Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or more of a day hiker with overnight ambitions, backpacking with another animal is, well, a whole other animal. There’s a lot to consider, so we asked for some help from Becca and Gavin, also known by their trail names: “Hazel’s Mom” and “Hazel’s Dad.” Hazel’s Mom and Dad are currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail with their dog - and yes, she’s named Hazel.
One of the first things you’ll likely find yourself wondering is how far your dog can actually hike. The answer depends on your dog’s age, breed, fitness level, and personality, but according to Dr. Ronald B. Koh, an associate professor of clinical veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, dogs can generally walk or hike five to 10 miles per day.
When we spoke with Becca, Gavin, and Hazel, a 2-year-old Aussie-Border Collie mix, they had hiked a total of 1,619 miles from Georgia to Vermont, and had a little under 600 miles still to go. Now that they’ve got their hiking legs, the trio averages 15 to 17 miles each day and Hazel has no problem keeping that pace. Prior to embarking on this hike, which will end up being nearly 2,200 miles, Hazel and her parents had only done a handful of shorter backpacking trips. They attribute some of Hazel’s success on the trail to starting small and gradually increasing the length and intensity of their hikes.
In addition to getting Hazel into tip-top hiking shape before what many would consider the ultimate dog-packing expedition, Becca and Gavin wanted her to get used to carrying her own backpack. Hazel’s backpack has cut the weight that Gavin and Becca each have to haul as they hike almost the entire East Coast, so it probably goes without saying that it’s improved their journey pretty substantially.
How much can a dog carry in their backpack?
Dr. Koh says, “Dogs could carry 5 to 15 percent of their body weight in a vest or backpack - the pack should not exceed 15 percent. However, the amount of weight a dog could carry should be based on its fitness condition or any existing health problem. Dogs with a history of musculoskeletal issues or older dogs should carry less. Dogs with previous histories of neck and back injury, or spinal disease should not carry a backpack at all.”
Hazel is young and healthy, so she carries her own food, treats, rain jacket, paw balm, and poop bags - all inside dry bags, as Hazel has a fondness for walking through creeks. Gavin says that Hazel’s pack lets them bring along their companion without having to worry about carrying much of her gear. Another reason to consider a dog backpack? Becca and Gavin have given Hazel a boost a couple of times using her backpack’s handle!
With enormous energy reserves, impeccable off-leash behavior, a natural ability to stay on-trail, and a tendency to herd her humans, Hazel has proven to be an excellent thru-hiker. “She’s the perfect trail dog,” Gavin says.
Hazel’s biggest issue on the trail has actually been environmental: ticks. She emerged from one particularly perilous field with “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of baby ticks all over her.” The trio camped with a vet a couple of nights later and he told them that with her three layers of defense (oral anti-tick medication, a tick collar, and a Lyme disease vaccination), Hazel should be just fine.
Does your dog need any special training for backpacking?
Before you embark on a backpacking trip with your dog, you should make sure that they have great recall if you’ll be letting your dog off leash. If your dog isn’t the kind of dog who will chill at camp, bring along a long lead that can be clipped around a tree.
It’s also a good idea to know how your dog will react around other dogs and hikers; you don’t have to have a friendly dog, necessarily, but you’ve got to be able to keep space between your dog and others if they’re reactive. Anticipate encountering other dogs on and off-leash.
“Hazel’s a barker sometimes - she’s really pretty protective,” Gavin says. He and Becca have learned to use distraction methods to keep Hazel’s barking to a minimum when they run into friends or catch rides into towns, but they also see Hazel’s protective instincts as a benefit in the wilderness. “It’s nice to have someone that’s looking out for us and protecting us,” Becca adds.
Is it possible to backpack with any dog?
Gavin believes that while there are dogs who are built for backpacking success, there are some who are better off left behind.
“We’ve heard stories of people taking their tiny dogs and they ride on top of their packs all the time,” he says. “They make it work. So, depending on what lengths you want to go to, a lot of people could probably accommodate most dogs, but I think there are probably some dogs who would be better off doing shorter hikes or at least not coming out in the heat.”
Gavin and Becca’s advice for a positive backpacking experience with your dog essentially boils down to making sure that your dog is comfortable, both physically and emotionally. They began hiking and backpacking with Hazel when she was very young and many of her good habits clicked into place with practice.
How often will you need to stop, rest, eat, drink water, etc.?
For a dog of any age, it’s important to start small and build up strength and experience: start with shorter hikes, less weight in their packs, and work up to longer hikes and more weight.
“You kind of feel out what they’re capable of. It’s hard because they don’t have words and they can’t tell you what hurts and what’s not going well, so I think starting small and building up is probably the key,” Gavin says.
“I feel like it’s just being overly observant of your dog and how they’re doing on any length hike,” Becca adds.
Hazel’s meal schedule is the same on-trail as it is at home, but she eats more food (1.5 times her usual amount). While some people suggest letting your dog eat as much as they want during long hikes, Hazel would easily gobble down a whole bag of food if given the opportunity, so Becca and Gavin have been adjusting the amount as they’ve monitored her weight.
And what about sleeping arrangements?
Whether you opt to bring along a blanket or sleeping bag specifically for your pup, your dog is most likely sleeping in your tent, so you’ll want to be cognizant of things like the ticks we mentioned before, and whether your dog is a quick-drying breed. Gavin and Becca bring a towel for Hazel, but with her super-thick coat, they find that using a rain coat to prevent a thorough soaking has greatly improved their quality of life on the trail.
Can you bring your dog anywhere?
Backpacking locations are literally boundless… for humans. For dogs, though, there are some limitations. As Gavin points out, there are areas of the AT that do not allow dogs, such as the northern terminus of the trail in Maine’s Baxter State Park.
“She won’t get to finish with us, so we’ve talked about Photoshopping her into our Katahdin summit photo,” Becca laughs.
Wilderdog notes - "We did it for you!"
There are also sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and many other trails and parks that do not allow dogs, and for good reason: Dogs can disturb native habitats even without meaning to.
Pacific Crest Trail Association Content Development Director Scott Wilkinson says, “Dogs on the PCT are… somewhat of a hot-button issue. People love dogs and are passionate about them, but wildlife advocates are mostly against dogs in backcountry areas because their presence can actually disturb wildlife and alter their normal habitats and behavior patterns. Even if the dog doesn't encounter other animals, the other animals know the dog is there. We don't really take a position on dogs other than pointing out where they are not allowed.”
With that in mind, be sure that you follow leash rules and that your dog adheres to the Leave No Trace philosophy - don’t leave kibble or poop on the trail; don’t let your dog disturb sensitive areas.
What if something goes wrong?
There’s always some risk involved with adventuring in the wilderness, so download GPS maps, save local emergency numbers, pack a satellite communication device, read up on signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion in dogs, and pack a Trail Dog Medical Kit.
Of course, we believe that the benefits of backpacking with dogs outweigh the risks.
“We’re ‘Hazel’s parents’ out here - that’s our trail name,” Gavin laughs. “Everybody knows us because they know Hazel. She’s like a whole personality in [her own right], which is kind of fun for us. It’s also fun having a third companion. I couldn’t hike the AT without Becca, but when I don’t want to complain to her, I can complain to Hazel and she just listens.”
“I feel like she’s got such a great attitude all the time,” Becca says. “Physically, at this point, I know that I can do it, but sometimes, it’s mentally hard to get in those miles. It just never really seems that hard for Hazel, so she’s my inspiration. It doesn’t matter what the terrain is, she’s happy to do it, looking back at us like, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ She’s definitely a positive source of energy for our team.”
Feeling inspired yourself? We’ve got everything you need to start backpacking with your four-legged pal. And don’t forget to follow Hazel’s journey on Instagram @hazelhikes.
Behold, The Official Wilderdog Backpacking (with a Dog) Checklist
What to Pack
- Collapsible Bowl
- Leash - especially one that can be used hands-free
- Collar and/or Harness
- ID Tags
- Backcountry Bell
- GPS Tracker
- Spare Carabiners
- Cooling Bandana
- Dog Backpack
- Rain Jacket
- Poop Bags
- Sherpa Fleece Waterproof Blanket or Sleeping Bag
What to Train
- Off-leash etiquette
- Sleeping in a tent - you can practice in your yard!
- Carrying a backpack - remember to start out with a light pack
What to Learn
- Signs of heat exhaustion/stroke
- Signs of tick-borne infection
- Local hazards and wildlife concerns
- Emergency contact information