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.
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):
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 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!
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