Dog Hiking General Information

Below are some general topics on hiking and camping with your dog:

The Basics:

  1. What do I need to know before I take my dog hiking with me?

  2. Fitting the pack and learning to use it

  3. Conditioning Your Dog

  4. Finding Places to Hike

Being Prepared for the Trail:

  1. Emergency Equipment and First Aid

  2. Dressing For The Weather

  3. Food and Water


  1. Pitching a tent in the snow

  2. What else is in your sleeping bag?

Hazards on the Trail:

  1. What about Lyme Disease?


The Basics

What do I need to know before I take my dog hiking with me?

Your dog should be trained to walk quietly on a leash, and you should be able and willing to control him and to scoop his poop and dispose of it properly.

A dog that pulls can be dangerous to you and others, especially on a steep or narrow trail. A dog that is barking continuously appears threatening to other hikers even if you are holding him securely. And even dog-lovers lose patience with poop on the trail or a dog running around loose followed by an owner screaming, "Come! Get over here! Right Now! Heís OK, he wonít hurt you!"

Remember this truth: The people who smile and stop to pat your dog are not likely to call the park officials to thank them for permitting dogs in the park. Anyone who meets your barking, off-leash or otherwise unwelcome dog on the trail IS likely to complain to the park manager. People who stumble trying to get out of the way of a lose dog, or parents whose children cried when a strange dog ran up to them at eye level are VERY likely to complain. And as complaints accumulate, more and more park managers are finding it easier to post a "no pets" sign than to wait for dog owners to wise up.

Make sure your dogís vaccinations are current, and carry copies with you. If your dog spends his days on carpets and a grassy back yard, don't assume heís in shape to hike rocky trails. Start with short trips on rougher ground and work up to longer hikes on rocky terrain. You want to make hiking something your dog looks forward to, not something he fears because he ends us with sore muscles and sore feet.

A one-inch wide buckle strap, 6-8 feet long, will enable you to attach your dog to a tree quickly and easily without wrapping the leash around the trunk (which makes it too short for him to lie down comfortably.)

Generally, 1-2 quarts of water should be carried for a dayhike unless you know there will be clean potable water available. Water from creeks and streams will need to be purified before drinking.

Plan ahead! Hiking is great fun, but it does carry some risks. You can increase your enjoyment and your safety if you follow a few simple steps. Itís just common sense to inquire about trail conditions, get a map, ask if pets are allowed, tell a friend or family member where you are going and when you will return.

After hiking, carefully examine your dog for signs of injury, fleas & ticks or harmful debris such as thorns or slivers of glass. Look at each paw, especially the pads and between the toes, look in the ears, run your hand over his entire body and use a comb through his coat to look for bumps on the skin or thorns, etc.

Fitting the pack and learning to use it

While some dogs can carry 25% of their weight or more, most family pets should not! Check with your vet before beginning, and consult with hikers experienced in packing with dogs (your breed, if possible.) My 5 year-old dog, a well-conditioned English setter, carries 10-12% of her body weight, and I carry about 30% of mine!

Correct fit is MOST important, but before you buy compare styles. The most convenient packs come with a separate pad to which the saddle bags attach with velcro, the lightest packs have mesh. Will you be hiking in hot weather or winter? Do you want a color easily seen in the woods during hunting season (nearly year-round) or a subtle earth-tone? Will you need D-rings to attach things to the outside of the pack?

Now look for someone who fits dogs with packs every day for a living, not just a salesperson who reads the label about which size fits what weight dog. Dogs of the same weight can have dramatically different builds. My dog weighs 53 pounds and carries a "small" pack which places its weight on her shoulders, not in the middle of her back. When loaded, the saddle bags hang down far enough not to bounce on her back, but not so low that they interfere with her leg movement. I donít attach anything to the outside of the pack, but if you do check to be sure it wonít rub your dogís skin or catch on branches.

Once you find the right pack, start teaching your dog to carry it by taking short hikes with bulk but very little weight. Be SURE to balance both sides of the packóuneven distribution of the weight will make one saddle bag hang down too low. This puts the dog off balance which can strain muscles and spoil the fun. Try crunching up some newspaper and some plastic grocery bags to bulk up the saddle bags; add a small plastic jar on each side, one with 2 oz. of water and the other with 2 oz. of dry kibble so the dog becomes accustomed to the sounds of rustling and rattling and figures out how to navigate without bouncing off rocks, trees and your legs. As he gets more comfortable, take him further and let him learn to cross creeks and jump over logs. Gradually increase the pack weight as you add distance and difficulty. Ask your vet what "maximum weight" your dog should learn to carry, then remember to reduce it in hot weather or on difficult trails or if he shows signs of resistance. Take plenty of time in the beginning to get off to a good start. Your goal is a dog who begs to go when he sees you get out your pack and his! Let him work his way up to a "full pack" and give him time to carry it on dayhikes that gradually work up to 5-10 miles each time. Then, you are ready to plan a backpacking trip!

Conditioning Your Dog

Before doing any hikes with other dogs, or in places where unknown dogs have left urine/feces, the puppy needs to be fully vaccinated which usually isn't until 16 weeks. AND, dogs like people need to start out slow and keep it up regularly, not just set out once or twice a month on a long hike! Most important, check with the vet first. Ask the vet if this dog is ready at this time to begin hiking, and what the vet recommends for amount of activity and also for prevention for ticks, heartworms, etc. 

When hiking with puppies, avoid slippery muddy trails and big rocks they can jump or fall off, etc. You can still hike in the rain and snow! But a puppy won't have the experience to determine the best way across wet rocks or how to safely go down a steep slope so it's your responsibility to protect him from injuring his joints even if it means giving up that day and going back home. 

Large dogs' growth plates generally close by 18 months, but check with your vet to verify that information for your dog's breed. Careful physical conditioning and training now will pay off for years to come. And controlling weight gain is just as important! You can start with 1/2 to 3/4 mile hikes on fairly level wooded trails at 3 mos. (after your dog's second set of vaccinations.) Go to places without other dogs where you can reach little used trails from less used parking places instead of going to busy trailheads used by lots of other dogs. 

Work up to hikes of 1-2 miles by hiking regularly ( 1-3 times a WEEK). The goal is to build good bone without stressing their growth plates/muscles/joints/etc. and to have FUN which means you stop while the dog's still eager to keep doing more! The easy trap to fall into is this: the dog obviously enjoyed 1 mile and didn't seem even a little bit tired, so the temptation is to do 2 miles the next time-- but all damage doesn't necessarily result in the dog expressing pain. Taking it "too slow" has NO negative consequences, but pushing to get ready for a certain hike (or to "tire him out so he quits pestering the cat" etc.) is risking a lot! You may say, "But he BEGS for more!" but remember; your dog can BEG to run loose in traffic and you don't give in! You are the human with full knowledge of the consequences-- protect your dog from his own worst impulses! 

By hiking REGULARLY (several times a week, not just once or twice a month) you can gradually build your dog up which does NOT mean adding mileage to each successive hike! It means that if you've been doing 3 mile hikes for several weeks, then you might do a hike that is 3-1/2 or even 4 miles this week, but keep on doing shorter hikes too.  Try adding elevation changes as well.  But any time you increase elevation you want to decrease length because you are trying to condition his body not test his limits!

And in spite of all the careful conditioning and preparation, a dog can STILL injure himself hiking! So check before every hike for signs of lameness/inflamation/illness before setting out. During the hike keep the dog fed and hydrated and watch him for signs of heat stress, hypothermia and frost-nip, damage to paw pads, lameness, exhaustion, etc. Then check him again after every hike for injuries and ticks! There are lots of good websites and good books with information about hiking safely and happily with "dogs" but most of them don't put enough emphasis on puppies under the age of 2 years.

Finding Places to Hike

Once you have conditioned yourself and you dog, learned how to read a trail map and assembled your gear, where will you go to hike? National Parks, National Forests, State Parks, State Forests, Regional Parks, Wilderness Areas, Bureau of Land Management, Wildlife Management Areas, City Parks, County Parks? The list goes on and on, and each has its own rules about how and when and where you are allowed to hike, and also about whether or not pets are allowed.

Our "Resource" page lists some references for finding hiking opportunities.  Many hiking books will mention if areas are "dog friendly".  Your state's DNR web page, as well as the NPS and other national agencies will often tell you the rules regarding pets on those lands.

The "K9 Trailblazers Baltimore/Washington Dog Hiking Areas" page on this web site has a map listing some of the areas that K9TB has hiked, as well as brief descriptions and contact information.

Before you head out with your dog, check to be sure that your destination allows pets. Be prepared to keep your dog on a leash and under control.  Be familiar with the rules of your hiking area and follow them.  That's the best way to ensure that those trails remain open for dog hiking.

Being Prepared for the Trail

Emergency Equipment and First Aid

The "Basic Essentials"

  • Map & compass (Learn how to use them first!)

  • Flashlight or headlamp & extra batteries

  • Extra food & water

  • Extra clothing & rain protection

  • Sunglasses or goggles & sunscreen & hat with brim

  • Pocket knife and whistle

  • Fire starter & matches

  • Tin cup and water purification tablets

  • Mirror (not glass) to inspect your body for ticks or use to signal for help

  • 2 Bandannas and insect repellent

  • 2 Large black trash bags (shelter/pack cover/survival water distillation, etc.)

Before hitting the trail at least read a book or, better yet take a class in "wilderness first aid." The usual "first aid" classes teach you to establish an airway, stop the bleeding and call 911. Several miles out from the trailhead, you need to be much better prepared. This means knowing what to do and having the necessary equipment. It does NOT mean buying the biggest first aid kit you can find and heading for the woods. Your equipment is only as good as your knowledge and ability to use it!

Consider your own situation which will change depending on whether or not you take your dog, what time of year it is, whether or not others in the group will carry first aid kits. (Even if they do you should take your own since you could get separated, but you donít each have to take enough for the whole group.) Remember that if you are backpacking, you will have in your pack many items of gear that could be used in emergency situations. For example, you will have a tent and sleeping bag for shelter, and your backpacking soap and Camelback or Platypus drinking system can be used to irrigate a wound, your bear-bag rope can be used to tie a splint, etc.

Itís good to carry a basic First Aid book-- if something happens to you, you will be treated by someone who may not know much about how to do it. Make it easy for them to treat you right!

Here are some things you should consider adding to the "Basic Essentials" listed above:

  • 5 yards of "surveyors" or "flagging" tape for use marking trails to guide rescuers back to the victim

  • Notebook & pencil (can be sharpened with your knife and doesnít run in the rain or freeze like ballpoint pen)

  • Blister kit: some bandaids, some Moleskin and a tube of antibiotic cream (check expiration date & replace if necessary) Bandage kit: Antiseptic or soap, 2" roll gauze, 1/2" tape, 4" sterile gauze pads (they can be folded)

  • 3" elastic bandage ("Ace")

  • Safety pins in several sizes and cotton-tipped swabs ("Q-tips")

  • 4 sanitary napkins ("Kotex")

  • Tweezers, scissors and pliers (pulling porcupine needles)

  • OTC medicines for pain, allergy, nausea, diarrhea and constipation (Tylenol,Ibuprofen,Benadryl,Kaopectate,etc)

  • 3" "Vet Wrap" and dog booties or pair of child-size socks

  • Sawyer Extractor for snake biteópractice using it before you go

  • Heat packs and/or cold packs (the kind you shake to activate)

  • Old pair of pantyhose for use as a muzzle

Dressing For The Weather

There is a saying on the trail: "cotton kills." While hiking, especially in warm weather or when climbing steep hills, you will perspire. Cotton will hold this moisture against your skin so that when you stop hiking or the sun goes down you remain wet and chilled.

For this reason it is important to dress in layers which can be added or removed to regulate your body temperature. And these layers should be synthetic fabrics which wick moisture away from the body and dry quickly. The inner layer is what touches your skin, usually polyester underwear; the insulation layer may be a fleece vest in summer or complete suit in winter; the outer layer is a waterproof/windproof shell or a parka depending on the weather.

Another saying: "If your hands and feet are cold, put on a hat." Up to 50% of heat loss is through your head and neck. Wearing even a thin bandanna around your neck will reduce heat loss on cool summer evenings. In winter, you need a warm hat that covers your ears and a neck gaiter or fleece scarf. A face mask or balclava may be needed in very cold weather.

Another common mistake is to try to keep feet warm by wearing several extra pairs of socks. When buying hiking boots, try them on over whatever socks (& liners) you will wear while on the trail. Adding too many extra socks or tying your laces too tight, will constrict the blood flow to your feet and make them cold.

The same goes for your hands. Glove liners should not be too tight, and your outer gloves or mittens shoud fit loose enough to trap a pocket of warm air and not constrict blood vessels. Mittens are warmer than gloves which allow air to blow between your fingers.

Remember: itís easier and safer to conserve your body heat than to try to create more! Remove layers as you warm up and put them back on before you get chilled.

Insulated down or polyester "booties" will keep your feet warmer in camp hiking boots, especially if you add "Arctic insoles." Sitting on a solid rock will drain heat from your body faster than sitting in soft snow. Using a closed-cell foam pad ("Ensolite" is one) and tucking extra clothing under your body for additional insulation will greatly increase your comfort at night.

At night, wearing a knit cap, glove liners and zipping your mummy bag tight around your head will reduce heat loss. But donít slide all the way down into the bag because the moisture from breathing inside the bag will wet the bag and reduce its insulating capability. Keep you nose and mouth out of the bag, covered with a bandanna or pull your knit cap down over your face.

Food and Water

Unless your doctor advises against it, you should include protein, carbohydrates and fat in your diet while hiking. Your body needs protein to repair the muscle damage caused by vigorous exercise, and you will burn both fat and carbohydrates for fuel and to keep warm.

In winter, you lose much water through respiration, and you can become dehydrated quickly without noticing. If you feel "thirsty" you are already dehydrated! Drink before you think you need it. Check the color of your urine. It will be clear or pale yellow if you are properly hydrated.

Eat frequent snacks and drink at frequent intervals rather than waiting for "lunch" or "dinner." Before going to bed, eat a high energy snack, drink some water and do a few mild exercises so you start the night warm and fueled to stay that way.

Water from rivers and streams must be purified before drinking. In winter, water filters freeze and chemicals (such as iodine or chlorine) take longer to work. Melting snow requires carrying extra fuel and time. Figure out ahead of time what you will do about providing enough safe water! In winter, the best water bottles are those with wide mouths. Carrying them upside-down, in an insulated holder or inside pocket, will cause the ice to form at the bottom of the bottle leaving the mouth clear so you can drink.


Pitching a tent in the snow

Three-season tents may be used in cold weather, but you will have to take some precautions. They may not stand up to high winds or heavy snowfall, especially if they do not have a full-coverage rain fly. And, because they are ventilated for warm weather, you will need extra sleeping pads and a sleeping bag rated to lower temperatures or a bivy sack to enclose your sleeping bag.

When pitching your tent, be sure to pack down the snow with your snowshoes or a shovel or even your pack. This will keep your body warmth from melting the soft snow into a mold which refreezes during the night creating uncomfortable lumps when you roll over. Face our tent away from the wind and pile snow to make a windblock. If you donít have snow stakes, or if the snow is too soft or too icy to use them, try attaching your guy cords to rocks, trees or an "ice bar." Chop 2 holes 4" in diameter about 6" apart. Then dig down about 6" and tunnel under the ice between the 2 holes. If the snow is wet and heavy, you can pack it around your stakes, wet it and let it "set" before using the tent.

What else is in your sleeping bag?

Many people suggest that you place everything from a bottle of warmed water to your boots in the bottom of your sleeping bag. You may want to keep one bottle of water ready to drink, and protect your flashlight batteries from freezing, but packing too much stuff into your bag you will reduce its effectiveness (like stuffing your shoes with socks) to say nothing of the discomfort of sleeping on boots and bottles.

Hazards on the Trail

What about Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is carried by ticks, but not all ticks are infected. It usually takes more than 24 hours for an infected tick to infect you. If you carefully examine your body (including scalp) and your dogís body every day you will reduce your chances of catching this disease. If you find a tick, the best way to remove it is by using tweezers to grasp its body just behind the head and exerting steady, even pressure as you pull it out without twisting or breaking off the head. The old-fashioned remedies of burning the tick with a match or smothering it with vaseline or killing it with alcohol are no longer recommended.

You should ask your doctor for advice and about the advisability of being vaccinated against Lyme disease, and ask your vet about vaccinating your dog.