Jun 24, 2022
Dogs can be excellent company in the outdoors. Exploring the wilderness with a furry friend can be an incredibly fun and bonding experience, but only if you plan ahead. If you don’t, bringing your dog could be a dangerous mistake, one that ends abruptly, unpleasantly, or even tragically.
Below, you’ll find everything you need to know to adventure safely and optimize the fun for both you and your pet.
First, it’s important to recognize that not all dogs are capable of hiking. Since your dog will do her best to keep up with you, possibly at the risk of her own health or safety, it’s up to you to be realistic about what you’re asking your pet to do.
Michelle Richardson, a vet in Helena, Montana, advises waiting until your puppy has received all her shots (about five months) before taking her on the trail, and keeping hikes shorter than one hour to start. DHPP, a combo vaccination administered serially, will be required, as is a rabies shot which is given at 4 months. You can also elect to get the Leptospirosis vaccination, which will protect her from pathogens found in wildlife urine.
The only way to avoid waterborne pathogens is to prevent dogs from drinking stream water, and the only way to treat them is with prescription meds from a vet (done in-house). Offer your dog clean, filtered water often so she’s not searching for other sources.
Once you’ve determined that your dog is indeed capable of hiking, the first thing to consider is location. Many trails and campsites require leashes or don’t welcome dogs at all, so you’ll need to do your research ahead of time. Most national parks don’t allow dogs, and if they do, they require leashes at all times and sometimes require that you keep your dog on paved trails. Take some time to get to know the rules and regulations of that specific trail or campsite, and familiarize yourself with the wildlife (and possible dangers and hazards) to watch out for.
Look for places that are “easy on the paws,” advises Craig Romano, author of Best Hikes with Dogs Inland Northwest. Pick shady trails with soft, leaf- or needle-covered terrain; avoid paths littered with sharp rocks, off-trail routes with steep drops, and any surface that gets very hot. “Stay away from areas with heavy horse use and mountain bikes,” he adds, since they increase the risk of injury.
In order to get your dog mentally and physically prepared for the trip, you’ll want to do the following:
Build up to longer trips with a series of shorter hikes. Start small, with easy or short walks, and work your way up from there. Begin on a relatively flat and smooth surface, monitoring your dog’s response. If she still has energy after an hour or so, increase the next hike’s difficulty and add distance, slowly building up stamina and strength.
The small practice hikes are also your opportunity to toughen up your dog’s paws or get her used to wearing those snazzy hiking booties you bought for her. A paw salve might help to condition her feet for longer treks. If she’ll be sleeping in a tent, be sure to trim her nails pretrip to prevent rips in the tent floor.
It’s your job to keep your pet with you and under control at all times, both on- and off-leash. Even if you think you’re alone on the trail, your dog should always be within sight and close enough to hear your commands. No matter how well-trained she usually is, the excitement of the new setting is likely to require a refresher course in obedience. On practice hikes, make sure she remembers how to listen, sit, stay, heel, and come. Consider recall training with a whistle that can be heard 400 yards away.
Even the most well-behaved dog will need to learn some new tricks for the trail. See the section on proper trail etiquette below, and read “How to Train Your Dog For the Trail.”Ryan Somma
Leave no trace: Dogs are not wild animals, so their poop is not “natural” to the environment and must be removed.
Although a bear can poop in the woods, your dog definitely shouldn’t. Dog poop is extremely disruptive to native fauna. Many wild animals communicate via scent (fecal, too), and dog poop can interrupt territorial claims and cause distress. So if you care about the nature you’re walking through, you’ll avoid this disruption.
The old rule ‘pack it in, pack it out’ also applies to dog poop. Don’t forget to bring bags to collect it all and carry it out. If you’ll be hauling it long distances, bring extras for double-bagging to ensure against leakage. If you’ll be camping overnight or don’t want to carry it, bring a shovel to bury it at least 8” deep and at least 200 feet from walkways, camping sites, and water sources. If you bury it, don’t use a bag.