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!
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.
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?