Taking a dog long-distance backpacking means being prepared for their success in the wild as much as you would be prepared for your own.
Before you throw fifteen pounds on your dog’s back and march him ten miles into the wild, make sure to check out my next post, “Pack Training with Your Dog,” and learn how to condition your dog for wearing a fully loaded pack over many miles.
Choosing the right gear for your dog means looking at all the options to find what’s right for your dog’s size, age, breed, and activity level. ALL my dog’s outdoor gear comes from Ruffwear, an Oregon based company that excels in making high-quality products for dogs and their human companions.
Full disclosure: As the founder and organizer for PDX Metro Pack Walks, I receive a pro-discount on products from Ruffwear. I am otherwise unaffiliated with them, or any other company mentioned in this post. I link to the products I use because of personal belief in their quality.
15 Dog Essentials
When my dog and I head into the wild, I bring 15 essentials to ensure his comfort and success on the trip. Almost everything goes onto his back, and I can squeeze 10 days’ worth of supplies and gear into his mid-sized pack. In all, that full load weighs less than 9 lbs., or 20% of his weight.
Your dog’s ability to carry his own supplies depends on a solid backpack. I use a Ruffwear Approach Pack, which is still going strong after more than 1,500 miles of hiking. My dog knows when the pack comes out, an adventure is about to happen!
Introduce your dog to the pack with short walks at home and build slowly to full-load weight. Just like your backpack, the dog’s pack will shift and move as he walks, so make sure you adjust the fit periodically. Always reward your dog, whenever the pack goes on or comes off, for doing a good job!
2. Sleeping Pad/Bag
It gets cold in the mountains quickly, and the ground pulls body heat away like a vacuum. Even double-coated, my dog enjoys having a sleeping pad at night. The Highland System by Ruffwear allows me to bring whichever bed fits the conditions I expect.
Above 40F(4C) at night, my dog is fine on the sleeping bed alone, which I roll and strap to the top of his pack, across his shoulders. The sleeping bag and ground pad get put in my pack when they come, because they’re too bulky for my dog and push his pack weight over a safe limit.
Seems too obvious to put on a list of specialty backpacking gear, but dogs get lost every day, especially when there are amazing smells in the woods. I’ve come across lone, collar-less dogs miles away from their owners, who are huffing down the trail trying to catch up and find their dog.
A collar also helps other hikers identify that you’ve got (probably) a friendly dog, who might need help finding you if separated. Your dog’s usual tags should all be on, including your info, your vet’s info, and any county tags required in your home area.
4. Trip Tag
I include a “trip tag” as a unique item from the collar and standard tags your dog has. It lists the dates and route you plan to take. A trip tag can help a lost dog get reunited with you in the wild. I use a water-resistant key-tag and write our trip itinerary on it, with nightly destinations and dates in water-resistant ink. I’ll admit that these tags don’t always survive a full ten days, but they hold up well on most trips.
Don’t leave your leash at home! Even in the backcountry, there are dozens of reasons you may need hands-on control of your dog through a leash. You’ll come across other dogs and hikers, pack animals, wild animals, cliff edges, and river crossings.
Ruffwear’s Ridgeline leash is small enough to leave attached to my dog’s pack, tucked out of the way until I need to grab hold of it, yet stretchy enough to give him some range while walking.
The last two miles up, and the first two miles down from a mountain pass are often made from hard, rough rocks that can wear even a well-conditioned dog’s paw pads down. Sharp edges can cut and slice your dog’s pads, too.
Boots you are happy with are the hardest item to find. My dog has used both types of Ruffwear boot, the Grip Trex and the Summit Trex. I’ve found it’s best to order them as pairs, to get different sizes for his front (M) and back (S) paws. Check out Ruffwear’s blog on breaking in dog boots as well.
7. Food/Water Bowl
Working to trim weight in your own pack (light, or ultralight techniques) improves your daily experience on long trips. The same goes for your dog, and the bowl is a great pace to avoid redundancy and extra weight. Use the bowl to feed your dog first, then fill it with water for the night at camp.
You’ll also need the bowl to give your dog water along the trail if you’re not near a water source. Give your dog small amounts of water at a time, letting her drink it all before adding more to avoid wasting water she might not be thirsty for. Pro tip:Train your dog to drink right from the nozzle on his bottle or yours. It will save time and water!
8. Water Bladder
I’m gonna throw my pro-science stance in this section.
Vaccinate your dog.
Doing so will give you access to more water sources in the backcountry while reducing your dog’s risk of disease if she laps up some creek, lake, or pond water.
Often, I can reduce the weight in my dog’s pack by storing less water and letting him drink from plentiful water sources along the trail, but we regularly hike across areas with limited, or unclean water. Your dog needs lots of water to keep cool while panting to temperature regulate themselves, so it’s important to bring a bladder or two for extra hot days or long stretches of hiking.
Backpacking should be rewarding for your dog. Whenever you stop for some GORP at a beautiful viewpoint, give your dog some treats, too! They’ve earned it, and probably need the extra calories after carrying all that weight!
I bring a small variety of treats for my dog; an assortment of Blue Buffalo treats and some homemade dehydrated snacks. Having a selection keeps him focused on good behavior, trying to earn a delicious reward.
I’ve done a lot of research to find the best food for my dog on multi-day trips. I like to use freeze-dried food because it is a little lighter weight and takes up less space in the pack, but your dog’s regular dry food is a fine choice as well. Remember to increase the calories based on your dog’s activity level during the trip. My dog needs about 35-50% more calories for days over ten miles.
Primal Freeze-Dried Nuggets are easy to pack into daily bags, and to feed at meal times. My dog guzzles water after eating, so I usually don’t mix water in, but that’s a great way to make the food more appetizing. Remember to re-fill the bowl with water after eating for the night!
11. First Aid Kit*
Ok, I always keep this item in my pack. You can check out my post “First Aid Supplies for Backcountry Dogs” (coming soon) to see what items I carry specifically for my dog. I’ve treated him for cuts, sores, abrasions, bites, and punctures on our trips. It’s a good idea to take a pet first aid and CPR certification course or pick up a book on pet first aid to learn proper techniques for trail wounds.
First aid can attend to small issues, but it is no substitute for proper veterinary care. Whenever my dog suffers a trail injury, we make an appointment to see a professional medical provider as soon as we get home.
12. Tick Key™
Tick season is heaviest during mid spring through early summer, but you can encounter these blood-thirsty critters all year. Geography and ecosystem play a large role in the abundance of ticks, but they can easily spread from other animals. The tick key is so light, it can easily be tossed into the pack with no weight consequence.
Ask your vet tech to show you how to use it properly the next time you’re in for a checkup. A little practice will make you feel much better when there’s a wriggly, creepy bug in your sights.
13. Waste Bags
Leave no trace. I feel very strongly about this, and it bothers me when people think their dog’s waste belongs in the wild. I’m lucky that my dog follows me out into the woods every morning, staring at me as we both squat. This means I can usually bury his waste along with mine, digging an extra deep cat-hole. However, that’s not always the case, and he usually poops a few times a day, so I include bags to pack it out with our other garbage.
14. Paw Wax
While boots protect my dog’s paws over particularly rough terrain, I always use paw wax on any trail to protect his pads from gravel, snow, sand, and bark. Usually, a bit of wax will last quite a while on your dog’s pads, but I’ve found a reapplication every three or four days keeps the pads covered over long trail miles.
I use Musher’s Secret on my dog’s paws almost year-round because of his activity level. On the trail, I bring a small amount of wax in a plastic container, just enough to rub into his paws once or twice on the trip.
15. Emergency Light
I climbed the Matterhorn in Northeast Oregon in total darkness to catch the sunrise on one trip. The blinking red light on my dog’s collar is the only way I could keep track of him as we climbed. The batteries in the Ruffwear Beacon last a very long time, so my dog’s light goes on as soon as it begins to dim in the woods.
As the shadows lengthen, a pulsing beacon of light will go a long way to helping you keep an eye on your dog’s wanderings around camp.
My dog has hiked more than 1,500 miles with these 15 essentials, staying safe, comfortable, and happy on the trail. Of course, bringing a dog means that I always “hike my dog’s hike,” never pushing him to carry too much or walk too far, despite my goals for the night’s camp. I’ve often thrown his pack on top of mine and shouldered the weight for a day to give him a break. After all, I love my dog. #mydogismy #trailcompanion