This article has been adapted from Lisa Densmore Ballard’s original blog – Hiking with Dogs: A Guide to Bringing Your Best Friend on the Trail.
Most dogs, regardless of size, make excellent hiking companions—if they are physically fit for the level of hiking that you plan to do, if they are obedient, if they are socialized among people and other dogs, and if the weather is not too hot. These are important ifs. In short, hiking with dogs takes more thought and preparation than simply starting up a trail. If you’re thinking of taking a four-legged pal on a hike, here are some things to keep in mind that will keep you, your dog, and other hikers happier and the environment healthier.
Hiking is more strenuous than walking. The terrain is uneven and usually involves vertical gain. If you spend more time lounging around than exercising, chances are good that your dog does too. Likewise, if you’ve mapped out a 10-mile hike but your daily dog walk consists of a casual stroll around the block, you may be carrying your pooch for the second half of the hiking route. Before you load up your backpack, make an honest assessment of both you and your dog’s fitness level—if your dog refuses to go further, you will be the one carrying them out of the woods. Also, pay attention to their paws, especially above treeline where the terrain can change. Many dogs end up with cut and bleeding paws (a great reason why you should always carry dog booties with you as you never know when you might need them!) Remember, there is no Fish and Game for dogs. If your dog goes down, the onus is on you to get them out. Pay attention to what your dog is telling you. It’s no different than hiking with other people—if you are unsure about whether to continue, turn around before a small issue becomes a big one. The mountain will always be there for your next adventure.
If you feel your dog is fit enough, then ask yourself whether it is sufficiently well-behaved. Hiking may take place in the wild, but that does not mean you will be alone. Before you take your dog into the backcountry, be sure it can heel, sit, stay, and come at your verbal command. Your dog should also be comfortable on a leash and, if off-leash, be more interested in staying with you than in chasing chipmunks. You need to have full control over your dog whether leashed or not. As importantly, your dog should be completely socialized among other dogs and humans. Trails are narrow, often with dense undergrowth on either side. You will be close to others when you pass on the trail or at the top of a popular mountain. If your dog is aggressive or overly protective, it will not be a good hiker-dog. Ditto if it’s prone to barking, which disturbs the quiet that so many people value in the backcountry.
Assuming your dog is in shape and well-mannered, almost any breed or mixed breed over 40 pounds should make a good hiker-dog, which is not to say that small dogs cannot trot down the trail just fine. An energetic Yorkshire terrier can humble a lazy black Lab if the trail is relatively smooth and short. However, small dogs have to take a lot more steps to cover the same piece of ground, and they cannot stretch as far up or down a rock, so they may need a lift where a larger dog would not. There are some trails that any dog can handle, of course, and others that only the most exceptional mountain dog should attempt. For everything in between, it is a judgment call.
Age is actually more of a factor than size. Old dogs, like old people, have stiffer joints, arthritis, and other ailments that reduce their physical abilities. While smaller breeds tend to live longer, any dog age 10 or older should be carefully assessed before taking it on all but the easiest routes. Be gentle with puppies too. Lack of obedience training aside, hiking up and down steep, uneven trails can adversely affect the development of a growing puppy’s hips, shoulders, and other joints, which are not fully formed until a dog is at least nine months old in smaller breeds, and a year old in larger breeds.
Regardless of how mountain-savvy your dog is, if the weather is hot and humid, a flat, shaded route to a pond is a better choice than a steep, rocky scramble up an epic 4,000-footer. Or save hiking for another time. Though you might prefer the trail, opting out for a different activity on a hot day will be both a safer and more enjoyable option. The last thing you want to deal with is having to carry your dog out due to heat exhaustion.
Canine Trail Etiquette
You and your dog are both ambassadors for everyone else who hikes with dogs. It only takes a few incidents, a couple of outspoken dog-haters, or several expensive dog rescues for a backcountry area to become more restricted to dogs. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be a model dog master on the trail:
- Keep your dog with you and under control at all times. Even when it’s off-leash, your dog should always be in sight and within range of your commands. If you cannot control your dog on a hike, please stay off the trails and choose a different activity.
- Hold the dog-to-human ratio at 1:1. If dogs outnumber people, it can be difficult to quickly control your dogs.
- Limit the total number of dogs in your hiking group to two, regardless of the number of humans. Three or more dogs hiking together become a pack of dogs, which can be intimidating to other hikers and increases the impact on the environment.
- Give dog-less hikers the right of way. When you meet others on the trail, put your dog on a leash, step out of the way, and command your dog to sit until the other hikers have passed.
- Say a friendly hello to others on the trail to signal to your dog that a friend and not a foe is approaching.
- If you encounter a loose dog on the trail, put your own dog on a leash. You can control the situation better if at least your dog is leashed. Allow the two dogs to meet, sniff each other, and speak to them in a friendly manner. As soon as the brief introduction is over, continue briskly on your way, ignoring the other dog.
- Prevent your pooch from begging. If you satisfy your dog with its own snacks and water, it will be less likely to beg from others.
- Clean up after your dog just as you would after yourself, using Leave No Trace principles. Dogs are not wild animals, and their refuse is not part of nature. Carry out (the only option in the alpine zone) or bury dog waste in a hole that’s at least 6 to 8 inches deep and disguise the spot. Be sure the hole is at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, shelters, and campsites.
- Do not allow your dog to disturb plants or wildlife. Keep your dog on the trail and when above treeline walk on rock as much as possible. Many fragile alpine plants cannot endure trampling. Also, soil becomes compacted and sticks to a dog’s paws accelerating erosion.
Keeping Your Dog Safe
Not every hike is dog-friendly, and those that are might still have elements that seem attractive to you but that could pose a danger to your dog. Before committing to a route, consider the following:
- Fire towers. These historic lookouts with their steep, narrow stairs and scaffolding-like construction disorient dogs. Most cannot make it to the cabin, and if they do, the space is extremely cramped inside for a nervous canine. If a fire tower is your destination, leave your dog at the base of it, held by a friend or tied to a tree or rock away from the steps.
- A dog won’t intentionally jump off a cliff, but it will sense your excitement or trepidation and get excited itself, often bounding ahead. To avoid any scares—or worse—be sure to put your dog on a leash and keep it calm and close when approaching cliffs.
- Avoid hiking trails with ladders. The taller the ladder is, the lower the odds of your dog finding an alternate route, and it is dangerous to both you and your dog to carry it up or down a ladder.
- Dogs are susceptible to waterborne illnesses. Technically, you should discourage your dog from drinking water along the trail. Yeah, right: Only the most prudish dogs will ignore a babbling brook, and most will jump into a swampy pool of stagnant algae if they are hot and thirsty enough. If possible, guide your dog to clear, running water, and always carry water and a water dish for your dog. Streams frequently dry up, and dogs are not allowed around water sources for shelters and campsites.
10 Essential Items for Hiking with Dogs
- Leash: Avoid long leashes. A better choice is either a short heeling leash or a moderate leash under 10 feet long that you can quickly shorten to heeling length. Note: A number of state parks require dogs to be on a leash that is 10 feet or shorter. Be sure to check the rules before heading to a park or forest.
- Dog brush and/or comb to keep your dog’s fur deburred. On some long-haired breeds, if their fur gets knotted enough, they will refuse to move another inch even if they are 10 miles from the car.
- Snug collar with your telephone number and your dog’s name, rabies tag, and dog license on it.
- Dog booties to protect sensitive dog paws or if your dog cuts a pad or tears a claw. These are essential items—it should be common practice to always carry them in case an injury does occur.
- Water: Carry at least a quart of water for your dog for every 3 miles you plan to hike if there are no reliable water sources along the route.
- Water dish
- Dog food/snacks: Bring actual dog food and/or dog biscuits, which are nutritionally balanced (fewer carbs, and more fat and protein) and easier for dogs to digest than human food.
- Spare rope: Depending on what you carry for a leash, a spare rope is helpful for times when you need to tie your dog to a tree or another fixed object.
- Plastic bags if your dog does its business anywhere above treeline, along a trail, or in a camping area, and you need to pack it out.
- Dog first-aid kit*: Basic components should include the following, most of which are available at larger pet supply stores, through your veterinarian, or at your local drug store:
- Bandage scissors
- Dog toenail clippers
- Cleansers and disinfectants such as hydrogen peroxide and Betadine
- Canine eyewash
- Calamine lotion (for itchy bug bites)
- Topical antibiotic ointments such as Bacitracin or Neomycin
- Baking soda (for bee stings)
- Stop bleeding powder
- Enteric-coated aspirin or Bufferin
- Imodium A-D
- Dressings and bandages
- Gauze pads (4 inches square)
- Gauze roll
- Non-stick pads
- Adhesive tape (1- and 2-inch rolls)
- Muzzle: Even the most passive dog can get snappy when stressed due to injury
Every year AMC receives emergency calls about dogs who are suffering from heat exhaustion, injuries, torn pads, or may have run off while hiking. Just as you would bring safety provisions for yourself, be sure to Hike Smart and bring safety provisions for your dog too. Remember, you will be responsible for carrying out your dog in case of an emergency.
*If for some reason you forgot to bring a first aid kit, Four Your Paws Only (a pet store in North Conway) just ran a campaign to raise funds for dog first aid kits to be housed at all huts, the Pinkham Visitor Center, the Highland Center, and Hermit Lakes. They should be arriving this month.