Backpacking with Dogs: The Basics

Charlie and Theanie on the trail

When our dogs see their backpacks, they have a tendency to freak out a little.  After a long winter of casual walks and backyard fetch games, getting into the mountains and exploring is the only thing they want to do!  Luckily for us, spring is here and although Idaho has a tendency to throw surprise two-minute snow flurries our way, we are getting our supplies ready and brushing up on our wilderness know-how as we prep for our first backpacking trip of the season.  Here are some tips for making sure your camping dog is ready for adventure!

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How to fit dogs for a backpack

There are some awesome sizing charts out there to help find the right size pack for your pup, but most backpacks rely on size and weight ranges to fit dogs correctly.  Dog backpacks will generally clasp around the shoulders, chest and waist; you want the pack to fit snuggly but not too tight (if they can’t breathe they probably won’t get very far on the trail) and make sure weight is distributed evenly on both sides.  Although dog weight doesn’t fluctuate as much as humans, it’s a good idea to check the way their pack fits every time they wear it.  Things like coat thickness or even just a couple extra pounds of winter weight can drastically change how their pack sits on their body; one time Charlie went about a mile in a pack that was too tight because we forgot that the last time he had worn it he had short hair.  To avoid mishaps like this, it’s best to adhere to the golden rule: Do unto your dogs backpacks as you would do unto your backpack – check the fit before you hit the trail.

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How much can dogs carry?

The word around the internet is that dogs can carry up to 25% of their own weight, so depending on Fido’s size they should be able to carry their own food and water.  Some dogs are able to carry up to 40% of their own weight (huskies, for example and other working/ pack dogs) but for weekend warriors or inexperienced dogs, it’s a good idea to ease them into backpacking with less weight and see how they do.  When Theanie went on her first hike with us, we equipped her with an empty pack so she could get used to how it felt; on her very first overnight backpacking trip we kept the weight in her pack to just the canine med kit, their food and water bowls and a couple of gummy snack packs for us.  Now that she’s an experienced backpacking pup, she carries all of that stuff, plus her meds, our camp shovel and our Ziploc trash bag.

Be aware of your dog’s age, physical ability and any ailments they might have.  Theanie is only 5 and in general very fit and active, but she has a bum elbow that acts up when it’s cold or when she has been running or hiking.  To keep her healthy enough to hike with us for years to come, I like to keep the weight in her pack to a minimum, even if that means carrying some extra weight in my own pack.

Dog Tip: Puppies under the age of 1-year-old should not carry packs with weight in them, and some sources even recommend waiting until closer to 1.5 – 2 years before adding weight to the pack.  This all depends on the breed, but adding too much weight too early can impact their growth, so do your research before saddling them up!

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What can dogs carry?

Our rule is that the dogs carry their own stuff, and I break down how and why we divide things up the way we do in my first Backpacking With Dogs post.  The basic pup essentials on the trail are food and water; everyone needs extra calories when you’re hiking, so make sure to bring enough food.  That being said, we always seem to have leftover dog food when we get back from our trips.  Charlie and Theanie are more interested in playing, exploring or sleeping when we’re on the trail, their interest in food definitely comes as an afterthought.

I carry extra water bottles for easy access when we get to camp, but we’ve trained our dogs to drink out of our water packs on the trail.  This saves us a lot of time (no need for dog bowl set up!) and means that we don’t have to worry about taking our packs on and off every time one of them needs a drink.  If you can’t train your dog to drink directly from your water hose, having them carry their own bowl and some extra water is a great way to alleviate some weight from your pack.

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Dog Tip:  Don’t let your dogs drink from streams or other water sources!  Dogs can get sick from tainted water and that’s the last thing you want to happen on the trail.

I’ve seen backpacking dogs that carry their own sleeping pad, but our dogs are lucky because their sleeping pads are too bulky to fit on their backs.  I carry them on the bottom of my bag, and since they’re foam they only add about .25 lbs to my pack.  We use their sleeping pads as seating around camp, and then dust them off the best we can before bringing them into the tent each night.  We also carry  extra layers for the dogs to sleep in.  These don’t have to be fancy; Theanie wears an old vest that zips up backwards, and Charlie wears a bright orange puppy sweater that I got for $10 at a D&B.  The most important thing is that they are comfy in the tent so that everyone gets plenty of rest before hitting the trail again the next morning.

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Other things to consider

Keeping everything dry is one of the main challenges with puppy packs, especially if you’re going on a trail with lots of river crossings.  We pack everything in the dogs’ backpacks into waterproof bags, and if they have something that really can’t get wet (medication, for example) put it in your backpack instead.

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We try to stay off of muddy trails, but every once in a while we’ll run into a rainstorm and have to deal with wet, muddy puppy paws.  I’ve sacrificed a shirt when this happens but it’s better to just keep a small towel in their puppy packs, and be as thorough as possible when wiping them down before they get in the tent.

Waste disposal for dogs is the same as for humans: bury it away from water and away from your campsite.  Theanie carries our camp shovel so it’s always easily accessible, but it’s important to make cleaning up after your pet a priority on the trail.  Not only does it reduce the risk of unwanted wildlife encounters, but it makes the environment more welcoming for everyone you might be sharing it with.

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Backpacking with dogs can seem daunting and maybe even a bit overwhelming if you are just getting started.  Hopefully these basic tips will help you decide if your pup is ready to hit the trail, and what they need in order to have the best experience possible.  Keep exploring, and feel confident when you bring your furry sidekick along for the journey!

Backpacking with Dogs: The Basics | The Backpack Almanac

 

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