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Exercising Working Dogs: Backpacking And Hiking With Dogs

Updated on March 10, 2011

Backpacking With Your Dog

Backpacking with your dog and having your dog carry a backpack designed specifically for him or her is a wonderful way to exercise a malamute and/or any working breed dog. It can be a fun way to get in their daily workout and with the extra weight in the backpack, accomplishes that quite nicely while also taking a load off the human part of the team!

They have many, many types of backpacks that are designed specifically for dogs of any breed and most are weight-based or recommended according to chest circumference. You can order them on the Internet easily or purchase them at any REI store. REI has many different kinds to select from along with many dog products for hiking/walking, etc. such as collapsible water bowls, swimming products, toys for dogs, booties, etc. Of course they also have many products for the avid human backpacker/hiker as well.


In order to have the best experience with both dog and owner, the strategy of always planning ahead would be most important. Sizing up the weather, the terrain, and knowing if there are any restrictions to the area that you plan to backpack in helps prevent any unexpected glitches to the plan! Some areas of wilderness are designated as not safe for taking a dog or dogs. On certain trails, dogs are not permitted out of the car as the threat from wildlife is too great, mostly in the forms of cougars and bears. Checking to see what restrictions apply to a certain area before going in with dogs can save lives!

While you as the human can carry a backpack, so can your 4-legged friend. It needs to be fitted properly and secured. You should have your pack loaded with things you might need to have a pleasant hiking or walking experience. Likewise, you should have things in your dog's backpack that can be used to add some weight to the exercise but not overly tax the dog and things that will not distract from the hike. Perhaps putting the dog's food in its own backpack might not be a good idea! Or in that of its companion dog(s). I know if my dogs were carrying food or treats on their backs, it would make for an interesting hike as one or both tried to open the packs to get the "goods". I have no doubt they would be more interested in the food than paying attention to the actual exercise!

Make sure you carry water - for both yourself and for your dog. Again, having collapsible water bowls makes it super easy. Carry with you as well dog waste bags to collect any potty breaks that you need to clean up. Carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer or hand wipes is a good idea as well for the clean up.

I am a huge advocate of picking up dog waste and disposing of it properly. There is nothing worse than finding trails or walking areas littered with pet waste when you go to exercise your dog. It is a breeding ground for Parvo for young dogs and certain breeds are very susceptible to it. I had 2 lab puppies who contracted Parvo and it was not pretty. It is also "the right thing" to do out of respect to people who do not have pets and are hiking or walking the same trails or areas. I like to think appropriate behavior with your dog gives dog owners a good name. The adage "pack it in, pack it out" applies here. At the very least, pet waste should be covered with dirt and sand if you have no bags available.

Having the right clothing and appropriate foot gear is essential and again, planning for the weather is a must. It is a good habit to carry a few snacks for both pet and owner just in case there is an unexpected delay in getting back to the car or starting point or should something happen out of the ordinary. Always take a fully charged cell phone with you and frequently check for a signal to make sure at some point you are getting one. Even if you go out of range of the signal, knowing where you DO or did get a signal can sometimes alleviate panic if a situation should arise where you need to call out. If you know where you need to backtrack to where the signal was present, it makes it that much easier to summon help if needed. I also like to carry a digital camera and document where we have been and to document terrain, etc.

Because most of the backpacking is done off the beaten path, I like to keep my dog(s) on a lead at all times. Especially being malamutes, I would not even attempt to let them amble along with me off lead because if they scented anything, it would turn ugly very quickly. A skunk can be a magical puzzle for them to go after until they actually get up TO the skunk and then it is a disaster! Having been through a skunking once, I have no desire to repeat the experience. Likewise, in the case of arctic breeds, any small critter can spook them, the "prey" response can kick in and they can be gone in a flash. I do not relish the idea of tramping about in the woods or in an environment I'm not familiar with endlessly trying to locate my malamutes!

If you plan on wading across any streams or rivers, make sure that you know if the backpack that you are having your dog wear is waterproof. Most are, but knowing it ahead of time could save the contents of the pack. Our malamutes are split half and half on water enjoyment. One malamute loves the water and the other barely tolerates it. It has never been a favorite part of our meanderings to include rivers or streams. We generally use it only for cooling-them-down purposes in hot weather and then make sure that there is ample time for them to dry off again before cooler temperatures are anticipated.

There are many books or information available regarding the safety of letting them drink from rushing water. I prefer to give my dogs water I carry just in case of contamination from things that cause ghastly intestinal bugs and try to not expose them to things like Giardia, etc. I know a lot of folks though who hike with their dogs and let them swim and drink from streams and rivers as long as they have rushing water (not stagnant) and nothing has ever happened.

Backpacking and using your dog to "carry a load" is a great way to exercise together and is very effective in providing them with that strenuous exercise so many of the working breeds are built for. A well exercised dog is a content dog and the added benefit is that the exercise is good for us as well!

If there is any doubt about how many pounds a certain breed should carry, I would consult a vet or research it with a breeder or sources on the Internet but a good rule of thumb seems to be that they carry no more than about 25% of their body weight. That is recommended for a healthy dog of any breed but it would need to be adjusted for any special needs specific to the individual dog. For instance, we had a malamute with Addison's disease and of necessity due to the high risk of stress fractures, I always tended to minimize any excess stress on his bones due to the prednisone he was required to take daily. (See Whitney's link)

Suggested List for Canine Backpacking

A checklist for humans and dogs might look something like this, adding or subtracting depending on how isolated or public the area is and the applicable circumstances of weather and proposed length of hike.

  • Water for both people and dogs.
  • Frisbees (for malamutes, this would most likely be wasted effort!)
  • Treats for both people and dogs
  • Food for both human and dog if the day is going to be excessively long
  • Hat for humans
  • Gloves for humans
  • Waterproof matches or lighter
  • Swiss knife or camp knife
  • Bags for trash created - pack it in/pack it out
  • Light coat or jacket - clothing appropriate to weather
  • Compass
  • Bandanna for head covering or sling; something to wash with or cover a wound
  • Small first aid kit with triple antibiotic ointment and band-aids/bandage material
  • Extra socks
  • Dog shot records
  • Money
  • Extra leash or rope
  • Bug spray
  • Small notebook and pen
  • Dog booties if icy conditions
  • Dog waste bags
  • Hand wipes/sanitizer
  • Cell phone
  • Small flashlight with extra batteries
  • Digital camera
  • Extra leash or collar
  • Small blanket or tarp for ground
  • Book on hiking in the area you are covering/trail guides
  • Tweezers


Dog Backpacking Experience

Backpacking Malamute


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