My BEST hiking partner!

Backpacking with Fido: Top 5 Reasons to Leave Your Dog at Home

Hiking with your dog can be incredibly rewarding, so surely bringing Fido backpacking will only amplify the rewards even more, right? Maybe.  Or it could end in disaster.

I hike with my dog religiously.  We both love it, although presumably for different reasons!  I also take him car camping with me any time I go.  Again, we both love it.  I especially enjoy his company when I am camping alone, sans the rest of my family.

But I rarely take him backpacking.

My dog “Furley” is a 70lb English Cream Golden Retriever. He is in excellent physical shape, is highly trained and is perfectly stable and comfortable in the outdoors and strange environments (which means if there is an “ideal” dog for backpacking, it’s him). But still, I rarely take him.  And I caution others about bringing their dogs along, too.

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Furley is in incredible shape, but I rarely take him backpacking.

I don’t think dogs should never backpack, I just want the owners to have thought through the endeavor thoroughly.

Here it is.  My Top 5 Reasons to Leave Your Dog at Home (in no particular order):

  1. If he gets injured, you’ll need to be prepared to carry him long distances.  Paw injuries are the most likely occurrence on the trail – think broken claws, torn pads and cuts. Your dog’s feet take a real beating when backpacking.  Most dogs can’t – or won’t – wear doggy hiking boots, and some hiking boots can cause injuries themselves! Realistically, there is little-to-nothing you can do to prevent a paw injury. Hiking on rough granite or loose scree? Definitely leave Fido at home! And what kind of strength do you have? Can you carry your gear and your dog all the way back to the trailhead if he can’t walk? Emergency responders probably won’t respond to your dog’s emergency.

    A badly cut paw pad is a deal-breaker!
    A badly cut paw pad is a deal-breaker!
  2. You’ll likely carry your dog’s supplies.  Let’s say you’re taking a trip into the high country.  Fido will need way more food than usual.  He will need copious amounts of water.  He might need a jacket and should have some sort of bed to sleep on.  He most likely needs a bowl.  And don’t ever forget first aid supplies for your dog! Do you really want to carry all that extra weight? My dog carries his own backpack with water, food, his fleece jacket and a few odds and ends, but I still have to carry his piece of a foam sleeping mat and extras that don’t fit in his pack.  And in bear country, you’ll need his food to be in your bear canister at night. Do you have room?  And is your dog conditioned to carry his own pack?
  3. Poop! Many people think dog poop is “natural” and doesn’t have to be buried or carried out.  Not true.  Dog poop is actually quite problematic in the wilderness.  Dogs primarily consume meat, which means that their poop has a lot of meat in it and is a magnet for bacteria.  It’s not a “fertilizer” and isn’t good for the plants.  It’s also problematic when it gets in the water sources.  Dog poop attracts predators and increases their risk of contact with humans (or the dogs themselves).  It’s also disgusting to have dog poop lying around on a pristine wilderness trail. On day hikes, one should bag the poop and carry it out.  On backpacking trips, having a dog means having to bury all poop according to Leave No Trace principles OR collecting all of it and carrying it out.  Either way, not fun.

    Too rough for Fido to wade through.  A little risky to jump it.
    Too rough for Fido to wade through. A little risky to jump it.
  4. It’s hard to relax with a dog.  When you hike with your dog, he is most likely off leash.  How is his training?  Be honest!  Does he come when called every single time?  Does he have a high prey drive and like to chase anything that moves? Will he come back to you if he is chasing a bear?  Let’s face it, dogs scare the crap out of most wild animals.  Wilderness areas are meant to protect wild animals.  If your dog chases a deer off, perhaps you should feel badly; if your dog chases a bear, however, be afraid.  Be very afraid.  What about bobcats and mountain lions? Allowing your dog to harass the wild creatures is not fair to them, and is potentially very dangerous.  Also, water-loving dogs have a tendency to misjudge water flow.  Will your dog launch himself into every swollen stream or river with zero regard for swiftness or hazards downstream? How will you even get him through water crossings?  Will you need a flotation device for your dog? Be prepared to either watch your dog like a hawk 24/7 OR have him on leash (which means you’ll probably need to forgo hiking poles).
  5. Dogs limit your choices. Backpacking with your dog will severely limit your options, both from a legal standpoint as well as a practical one.  National Parks don’t allow dogs on the trails.  So that wipes out a zillion options.  Many state parks also ban dogs from most trails (this is certainly the case in California).  There goes another huge chunk of options.  Practically, you don’t want to take your dog to a place where a paw injury is all but guaranteed.  And you’ll need to avoid places with crazy water crossings or steep, icy sections.  In other words, you are (rightfully so) severely limited in where you can safely go when you bring Fido along.

    These rocks are too rough for bare paws!
    These rocks are too rough for bare paws!

These are the main concerns you’ll need to think about and prepare for if you want to take your pup backpacking.  Or, you could do what I do: hike with Fido, camp with Fido, but rarely backpack with Fido.

If you DO bring your pup backpacking, be prepared to change your plans given your dog’s safety and happiness.  In 2016, I took Furley backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.  Our goal was to reach the famed Sykes Hot Springs.  But, alas, the winter rains had made the river a tad crazy and getting to the hot springs meant a dangerous section through the river.  As we progressed and spoke to other backpackers, it became clear the river would not be safe for my dog (and perhaps not for me, either).  We had to turn around and abort the original mission.  But it was worth it to protect my dog and we still had fun accomplishing Plan B!

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Happy backpacker!

Disagree with me or just feeling really bummed? Have no fear!  I’ll play devil’s advocate next week with my list of Top 5 Reasons to Take Fido Backpacking.

Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and flute boys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life.Jack Kerouac



backpacking planning big sur

Planning that First Trip: Next Steps

If you are just starting to plan your first backpacking trip and have been following my blog, you’ve chosen the length of your first foray and now you’re wondering what to do next.  After you decide how LONG your first trip will be, the next step is to pick WHERE it will be and also WHEN.

Where and when you hike is important for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.  The most obvious consideration is the weather.  If you live in a cold environment, backpacking in early spring will be very cold and potentially snowy. Probably not your cup of tea (just yet)!

Another consideration is your current physical fitness level.  If you aren’t exactly in the best shape of your life and you don’t have much time to train, hiking in the Colorado Rockies, for example, might be a tad much.

backpacking planning
Planning out a recent trip.

Your first trip needs to be planned for an environment that will be comfortable for you. I live in Northern California and just completed my first trip of 2016 in March.  I don’t do snow. I knew the Sierra Nevadas and their foothills would be too cold and snowy, so I headed out to the coast of Big Sur.  The weather was quite comfortable for me there.  I also hadn’t been hiking much at that time, so I picked a trail that wasn’t too strenuous or hilly.

Backpacking beginner Ventana Wilderness
My dog carries his own pack!

I’m starting to think about my second backpacking trip of the year for in May. That one will also NOT be in the Sierras as it can (and does) snow up there through May.  I will likely pick a place more inland or perhaps further south. I can probably get away with the Sierra foothills, but I’ll need to check historical data for overnight lows to be sure my gear (and my skin!) can handle the temperatures.  And since I’ve been training a lot the past few months, I know I can handle more hills, so that will factor into my decision, too.

When it comes to backpacking locations, there are many types to choose from, from national parks and national forests to state parks and county parks as well.  There are also Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, federal and state wilderness areas, recreation areas, etc.

For many first timers, a national park is ideal because of the awesome facilities and consistent maintenance. National parks tend to have well-maintained, well-marked trails and lots of information available online and by calling.  Alternatively, BLM areas are often more remote with less information available online and trail systems that may or may not have been maintained any time in the last 100 years.

If you are a dog owner and want to bring Fido, national parks tend to be your enemy as they are decidedly not dog-friendly and most don’t allow dogs on any trails, period.

National forests, on the other hand, are usually incredibly dog-friendly and even allow for off-leash backpacking! Always check the rules while planning your trip – don’t find out the hard way that your trip with your dog has basically been ruined.

Also, don’t hesitate to call your prospective park and talk to a ranger or other representative. I have gotten wonderful advice by calling national parks and forests for information. The people who answer the calls tend to be very friendly and have a desire to help you out. It’s not like calling the DMV!

Last year I was planning a trip for my sister and myself for May. We originally wanted to backpack out to some popular hot springs in the Los Padres National Forest, but by calling and talking to a ranger in advance, I found out it would be way too crowded and unenjoyable for us; solitude was our big priority. Without talking to that ranger, we probably would have just gone to the springs and been let down.

Backpacking Henry Coe
Solitude at Henry Coe State Park! Just what we wanted.

In addition to park websites, searching for online trip reports is a great way to find information about trails in your area.  People write trip reports after a specific trip to help inform and educate others about that trail at the exact time they hiked it.  In addition to describing the trip, they also include things like the trail conditions, water supply, hazards, difficulty, etc. To find them, simply search online for ‘trip reports backpacking [your state]’. If you already know you want to hike in a certain park, you can do the search that way – ‘trip reports backpacking [name of park]’.

Another great resource is YouTube.  There you can see videos of the places you are considering. As an example, try searching ‘Evolution Valley‘ (part of the famous John Muir Trail) on YouTube – you’ll see a ton of videos. I also like using Google Images to search for photos of places in which I’m interested. One word of advice – don’t overdo it with the videos and photos; you want some of where you are going to be a surprise!

You can also seek out local backpacking clubs and organizations in your area and consult with them. For example, the Albuquerque, NM, chapter of the Sierra Club offers weekly hikes with an experienced leader. If you live in that area, those people would probably be good to know!

Next up: Finding Fellow Backpackers!

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Martin Buber