Make certain your dog is legally allowed. Not all areas allow dogs on hiking trails. Most National Parks, for instance, do not allow dogs on backcountry trails. Be sure to check with your local ranger or land manager regarding the rules and regulations for dogs. Most areas that do allow dogs require them to be leashed at all times with a six foot maximum length. Sure, I bend these rules from time to time by letting my dog off leash in certain areas. That said, I do so at my own risk of fines. I am also very mindful and respectful of the terrain, wildlife, and other hikers in the area (who might have dogs, too) when considering how stringently to follow leash laws.
Be certain your dog is in proper physical shape. Your dog should be well-accustomed to exercise and capable to walk the distances you plan to be hiking. If Fido is a couch potato, don’t expect him to automatically transform into a svelte trail hound just because he’s out in the woods “in his natural element.” Beyond those basics, you should also consider your dog's agility level. Difficult terrain that involves rock scrambling, climbing backcountry ladders, or completing difficult river crossings should be considered. Be sure to ask local rangers or land managers about any potential trail conditions that could present problems for dogs.
Be mindful and realistic regarding your dog’s disposition. If your pup is off like a rocket, running away as far and fast as possible when given the opportunity, you may want to consider some training before heading into the wilderness. Even if you plan to keep your dog on leash 100% of the time, (as most areas demand) mistakes happen. The backcountry is not the place you want your dog to be lost and exploring. If, like me, you sometimes cheat the rules and give your dog a bit of respite from the leash, it is especially important that your dog is well-trained and not a flight risk. Anything from wild predators to unexpected cliffs and sinkholes could result in tragic consequences if your dog is roaming loose off-trail, ignoring your commands to return. Of course, dogs with aggression issues to either people or other dogs should undoubtedly be kept on a leash at all times with no exceptions.
Bring enough water for both of you AND a container for them to drink from. Don’t forget that your dog will need water just as badly as you do, if not more so. Dogs can be especially prone to overheat because of that fur coat they can’t take off and enthusiasm that can’t always be kept in check. Make sure you have plenty of water with you as well as a collapsible or portable bowl for them to drink from. (I’ve been using this folding OllyDog bowl for some time with good results.)
Consider getting them a backpack. Giving your dog their own pack not only helps lighten your load, but it also gives them a “job” to do which I’ve found keeps my dog a bit more focused and better behaved. Don’t overload the dog, though. I usually just put my pup’s food, water, bowl, and treats in her bag. I also use ultralight dry bags for her food and treats so that if she decides to jump in a creek unexpectedly, her food will not get soaked (ask me how I know to do this..) When you first get the dog a pack, you should practice with some walks in the neighborhood (or known trails) to get him or her acclimated. I started with an empty pack and then added a bit of weight on a few trips just to ger her familiar and to make sure their were no unexpected isssues with the fit of the pack. I personally use this OllyDog Pack for summer use and purchased this Granite Gear Ruff Rider pack that I plan to use in the winter, because the bags are lined in fleece (and too hot for summer use.) I have frequently read that the RuffWear Approach Pack is a favorite among many dog-loving hikers, but I haven't had the opportunity to use one myself.
Bring gear to keep them warm at night. I bring a foam sleeping pad for my dog on every trip regardless of season. I use either a simple ½” blue foam pad I cut to size for my dog’s build, or sometimes I bring my Therm-A-Rest Ridgerest shorty pad. For moderate to cool temps, I also bring a small fleece blanket I’ve cut to size for her to snuggle into. Cold temps should involve a more substantial blanket, jacket, or bag. I have an old insulated puffy I’ve put on my dog when the temps drop fairly low. Other options include bringing a child’s sleeping bag for the dog, an insulated “sweater” or jacket made for dogs that can be strapped on them, or using a bag or quilt large enough for you both to snuggle into at night.
Conclusion… Having your best furry friend on the trail with you can be very rewarding for both you and your pup. I love seeing my dog full of joy as she soaks up the wilderness with a more innate and pure zest than I think we humans probably experience. I also like having her nose, ears, and attentiveness hard at work, sometimes showing me wildlife I might not have otherwise noticed. Never do I see her more relaxed and satisfied as she appears when we return from any backcountry outing (a full day of ceaseless dog napping always seems to happen once we get home.) Just be sure to be a wise and benevolent pack leader so that you can both get out there again and again without mishap or injury.
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