We asked our ambassador Devin Scannell to share her thoughts and tips on backpacking with dogs based on her experience frequently backpacking with Bella in the Rockies. Whether you’re just getting started or are a seasoned vet, you’re bound to learn a new trick!
Thinking about backpacking with your dog for the first time? What could be better: just you and your best friend, out under the stars, living in the moment, unplugged, with no signs of civilization. With some planning, preparation, and trail-smarts, you and your dog will have an unforgettable trip.
1. Check dog regulations for the area
If you are planning on backpacking in a state park, designated wilderness area, established trails, county open space, or National Park (there are a few that allow dogs!), basically anywhere there could be regulations, I recommend calling ahead to a ranger or park station to verify dog regulations. Nothing is worse than being ready for an adventure, only to realize that dogs aren’t welcome, or not realizing regulations and being ticketed by a ranger.
2. Pack for any possible weather
We frequently backpack in high elevations in the Rockies, with some of the fastest-changing and most intense weather conditions you can imagine. Wherever you are going, monitor the weather forecast, but also prepare for any known weather conditions that you could possibly encounter in the area. For example, at elevation in Colorado, we could easily face large hail, high winds, driving rain, snow, and any number of hypothermic conditions, even in the warmest months. Realize that your dog will need layers and protection from the elements just like you do. We suggest a warm layer, waterproof/windproof layer, and booties. Keep these items in a dry-sack in your dog’s pack.
3. Be prepared for emergencies
We are haunted by the story of Missy, a shepherd mix that was left behind on a 14,000′ peak in Colorado in the middle of a snowstorm because she had injured her paw, could no longer walk, and was too heavy to carry (Don’t worry, she was rescued by a group of hikers. Custody of Missy was given to a member of the rescue party.)
We always bring a bootie or two in case of paw injuries or unexpected trail conditions. Our favorite first aid supplies are vet wrap and Tefla pads, made for horses. Tefla pads are essentially the white, non-sticky part of a band-aid, only much larger. Vet wrap is great because it doesn’t stick to fur. We bring along a small roll of each, which can be cut to size for animals or humans. Vaseline or antibiotic ointment are also good to have for chaffing, burns, or abrasions.
If your dog’s nails are a little overgrown, trim them slightly before you go, to help your dog strike the ground correctly. If your dog hasn’t previously toughened his or her paws on rocks or gravel earlier in the season, booties are a must.
Make sure your dog is in shape to take the physical demands of the trail. Train with a few shorter day hikes before a big adventure. At altitude, take elevation into consideration: your dog needs to be acclimatized just like you. Read our guide to familiarize yourself with the signs of elevation sickness in dogs if this applies to the area you are backpacking in. If you suspect altitude sickness, head back right away.
4. Plan food and water
Bring more than you think you will need, and don’t forget the trip back home. Bring treats/trail food to supplement and add calories. Carefully study available water sources along the trail before you go. We suggest keeping a water bottle reserved just for your dog in his/her pack. That way, you can fill up at an untreated water source for your dog, save water purification tablets/filters for yourself, and not risk contaminating your own water with a dirty bottle.
Packing List/Gear Recommendations
- Backpack: you’ll have to decide if you need a large, multi-day pack or want to get a slightly smaller pack for more varied uses. Don’t overload: your dog should carry no more than 10%-12% of his or her weight. If in doubt, you might have to carry a few of your dog’s items the first day.
- Travel Bowl
- Water bottle/water bladder: so you don’t cross contaminate human water.
- Food: In plastic bag/large ziplock.
- Paracord: for hanging food. This is probably already on your own packing list.
- Treats/trail food: We like Zuke’s Power Bones, Natural Balance Glucosamine bites and freeze-dried, whole duck hearts.
- ID Tags
- Leash: We like a leash like Ruffwear’s Flat Out leash for securing your dog to trees, boulders, or other tether points.
- Booties: We use Ultra Paws, they stay on and have a good price point.
- Poop bags
- First aid kit (see “be prepared” above)
- Clip Light: such as Ruffwear’s Beacon Safety Light, which is waterproof.
- Dry Sack (optional): To keep your dog’s stuff dry in case of rain or an impromptu swim.
- Bear Bell (optional): We use this reflective model.
- Travel Bed (optional): insulates your dog from the ground, protects sleeping bags from digging/sharp claws. We’ve listed this as optional, but this is a really nice item to have.
- Pack towel (optional): Clean up wet dogs before cuddling in the tent for the night, keep your own sleeping bags dry.
- Bandana (optional): Soak in water to cool on hot days, spray a little bug spray on it as a bug deterrent.
On the trail
Wildlife can pose a serious threat to your dog. During times when bears are going into and coming out of hibernation, they are especially ravenous and active. We keep a bear bell on Bella in areas where bears and mountain lions are known to be active. To be honest, the bell can get pretty annoying on a long hike, but it’s better than dealing with your dog being injured in the wilderness. Know the hazards you might face specific to the area. For example, in Colorado, we wouldn’t expect a rattlesnake encounter at high elevation, but they are abundant in Fort Collins and the Poudre Canyon area. Porcupines are around as well. Be prepared and have a plan if your dog faces a wildlife-related injury. Realize that your dog’s food is the best meal a bear, skunk, raccoon, or squirrel could hope to get. Even in daylight hours, if you are exploring a little ways away from camp, it is a good idea to hang your dog’s food in a sapling to avoid undesirable wildlife encounters. If your dog is a wanderer, nighttime would be a good time to keep him or her on a leash. Keep in mind that many animals are more active at night, and your dog is more likely to get into trouble with wildlife. Bella usually stays pretty close at night, but we keep a light and bell on her collar so that if the light is obstructed in some way, we can still judge how far away she is by sound. Finally, do what you can to keep your dog from harassing wildlife. Remember, you are visitors in their house!
It’s not the most pleasant thing to deal with on the trail, but we treat dog waste as we would human waste when backpacking. Check regulations in your area, but generally speaking, if you are in a wilderness area, dig a cathole and bury waste at least 100′ away from trails/camp and at least 200′ from any water sources. On the trail or in more populated areas, pick it up in a baggy, double-bag it, maybe even triple bag in a sealing plastic bag, and pack it out in your dog’s pack.
Leave the trail just as nice, if not nicer, than it was when you’ve left it. Any trash, treat bags, etc… pack it out! We’ve probably all been guilty of a faux pas at some point in our lives of dog-ownership and accidentally left a baggy of dog waste along a trail. Pay it forward the next time you see someone who made the same mistake and pack out their bag for them. Dog waste is a big reason some areas end up being closed to dogs. Let’s keep the trail nice for everyone, whether they own a dog or not.
As a parting thought, I’d like to offer this friendly reminder to respect the power of Mother Nature. When in doubt, turn around and head back to safety, for the sake of you and your dog. When in the high peaks, we always keep in mind this quote by mountaineering legend Ed Viesturs:
“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
Remember, always engage in outdoor activities with your dog at your own risk.