Backpacking Doggy Style: Basics for Hiking with Dogs

As a backpacker, I spend a lot of time on backpacking message boards and, inevitably, someone will start complaining that dogs ruin the backcountry experience. On one site I frequent, the Anti Dog Policeman quickly flags each post which even remotely hints at hiking with a dog with his favorite letters: LNT=LDH, which translates into “Leave No Trace means Leave Dogs at Home.”

I think I speak for dog lovers everywhere when I tell this Web-savvy backpacker to shut up. Because what good is having a dog if you can’t bring him or her along for outdoor adventures?

As a country, we’re far behind our European cousins, where dogs are allowed are frequently allowed in restaurants, on public transit and in other places where they’d be greeted with “No Dogs Allowed” signs in the United States. In fact, we seem to take it to extremes in the opposite direction, banning dogs from where they seem to be a natural fit: national forests, hiking trails and beaches.

By now, you’ve probably guessed that I’m a dog owner, I’m biased, and I’m adamant about increasing recreational opportunities that dogs and their owners can enjoy together.

For starters, there’s the logistical convenience. It seems awkward to drop your dog off at a kennel when you’re going to be spending the next one to 21 nights in a tent – especially when upscale hotel chains, including the Ritz Carlton, offer separate room service menus for their four-legged guests. But beyond that, there’s something natural about a dog leading the way up a mountain trail or waking from a nap to stretch in the glow of the campfire.

Of course, I can understand the other side of the argument as well. I know that most hatred/intolerance stems from a bad experience with a dog, or, more accurately, a bad dog owner. That could range from the mildly annoying step into an uncollected dog deposit to the more dangerous encounter with an unleashed dog trying to run past you and your 60 pounds of backpacking gear as you move across a narrow ledge.

In other words, in their effort to minimize the amount of work they have to do, dog owners – the bad dog owners, that is – ignore the basic responsibilities they need to pay attention to keep their pet in line and off the nerves of others. And those bad owners give all dog owners – and dogs – a bad rap, which leads to more and more public areas putting restrictions or even bans on dogs in backcountry areas.

There are two basic groups to consider before you head out on the trail with your dog. You need to consider the safety and comfort of other backpackers you’ll meet along the way, as well as the safety and comfort of you and your pet.

Because I’m still a struggling writer who can’t afford to bring Cosmo to the Ritz on vacation, I offer the following suggestions as a plea to other dog owners to do their part in keeping enough backcountry areas open for both of us.

The Basics
Beyond making sure dogs are allowed where you’ll be hiking (and keep in mind some areas allow dogs in day use areas but not in overnight areas), you’ll need to follow other laws and rules as well.
If you have an athletic, mid-size dog there’s nothing better than seeing him or her run free and off-leash. And, fortunately, there are an increasing number of fenced-in, off leash dog parks popping up in major and not-so-major U.S. cities where your dog can run free and frolic with his peers.

The backcountry, however, is not one of these areas. And that brings up our first point:

Always use a leash. Period.

This is for your safety, your dog’s safety and the safety of others. Trails are constructed to avoid potential danger areas, but your dog follows scents, not trail-marking blazes painted on trees and rocks. That means he can get lost, hurt or worse if he heads off in the wrong direction. And if Rover does manage to stay on trail, no matter how friendly he is he’s bound to tick off other hikers he may catch up to.

I generally bring two leashes. A short, six foot leash to maximize my control of Cosmo on crowded trails and in tricky areas, and a 30-40 tie out, which is great for open fields as well as keeping him close to camp while still giving him plenty of room to stretch his legs when we stop for the night. In either case, a nylon leash with a loop handle works best and can be clipped into the belt of a backpack, allowing you to hike hands free.

Keeping a dog on a leash also makes it much easier to find his or her deposits, which is important, because the second point is:

Always, always, always clean up after your dog.

Which, quite frankly, sucks. When I walk my dog in the city, I’m rarely more than a block or so away from the nearest trash receptacle. When I’m in the backcountry, however, I could be several days away from a place to dump Cosmo’s dump. Still, carefully storing “it” in zip lock bags, and, of course, double-bagging the package, and – perhaps grossest of all – packing it out is a small price to pay if it allows me to bring my dog on a backpacking trip.

You’re opinion may differ, in which case you can opt to leave your dog at hope. But – I need to repeat this – you can never opt to leave your dog’s waste in the woods.

(As an aside, the small, pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer now sold in most drug stores are great for backcountry use, even if you won’t be picking up dog waste while you’re out there).

Health
Your trip will be ruined unless you protect your dog’s health.

That means not only should your dog be wearing a collar, but the collar should have a license, name tag and rabies vaccination tag (I usually put my cell phone number on Cosmo’s tag; if he’s lost and someone finds him, I want to know right away).

Dogs are like people in that they need to build up to longer hikes. If you’ve been backpacking for years, don’t expect your puppy to be ready for 20-mile days over the course of your week. Get to know your dog through long walks and short day hikes. A dog that can’t or won’t move when you’re 15 miles from the trailhead will really test his status as “man’s best friend” (not to mention your patience).

From a medical standpoint, protecting your dog’s health means making sure all of his vaccinations are up to date and that he or she get treated for fleas and ticks before you go.

Finally, one of my first chores when I arrive at camp each night is to bond with Cosmo by giving him a long massage. Not only does this relieve any soreness he may have picked up along the way, it helps me check for ticks and critters he may have picked up on the trail.

(Now if I could only train him to give me a massage at the end of a day in the woods…)

Cosmo’s first aid kit
As pet popularity increases, more and more pet stores are carrying first aid kits. I don’t use them for two main reasons: first, the mark-up on them is incredibly high and second, most are designed for home or car use and not the kind of things I want weighing down my or Cosmo’s pack as we head out for a night or more.

Instead, I add a few special items to my “people” first aid kit in a small, zip lock bag. Between these extra items, a small instruction card for administering medications to dogs, and the items in my own first aid kit, I feel Cosmo is well protected for most minor emergencies.

The extra medications I pack and the instructions I write on the card include:

  • Benadryl 1-2mg per pound, every 8 hours (NEVER give Tylenol, as it is toxic to the liver, or ibuprofen – Nuprin, Motrin, Advil, etc. Ibuprofen is very toxic and fatal to dogs at low doses. Only aspirin is safe for dogs, and buffered aspirin or ascriptin is preferred to minimize stomach upset.)
  • aspirin 5 mg per pound every 12 hours
  • hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting: 1-3 tsp every 10 min until dog vomits
  • Pepto Bismol 1 tsp per 5 pound per 6 hours
  • Kaopectate 1 ml per 1 pound per 2 hours
  • Imodium 1 mg per 15 pounds 1-2 times daily. (WARNING: Imodium can be toxic to some dogs – especially collies.)
  • Mineral oil (as a laxative) 5-30 ml per day (do not use long-term).

Check with your vet to confirm dosages before using. If symptoms persist, consult your vet ASAP – do NOT continue to try to treat at home, the problem might be more serious than you think!

Give liquid medications using an oral syringe tucked into the side of the dog’s mouth, holding jaws closed (rather than poking straight down the throat and risking getting liquid into the lungs).

Other items (many of which should already be in your people first aid kit):

  • Vet wrap
  • Canine anal thermometer
  • New Skin liquid bandage (works wonderfully on broken pads)
  • Hemostat (for pulling ticks and splinters)
  • Neosporin or other antibiotic ointment

A complete guide on stocking a dog’s first aid kit can be found here.

Backcountry gear for your four-legged friend
Americans spend about $12 billion per year on their pets, and an increasing portion of that number is going to outdoor sports gear for dogs: everything from doggy backpacks to life preservers.
So it’s somewhat reassuring to know that a dog can safely carry about a third of his or her body weight. Otherwise, all that extra gear would end up in your backpack. But that brings up a major dilemma: dogs really weren’t built for backpacks.

Most of the backpacks I have seen fit awkwardly and load unevenly. The brand I have seen with the best fit – and the only one I have field tested – is the kind made by Kvjen Outward Hound. And, in my field test, the straps had broken in an incredibly unacceptable six hours (I had been hoping for six or seven summers of use), meaning I ended up carrying Cosmo’s gear in the end.

Outward Hound, does, however, make some other gear that’s well designed and thoughtful. In addition to their reusable, canvas bowls used for carrying food and toys, I LOVE their Dispose-A-Bowls. The plastic, collapsible bowls are sold in three packs for about $3.95 at most large pet stores and you can usually squeeze a few uses out of each bowl. I find them to be more versatile than the canvas bag bowls in that they can be stored almost anywhere, and they’re also a lot more stable on uneven campgrounds and far easier to clean.

Beyond that, I don’t get too much into the specialty dog equipment aisle at my outdoor store. I’m not an ultra light backpacker, so I’m not opposed to bring a toy or two for Cosmo. But I do like to save weight. So instead of bringing Cosmo the latest in Gortex doggy rain gear and a doggy GPS unit, I like to save the space and weight for something far more important: Cosmo’s food and water.
Dogs differ from humans in that they prefer frequent, small drinks while exerting themselves. I find that a standard Nalgene bottle works fine for on the fly drinks if you carefully hold the cap in your hand and pour small sips into it for your dog. Also keep in mind that most dogs will turn their nose up at the iodine-flavored water that results from using common treatment methods. If you do plan to hike in areas where there will be shortage of clean, natural water sources, test whatever filtration method you plan to use at home to make sure your dog will drink plenty of water on the trail.

Depending on how strenuous the hike, a dog’s food needs can increase by as much as 100 percent or more on the trail. To save space, you may want to look at “high energy” food formulas, even if your dog does not normally eat these types of food. These foods generally pack more calories and nutrients into a smaller space. And, even though Cosmo only gets fed once a day at home, he gets two meals – and lots of treats in between – on the trail. Like humans, dogs work best with sustained energy intake.