Getting the Most Out of Hiking with your Dog

Dogs love walks, and they love the outdoors, which make hiking a truly great activity to do with your pup. You’ll both get exercise, enjoy the beauty of nature, and, best of all, make irreplaceable memories. Before you grab your hiking gear and head out, however, there are a few things to consider. To ensure your hiking trip is a great adventure, you and your dog must be capable and prepared. Here are our tips to help you gear up for a safe and happy hiking experience.

Shape up!

Unless you know with absolute certainty that you and your pup are in the right condition to do so, it’s a bad idea to start off with an epic 20-mile hike up steep inclines. Instead, make the 20-mile hike your end goal, and work up to it.

If you and your pet are hiking newbies, take it slow and build up your strength and endurance together. Keep in mind that to do a five-mile hike, you should both be capable of walking ten miles with minimal distress. Start off taking incrementally longer walks on local bike trails, where you can easily set a time limit and head back to your car when you’re done. Then try short, easy hikes on park trails.

If you’re a hiker, but your dog is a newbie, consider his fitness level, temperament, and age before starting. Is your pooch a couch lounger in serious need of more exercise?  If so, start him off slowly on short trail loops. Make it fun; let him pause to sniff or look at anything he finds interesting, and give him praise and treats for cooperating. Then slowly build him up to longer, more difficult hikes.

Is your pooch a backyard dynamo in need of a place to burn some energy? Make sure he is under voice and/or leash control, and start him out at a slow pace on local bike trails to see how well he does staying by your side and accommodating your stride. If he struggles to restrain himself, pulls at the leash, or is constantly distracted, he may need more training before you hit the trails. The last thing you want is to lose control of a high-energy dog in the middle of the woods. If he does well, and you’re reasonably fit, you can probably start out with a trail that’s a little more challenging than your average short loop.

Dogs should be up-to-date on vaccinations and in good health before going on extended hikes.  Being familiar with pet CPR is recommended for all pet parents. However, it’s essential when hiking or partaking in similar adventures.  Also, it’s important to note that brachycephalic dog breeds don’t make the best hiking partners, as they are prone to breathing issues.

Be weather-ready

Before setting out on any given trail, it’s important to be aware of any weather conditions that could cause issues during your hike. Checking the weather and planning accordingly is key to avoiding a ruined, or even disastrous trip. 

Heat exhaustion is real, and it’s dangerous. During hot weather, do intensive hiking during the coolest parts of the day, and plan a picnic in the shade or a dip in a stream for the hottest part of the day. Or, time your whole hike for the early morning or late afternoon hours. Be sure to bring enough water for you and your pup. Dress properly for cold weather hikes, and bring a jacket for your dog if necessary.  Carry ponchos in case of rain, and have a safety plan in place for an unexpected thunderstorm.

Select an ideal trail

Most dogs are not well-adapted for rough terrain. Choose well-traveled, dirt-packed trails for sure footing. In addition, choose trails with clearly visible signs, blazes and markers to avoid getting lost or accidentally wandering off-trail. State parks, nature preserves, managed forests, and green belt systems are usually well-maintained, well-signalled, and designed for easy navigation. National parks can also be a good option, but only a few allow dogs on the trails, and those that do require leashes.

Don’t lose your way

Don’t ever assume a trail loop will be simple.  Even the smallest parks can have several intersecting trails, as well as paths that look like trails, but aren’t. Print out a trail map to take with you, or grab one at the park office when you arrive. Study it carefully, and if you’re not proficient with trail maps, this is your chance to learn to read them!

Stay on marked paths, and if you do lose your way, turning around and going back the way you came is better than venturing onto a new, unfamiliar path. If there’s a sign-up sheet for a trail you’ve chosen to hike, jot your name down, say hello to the staff, and introduce them to your dog.  Do your best to be memorable–it will help ensure you’ll be missed and looked for if you don’t return in a reasonable amount of time. 

Choose your gear wisely

Be sure to pick a comfortable harness that works best for your dog. The right harness should also help you lift your dog if necessary. Hydration is the most important safety factor for hiking, so be sure your pack can accommodate at least 3 liters of water along with snacks, and a first aid kit. 

If you choose to outfit your pooch with a backpack, keep in mind that he’ll need to get used to it before he goes on a real hike with it. Introduce it slowly over time, and add weight incrementally until he can carry heavier loads, while keeping in mind that dogs can only carry a maximum of 15 percent of their body weight. Make sure the pack’s weight is distributed evenly on each side. If you add water to his pack, have him drink that water first, rather than any water you’re carrying, to ensure his load gets lighter with time. 

Dog booties sound silly at first, but protection for your dog’s feet is a wise investment. They aren’t necessary for everyday hikes, but they’re invaluable if your dog gets a paw injury. Make sure you get your dog used to wearing them so he doesn’t resist when you try to put one on. 

Always bring your phone, with the location tracker switched to on, and bring a portable battery pack.

Train your dog in hiking etiquette

Make sure your dog is up to snuff when it comes to loose-leash training. Giving him enough slack to explore and have fun is impossible if he lacks discipline. Most people know the importance of voice recall training, but training your dog to “check in” with you when you pass distractions or other hikers is essential, too, as it will keep him from chasing interesting things or intruding on other people’s space. 

An off-leash trail is not an etiquette-free trail. It doesn’t mean your dog is welcome to approach another person or dog, chase after wildlife, or roam freely anywhere he likes. To ensure that he maintains appropriate boundaries, consider using a long-line leash instead of letting him go completely off-leash.

Be courteous on the trails

There is an etiquette system on trails, and it’s important to know and follow it. Pedestrians have the right of way to bicycles. People going uphill on a trail system have the right of way to people going downhill. Always move to the side of the trail and let people pass you easily. If you are coming upon fellow hikers in either direction, announce the presence of you and your dog. They will very much welcome this act of courtesy.

Following these simple tips will help ensure that you and your pet have happy and healthy hiking experiences for many years to come.  Have fun and stay safe!

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