By Tim Falk
Published: 02/23/2021, edited: 04/03/2023
There’s nothing quite like heading out into the wilderness with your dog. Beautiful surroundings, abundant peace and quiet, and exploring with your best friend by your side — what’s not to love!
But while backcountry hiking with your dog offers endless opportunities for adventure, it also comes with a certain level of risk. From getting lost and battling extreme weather conditions to coming face to face with deadly wildlife, there are plenty of dangers you need to be prepared to encounter.
That’s why we’ve put together these simple safety tips for hiking backcountry trails with your dog. With these tips in your backpack, you and your dog can stay out of harm’s way while out on the trails.
The first and perhaps the most important thing you should do before embarking on any backcountry hike is a lot of research. It all starts with deciding on where to go:
As well as route planning, the research phase is also the “pawfect” time to read up on any hazards you might encounter along the way. This could be anything from poisonous snakes to extreme heat, and it’ll help you work out what you need to pack for your adventure.
You should never head out into the backcountry unprepared, so it’s important to make a checklist of all the essential items you’ll need to take with you. Some of the items to consider include:
A first aid kit (including supplies to treat common pet injuries)
Food and water
A collapsible bowl
A leash (you may want to consider a hands-free leash to make hiking easier)
A dog backpack (if you want your pooch to carry their own gear)
Dog poo bags and a trowel (so you leave no trace)
A warm doggy jacket (if you’re heading out in cold weather) or a cooling vest (for hot-weather hikes)
Camping gear and a sleeping mat (if you’re planning on staying overnight)
A dog towel
A couple of toys to keep your dog occupied
Maps and GPS devices
Up-to-date doggy ID tags
There are several other items you may need depending on where you’re hiking, so research the trail you’re tackling so you can make sure that you’re fully prepared.
Is it safe to take dogs backpacking? In most cases, the answer is yes — but you'll need to check with your veterinarian first. Your vet will be able to examine your dog and hopefully give them a clean bill of health to hit the trails.
Of course, there are several health issues that could potentially restrict your dog’s hiking ability. For example, older dogs with arthritis will often have limited mobility, while brachycephalic breeds are also much more prone to suffering from breathing problems and heatstroke.
Be sure to get your vet’s OK before hitting the trails with your pooch, plus check that they’re up to date with all the vaccinations they need. Your vet can also offer advice on protecting your pooch against ticks and other parasites on your adventure, plus other helpful tips for backpacking with your dog.
Finally, be sure to make a note of the nearest emergency vet contact where you’re going, just in case something goes wrong out on the trail.
Before setting out, it’s crucial that you know exactly what your dog is physically capable of. This will not only determine the trails and distances you want to hike, but also help you recognize when your pup is nearing their limits.
Rather than just expecting your dog to tackle a huge backcountry hike without any preparation, start by completing some smaller treks first. Gradually increase the distance and difficulty of the terrain you hike each time until your poch is ready to head out on an extended adventure.
Find out more about how to get started in our guide to getting your city dog to enjoy hiking.
You should never just head off into the great unknown without letting anyone know where you’re going. From friends and family to park rangers or local trail authorities, inform whoever needs to know of your hiking route and when you plan to arrive at your destination. That way, it’ll be easier for rescuers to find you if something goes dreadfully wrong.
Of course, remember to let them know when you get back safely so they don’t send out a search party unnecessarily.
When you’re out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no one else around, it can be tempting to just follow your nose and try to create your own route. But there are plenty of good reasons why you should stay on the trail.
The most obvious one is that leaving the trail is a good way to get lost, which is the last thing you want to be doing when you’re miles from anywhere. You’re also more likely to run into potentially dangerous wildlife or plant life (poison ivy, anyone?) when you venture off the trail, and you’ll be disturbing the habitat of many native species. The whole idea of backcountry hiking is to leave no trace, which is why you and your dog should always stick to the trail, regardless of whether your pup is on or off their leash.
It’s also worth mentioning that even if dogs are allowed off-leash, it may simply not be safe to let your dog run free. There’s a risk that some breeds, especially sight and scent hounds, could run off and completely ignore your commands if they come across their prey. So if you are planning on letting your dog off-leash, make sure they know to come when called and can stay under voice control at all times.
From the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast, ticks can be a problem in many areas of the country. So at the end of a day on the trail, don’t forget to check your pet for any of these nasty little parasites. It’s relatively quick and easy to do, so be sure to make a tick check part of your daily routine.
OK, this one is a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s simply essential so we’ve included it here anyway. Both you and your pooch need lots of fresh water when exercising, so make sure they stay hydrated. Pack plenty of water and take regular drink stops to help your dog stay at their best.
Finally, keep a close eye on your dog throughout the hike to check how they’re going. Dogs can be quite adept at hiding the fact that they’re not feeling their best, so you’ll need to monitor them carefully.
How long is too long for a dog to hike? How much exercise do dogs need? The answer varies from one dog to the next, so it's important that you recognize your dog's limits. Look for any signs your dog may be struggling with the pace or distance, such as dropping their pace, panting excessively, limping, or even lying down. If you think your dog needs a rest, stop and give them plenty of time to recover, only moving on again when you’re certain they’re ready.
After all, backcountry hiking is meant to be a relaxing and invigorating adventure with your dog, not a race, so why not stop and smell the roses every once in a while?
Before you go backcountry hiking with your dog, compare pet health insurance plans to keep your fur-child in the best “pawssible” shape for all your outdoor adventures!
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