CAMPING WITH DOGS | OUTDOOR LIFESTYLE
Spring is finally here, and that means lots of camping and outdoor adventures! Our pups live for camping. We have two adventure dogs – Dakota, 5, is an Australian Shepard mix, and Tibble, 14, is a Lab and Pointer mix. They love camping so much that we can’t even have them in the house when we’re packing gear because they completely lose their minds. One glimpse of a pack or a tent, and they’re done – barking with excitement, whining so that we don’t forget to take them – as if we could.
We have a lot of experience camping with our dogs, and people ask me all the time how we are able to camp and hike with our pups. It can take a little extra work and some training, but camping with dogs is incredibly rewarding. I can’t imagine camping without our adventure pups! If you want to start camping with your dogs, there are are a few things you should think about before hitting the road with your furry friend.
BE AWARE OF PET POLICIES
I personally don’t like going places where dogs aren’t allowed or are really strict about their leash rules. Of course, we keep our dogs leashed in the city, but keeping them on a short leash on a trail or in a campsite is torture for them. They want nothing more than the freedom to roam and explore and be dogs.
A lot of national parks are not very dog friendly, but some are. In some, dogs are allowed in campgrounds, but not on trails or any backcountry areas. That means if you want to hike, you’d have to leave your dogs at camp unattended. That just isn’t realistic or safe, so best to not bring them unless you have an RV or camper that you feel comfortable leaving them in. Make sure you check the pet policies for the particular national park you are visiting before you show up so there are no surprises upon arrival.
When we went on a big road trip to the Badlands, the Tetons, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone, we left the dogs at home with a sitter. We hated leaving them behind, but it wasn’t feasible for us to climb and hike and backpack in those national parks with our dogs.
Most state parks allow dogs, but many of them come with very strict leash rules and a few that we have visited were downright unpleasant toward us because we had dogs. The majority of state parks have a policy that dogs must be on a 6ft leash at all times, even within your campsite. We have found that enforcement of this varies wildly and depends a lot on the rangers on duty and how crowded the park is.
We were reprimanded once for having Dakota on a 15 ft lead and Tibble off leash asleep on Chris’ feet (he’s 14 and isn’t going anywhere fast) in our campsite. The campground was practically empty and there were people letting their small dogs run around totally off leash. We suspect it was because Tibble is a big black dog. Other than that, we haven’t had any issues. It seems that in most, they don’t come bother you in your camp site if your dogs are sticking with you and not disturbing others. I’m not encouraging anyone to break the rules, just use your own best judgement as a pet parent.
We also camp and hike on public lands like national forests and national recreation areas where the dogs can roam freely. Most public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is free of restrictions and policies requiring dogs to be on leash. If staying on private land or at a privately operated campground within public land, make sure to check with the owners about their pet policies.
KNOW YOUR DOG’S CAPABILITIES AND PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS
You don’t want to start with a multi-day backpacking trip. Start with car camping and short hikes. Gauge how your dog does. Young puppies and senior dogs will tire more quickly. Go on shorter, easier hikes and work your way up to longer, more challenging hikes.
Dogs with short legs will tire out more quickly and will be slower on a trail, but they will probably be just fine sitting around a camp site. If your dog is older or arthritic, learn to recognize the signs of pain and/or discomfort. I promise you, they will keep going as long as you tell them to just to please you. Know when it’s time to call it a day and go relax around camp.
Camping and backpacking with our dogs is easy – now. They will explore on their own some, but they will never leave us. They stop immediately and come when called or whistled for, but it wasn’t always this way. They have had a ton of training and plenty of experience off leash, so we feel comfortable giving them space and freedom. A huge piece of this puzzle is about building that relationship with your dog. They have learned to trust us and we trust them – we are a pack and we stick together.
When I first got Dakota, she was so scared of everything that she would hear a noise and try to run away. I didn’t train her much off leash because I was nervous that she would get startled and bolt. When Chris and I got together, we hiked a ton (our second date was a hike) so I knew I had to get Dakota to the point that she could hike and camp off leash.
We trained her by coupling her to Tibble. Tibble had spent plenty of time off leash and knew what was up. We worked with them a lot. Let them run ahead on the trail, then called them back and gave treats when they responded and followed commands immediately.
I cannot stress enough the importance of training when it comes to camping with your pup, especially if you allow them to be off leash. If you don’t feel comfortable letting your dog roam off leash at this point (or have a breed that is more interested in following scents than listening to you) try using a training lead. A training lead is a leash that is about 15-20 feet long and allows you to give your dog more space and freedom to explore while training them and working on commands.
Having basic commands down such as “come,” “stop/heel,” “sit,” and “leave it” are pretty much a requirement for camping and hiking. Unless your dog knows these commands and responds to them every single time in normal situations, they likely won’t respond in new and exciting situations, like camping. It’s all about repetition and gradually working them into new experiences.
Backpacks – Dakota and Tibble both have their own backpacks that they wear when we go camping and hiking. They love them. Dakota is an Australian Shepard mix, so she is very high energy and intelligent and loves to have jobs to do. Carrying camping supplies in her own backpack satisfies her need to please and contribute.
They each used to carry their own food and water, but as Tibble has gotten older, he hasn’t been able to carry as much and keep up the pace with us. Dakota now carries food and water for both dogs and we will take whatever she can’t carry. We use Tibble’s backpack to hold the trash we pick up along the trail. That way, he still feels like he has a job. If you have a senior dog, like we do, you may have to lighten their load and adjust your pace accordingly as they get older.
You can start when your dog is young, but don’t put a pack on a little puppy and expect them to carry all of their food, water, and gear. Wait until a dog is full grown, or about a year old until you have them carry their share. Make sure to not overload the pack. Practice using the pack on short hikes and gradually work up to more weight and longer distances.
Lights – It is very dark in the woods, or in the desert, or anywhere that you are camping away from the light pollution of cities. Make sure to put some kind of light on your dog so that you and other people can see them. This is especially true if you are car camping and there are cars driving anywhere around you. LED lights that hang from their collar or simple clip on lights will work well.
Bed and/or blankets – Dogs don’t like to sleep on the rocky ground any more than you do. Despite the fact that they have fur coats, dogs are not impervious to cold weather either. Make sure that at the very least you have a blanket of some kind for your dog in case the temperature drops below their comfort level or be prepared to share your sleeping bag with them. Your dog will appreciate having a bed or pad to sleep on as well, especially after a long day on the trail.
SNACKS, FOOD, AND WATER
Just like you, your dog will require extra snacks, food and water when hiking or backpacking. They will burn calories much more quickly than they would lying in their dog bed all day while you’re at work. Be sure to bring extra servings of food and pack more water for them than you think they will need.
Our dogs do drink water out of streams and puddles and I’ve never tried to stop them unless I think it might be contaminated with chemicals or runoff of some kind. Dogs’ stomachs are definitely stronger than ours, but they potentially could get sick from drinking water with bacteria or protozoa. That being said, in all the years that we’ve camped and hiked with our dogs, this has never been an issue for us.
Snacks are a great way to reinforce positive behavior on the trail and around camp. We bring a couple of different kinds of high-energy snacks for the dogs. I will often make treats for them too. They get these at water breaks to keep their energy levels up and as rewards for listening to commands on the trail.
Luckily, we’ve never had to do any first aid on our dogs while camping, other than attending to a bee sting and removing some ticks. However, you should always be prepared with a first aid kit for you and your furry friends, especially if you are in the wilderness (which generally means you are more than one hour from a hospital).
Most first aid will be the same for people and dogs with the exception of medications. Do not give human medications to dogs. There are some medicines they cannot safely take, and for medicines that are dog safe, the dosage will be different.
Make sure that you are capable of carrying your dog out should they be injured on a trail. I have turned back on trails that became too steep or rocky for Tibble to safely navigate at his age knowing that if he were to get hurt, in all likelihood, I wouldn’t be able to carry him back to the trailhead. When Chris is with me, I worry about this much less, because between the two of us, we could carry either dog. I never used to worry about this, but with a senior adventurer, it is something I now consider.
Don’t leave your dog unattended, whether tied up at camp or locked in your car. For the most part, you won’t have to worry about predators if you have a larger dog, but with small dogs, coyotes and even birds of prey are a concern. Skunks are definitely an animal that you want your dogs to keep their distance from. Getting skunk scent off of a dog is miserable, and I can only imagine how terrible a car rise with a dog that has been sprayed would be. Keep a close eye on your dog at all times, make sure they follow your commands, especially “come” and “leave it” (key for getting dogs to avoid skunks, snakes, and porcupines).
When it comes time to sleep, some people will tie their dogs to a tree, or crate them outside the tent. We sleep with our dogs every night, so naturally, they sleep in the tent or van with us. We feel that is the safest option and our dogs would probably cry for us otherwise. Whatever you do, make sure that you consider your dog’s safety and comfort. Dogs can get scared in new situations, and they are probably not used to sleeping out in the woods unless they already do that regularly.
BE A RESPONSIBLE PET PARENT AND CONSIDER OTHERS
Always pick up your dog’s poop or dispose of it properly like you would your own (either pack it out or bury it if you are in the backcountry). When our dogs poop on a trail or within a set campsite, we bag it in a biodegradable bag. If we’re hiking, it goes in Tibble’s pack with the other trash we find.
If your dog barks a lot (I’m talking those dogs that constantly bark at every leaf that moves, and every time the wind blows) consider working with them on that behavior at home before taking them camping. If they bark at everything at home, they will definitely do that in a new environment when they are excited and nervous. They will drive you and everyone else crazy. They will disrupt other campers and wild animals that live in the area.
Remember that not everyone loves dogs as much as you do. If you happen to pass someone on the trail, grab your dog and get out of their way. If you allow your dog to be off leash, call them to your side and leash them, or at least grab onto their harness. Allow the other hikers to pass by you before letting your pup off leash again.
Being a responsible pet parent will mean that parks will remain open for dogs. When people are inconsiderate of others or irresponsible with their pets, it makes it harder on the rest of us.
WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Camping with your dogs is incredibly rewarding and is an excellent bonding activity for you and your adventure pup. It is also a great way to get out all that extra energy your dog has after sitting around the house all week waiting for you to come home from work. It does take some extra work, but it is well worth the effort. They would be very jealous if they knew where you were going without them. Just remember to start slow with hiking and don’t expect perfection the first time you go camping with your dog.