How to Bring Your Dog on a Hike

A hiker with her dog at Mount Galbraith Park in Golden, Colorado
A hiker with her dog at Mount Galbraith Park in Golden, Colorado. Seth McConnell / The Denver Post via Getty Images
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There’s no better hiking companion than your favorite furry sidekick! Taking your dog into nature for a hike is not only a great bonding experience, but also keeps them physically active and provides important mental stimulation. Just like us, it’s important for our canine pals to get outdoors!

However, hiking with a dog does require some planning and adherence to trail rules. Here’s how to get outside safely with your pup. 

Research Regulations and Conditions

Before you head out, make sure your dog is allowed to join you on the trail. Trail regulations vary, and while many state and local parks are dog-friendly, some conservation lands or areas engaging in environmental preservation prohibit pets. Some National Parks, like Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, don’t allow dogs on any trails within park bounds. If you’re planning a trip to a National Park, check the National Parks Service’s pet map to find which parks allow pets. Keep in mind that some parks allow dogs in campgrounds or parking areas, but not on trails — so, while there is not an all-out ban on dogs, they might not be allowed to accompany you on a hike. Where they are permitted, it’s almost certain that they’ll be required to wear a leash.

It’s also a good idea to check out the conditions on the trail beforehand. Read up on the terrain and make sure it’s suitable for your dog’s abilities, as well as your own. If there are lots of man-made ladders or narrow ridges, it might not be ideal for pets. Apps like AllTrails allow users to share the terrain and current conditions of the trail, like slippery rocks and mud from recent rain or wildlife sightings. If the trail is run by an organization, their website might also list conditions and hazards. 

Leash Up

Virtually all National Parks and many other natural areas require that dogs be leashed in order to prevent damage to surrounding ecosystems, interaction with wildlife, or harm to your dog, especially if there are cliffs or dangerous sections of the trail. Not all trails specify that dogs must be leashed, but keeping them close helps ensure that they don’t get lost, ingest something poisonous, or interact with other hikers. Remember, your dog might be friendly, but not all other dogs are. An unleashed dog approaching another on the trail could be dangerous to all pets involved. 

Short leashes are the best bet in natural areas. A leash longer than six feet might get stuck in branches along the edge of the trail, or allow the dog to stray into protected areas. Make sure their collar also has a tag with their name and a contact number in case they get lost. 

Practice Trail Etiquette

Not all others on the trail — especially young children — are comfortable around dogs, so make sure to pull over and let others hike by. In general, it’s good trail etiquette to move aside for bikers, horses, and hikers climbing up while you’re climbing down. 

Make sure you’re able to keep your dog calm if other people, dogs, or horses come by. They should be able to stay close and follow commands. If they tend to get overly excited or aggressive, then well-trafficked trails might not be a good idea. Additionally, let oncoming hikers know that your dog is friendly and will not harm them. 

Keep at least a 1:1 ratio of pets to people — so, if only two of you are hiking, don’t bring more than two dogs. That way you can keep your pup safe and prevent interaction with others on the trial. 

Assess Their Physical Needs

Make sure your dog is physically ready for a hike before heading out. Remember, even if they do well on walks, hiking is much more strenuous and will be more challenging for them. Bones in younger dogs might not even be fully developed for the first year or so. Consult with a veterinarian about their physical preparedness, as well as their vaccine schedule. Assess where they are in building immunity to illness, and whether they’re ready for an adventure into the wild. 

As their caretaker, you know their physical fitness best! Honestly assess their abilities beforehand: Are they able-bodied and fit? Do they do well on long walks with strenuous activity? Brachycephalic breeds like boxers, Boston terriers, and pugs sometimes have difficulty with heat and have lower endurance, but all dogs have unique needs and capabilities. 

If they aren’t prepared to hit the trails just yet, start a trail-training regime. Begin with shorter hikes (under an hour), and if your dog still has energy and enjoyed the hike, make the next one a little longer with some more elevation gain. Nature walks in nearby local parks are a great way to get started. This will help toughen up their paws gradually too before getting on rockier trails. It’s also a good idea to incorporate some longer walks and active playtime into their routine to build endurance. Additionally, if you’re taking a backpacking trip or camping, practice sleeping in the tent in a yard or nearby campsite before heading out into the backcountry to make sure they’re comfortable with it. 

Consider the weather too — if they don’t handle heat or cold well, consider going out on another day.

Prepare for Wildlife 

Another point for the leash: keeping your dog safe from plants and animals that can cause harm. 

Plants like nettles, poison ivy, sumac, hemlock, some types of mushrooms, and poison oak should all be avoided (dogs don’t often get a rash from poison ivy or oak, but remember their coat can pick up the oils and easily transfer it to you). Foxtail is especially dangerous, and is often found in grassy areas. Their prickly seed pods can easily get stuck to fur and sensitive areas, and can be fatal if they reach vital organs. After your hike, check your pup for burs and ticks, and remove immediately. 

Consult with a veterinarian about the best course of action for snake bites and other safety issues that might arise, but keeping them close will prevent a lot of unwanted interaction with dangerous plants and animals. 

First Aid Preparation

While packing your first aid kit, make sure to throw in a few dog necessities too. A basic kit for your pup should include tweezers to remove ticks and burrs, bandages and gauze, liquid bandages for paw-pad cuts, pet-friendly antiseptic and antibiotic ointment, an antihistamine in case of snake bites, and Tecnu for poison ivy. The list should be more extensive for multi-day backpacking trips, and include styptic powder to stop bleeding and calamine lotion for itchy bug bites. In case of a foot injury, bring a few old wool socks and tape to create an emergency boot.

Additionally, make sure to monitor your dog throughout the day for heat stroke and overexertion. Listen to their breathing to make sure they aren’t overextending themselves, and if you notice them heading towards shady areas to rest, they’re probably hot and need a break. Instant ice packs or wet rags can help if they’re overheating. Press against the jugular vein in the neck or the femoral artery along the inner thigh to help them cool down. 

Food and Water

We all know the best part of the hike is a summit snack, so make sure to pack a dog-friendly one too! Like us, pets need more calories as they exert more energy. Before a hike, make sure they get food with high protein and fat levels to keep them satiated, and bring extra food for the hike. Generally, plan to bring an extra cup of dry food per 20 pounds of their weight for every meal (so, if you have a 40 pound dog and will be eating two meals on the trail, bring two extra cups of food for lunch and two extra for dinner). For backpacking trips, bring dehydrated, high-protein food that you can rehydrate along with yours. 

Don’t forget water! Larger dogs typically drink 0.5-1 ounce of water per pound every day, and small dogs (less than 20 pounds) need about 1.5 per pound. On a hike, they’ll need even more. Bring a collapsible dish to pour water into, or they can lap as you pour it, although be careful about wasting water if you only have a finite amount. A dry nose means a thirsty dog, so check up on them frequently! 

While those alpine lakes and streams look fresh and clean, they might harbor pathogens like coccidia, giardia, leptospirosis. Try to keep your dog from drinking directly from natural water sources. If you’re backpacking and relying on filtration systems, you’ll need to filter water for them as well. 

Consider Their Gear 

Not only are doggie booties adorable, but they help protect sensitive feet from sharp rocks and snow (however, bring a couple of extras just in case they get lost). Their bare feet will toughen up over time, so you can forgo boots during the warmer season if they’re ready. Bring a jacket if it’s cold (remember, it’s even colder on the mountaintop), and an extra towel for backpacking trips to wipe off their feet before getting in the tent. 

Dog packs are helpful for packing waste in and out of the park, or carrying snacks and water for your pup, especially if you have a heavy pack yourself or are carrying children. Start by having your pooch wear the empty pack around the house, then on walks, then add some weight to it, evenly distributed on each side. Make sure it’s never heavier than 25% of their body weight (or even less, if they’re older or less able-bodied). Many packs also have a handle so you can help them over steep or dangerous sections of the trail. 

If you’re camping, you’ll also need to think about your sleep system. Bring a tent that fits an extra person, and have a small foam mat and blanket ready for your dog. 

Leave No Trace

LNT: the mantra of the trail! 

Just like humans, dog waste needs to be dealt with property. Their poop is very destructive to native fauna. Many animals also communicate with scent, so unfamiliar and foreign scents can be harmful to them and mess with their territorial claims. For day hikes, bring poop bags to pack your waste out — and no, compostable bags cannot be buried in nature. Packing out is also the only option for alpine areas without soil, so bring bags no matter what. 

On backpacking trips, you can’t always pack out waste. Follow the same LNT rules for your dog as you do for yourself: bury waste in a hole at least six inches deep, and at least 200 feet from the trail, campsite, and especially water sources. A good trowel comes in handy! 

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