack before a big hike.
  • Dog backpacks double as harnesses. Look for one with a handle, just in case you and your buddy have to cross a stream or clear an obstacle.
  • On rugged terrain, through tangled brush or across rocky creek beds, consider removing your dog’s backpack to reduce the risk of injury. Better yet, know in advance what kind of trail you’re facing, and leave the pack at home that day.

Other dog gear to pack

Of course, you’ll need to bring poop bags. An LED light for your dog’s collar is also a smart idea (plus a good old-fashioned headlamp for you) in case your hike takes longer than you thought and it starts to get dark.

If you’re planning an overnight hike, your dog can help by carrying their own food. Hiking takes a lot of energy, so bring enough kibble to provide normal daily portions, along with 30% extra, then feed your dog smaller meals more often.

Add items like vet wrap and tweezers to your first aid kit in case of an unexpected paw injury. If things are more serious, a clean wool sock and some duct tape will be a useful bandage until you can hike back to the car. Some people buy dog booties to protect their pets’ paws, but remember that dogs regulate body temperature by sweating through their pads and panting. Never cover their feet if it could increase the risk of overheating.

Tip: Vets are your friend – no matter what your dog may think of them. Whenever you’re not sure about something, always seek expert advice with a short visit or phone call to the dog doctor.

3. Trail etiquette for dogs

Do your research to find out if the hiking trail is canine-friendly before you arrive at the trailhead. Some areas don’t allow dogs (even if they’re on a leash) if it’s an ecologically sensitive area, to protect wildlife, or if it’s a busy trail.

For dog-friendly trails, check to see if leashes are required. If so, always leash up. And if dogs are allowed off-leash? It’s fun to have your hands free, but keep your dog on-leash if obedience isn’t a strong suit.

Is there a chance of cyclists or horses on this route? If you come across them, always yield right of way, and avoid those trails if you suspect your dog may have issues with horses or bikes.

Be a good dog owner on the trail:

  • Practice your dog’s commands on a regular basis and reward the right behaviours with tasty snacks.
  • Dogs are perceptive – smile and greet other hikers as they approach, so your dog understands there’s no need to get scared or agitated.
  • Always pick up after your dog and pack it out of the park with you. If you’re on a multi-day hike or far from garbage bins and packing it out isn’t possible, practice Leave No Trace poop principles: walk 70 paces away from any paths, campsites and water sources, bury the pet waste in a hole at least 15cm (6in.) deep and disguise the spot when you’re finished. You don’t have to be too strict when your dog wants to pee, but you should avoid letting it happen near water sources.

Tips for camping with your dog:

  • Have some practice sleepovers in the backyard so that your dog knows (and likes!) bunking in a tent with you. For a comfortable portable dog bed, pack a closed-cell foam pad and an insulated blanket.
  • Trim your dog’s nails ahead of time – your tent floor will thank you.
  • Bring a dog brush and camp towel to help your little buddy clean off before you call it a night.

“When you’re exploring with your dog, help everyone enjoy the outdoors by respecting wildlife. Keep your dog close to you or on a leash and don’t let them chase or harass animals.” Taryn E., MEC Staffer and Leave No Trace Trainer

4. Staying safe

Here are some things you should watch out for:

  • Don’t let your dog drink stagnant water; standing water may have microorganisms such as giardia and amoebas.
  • Never let your dog chew on plants. Not only is it damaging, but many common shrubs contain natural poisons that can wreak havoc on a canine stomach.
  • Leash your dog anytime you suspect a wild animal might be close by. Not only could a bear, coyote or cougar spell bad news for your pet, but wild animals prefer to be left in peace and dogs can cause them major distress.