Hiking with friends and family is wonderful, but my best (and favorite) hiking partner is my dog, Flurry. With unbridled enthusiasm for the outdoors and endless reserves of energy, Flurry is always up for exploring, whether it’s a quick pre-work peak-bagging mission, or an all-day adventure hiking part of the Appalachian Trail.
But unlike most of my other hiking partners, Flurry requires extra care and attention in the backcountry. If you want to bring your pup hiking, here are some etiquette and tips for hiking with dogs that have served Flurry and me well over the years.
This might seem obvious, but before taking your pup hiking, make sure the area you’re planning to visit allows dogs. Flurry and I are lucky that our two favorite haunts—New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Vermont’s Green Mountains—are dog friendly. Even the lone national park in the Northeast, Acadia, allows dogs on its trails. But Acadia’s in the minority. Most national parks don’t allow dogs or confine canines to developed areas.
A good rule of thumb is to check an area’s website or call before visiting a particular destination to ensure it welcomes dogs. Searching for dog-friendly hikes? There are numerous books devoted to the topic, as well as an endless number of online resources.
A dog-friendly location is just one part of the equation when it comes to outdoor adventures with your pup. An important consideration? Your dog’s endurance. Flurry and I started on shorter, low-elevation hikes before moving on to more ambitious endeavors. This helped me determine what Flurry’s endurance was like, and also train him for longer pursuits.
You should also be aware of trail hazards, such as spring runoff that creates treacherous water crossings, sheer cliffs, or excessively warm weather. During winter, icy conditions can pose serious dangers for a dog if you’re anywhere near a ledge or running water. And on scree field summits, sharp rock can seriously damage your dog’s pads. Also consider artificial trail installations, like the ladder I have to carry Flurry up on the Hi-Cannon Trail in New Hampshire.
Many areas have leash laws that dictate whether your pup roams free or is tethered. In general, in developed recreation areas and on interpretive trails within national forests, dogs must stay on a leash. In the wilderness, however, dogs usually have free reign, but check with the specific wilderness area you plan to visit. The Wilderness Society does a great job of spelling out the dog-related laws of our various public lands.
Personally, I prefer to keep Flurry on a leash—he spooks easily, which makes him a flight risk. His Australian shepherd heritage blesses him with boundless energy, but has also cursed him with the desire to herd everything. Flurry and I use the Ruffwear Roamer Leash, which I wear around my waist to keep my hands free for everything from a trekking pole to dispensing the all-important treats.
No matter what type of leash you choose, it is commonly agreed upon that retractable leashes should be avoided. Retractable leashes can tangle, break, and, when paired with an inattentive owner, are a nuisance to other hikers and dogs. There are enough things to worry about in the woods with your canine companion—a leash shouldn’t be one of them.
If an area allows off-leash dogs, make sure your pup is up to the challenge of roaming free. Off-leash dogs should always remain in sight of their owners and possess excellent recall. Furthermore, off-leash dogs should have outstanding obedience to common commands such as no, sit, stay, and leave it. For some dogs, training to a shock collar with a beep warning can be a last resort tool to keep your dog from bounding away toward a distant elk herd. Lastly, if you keep your dog off leash, it should also have impeccable manners with both people and other dogs.
General hiking etiquette suggests that downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers; however, it’s customary for hikers with a dog to yield to others, no matter which direction they’re heading in. When Flurry and I encounter other hikers, we step off the trail. Flurry sits by my side (and is rewarded with a treat for his good behavior) providing room for the person or party to comfortably pass without worrying about being sniffed, nipped at, or bothered. If your dog is off leash, have them come to you and stay out of the way of other hikers.
The old outdoor adage, “take only pictures, leave only footprints,” applies to your pup as well as you. In other words, strive to leave the woods the way you found them. For dog owners, this most notably means packing out your pup’s poop. I use biodegradable poop bags to pick up after Flurry and store them in a dedicated dry bag to cut down on the smell and to minimize the risk of a spill or leak.
If it were up to him, Flurry would happily follow the trail of sniffs from tree to tree. But instead I keep him on the trail so he doesn’t trample delicate vegetation. Likewise, when we make room for other hikers to pass, we aim for wide sections of trail or rocky areas.
I’m always surprised by how much food and water Flurry (an unenthusiastic eater at home) consumes during a hike. A good guideline to follow is for every 20 pounds of dog weight, add an extra cup of kibble per day of hiking. To reward good trail manners, pack some extra treats, too.
Dogs will also drink more water while hiking than they do in an average day. Ruffwear suggests a good rule of thumb for calculating how much water a dog will need per day is 0.24L per five pounds for dogs under 20lbs. For larger, active dogs, Ruffwear recommends 0.3L of water per pound of body weight—that’s 2.25L of water per day for a 75lb dog!
The best advice I’ve received about knowing when a dog is ready to stop for a snack or drink is to remember that if you are hungry or thirsty, they probably are, too. I pack two dog bowls in my dog hiking gear for Flurry: one for food and one for water. Having two bowls allows me to ration food and avoid having to pour it into my cupped hands and wasting water.
Seek out a collar made with wicking material without hardware that might rub or chafe your pup’s neck. Make sure the collar has a tag with your dog’s name, license info, and your phone number in case you get separated. Having your dog microchipped is another excellent way to help you reunite if your dog gets lost. Because of Flurry’s skittish nature, he is also equipped with a GPS unit on his collar that allows me to track his location in near-real time on my phone.
Depending on the trip, I alternate between a lightweight padded harnesses such as the Ruffwear Hi & Light, and a more robust harness like the Ruffwear Web Master Dog, which features a handle on the top that makes helping Flurry with tricky water crossings and steep terrain a breeze.
If the extra food and water (not to mention poop) is cramping your pack, put your dog to work—some dogs, especially working dogs, appreciate having a job. There are many fantastic dog packs with integrated harnesses available.
It’s common in the White and Green Mountains for temperatures to be warm at the trailhead and cold and windy at the summit. Despite Flurry’s hearty coat, I frequently pack him a jacket, just in case.
Speaking of just in case, a dog-specific first aid kit like the Adventure Medical Adventure Dog Series Medical Kit gives you the tools you need in the event something happens to your furry friend on the trail.
Hiking with your dog is one of the most fun and rewarding things you can do in the outdoors. While it’s easy to hit the trail with your dog, proper planning, the right gear, and knowing what to expect will go a long way toward increasing your—and your dog’s—enjoyment of the outdoors.