Backpacking With Dogs: Little Things That Make A Big Difference

There are lots of obvious things you need when backpacking with dogs. Maybe a dog backpack (I highly recommend THESE by Groundbird Gear), a leash (biothane leashes are the way to go), flea and heartworm preventative, a collar, dog food etc. Several years of backpacking with dogs has taught me that there are a lot of not so obvious things too. Little things that once you know about, you wonder how you ever got by without them! I wanted to share some of my tricks and tips, and I’d love for you to leave yours in the comments.

Olive or Coconut Oil

Just like their human counterparts, dogs can struggle with getting enough calories on long backpacking trips. To increase caloric intake (while simultaneously making kibble more flavorful and desirable) add a teaspoon or two of olive or coconut oil to your dog’s meals. I add it pre-trip and package individual meals in ziplock baggies. This can also be prepped during town stops on longer treks.

A Cheap, Lightweight Tent Stake

It isn’t good hiker etiquette to let your dog roam around freely at campsites. Period. I know all of us dog owners like to be able to include our pets in the social aspect of our hike. The solution I came up with is to bring a tent stake specifically for tethering your dog. Using a piece of paracord or a leash,  you can stake your dog literally anywhere. They can sit beside you at dinner, around the campfire, and if you’re like me and use a hammock these are also useful for tethering your dog near your hammock at night.

(Side note: if you have a dog that yanks really hard on their leash, you’ll need a longer stake!)

A Lightweight, Collapsible Dog Bowl

I use a silicone bowl that is flexible, easy to clean, and dishwasher safe, so I can throw it in the dishwasher if one is available at a hostel. This will give your dog something to safely and easily eat and drink out of, but it isn’t heavy or bulky.

Something Reflective, Bright Orange, or Both

Shooter wears a Cycle Dog Max Reflective collar and Blaze Orange Groundbird Gear pack.

Much of peak hiking season also corresponds to hunting season in various parts of the country, including states the AT passes through. Have something ultra visible on your dog. A simple safety orange bandana does the trick, or you can opt for a more elaborate option. My dogs wear a Cycle Dog Max Reflective No Stink collar and also has lime green and safety orange incorporated into his pack.

Another perk is that, especially for dark colored dogs, it makes them more visible to YOU at night. Always know where your pet is. This will help.

Paw Wax

You know how much of a beating your feet take on a long distance hike? How much thought did you put into shoes for this trip? How much money? Yeah, I thought so. Well, your pup is most likely barefoot. If you’re a thoughtful owner, you may have done several shorter shakedown hikes to help toughen up the pads, or maybe your dog is super active regularly and already has tough feet. Whatever the case, backpacking or thru-hiking will put a beating on your dog’s feet, too. Products like mushers wax can help condition the feet and make them less susceptible to abrasion and cracking. Take care of their feet like you take care of yours.

A Retractable Leash

Nash is shown on his retractable leash walking across Max Patch. You can also see the collapsible bowl attached to his pack.

I HATE retractable leashes for the everyday dog owner. They are useless as training tools and utterly disastrous as a normal walking leash. However, for dogs that are both under voice control and reliably leash trained, retractable leashes are great for backpacking. I picked up the smallest, lightest, cheapest one I could find. A 10-15ft length is good – anything longer is going to cause trouble.

Using a carabiner, I attach the leash to my left pack strap down near the hip belt (my dog is trained to walk on the left). The retractable nature of the leash allows the dog some give and take without having to worry about the leash dragging the ground and getting snagged or tripping up the dog. It keeps the dog from getting too far away and frees up my hands to use trekking poles and not have to hold a leash.

Caution: do not grab the leash in any attempt to control your dog. You will burn your hands severely. If your dog isn’t under verbal control and doesn’t have good impulse control, I do not recommend using a retractable leash until you’ve done some training.

Glow Sticks

If you are doing any night hiking or overnight camping, have small glow sticks to attach to your dog’s collar can help tremendously with visibility. While these may not be super practical for long treks like a thru-hike, for short 1-2 night trips, they work really well. I buy the short ones with a hole in the top and slide them right onto the ring that holds the dog’s tags on the collar.

Copies of Your Pet’s Records

If you have access to a computer and printer, make a small index-card sized copy of your pet’s current vaccine records. Include any medications or chronic conditions. Laminate this card and keep either in your dog’s pack or on your person when hiking. This way, in the event of an emergency or your pet running away, anyone who finds him/her will have all necessary information. It should go without saying that your pet should also be wearing a tag with your contact information (name and phone number only) and also their current rabies and/or registration tag.

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Comments 8

  • Nadine : Aug 14th

    Hi Stacia. I attempted a thru hike this year with my goldendoodle, Yankee. Had to get off (carried off) when I broke my ankle at mile 586. I was wondering what brand of retractable leash you use for your dogs. I checked out the biothane leashes but I did not find any retractable ones.

    • Stacia Bennett : Aug 14th

      I honestly just picked up a small, lightweight, cheap one at Walmart. The one I got is probably rated for small dogs, but my dogs are trained not to pull on leash so I don’t worry about that so much. The benefit of it being retractable is that as your dog moves forward and back within the range of the leash, you don’t end up with extra leash hanging on the ground to get tangled underneath their feet. Nothing is more annoying than having to stop every few minutes and untangle the leash from your dogs feet while hiking lol!

      The big disadvantage is that retractable leashes are useless as a training tool or for true control – they will restrain your dog if the dog darts or lunges, but do not offer you a way to get the dog back under physical control. For this reason, I also carry an actual leash that I usually keep draped across my body or hanging from an accessible spot on my pack. I prefer biothane leashes for their durability and water resistance, but any old leash will do. If my dog were to become agitated or I come to a more congested area where closer leash control is needed, I just clip the regular leash on and keep walking.

  • Jennifer Stoneman : Oct 25th

    I was wondering about all the rocky parts. Can dogs climb all those section s

    • Stacia Bennett : Oct 26th

      Most areas, yes. However, there have been a few spots where I have had to physically assist my dogs up embankments and rock faces.

      • Jennifer Stoneman : Dec 28th

        Did you ever feel your dog was in danger. Esp. In the white mtn

        • Stacia Bennett : Dec 28th

          I did not do the Whites with my dogs, but I know many who did. There were definitely some sketchy areas that would have taken some planning/improvising with a dog, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I haven’t thru-hiked, so maybe someone who has will chime in!

  • judy : Jul 6th

    I was thinking of bringing my Australian Shepherd who is very well behaved but was wondering if having a dog does not prevent you from going into town and staying at hotels. I will probably be 60 by the time I attempt the Trail so I’m going to want to take a zero-day at least every five to seven days and hopefully stay at a Hotel. Did you have any issues with keeping your dog in the hostels or hotels and did you simply tie your dog up outside of the stores when you went in to do restocks?


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