Safety Tips for Hiking Backcountry Trails with Your Dog

Published: 02/23/2021
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 taking a wrong turn and getting lost to battling extreme weather conditions or 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.

Do your research

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:

  • Which trails will you tackle?
  • How far will you be hiking?
  • Are dogs allowed in all of the areas you plan on hiking through?
  • Are they allowed off-leash or will you need to keep your pup on the leash?

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.

Pack the essentials

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)

  • Insect repellent

  • 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 (these can stop your dog chewing something they shouldn’t or keep them distracted while you need to do an important task, such as light a campfire)

  • Doggy hiking booties

  • 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.

Check with your vet

If you’re thinking of tackling a strenuous backcountry hike with your dog, get them checked out by your vet first. Your vet will be able to check 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 talents. 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.

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.

Know your dog’s limits

Before setting out, it’s crucial that you know exactly what your dog is physically capable of. This will not only determine the trail and distance 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 pooch is ready to head out on an extended adventure.

Make sure someone knows where you’re going

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.

Stick to the trail

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 the 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. 

Check for ticks

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.

Provide plenty of water

OK, this one is a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s quite simply essential so we’ve included it here anyway. Both you and your pooch need plenty of fresh water when exercising, so make sure you make plenty of drink stops to help your dog stay hydrated.

Know when your dog needs to stop

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.

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?