When you think of the ultimate adventure companion, who immediately comes to mind? For many outdoor enthusiasts, their four-legged friends remain faithfully by their side, no matter where they roam. Encountering a series of switchbacks up a mountain? No problem for an enthusiastic pup who’s eager to get to the top. What about a lazy day paddling around the lake? Most dogs wouldn’t miss swimming and playing fetch in the water for anything.
Dogs inspire us to get outdoors and live our best lives without the limits or worries we all too often impose on ourselves. We asked Backcountry employees, ambassadors, and our community to share their stories and tips on getting outside with an adventurous pup. Here’s what they said.
I realized very early on that my dogs loved being in nature. Our favorite thing to do is hike in our home state of Colorado, but there is a lot to think about if you have a dog who hasn’t hiked before. First, recall training and trail etiquette is key if you are planning on allowing your dogs off-leash on trails that allow it. We always want to respect other hikers and dogs to ensure everyone has a good time. Second, bring lots of water and plenty of treats and food for the dogs to make sure they stay hydrated and energized – especially on long trails. I love my Osprey pack because it holds everything I need for them and for me! Third, bring a doggy first aid kit! You never know what can happen in the wilderness and it’s important to be prepared. Finally, and most important, have fun! Dogs appreciate nature and hiking just as much as we do, and it’s important we share it all together!
My must have gear for backpacking with my dogs are the Ruffwear Approach Dog Pack, Ruffwear Roamer Leash, Ruffwear Quencher Dog Bowl, and Beacon Safety Light. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the Ruffwear packs. I use them on day hikes and overnight trips (and sometimes stash some of my own gear in there) and they always work for whatever occasion. The dogs love wearing them and I love not having to carry all of their stuff.
For what was probably too long of a time, I was nervous about bringing my dog Bear with me … not because of Bear, but because of other people, other dogs, other situations. I had told myself, with great conviction, that I would be burdening others by bringing my [needy, anxious, often misunderstood] dog along on adventures. I had assured myself that people would be bothered, annoyed, inconvenienced, or even alarmed by Bear’s sometimes-difficult behaviors. When I finally took a step back, though, I realized that what I was scared of had nothing to do with Bear … I was scared that people would be bothered, annoyed, inconvenienced by me (was I correcting his leash-tugging correctly? Was I “helicopter mom”-ing? Was I taking too much time on the trail for training?). This reminded me of the bad habit that I used to have, of not trying new things with other people for fear of failure (or, perceived failure). I’d never hike with someone I didn’t know well, because I’m slow; I’d never mountain bike with a new group, because I don’t hit aggressive jumps or drops.
That all changed. Or, rather— I changed all of that. A few years ago, I put my pride and my fears and my concerns [mostly] aside and started saying “yes” to new friends, new hobbies, new FAILURES. And, incidentally, I was also saying “yes” to Bear.
What I found was this: people accepted him. People accepted me. People accepted our imperfections and often didn’t even see them. And with every new obstacle thereafter, I stood by, and watched Bear (and, often, myself) step, jump, ascend … not just literally, but also proverbially.
When it comes to getting outdoors with my pup, there is nothing more challenging and exciting than summiting fourteeners. So far, we have made it to the top of 37 fourteeners in Colorado, many of which we reach in time to watch the sunrise above 14,000 feet. There is nothing quite like it. Here are a few key things I’ve learned over the years to keep in mind when summiting peaks with your pup:
BRING LOTS OF WATER: don’t just rely on streams and snow to keep your dog cool. Even if you start off early in the morning, you’re going to catch the heat eventually, so be extra prepared for the both of you.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS: If you’re going from sea-level straight up a 14er and you do fine, then wow, that’s great for you! BUT know that isn’t going to be the case for everyone and if it’s not, you may be in for a world of hurt – your dog too! Altitude sickness can also affect your dog, so know the symptoms and what to look out for, and do some 10,000-13,000 feet training hikes before you tackle anything higher!
PACK OR NO PACK: Having your dog wear a backpack is definitely a great way to carry extra gear, food, and water specifically for your pet, but it isn’t for every dog. Make sure to research the weight your dog can carry dependent on their size. Don’t just throw on a pack and load it up because it looks cool – if your dog can’t handle the weight, it will make for a difficult time for them.
BRING A CAMERA: This clearly is my number one rule when headed into the outdoors with my pup. I love capturing the moments we share together and reliving the beauty of a hike through photo memories.
SET GOALS: You’re not going to tackle all the peaks in one day. It is important to take strides, overcome challenges, and reward yourself for your successes along the way. You’ll have good days and bad days. Your dog will too. Just enjoy the journey together and keep climbing up!
Prepare. Ensure the trail you picked is dog-friendly, check leash laws for the area, pack food, water, and lots and lots of yummy treats. Save the number and driving directions of the closest emergency vet to your trailhead.
Be Flexible. This April I took the dogs out for a late spring desert expedition. I had my heart set on a BLM site along the Colorado River, but upon arrival I found the river current too quick and the cottonwood shade inadequate. It took another four hours to find a dwelling suitable for the dogs. Finding a space that is safe and comfortable for the pups is always my number one priority, even if it means passing up a picturesque location.
Embrace the Chaos. Canine companions have an impeccable knack for finding the foulest smelling cow manure and will most assuredly roll in it; then they will leap into your arms, passing the stench onto your clothes. In these instances your best option is to laugh. Camping with dogs is messy. They aren’t worried about keeping your new sleeping bag clean and you shouldn’t be either. They’ll kick over your coffee and their hair will get in your granola. It’s double the effort but quadruple the joy.
Sometimes it will feel like absolute mayhem; but I can promise you that the moment when your dog, exhausted by a day of chasing marmots and bagging peaks, curls up next to you and lays his big fuzzy head in your lap while you watch the sun dip below the horizon will make it all worth it.
Our Gear. Sea To Summit collapsible bowls, Ruffwear Front Range Harness, Ruffwear Flat Out Dog Leash, Zukes Pack Mini Naturals (I mix several flavors together and call it doggy trail mix), Adventure Medical Adventure Dog Series Medical Kit. Don’t forget to bring along a sense of humor, things get pretty silly with four legged friends in the backcountry.
Final Thought. So much of what drives us into the outdoors is our desire to break away from our comfort zones, but I have found that for most dogs, most certainly for mine, venturing into nature is … well, it’s natural for them. The freedom that they find in the outdoors, the freedom that we share, is where our connection to each other grows stronger.
We spend a lot of time in the backcountry hiking and backpacking with our two pups, so we take all the necessary precautions to be bear aware and safe. One thing we love using is bear bells attached to our boys’ collars. Not only is it smart to have our dogs make extra noise as they run non-stop up and down the trail in excitement exploring and curiously chasing after squirrel and deer, but the bells also help us hear where the dogs are. If the sound of the bell grows too faint, we know we need to call our boys back to camp. Besides the mountains themselves, nothing brings us more happiness then being able to experience the beautiful outdoors safely with our pups. This year we’ve had a blast teaching Singe a new skill: swimming. He’s worked up to the paddle boarding this year. Singe and Mowgli both love going to the lake, too. They’re well-rounded outdoor pups and the best adventuremates.
We recommend that anyone interested in taking their dogs outdoors do it. You’ll love it, and we bet most dogs will too. A little research before you venture out goes a long way, especially when heading out to bear country.
Dogs are the greatest adventure partners out there. They have taught me so much in the mountains. The greatest lesson: to simply have fun. Dogs don’t know if we make the summit or have to turn around. They couldn’t care less if it’s sunny outside or you’re socked in in the clouds. Start at 2 A.M. on zero sleep or at noon after 10 hours of snoozing: their energy level and excitement is identical. Without fail, as soon as I am starting to feel exhausted and frustrated on hikes, Trek will start zooming in the brush like a maniac while Cooper chases a rock that he kicked down the trail himself like it is the most fun game of his life. Their energy is contagious! Even when I am struggling internally, I find it impossible to not be happy in the mountains with them. The weather, the view, the distance, none of that matters to dogs. They are just thrilled to be included in our adventures and to be outside running free without a care in the world. That is one of the greatest gifts my dogs have ever given to me.
There truly is nothing better than adventuring and getting outside with your dog. I tell people all the time, “if you want a life full of adventure, go adopt a dog.” If you’re looking to be inspired, and you’re looking to be outdoors, rescuing a dog not only changes their life, but it’s definitely going to change yours. They’re going to help you accomplish things that you didn’t even know you wanted to accomplish. They’re going to push you to try new things. My dogs have inspired me to learn more about myself, to step out of my comfort zone, and to truly appreciate all of the little things in life. They have taught me that the weather doesn’t always have to be great to enjoy a day outside. While hiking for me usually has the intent of making it to a particular destination — whether it be a summit, a lake or a waterfall — I know that it isn’t the destination that matters to them. They are happy car camping, hiking, going to a park or sitting at the beach. All that matters to them is that they are outside with me a great reminder to slow down and be grateful no matter the weather or circumstance.
When I first started hiking with Aspen, it was simply because I wanted a furry friend to share my adventure with. However, in our three years together, it has evolved into so much more than that. Getting outside together has changed both of our lives in a way I can hardly put into words. When I first adopted Aspen, she was the most fearful dog. Everything scared her, whether on the trail or in the city, from trekking poles to stationary trash cans. But as we spent more time together, especially in the mountains, I could feel her trusting me more and more. She looks to me for guidance on the trail at all times, and she is always checking in on me to make sure I’m right there with her. Our outdoor adventures have strengthened our bond so much and she has grown so confident that she is a completely different dog. For anyone who’s interested in getting outside with their dog, I’d like to say this: it is SO worth it. It will strengthen your bond, improve your dog’s confidence, and make both you and your dog so much happier.
Header photo by Olivia Ashton.