It’s a question that’s asked a lot. What type of gear should you take when backpacking with a dog? The club of hikers who’ve successfully completed thousands of miles on thru-hikes with their canine companions isn’t very big; the training, logistics and responsibility is not for everyone and endurance hiking isn’t for right every dog. Which is why you won’t find much trail-tested information floating around the internet. For those folks that have managed to keep their dogs happy and healthy on a long trail, they’ll all say gear plays a role in a dog’s success.
We each may take different approaches to gear for our dogs. Much of it depends on the dog (size, coat, conditioning), hiking environment and personal style or pace. For each of us, gear will adapt and evolve as we learn how to manage our dog’s individual needs on a long trail. At 5 years old, Luna’s hiked over 7,000 miles of long-distance trails through wooded forests, waterways, high ridge lines, desert and alpine environments. This is what I’ve found to work best for us through varied settings.
When it comes to dog gear, my philosophy is the same as my own: keep it light and simple. Luna carries her own pack, filled with only necessary gear and food. By only carrying the essentials, Luna’s pack weight stays light and allows her to hike longer days and maintain a fit and healthy body. I believe a light pack is crucial for endurance. This means eliminating comfort items and just-in-case items for the sake of efficiency.
PACK- Granite Gear Alpha Dog Pack
One word: durability. Unfortunately Granite Gear no longer carries a line of products for dogs, because we love this pack. Luna’s been wearing this one since our AT hike in 2015, and it’s lasted over 5,000 miles since then (with a few patches!). I like the even weight distribution and fit. It has reflective fabric on the sides, and an easy hook for attaching a leash when needed. The pockets are smaller than in other packs, which it prevents it from being filled too heavy. Luna is rough on her packs; she likes to run fast, climb rocks, and make her own obstacle course through the trees. Since this pack is no longer in production, I highly recommend Groundbird Gear packs because of their thoughtful custom design, durability and lightweight philosophy. Although a popular brand, I do NOT encourage the use of Ruffwear packs because of the frequent fit/chaffing issues I hear about and most importantly, how it promotes filling the pack too heavy. These might be fine packs for dogs who are out for a short weekend, but I’m not convinced these are appropriate for dogs on long-distance trails.
Many bowls are also made of fabrics that, while durable, don’t clean or dry easily in the backcountry. Some start to funk up and smell like dog food. The Sea to Summit bowls are rubber, collapsable and clean easily in the woods. They are slightly heavier than cloth bowls, but it’s a fair tradeoff because of the better functionality. I carry a second, smaller collapsable bowl for water.
RAIN PONCHO- RC Pets Rain Poncho
I’ve experimented with silnylon pack covers and trash bag creations and struggle to find something that keeps Luna and her pack truly dry during extended wet weather. Especially in colder rains, it’s important to keep our pups comfortable during rainy days on trail. This poncho is incredibly light, inexpensive to replace, and packs up into a small pouch that takes up very little space. I added about 6 inches of thick elastic band to extend the velcro fastener to allow for extra room to fit the poncho around her pack (sizing up might work too). A poncho definitely requires more adjusting as the day goes on but for it’s simplicity, I would never use anything different. I treat this as I would my own rain gear with Nikwax between trips to hold it’s water repellency.
LEASH- Mountain Dog 6’ Clip Leash
I love these leashes by Mountain Dog. They’re made of recycled climbing rope and are extremely durable to the conditions of the trail. You can tell they are carefully made by hand, which I greatly appreciate. I attach a small carabiner to the loop end to be able to quickly hook Luna to a tree while I do my grocery shopping in town, or to my hip belt during roadwalks. The only tradeoff is they aren’t the lightest leashes.
Joint Supplement- VetriScience Glycoflex Plus: With all her jumping, rock climbing and big mile days, I worry about Luna’s joints. While on the trail, she takes a strong dose of Glycoflex Plus to help improve recovery time and manage joint inflammation. It makes a huge difference in her quickness, agility and recovery. It’s filled with top-of-the-line ingredients: glucosamine, MSM, and DMG. To keep her pack light, I prepackage and ship small quantities of this in our resupply boxes.
GI Supplement- VetriScience Probiotic Everyday: Luna takes a daily probiotic to promote a healthy gut flora and strong immune system since she frequently drinks out of streams and lakes as we hike. It also helps maintain a great base for trail-related stress that may cause digestive discomfort. Since adding this to our routine back in 2017, she has not experienced parasites or giardia. To keep her pack light, I prepackage and ship small quantities in our resupply boxes.
Calming Supplement- VetriScience Composure: I like to keep some Composure on hand to ease Luna's nerves during thunderstorms and other unforeseen stressful situations that might come up on trail. Containing L-Theanine, B vitamins and a biopeptide blend, it’s a highly effective way to naturally treat stress and anxiety.
Musher’s Wax- I believe 100% in treating paws and pads by gradually letting them toughen up. Training on a variety of surfaces prior to a long-distance hike is the best way to prepare a dog to walk all day on their pads. Putting booties on a dog softens the pads and prevents the ability to condition. I take care of Luna’s paws by applying Musher’s Wax as needed. I’ll use it more frequently at the start of a long hike, during snow travel or hot desert conditions. It works great as a barrier from the heat and to keep her pads tough.
Seresto Tick Collar- In addition to her regular Bravecto for tick & flea protection, Luna also wears a Seresto collar when we hike in the Northeast to help protect against tick-borne illnesses. I double treat her because of her high level of exposure in these areas (we’re talking 30 ticks a day). I’ve found the Bravecto/Seresto combination to be most effective, especially since Luna’s coat has always been a MAGNET for ticks. It’s great for East Coast adventures like the AT, Long Trail, and anything in the Northeast.
Benadryl- I always have extra Benadryl in Luna’s pack for the occasional mishap. It works for treating bee stings (happened once!), swollen tick bites, snake bites, and helping her sleep if she’s itchy. She only gets half a tablet, which I’ll add to a piece of cheese with her dinner.
VetriScience Fast Balance GI Paste- It’s like Pepto for your dog. Upset stomachs happen; drinking from various water sources, getting into things we won’t talk about, changing environments or general stress; digestive stress can be really uncomfortable. Most of the time it’ll pass but a quick dose of Fast Balance gives Luna quick relief and within hours I can see her energy and personality bounce back. Without immediate access to a vet, this stuff can cure a minor stomach ache or manage a more serious issue until you can leave the trail.
** You’ll notice that we don’t carry an extensive first aid kit. Contrary to what vets or other hikers may recommend, I don’t think an array of emergency items is necessary. I believe that most accidents and injuries in the backcountry are preventable with the proper conditioning. I rely on my ability to quickly and efficiently (carrying Luna if necessary) get to a road or find help during a rescue situation. In 5 years, we’ve never had an an emergency situation. I’m aware that I am highly comfortable in the backcountry with a dog, and not everyone is, so having more extensive emergency kit & rescue harness may give you piece of mind.
SLEEPING BAG- Hurtta Outback Dreamer
For hikes in colder temperatures and higher elevations, I carry a sleeping bag to ensure Luna is getting a comfortable and full night’s sleep. The Outback Dreamer is fairly light, weighing in just under a pound (size medium), and rolled down to about the size of a Nalgene bottle. The foil lining is soft and works great at insulating a dog’s body heat. I even put Luna in there when she is wet or muddy to help dry her faster. Durability is extremely important for thru-hiking and this bag stands up to the test; it looks practically new after I’m able to put it through the wash. The intangible benefits of having a bag like the Outback Dreamer are incredibly valuable to me. At the end of a long day of hiking, I’ll take this bag out and lay it down for Luna, helping her to establish that this would be camp for the night. It gives her routine and comfort during times when the scenery is changing each day. For more, read my full review here.
Bug Repellent- Vetri Repel Spray
If I’m traveling into tick country at peak-season or a particularly mosquito heavy area, I’ll add another line of defense with a topical spray. Vetri Repel is a natural repellent using essential oils that is effective against ticks, fleas, mosquitos and flies. It by no means will keep all bugs away but is nice added deterrent and I definitely notice a difference in the number of ticks I find on the days I use it. Packing it involves purchasing a plastic 2oz spray bottle and pouring some of the liquid from the original 16oz bottle into it, for a more realistic weight and size (the whole thing weighs 3oz full). Another perk is I can use it on my socks or gear too.
Eye Protection- Rex Specs Goggles
To protect against the elements. The sun can cause serious eye damage in dogs. Aussie Shepherds are commonly diagnosed with eye ailments later in life, so preventative measures are very important to me. While it’s not realistic for me to carry these 24/7, I take them on trips to high elevations where the UV rays are strong, especially in snowy conditions. I only learned about these after our CDT hike in 2017 and wish I’d had them for sections of the Rocky Mountains. Outside of thru-hiking, I like to use them when we’re mountain biking on dusty trails, climbing peaks in the winter, sunny days on the water, or doing carpentry projects with debris flying around.
SOJOS DOG FOOD- Luna is a maniac when it comes to being able to walk long days off-leash, which is a heavy responsibility when it comes to her health and nutrition demands. Kibble alone, despite being high in calories, just doesn’t cut it for maintaining energy deep into the day. Since her working drive is strong and she’s not an enthusiastic eater, she’ll rarely overeat. Discovering Sojos was a game changer for me because she is always psyched to eat.
It’s pretty simple: freeze-dried raw meat and vegetables. Using only premium ingredients and lean proteins, Sojos builds and maintains muscle on Luna’s lean figure, and eliminates unnecessary fillers. Protein, fat, fiber; that's it. Her pace late into the day is incredible, and her body strong and able to recover quickly. It’s amazingly efficient- weighs 1/4 that of kibble, and rehydrates to 4 times the dry amount. This means we’re able to carry LESS weight, while eating MORE. She really digs it and it has made a huge difference with lessoning the inevitable calorie-deficency. I like to switch up the flavors to keep her enthusiasm and achieve a well-rounded diet.
DR. TIM’S- I’ll supplement Luna’s raw diet with about 25% kibble, using the Active Dog Pursuit Formula from Dr. Tim’s because of it’s 450 calories per cup, high fat levels and lean proteins. Dry kibble is heavy, and most contain lots of fillers that dogs burn through rather quickly, but I like to supplement with it for the the calories. Foods I think the most effective foods are ones low in gluten, and high in fats and protein. During dry, desert areas with long water carries, I’ll typically switch her to 50%kibble/50%Sojos to save on water.
TREATS- Luna also needs calories and nutrients throughout the day, which is where the snacks come in. Since I’m constantly training and reinforcing good behaviors on the trail, it’s important to have rewards she’s excited about. The key though, is not to overfeed while on the move. I look for the best calorie/weight ratio treats that are high in protein and easy to digest. Some of her favorites include Zukes Power Bars, Sojos Simply Freeze Dried Treats and Pet Naturals Superfood Treats.
Looking for more information on nutrition and how I feed Luna on the trail? I go more in depth in Dog Food on the Trail.
how to pack
I never make Luna carry more than 6lbs total (<15% of her 45lb weight). Typically, she will leave town with around 4-5lbs, and it gets lighter after each meal. I do not recommend exceeding 10-15% for a dog’s pack weight. This means that for longer food carries (4+ days) between resupplying in town, I will carry some of Luna’s food. She does not ever carry any water.
Each day will involve taking a moment to evenly distribute the weight on both sides of the pack. I recommend gallon ziplocks or drybags to pack everything. Keep items like water bowls or leashes at the top for quick access.
As with most things, we learn a lot by trying things out and seeing what works well and what doesn’t. I encourage anyone experimenting with their dogs gear to get out there and test out what suits their needs. Happy trails & tails!
*Disclaimer: I receive products from Sojos, PetNaturals, and VetriScience as a brand ambassador. This does not however, influence my opinions about the effectiveness of their products or my recommendation of them to you. I used these products before joining their teams.