Tips for Backpacking with Your Dog

Remember a long time ago when I did my reader survey? Quite a few of you are clearly as obsessed with Tally as I am (good choice!), and had requested that I do a post on tips and tricks for backpacking and hiking with your dog. Naturally, I’m here to help! Plus, I honestly think that this is such an important topic. Tals loves joining me on adventures in the mountains, but it is equally important that I keep her safe. I have learned a lot of lessons with her through trial and error, so hopefully I can save some of you that trouble!

BP with Tals


1. Invest in a Good Backpack.

It took me a very long time to acquiesce to the doggy backpack because I was very concerned with my baby girl carrying extra weight. I’m tough; I could just carry her weight for her, right?


Negative! On multi-day trips, I realized that Tally’s food was taking up precious space in my backpack. One day I found myself excluding a base layer in order to fit Tals’ food, and I knew I had created a monster! I had tried a few different dog packs at that point, and both Tally and I had hated them all. They either slid around, pinched her stomach, or irritated the heck out of her spine. Luckily, Ruffwear had offered to send me their Palisades Pack, and I’ve never looked back. It fits her food and water, she feels important while carrying it, and I have extra space in my own backpack for the essentials….you know, like a jacket.

2. Always Carry a Leash.

Honestly, Tals is almost always off-leash in the backcountry because we rarely go on any trails where we encounter another soul. However, that isn’t always the case, and it is super important to have her leash just to be on the safe side.  If I know people are in the area or heading our direction, I’ll typically leash her up so that she doesn’t bother them or make any unexpected visits to their trail experience. Additionally, we have lots of ouchy critters like rattlesnakes and porcupines in our mountains. If I hear from another person that they saw such a critter on the trail (or I hear the rattle myself!), I’ll leash Tals up in order to keep her safe.

3. Make Sure Your Pup Has Enough Water.

I can’t stress this point enough, and it has taken me a long time to really get this ingrained in my thick skull! Dogs need water while hiking, and lots of it. However, if you’re hiking at altitude like I so frequently am, they need even more than you would expect, just like humans. Additionally,Tally has black fur which means her body heats up at a ridiculous rate. In the winter, it’s almost a non-issue because Tals will just plop her chubby little body down in the snow or run like a banshee through a deep drift:


However, in the summer, my baby girl heats up like whoa! In fact, it’s become a problem on past hikes because her black fur absorbs so much of the hot Colorado sunshine that it’s literally painful to the touch. (We’ve been testing Ruffwear’s Swamp Cooler jacket for this purpose—review to follow in the coming weeks!) Naturally, this internally sets her on fire and I always find her relaxing in pockets of shade on the side of the trail. To help her combat this, she and I both carry a ridiculous amount of water. In fact, I think she drinks twice as much as I do!


One of my favorite little devices for easy dayhikes is her Gulpy. I found it at REI a few years back for $20 and the thing has been invaluable! She is picky so she won’t drink from water that is being squirted from a tube or a squeeze bottle, so the attached dispenser has been clutch for her hydration.

4. Find a Backpacking Bed.

On day hikes and while car camping, this isn’t a concern. In fact, when we car camp at the base of 14ers, I typically throw in an extra sleeping bag and pad for Tas; obviously, space isn’t an issue in that situation. However, dogs are just like humans in the sense that they get cold at night and sleeping on the chilly tent floor is a no-go. Believe me, I tried it once or twice when I first got her, and I awoke in the middle of the night to find her mashed up against my body, halfway into my sleeping bag!

Since I am obviously not willing to carry an extra sleeping bag for her on the trail, we had to find an alternate plan. Once again, Ruffwear stepped in and sent me their Highlands Bed.

highlands bed

The bed packs down inside of that little stuff sack, and it’s made to actually fit inside of their Palisades Pack. It’s made of high loft insulation so it keeps Tals warm against the cold ground, but it only weighs 14 ounces so I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even know she is carrying it. It’s also machine washable which is great since Tals often settles in with disgustingly filthy paws.

However, the bed is pricey ($75) so I know a lot of people don’t want to spend that much on a dog bed. I’ve seen other people buy half-length foam sleeping pads (the kind that are best used for winter camping) and bring those on their trips. They don’t pack up as small so you’d have to attach them to the outside of your pack, but they still are light and will help keep your pup off the cold ground.

5. Know Your Dog’s Paws.

Again, this is something that Tals and I are still working on, but it’s pretty critical. I mean, without healthy paws, Tally is most definitely not joining in on any adventures!

Dog paws are durable, but they frequently struggle with temperature extremes, especially with certain breeds. Long haired dogs tend to get bloody paws while hiking in the winter since their fur freezes and matts between their toes. These frozen chunks start to cut up their feet if they go unnoticed, and these pups end up tracking a bloody trail in the snow. Not good!

Conversely, other dogs often burn up their paws while hiking in the summer. Sure, their pads can withstand a beating, but rock and pavement really heat up, especially when you are hiking above tree line. I can attest to the fact that rocks above 12,000 feet get HOT! Frequently, dogs will hike on these stones all day long and their pads will eventually blister and rip, causing a ton of pain to the poor pooch. How can you prevent this from happening? Dog shoes!


Tals and I are lucky in the sense that her short, oily fur repels snow in the winter so she has never been one to fall into the former description. Additionally, she has always handled rocks and stone with ease in the summer, even on 14ers with toasty surfaces. However, she came along on our failed attempt of La Plata last year, and for the first time in her life, we suffered from the hot stones. She managed to rip off a portion of her pad on her front paw, so I had to carry her down a large chunk of the 14er. I love my girl, but man! Carrying a 60 lb. dog down steep switchbacks WITH a backpack on my back was not easy! The paw took a few days to heal, and I felt terrible the entire time.

We’ve tried two different types of dog shoes and thus far, neither was a winner. Tally really hated the first pair, a generic set from REI, and purposely ran off on our hike, removed two of the shoes, hid them, and came back with two exposed paws. I could never find the missing shoes, but I figured that was her way of telling me that she hated them. Message received! We tried a second generic pair with the same results. I’ve been communicating with Ruffwear about the possibility of a “minimalist” set of shoes that I saw at winter OR Show. I’m hoping these work out better so that I can keep my girl’s paws protected. I’ll keep y’all posted!

Sidenote: As I’m sure all of you know, all of these beautiful Tally photos were taken by Will. Feel free to check out his photography gallery!


For you dog owners, what tips would you add?




  • Reply Katie at

    You know I’m more of a cat person 🙂 But just reading through this was super interesting. Most of these are things I’d never thought of! And even if I’m not a dog owner, I have plenty of friends with dogs and occasionally hike with them, so all of this is good to know. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply heather at

      Hiking cat perhaps?!

  • Reply Kaitlyn at

    I think knowing and respecting your dogs limits is important. Often times we think because our dogs are high energy mountain dogs they can go the distance, but then end up injuring themselves. Knowing when to leave your dog at home is important too.

    • Reply heather at

      This one is so key! I have a hard time telling Tals no because her little face breaks my heart, but at the end of the day, she is an animal and I have to decide what is best for her. Good tip!

  • Reply Julie at

    Super interesting, even though I am only a future pup mama for now. My boyfriend, who has taught me to stop and appreciate all critters as I pass them on the way, is going to fall over when he sees these pictures. I especially love the one with Tals bounding through the snow. Super cute!

    • Reply heather at

      I love Will’s photos of Tals– so clear and she looks like she is having so much fun!

  • Reply Natalie @ Free Range Human at

    All of these are so key, and they’re all ones we’ve been experimenting with lately. Our little man has just recently gotten old enough where we feel comfortable taking him so we’re seeing what works. So far he’s only been on one overnight, and I can’t even tell you how much better of an experience it was having him along! Thanks for the recommendation on the water-that’s one thing I haven’t quite got down yet!

    • Reply heather at

      That one is tough! The Gulpy is clutch– so worth the $20!

  • Reply lynne @ lgsmash at

    i like the gulpy! i usually keep a tupperware container who’s lid has gone missing with me when Philly adventures or runs with me but this gulpy is way more slick! water and dispenser in one is awesome!

    • Reply heather at

      I used to carry a tupperware too! I also have a collapsible bowl from Ruffwear that is a bit more pricey, but totally worth the cost for backpacking and hiking. It’s super light, but once it collapses, it takes up almost zero space in your (or her!) pack. Totally worth the splurge. The combo of the bowl and Gulpy are perfect.

  • Reply Nora at

    Great tips! We have only ever done car camping with our pup… But I hope backpacking is in our future. I have serious nightmares about something happening to our dog and having to carry him down a mountain. I’m glad to hear that you guys survived and that it didn’t deter you from more adventures!

    • Reply heather at

      One of my biggest fears in life is Tals encountering a mountain lion or bear while on the trail– makes me shudder.

      • Reply Bri at

        This is what I am always scared about. I usually keep my dog off-leash because he is well-trained and doesn’t run off, but bears and mountain lions scare me. I would love to hear some tips about how to keep your dogs safe while off-leash.

        • Reply Jean at

          My dogs do not want to be in my sleeping bag WITH me. They regularly try to usurp it for themselves and keep me off/out of it, but I evict them–share or get out. They sometimes snuggle up next to me inside the bag. Who doesn’t love a warm, soft, cozy down sleeping bag on a nippy evening?

      • Reply Jean at

        I’ve been taking my dogs backpacking with me for 20+ years. In that time, we have encountered quite a few deer/elk/moose/marmot/pika, but never (to my knowledge) a mountain lion or bear up close. On two occasions in the Rockies in the past 15 years, I inadvertently came within ~50 yards of bears. On the first occasion, I spotted the bear in a meadow before it spotted me, so I grabbed my dog, and we retreated back up the trail as fast and as quietly as possible; when I paused to look back, the bear had also hastily retreated in the opposite direction, so everyone was OK. On the second occasion, I was sitting outside cooking breakfast, the dogs wandering freely around camp, when one of the dogs started “alarm” barking; I looked around and saw something black moving through the trees, then realized it was probably a bear, so I grabbed both dogs and sat tight. The bear disappeared, and we were again OK. A little unnerving, but no one was hurt. Just need to pay attention to your dogs’ signals and your surroundings.

        On two occasions I did have to carry out my aging dog, once when she collapsed hiking in heat, and once when she was too arthritic to hike back up out of the a valley. She weighed ~43 lbs. and it was a struggle, but I removed my own pack and carried her as far as I could until I needed to rest–just hiked/carried and rested as best I could and got her out safely, then went back for my pack. The second episode was her last backpacking trip with me. So, hard lessons learned not to over-exert a dog in high heat or an arthritic dog on a difficult hike; I felt terrible I had been so stupid.

        • Reply Bri at

          Dang those bear situations are so scary. What would you have done if your dog had run after a moose/deer/elk/pika, etc? What did your dogs do when they say these animals?

          • J.F.Lawlor at

            Well, my dogs have chased everything from mice to moose (not p.c., but they’re predators acting on instinct), but they’ve always come back to me, although to be truthful, they have “taken off” for quite awhile and frightened me a few times (if I keep moving, sometimes they lose me on their way back). If I see the prey animals before they do, I do restrain the dogs temporarily, but often they detect prey before I do…Some people leash their dogs even out in the wilderness, but I do not see the point in bringing them on a hike/backpack with me if I am not going to allow them to run off-leash. If you’re not sure how you’re dogs will react to wildlife, perhaps you could first try letting them off leash during a hike someplace closer to home and less wide-open and work on their recall there. Depends on the dog and, I think, the number and ages of dogs together; some roam farther than others.

          • Lindsey at

            I LOVE having my dog off leash and he is so well trained. However, being that his instinct would be to chase after a squirrel or anything else really, I keep an electric collar on him so I can use the vibrate if he gets tunnel vision and doesn’t remember his recall manners. If it was a serious situation, I could use a low shock and get his attention immediately.

  • Reply Features Friday | Live, Love, & Run at

    […] Tips For Backpacking with Your Dog. (H and I would love to take our pup Marla with us hiking more. Such great […]

  • Reply Efo at

    You could just post pics of Tals all day and I’d be content. Sweet post (love and gotta keep our fave furry friends safe!). I really dig that Highlands doggie bed idea, but the pricetag is totes not worth it (when human sleeping pads are half the price). Womp womp.

    • Reply heather at

      The bed is really soft, which Tals likes too, but yeah, the cost is a little high. I love Tally photos too– they always make me smile 🙂

  • Reply Good Reads 5.11.13 Preakness Day! | Planetmarsz at

    […] Tips for Backpacking with Your Dog (Just a Colorado Gal): I have to think Lindsay for this find–she tweeted it Thursday. M and I love hiking with the Stump Kids, so this is nice to know. Though we don’t usually take them on long hikes (Dally’s stumps can only take her so far), but we make sure we bring plenty of water for them no matter how warm it is. […]

  • Reply Kim at

    Our dog, Jack, has come on many canoe trips with us (just got back from a week out yesterday, in fact, and last summer he came on a 28 day trip with us, including a float plane ride out!). I’ll just add a bit to your water tip. In the summer, Jack gets hot and drinks plenty, but it’s more challenging in the winter. For one thing, he doesn’t get as hot, so doesn’t feel as thirsty, even though he needs to drink (just like humans!). And when he is thirsty, he often responds by eating snow – the issue here, according to a skijoring book we have, is that eating snow does not come close to adequately hydrating a dog.

    So, what we often do is give him ‘baited’ water after we finish supper. Do a rinse of our cooking pot without soap, and then pour the water into his dish. He’s much more likely to drink this flavoured water than if we just put a bowl of water down for him.

  • Reply @ginabegin at

    Look at all the doggy gear!! Ahhhh! Love it. 🙂

  • Reply Mandy at

    I just stumbled onto your blog and I loved this post!
    My husband and I are hoping to plan a trip to Colorado to visit some family. We want to take an extra week to do some backpacking with our chocolate lab (he refuses to be left out of any outdoor adventure). After some research, I’ve found that pets are allowed in a lot of campgrounds but not in the backcountry. Do you have any suggestions for areas that are dog friendly that also allow backcountry camping?

    • Reply heather at

      Hey Mandy! That’s interesting– I’ve very rarely had any problems taking Tals into the backcountry here! Want to shoot me a message and we can chat about where you’re hoping to go? Thanks!

  • Reply Sarah at

    I use my dog’s padded saddle pack as protection against cold ground and for the tent floor; I put my fleece jacket on top for a comfy bed. Hiking in drought stricken California I haven’t had the misfortune of a wet and dirty dog although I do pack an extra towel just for her.

  • Reply Laura at

    I love this post. My husband and I want to start bringing our dogs backpacking with us. We live in Denver but travel all over Colorado for trips. Do you have any great backpacking spots in the state to go with dogs? Our dogs love to swim in rivers and streams so definitely something with some water source, if possible. Thanks!

    • Reply heather at

      Hi Laura! Definitely check out Indian Peaks Wilderness. There is lots of shady areas and streams and lakes, so Tals loves it. Plus, the softer ground is easy on her paws (versus higher altitude locations). THere are dozens of good trails there and it’s close to the city; it’s a favorite!

      • Reply Nina at

        From my understanding it is actually illegal in CO to have dogs off leash in CO wilderness areas! Everyone does it but all the signs say not too and I have run into rangers enforcing it. National Forests are totally fair game though! Hope that helps clarify for any CO folks 🙂

      • Reply Nina at

        Thanks for this helpful article. I am curious if you or anyone else has ever had to deal with a pup that has a pink nose or is highly susceptible to sunburn? My GSP-pit mix LOVES all things outdoors and while I try to be responsible about the amount of outdoor time she gets (not letting her spend a lot of time outside in the peak hours of the day, putting sunscreen on her nose, finding shady hikes, etc.), she needs a lot of exercise and hiking to be happy – plus I feel like I’m tormenting her on those days where we are at home and I know all she wants to do is play for hours in the sunny backyard. We live in CO so finding shady hikes is often challenging. I have researched “dog safe” sunscreen and am working on teaching her not to immediately lick it off, but she still manages to get burned VERY easily. I worry about her consuming the sunscreen, because at this rate to protect her I would literally have to be applying it every day. When her nose gets too much sun it turns very pink/red, and usually a day later is peeling and flaking and she is trying to scratch her itchy snout with her paws. You can just tell that the skin is tight, itchy and sore. 🙁 In only a year, most of the brown pigment on her nose has disappeared and turned pink! I am thinking about trying a different vet, because our current one did not have many suggestions. She even recommended zinc, which I researched and found out is toxic for dogs. I am very, very concerned about skin cancer and long-term effect of this damage to her nose. I welcome any and all advice!

        • Reply Heather at

          Hey Nina! Unfortunately I’ve never had to deal with that since Tals has a lot of fur :/ Hopefully someone else chimes in and can help!

        • Reply J.F. Lawlor at

          Mm, that’s a tough one. I think my border collie’s nose gets a little sunburned, too, though I haven’t done anything about it as it does not seem to bother him. You might try a dog visor hat–I wear hats to protect my own nose, etc–if you think your dog would tolerate it (I know my b.c. Would not). Tthere are some online vendors selling dog visor hats. If you’re not satisfied with your vet’s answer, you might try consulting another vet, or you might try searching CSU’s vet medicine online site for some K9 dermatologic articles/papers; the vet school just might have some dermatology specialists on staff…

  • Reply TORI at

    Had to comment about the booties. I found some through someone in the town in WY I lived in last year who had sled dogs. After trying MANY brands that either fell off, or like Tally’s got taken off and left, I figured booties that stay on all day at high speeds in deep snow were worth a shot. I tried Mountain Ridge booties at his recommendation ( and love them! They are really light weight and minimalist, but have a few different materials depending on what you are trying to protect your dog from. And they’re all around $2.00, so I didn’t feel bad ordering a few extra in case one gets lost (which hasn’t happened yet!). I got larges for both my German Shepherd and black lab, both around 65 lbs. Can’t recommend them enough!

  • Reply Debra at

    any tips on how often to offer your dog water? My70lb ridgeback mutt acts like he’s in the Sahara climbing sand dunes just walking around garden of the gods. I really want to take him on hikes but am always worried I won’t have enough. How many ounces would you say you bring for a 14er?

    Ps just discovered your blog via Pinterest and love it!

  • Reply Jean at

    Really enjoyed reading different posts about how others camp/backpack with their beloved pups. I’ve been backpacking/camping with a pup or 2 for 20+ years first in the Appalachians and now the Rockies. They carry only their own gear, never mine (people I pass on the trail sometimes jokingly ask if the dogs are “carrying the beer”–nope), and they always sleep in the tent with us. After lots of trial and error, their current “rig” consists of: a dog pack (Wolf Packs brand) in which they carry their own food and bedding, a dog coat (poly fleece remnants sewn by me from commercial pattern) that serves as “pajamas,” a blanket cut from clothing quilted liner remnants, an ensolite insulating sleeping pad cut to their size (doubles as my chair for rest stops and camp), soft fabric food bowl (many quality brands available), and ~ 1-pt plastic water bottle (recycled from juice or whatever) to help balance out lopsided dog packs and in which to carry their water for dry stretches. It has been well worth investing in high quality, brightly colored (makes it easier to spot them) dog packs that fit them well/snugly; I had to keep repairing seams and strap attachments on the cheaper ones I tried, which repeatedly fell off and were eventually lost in the backcountry. The dog packs double for our food storage hoisted up into a tree overnight to keep it away from scavengers. I sewed an elastic neck loop and belly strap on their blankets to help keep it on them through the night, as they roll over a lot. Fleece coat and lining blanket are lightweight and compact enough to fit in their dog packs, along with their own food rations double- or triple-bagged in plastic baggies. I fold the ensolite pad (rather than rolling) and strap it on top of their pack, as folded remains attached much better than rolled through brush, tight trees, etc. We often encounter overnight temp’s in the 30s F; if the pups are restless or shivering, in addition to their coats and blankets, I also cover them with my spare clothing and/or rain coat. If I know we’re going to be crossing lots of water, I pack their gear inside dry bags that fit inside the dog packs (otherwise, lining the packs with ordinary plastic bags works well enough). No, I don’t know what their packs (or my pack) weigh; I simply try to keep all as lightweight as practical, and it’s surely less than 20% of their body weight (the old rule of thumb for human backpacks). On the rare occasion they seem to be struggling with or bothered by the pack, I remove it and attach it to mine.

  • Reply Bri at

    Am I the only one who lets my dog come in the sleeping bag with me?? LOL

    • Reply Jean at

      [Somehow I initially posted this reply below the wrong comment–sorry]. My dogs do not want to be in my sleeping bag WITH me. They regularly try to usurp the bag for themselves and keep me off/out of it, but I evict them–share or get out. They sometimes snuggle up next to me inside the bag. Who doesn’t love a warm, soft, cozy down sleeping bag on a nippy evening?

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