How to Dog-Proof Your Backpacking Sleep System

While it seems like dogs and backpacking go together like milkshakes and fries on a town day, it can be frustrating sharing such a small home-away-from-home. I’ve backpacked with a few different dogs, some my own and some friends’, and there are some skills that go a long way toward protecting your gear.

If you’ve ever shared a tent on a trip, you know there are days you’d like to roll your tent mate out the door and down a hill. If you share a quilt, it can get even worse. Nobody likes a blanket hog when the temperature dips below freezing. It’s not uncommon on the long trails to see couples head into town to get their own separate sleeping gear.

When you take your dog with you, you don’t have that option. It’s you and your pooch until the end. While the saying goes “hike your own hike,” the truth here is closer to “hike your dog’s own hike.” If you backpack with your dog, you know to be vigilant about paws, heat, wildlife, and exhaustion. You have to put their needs first, and that includes when the sun goes down.

It’s not all work, though. There are some definite perks to sharing a tent with a pup.

You’ll sleep warmer. Even though your down bag might get smushed, dogs’ bodies generate more heat than humans’ bodies. If you’re comfortable with it, you can share a quilt and sleep even warmer.

You might feel safer. My dog Moose spooked as easily as me when he started backpacking. Every rustling leaf set off another round of barking. However, after a few dozen nights in the woods, he’s a great alarm system for big stuff (bears, moose) and doesn’t do much more than lift a head for raccoons and possums. For the same reason, though, I don’t take Moose into serious grizzly country.

You’ll wake up happier. It’s hard to oversleep when your best friend is raring to go at the first sign of morning.

Basic Training for Camping with Your Dog

Skills are the best way to dog-proof your sleeping system. Start training at home, and be certain your dog will obey voice commands every time. There are plenty of nights Moose is ready to hit the hay before me, and a firm “stay” has saved my tent floor when he’s been ready to jump in while I’m still setting up.

A dog can destroy a tent pretty quickly, by stepping on the tent body and puncturing it or by poking holes in the tent floor. Some dogs don’t grasp that tent walls are meant to be solid, and quickly break poles trying to get out. Dogs will try to treat your tent like they treat their bed at home, so observe how your pet acts on a normal night—many dogs even paw at their bedding, and this behavior would shred a tent. Be aware of how your dog acts in a thunderstorm, too, as their reactions might be more extreme in the backcountry.

The most important command in a tent is “no.” Your dog needs to know you mean it. Pups are smart, and will test boundaries. This command is vital when your dog wants to go through the mesh door without unzipping first, starts to paw at the bedding, or begins leaning against the tent wall for no clear reason (they will, trust me).

Your dog should also be able to sit and lie down on command, and stay there. You can make sure your dog stays in place while you get situated, especially with a mummy bag. When you get up to pee in the middle of the night, you don’t have to fiddle with leashes or worry about chasing them down. And, of course, you can make sure they sleep in their spot and off your gear. A dog should have a sleeping pad to use in the tent that is just theirs, as it provides warmth and protection but is also a specific place to be in the tent.

Once you’ve trained your dog on the basics, set out your dog’s sleeping pad (yes, they really do need one) and yours. Your goal in this part of the training is to teach your dog to get into the tent the same way every time, and to get in his spot without a struggle. Use something you won’t lose your temper over if it needs patched. Let your dog explore both, and tell them “no” whenever they step onto your bag. Reward them when they get on their own. Make them lie on it repeatedly.

Once your dog consistently goes straight to their pad, lay your sleeping bag out on your own pad. The sleeping bag will be a temptation—soft, warm, and perfect for naps. Again, repeat the no/ reward process.

Finally, set up your tent with your gear inside. Figure out how you want your dog to get to their pad, and where you want him to step to get there. Make your dog sit outside the tent before entering each time, then show them to their spot in the tent several times on different days. Pretty soon, your pup will be trained to wait patiently outside the tent for bed, then get onto their spot without bringing a day’s worth of rain water onto yours.

Set Yourself Up for Success with the Right Gear

Given a choice, I’d give up my ultralight gear before I went without Moose. Failing to train your dog before combining the two is a recipe for disaster. 7D fabric is as thin as cobwebs, and about as sturdy faced with dog nails. Don’t try to force your love of ultralighting together with your love of your pup until you feel confident about how to handle both. It’s better to train with a cheap bag first.

Some hikers try to solve this problem by taking the 18 ounce sleeping bag and the dog, and keep them separate with the dog outside the tent or in the vestibule. Dogs don’t deserve to be left out. Your dog works just as hard (if not harder) and covers the same trail all day, and the cold hard ground doesn’t feel any better for them than it does for you. Keeping a dog in a vestibule risks a torn tent if any wildlife comes through, and tying a dog up in camp creates risks both for the dog and wildlife. At worst, it can put you and your dog in a dangerous situation where your dog can’t escape.

Finally, don’t head out on trail until you and your dog have trail etiquette down. The same training that makes a dog a good hiking partner also makes them a good sleeping partner. And if your dog has been awesome on trail all day, you’re likely to get a little grace from nearby campers if he is still learning the ins and outs of camp life at night.

Tips for Choosing the Right Gear

I’m a fairly frugal backpacker. That said, I do have slightly different gear when Moose comes along. Choosing sturdier gear can make a big difference on trip, even if it weighs a pound or two more.

Tents

If your dog is bigger, you will probably want a two-person tent. I really like the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2. It’s three pounds, but the 29 square feet of floor space are precious when you’re sharing it with 100 pounds of wet retriever. Its poles can also handle some stress, from storms and dogs. You can experiment with a tarp system, but many dogs struggle without clear boundaries, and dogs that fear storms are at risk of running off.

If you have a much smaller dog, you can use a smaller tent. Moose and I have shared my REI Quarter-Dome several times, and only knocked it down from inside once, although it’s a tight fit. Check the denier of the tent floor. It should be able to withstand a little roughing up.

Sleeping Pads

I used to use a semi-inflatable pad. Now I use an old piece of egg carton foam (so old, in fact, I have no idea where it came from). Closed-cell foam works well, too. It can’t be popped. If you do use an inflatable pad, I recommend bringing a sleeping bag liner to slip it in. The fabric will move with a dog’s paw, giving you a better shot at avoiding punctures. Bringing a few patches is still a good idea.

My foam piece is long enough to reach from my head to my hips. I cut Moose a pad big enough for him to sleep comfortably on from the same piece. Sometimes we just share the Therm-a-Rest horizontally.

Sleeping Bags

I choose my sleeping bag based on the weather. If there’s a chance it’s going to rain often, I take a synthetic bag. Wet fur can add a lot of condensation to a tent, and synthetics will hold up better. If I choose to do this and it will be cold, Moose gets his own blanket. An emergency blanket and a wool liner are a great lightweight dog cover.

That said, if I can make it happen, I will take a down quilt. I can use a 20* quilt in under 20* weather when we’re snuggled up. You probably won’t want to strap the quilt to the pad. If your dog struggles to get up and out of the quilt, they’re more likely to tear it. I’ve successfully shared a quilt with Moose on several week-plus hikes.

Always do a thorough tick check before bed, even if your dog is on a flea and tick medication. The critters will happily move from your dog to you.

Protect Your Goods

Finally, if you must have your fancy gear and your pup right away, there are some measures you can take to insulate the ultralight materials from a misplaced paw. While boots or socks might seem like a good idea, in reality they might cause paw problems for your dog, and can end a hike early. Dogs’ paws need to air out just like hikers’ feet.

Tyvek is a good option. Just as you might put your groundcloth inside your tent on a wet night, you can “sandwich” your sleeping bag and pad between two Tyvek footprints. This will let air flow to prevent moisture buildup in your bag (especially if it is down), but create a strong layer between nails, wet fur, and gear. It also better protects the floor of the tent from punctures, but you’ll need to be more aware of the ground under your tent if the groundsheet is inside.

You can also slide your sleeping bag, pad, or both inside a silk bag liner. Size up to avoid losing any loft in your bag. Obviously, this won’t do quite as much as Tyvek, but it’s lighter and more focused on your gear if your tent itself is sturdier.

I recommend starting with shorter trips to make sure backpacking together will work for both you and your dog. Good training will always go farther than gear, although a little prep can go a long way.

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