Here’s how to Get your dog ready for their first backpacking trip!
Backpacking is one of my absolute favorite activities to do in Summer, especially since Utah has some amazing backcountry. But what really makes is great is that Charlie gets to comes along, and having him there just makes it so fun, I get a snuggle buddy, I feel like I have a protector, and I love that we get to explore new terrain together. Backpacking with dogs is awesome and whether you’ve been backpacking for years and just got a new dog, or maybe you’ve been a team for awhile and want to start together here are my tips to get going!
– Before you do any backpacking with your dog, they need to work up their stamina. Start hiking regularly with your dog without a pack at first – each week start to add on mileage and elevation gain.
– Make sure you dog has basic obedience training and trail etiquette. They should be able to come when called and sit when told so, in case you pass people on the trails that aren’t comfortable with dogs.
– Know the local trail regulations. Leash Laws varying wherever you want to backpack so if its a national forest or national monument check out the website or call the ranger station before heading out. Typically, dogs are not even allowed in National Parks.
– Leave No Trace. Always pack out dog poop bags. If you are worried about smell, carry several large ziplock bags with you to put them in so it does double duty. On backpacking trips, humans and dogs have the same rule – bury poop in a 6-8 inch hole that’s at least 200 ft away from any trail, camp, and water source.
Buying a Dog Pack
Here are some Do’s & Don’ts when shopping for a dog pack.
DO select a backpack specifically designed for dogs.
You want a backpack that can withstand the elements, carry objects, and keep your dog comfortable and safe. Look for one made with water-resistant, durable, and breathable materials. Another important feature is proper padding. With added weight, there’s extra pressure on your dog’s chest and straps, so check those areas to ensure your dog’s comfort.
DON’T rely solely on your dogs weight for sizing.
Measure around the largest part of your dog’s chest to get the right fit. Use a cloth tape measure around the deepest part of your dog’s chest. If you buy a pack at REI, they will help fit your dog to a pack. Usually they will come out to your car and measure and fit them, since they aren’t allowed in the store.
For most dogs, 10%-12% of their body weight is a good starting point. This would be 5-6 pounds for a 50 lb dog.
DON’T guess the weight of your dog’s backpack.
After you’ve loaded the backpack, you may find that you accidentally went over the weight limit. Keep a hanging scale in a convenient location so can verify the load your dog carries before the hike.
DON’T give up if you dog is initially resistant.
Many dogs find the backpack strange at first and may try to paw it off. Start by letting your dog get used to the backpack without any weight. Keep the experience short, and make it positive by associating the backpack with feeding time, treats, or praise. Gradually increase the weight you allow your dog to carry.
When Charlie first wore his pack he always tried to paw it off. I just sprayed the Sour Apple Dog Spray on the pack, then he was ok with it. It’s important to note that “resistance” isn’t the same as “pain”. If you have any concerns about your dogs ability to carry the backpack, remove it immediately.
I highly recommend the pack Charlie has, the Ruffwear Approach Pack. It’s kind of pricey, but it is really well built, comfortable for him, and has several pockets to carry items. He’s used this pack so much and for the last 4 years that I’ve had to put two rounds of patches on the pack!
Update: after using the Approach Pack for 7 years, I upgraded him to the Ruffwear Palisades Pack since we started doing longer trips.
List of Items Dogs Can Carry
Dog food, in ziplock baggies
At the end of the trip, Charlie carries some trash for me
In Summer, his own water bottles
Many people stress about how to add weight to the backpack. Allow him/her to carry their own toy, water bottles, poop bags, or other items you might need on the hike (ahem, beer). If you allow him/her to carry car keys or other pointy objects, make sure they aren’t poking through, causing discomfort to him/her.
I always pack double the amount of food Charlie normally gets at home. At home Charlie gets fed 2 cups of food in the morning only. When we backpack at least 9-10 miles a day, I will give him 2 cups in the morning AND night. Anything less than 8-10 miles a day he gets a normal amount. This is just what I have found works for him and his calorie needs. Each dog is different. Some dogs will eat until they throw up and some pick at their food – do you best to decide how much is right for your dog based on how active they are. Don’t try to force feed if they aren’t interested after a big day on the trail – dogs know how to self-regulate really well.
Hitting the Trail!
Once your dog has had practice hiking without a pack, and worked his/her way up to carrying some weight, it’s time to hit the trail!
– For your dogs first backpacking trip, pick a location close to home (within an hours drive)
– Don’t pick a destination that is longer than you’ve hiked in one day in the past or while training
– Consider hiking a familiar trail
– HAVE FUN!
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