Canine Companion: Hiking Big Miles With Dogs

In the past year, a Newfoundland-Lab mix (pictured below) summited 48 peaks over 4,000 feet and logged hundreds of miles of trail, including all of Vermont’s tough, 272-mile Long Trail. Her owner and hiking companion Caitlin Quinn tells us how to get your pooch prepared for hikes both short and long.

hiking with dog

Your best (canine) friend can be your best hiking companion. But preparation is key before you think about hitting the trail for a long hike. My dog Vaida, age 7, and I have honed a system, and we now hike almost every weekend together, including distance trails and up Northeast mountain peaks. Here are a few tips if you’re hoping to get your pup up to task on the trail ahead.

1) Vet Check. Confirm with your vet that your dog is fit to hike. Ask about any dietary changes worth considering, like increasing your dog’s daily caloric intake for the trip ahead. Get a general checkup if needed to ensure good physical health.

hiking with dog tips

2) Ease into it. Most folks can’t hike 20 miles off the couch, neither can a dog. Blisters plague humans; dogs run into similar issues in the form of torn pads, especially if it’s their first foray onto the trails. Their paws need to toughen up and callous over the same way our feet do.

Start with a five-mile day hike. Then stretch it to 10. Next up, an overnight, then maybe a 20-mile overnighter. If you want your pooch crushing miles with you, take it slow.

3) Know the water situation. Research the known reliable water sources. While most dogs are good at finding water on their own, if it hasn’t rained recently those random puddles and trickling streams they typically bask in could be bone dry. If you don’t remember the last time it rained, you should pack at least a 1-liter bladder for the dog, more on distance hikes.

hike with your dog

4) Fido should carry his own stuff. Food, bowl, water, camp mat…  this is the dog’s gear. You’re trying to hike big miles, and you don’t need the extra weight. Pack dog treats and snacks in zip-lock bags to keep out any water. These go in a dedicated dog-pack, which is made by Ruffwear, Groundbird gear (see above), and other brands.

A piece of Tyvek with some fabric sewn to the top makes a great camp mat for a pooch. Another option is the Ruffwear Highlands Pad, or Highlands Bed. You could also cut down an old sleeping bag or a Therm-a-Rest Z-lite. Stuff this in the dog’s pack or strap it on top.

backpack with dog

A built-in harness on the pack can be helpful for hoisting your dog over tall boulders. Removable saddle bags are another plus, especially if Fido wants to go for a swim; just remove the bags, leaving the harness.

My favorite dog packs? Groundbird gear has packs handmade in Maryland and customizable to your specifications and your dog’s exact measurements.

Take your dog out on a few day hikes with a full load. They’ll need to get used to carrying the weight and maneuvering through places they can fit through when wearing the pack.

5) Pay attention to Fido throughout the hike. Make sure he’s drinking plenty of water and resting when you rest. If you’ve got a squirrel chaser, consider keeping him leashed to avoid over-tiring.

Pay attention to their body language. Stopping a lot or favoring a certain paw means there’s probably an issue that needs addressing. Start thinking about a bail-out plan if the pup is lying down a lot or not showing motivation to keep moving.

6) Know the trail. Getting three-quarters of the way through a two-mile loop only to find an impassable section is no fun. Look at a map, know the water situation, ask someone who’s done the trail, or search forum posts by other people-puppy hikers to understand the water situation and any obstacles.

7) Leash laws. At any area, research leash laws and any restrictions on pets. Pick up after your dog, and be mindful of other hikers. Letting a dog roam free in the woods is a great pleasure (both for owner and dog) but you’ll likely want to leash up or have the pup heel close when other people are present.

Doing some homework and making adequate preparations, for both you and your pooch, before setting out on a big adventure ensures a successful hike and a bonding experience like no other. Happy trails and tails!