Hiking is a great way to reconnect with both nature and your dog. On the hiking trail, away from cell phones and other distractions, you and your co-pilot can truly bond as you feel the terrain beneath your feet, take in the unfiltered beauty of nature and stop to smell the clover (or anything else that crosses your dog’s nose). But no hiker should venture far up a trail without being properly equipped. Outdoor experts Dan Nelson and The Mountaineers Books (publisher of the Best Hikes with Dogs series) offer their advice for safe and happy trails.
When heading out on a day (or multi-day) hike on a backcountry trail, the old tenet “be prepared” is to be taken seriously—starting with proper footwear, handy dog gear and basic safety measures. The items you pack will vary from trip to trip and dog to dog, but there are a few things each and every one of us should have in our packs. Each member of your hiking party—human or canine—should have a pack loaded with their Ten Essentials, including items you might need in an emergency.
Remember, the only way you can be sure your dog is safe on the trail, is if you stay safe, warm and well-fed. So let’s start with your essentials.
The Ten Hiking Gear Essentials
Here is a list of essentials to take on a hike.
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1. Navigation (map and compass). Carry a topographic map of the area you plan to be in and know how to read it. Likewise, carry a compass—again, make sure you know how to use it.
2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen). In addition to sunglasses and sunscreen (SPF 15 or better), take along physical sun barriers, such as a wide-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. 3. Insulation (extra clothing). This means more clothing than you would wear during the worst weather of the planned outing. If you get injured or lost, you won’t be moving around generating heat, so you’ll need to be able to bundle up.
4. Illumination (flashlight/headlamp). If caught after dark, you’ll need a headlamp or flashlight to be able to follow the trail. If forced to spend the night, you’ll need it to set up emergency camp, gather wood and so on. Carry extra batteries and bulbs, too.
5. First aid supplies. Nothing elaborate needed—especially if you’re unfamiliar with how to use less-familiar items. Make sure you have plastic bandages, gauze bandages, some aspirin and other supplies recommended by the Red Cross. At minimum a Red Cross first aid training course is recommended. Better still, sign up for a Mountaineering-Oriented First Aid (MOFA) course if you’ll be spending a lot of time in the woods.
6. Fire (fire starter and matches). Campfires should be avoided in most backcountry camps, but they can be lifesavers in an emergency. An emergency campfire provides warmth, but it also has a calming effect on most people. Without one, the night can be cold, dark and intimidating. With one, the night is held at arm’s length. A candle or tube of fire-starting ribbon is essential for starting a fire with wet wood. And, of course, matches are important. You can’t start a fire without them. Pack them in a waterproof container and/or buy the waterproof/windproof variety. Book matches are useless in wind or wet weather, and disposable lighters are unreliable. Be sure to build an emergency fire in a safe location where the fire can’t spread.
7. Repair kit and tools (including a knife). A pocket knife is helpful; a multi-tool is better. You never know when you might need a small pair of pliers or scissors, both of which are commonly found on compact multi-tools. A basic repair kit includes a 20-foot length of nylon cord, a small roll of duct tape, some 1-inch webbing and extra webbing buckles (to fix broken pack straps), and a small tube of Super Glue.
8. Nutrition (extra food). Pack enough food so that you’ll have some left over after an uneventful trip—the extra food will keep you fed and fueled during an emergency.
9. Hydration (extra water). Figure what you’ll drink between water sources, and then add an extra liter. If you plan to rely on wilderness water sources, be sure to include some method of purification, whether a chemical additive, such as iodine, or a filtration device.
10. Emergency shelter. This can be as simple as a few extra-large garbage bags, or something more efficient, such as a reflective space blanket or tube tent. In addition to these essentials, I add an emergency survival kit. This tiny package at the bottom of my pack holds a small metal mirror, an emergency Mylar blanket, a whistle and a tiny signal smoke canister—all useful for signaling to search parties whether they are on the ground or in the air.
The Ten Canine Hiking Gear Essentials
Here is a list of equally important essentials for your dog.
1. Obedience training. Before you set foot on a trail, make sure your dog is trained and can be trusted to behave when faced with other hikers, other dogs, wildlife and an assortment of strange scents and sights in the backcountry. If he can’t behave, don’t take him hiking.
2. Doggy backpack (for longer hikes). Let the dog carry his own gear. Dogs can be trained to carry gear in their backpacks, but, to avoid developmental problems, don’t put packs on dogs younger than a year old.
3. Basic first aid kit. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends a checklist of items for your dog’s first aid kit. The Red Cross also offers classes in pet first aid.
4. Dog food and trail treats. You should pack more food than your dog normally consumes because he will be burning more calories than normal, and if you do end up having to spend an extra night out there, you need to keep the pup fed, too. Trail treats serve the same purpose for the dog as they do for you—quick energy and a pick-me-up during a strenuous day of hiking.
5. Water and water bowl. Don’t count on there being water along the trail for the dog. Pack enough extra water to meet all your dog’s drinking needs.
6. Leash and collar, or harness. Even if your dog is absolutely trained to voice command and stays at heel without a leash, sometimes leashes are required by law or just by common courtesy, so you should have one handy at all times.
7. Insect repellent. Be aware that some animals, and some people, have strong negative reactions to certain insect repellents. So, before leaving home, dab a little repellent on a patch of your dog’s fur to see your dog’s reaction to it. Look for signs of drowsiness, lethargy or nausea. Remember to restrict repellent applications to those places the dog can’t lick—the shoulders, the back of the neck, and around the ears (staying well clear of the ears and inner ears)—which are also near the most logical places mosquitoes will be looking for exposed skin (at the eyes, nose, and inner ears) to bite. And don’t forget to check your dog’s entire body for ticks, foxtails and other trail troublemakers after your hike.
8. ID tags and picture identification. Your dog should always wear ID tags, and since a dog lost in the woods can lose his or her collar, I’d heartily recommend microchipping her as well. Carry a photo of your dog in your pack. If your dog gets lost far from home, you can use the image to make flyers to post in the surrounding communities.
9. Dog booties. These help protect the dog’s feet from rough ground or harsh vegetation. They also keep bandages secure if the dog damages its pads.
10. Compact roll of plastic bags and trowel. You’ll need the bags to clean up after your dog on popular trails. When conditions warrant, you can use the trowel to take care of your dog’s waste. Just pretend you are a cat—dig a small hole six to eight inches deep in the forest duff, deposit the dog waste, and fill in the hole.