Dogs are the best camping companions. Hands down. That doesn't mean that camping with dogs doesn't involve some extra planning to make sure that everyone has the best trip possible. I've been solo camping with dogs for years, from short trips into the backcountry to three week, cross-country road trips so I've learned a few things that I would like to share to help you have an amazing trip with your dog.
What are the best camping dogs? Any and all of them! You may have to gradually introduce your pup to the camping life but I think that's part of the fun. However, you will have to consider what your dog is like to figure out what kind of camping trip you want to make. If your dog doesn't like being outdoors, then a week-long expedition through the backcountry is not the best idea. You want your dog to enjoy the trip and be an active partner so it is definitely worth having a good long think about their abilities, physical limitations, and whether they are going to genuinely enjoy themselves. If not, all hope is not lost; you may just have to alter your plans slightly.
Now let's get to the good stuff. But first the legal stuff:
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Before you go:
Will you be staying in a tent, a trailer, a van, or a rented accommodation (like a yurt?) Are you going to use a screened tent or a tarp?
Camping with a dog in a tent can present its own challenges so it’s important to get them used to the structures they’ll be sleeping and staying in if at all possible. If you have a tent, take some time to set it up, even if it’s just in your living room, and let them get comfortable with it. Use any bedding or sleeping pads that you plan on bringing. The idea is to make it as close to the real deal as possible. Set aside plenty of time for this, especially if they are skittish, and just hang out together. Maybe feed them some treats or pet and snuggle with them. It’s important that they see the tent as a place of calm and not a chance to play. Otherwise they may crash their way out like the Kool-Aid man. If you need to justify taking the time to hang out with your dog in a glorified blanket fort, think of it as an investment in their happiness and a way to safely introduce them to camping in a manner that will reduce stress.
It also gives you an opportunity to see how the tent is going to fit everyone. Do you want more space or do you like close quarters? A two-person tent comfortably fits myself, two smaller dogs, and a large dog. However, if another person was going to join us or if the small dogs became large dogs, we would need a bigger tent.
If you have the opportunity to set it up outside, it’s helpful to tie the dogs close and let them watch you. King was a little freaked out the first time he watched me pitch the tent so getting him used to it helped to keep him from “helping” me. It’s also good practice if you haven’t set up a tent before or if it’s been a while.
I have a 2-person tent, a Wanderer 2, that I bought from Mountain Equipment Co-Op in 2011. It is still going strong with nary a thread out of place and has been with me everywhere from backcountry camping with just Piper to everywhere else. The features that I like are mesh pouches on both sides of the doors and a little loop in the ceiling for my lantern. I would like an option for extra ventilation in the ceiling and that the footprint would have two floors for the vestibules instead of just one but those are minor complaints. I think that the vestibules are an essential part of the a well-designed tent. It provides extra storage space and gives you a dry place to keep your shoes so they don't stink up the tent.
I pitch my tent in a slightly different way than most people: I use the poles to set up the tent. Then I throw on the fly and loop the grommets under the poles where it sticks out from the tent grommets. I stake the tent and fly out last. This lets me make adjustments to the tent's placement easily before I use the tent pegs. Most people stake the tent out first and then use the poles. This is just my system and it works well for me with this tent design. Other tents may need to be staked out first which is why it's a good reason to practice pitching the tent before you leave.
All of my dogs love the tent. When King thinks it's time for bed, he will paw at the fly and try to walk his way inside until I unzip it. And if I don't move fast enough for him, he will bark until he gets in. Since Leo is so small, he tries to burrow under the fly. Lilly feels like has to stay with me until I go to bed.
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I highly recommend using a sleeping pad for your dog for a few reasons:
- it provides a comfortable place for them to sleep, especially after a long day of hiking and exploring
- it acts as a buffer between them and the ground which will help to keep them from getting chilled
- it acts as a protective layer for the floor of your tent and keeps it from getting punctured
A closed-cell pad will be better able to withstand dog nails than an inflatable pad but they do weigh more and tend to be bulkier. If weight and bulk are an issue, like when backcountry camping, you can either go with an inflatable pad or have them carry their own sleeping gear.
You can buy round sleeping bags that are made just for dogs; some even have pads that attach to the bag so you don’t have to worry about your pup's bag slipping off the pad. If weight isn’t a concern, you can easily grab your dog’s regular bed and some extra blankets and bring them with you. I always believe in bringing more and warmer blankets than necessary. If the temperatures stay warm, the dogs have them for extra soft sleeping. If it gets colder, we’re very thankful for them indeed. If the mercury really drops, I’ll unzip my sleeping bag, gather the dogs close, and pile the blankets over top of us. That gets super toasty super quick.
I have a Therm-a-rest RidgeRest SOLite sleeping pad that I put down underneath a flat closed cell sleeping pad that I think I may have been originally bought as a cheap yoga mat. I put the ridged pad down first because it will allow for a little bit of air movement to minimize dampness and so they have a flat surface to lay on. I top that pad with an old flat sheet that covers all exposed tent floor. On top of that, I have two packable down comforters (these are amazing and I’m waiting to see more on sale), two Coleman fleece sleeping bag liners (which can be unzipped to act as added blankets), and several microfiber/fleece blankets. No matter how many blankets they have, they all prefer my sleeping bag. If we were going into the backcountry, I would definitely splurge on some more down comforters and maybe a sleeping bag for them. I would probably also get King and Lilly to carry their own bedding and an inflatable pad.
Make sure you bring your dog’s normal food allotment and then add enough for a few more days. If they’re active, they will need the extra calories and there is always the possibility of waste from spillage or if it gets wet. They may also develop more of an appetite from the fresh air and exploring.
My dogs get a limited ingredient salmon-based kibble. I will shove at least one bag into the very back of the trunk of my car and use a cereal container to dose out daily amounts. That way, I have some food that is always close to the front of the trunk and I don’t have to worry about the entire bag getting ruined if I have to pack up in the rain. It’s also a brand found at a nation-wide chain so if we do end up running short, it’s easy enough to find more. This would be a huge problem if they were fed a boutique brand or on a raw diet.
First Aid Kit
A first aid kit can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Most of the supplies can be shared by dogs and humans with the exception of alcohol (it’s toxic to dogs if ingested), some over-the-counter pain meds, and you want to be careful with antibiotic creams. Bandages, self-adhesive bandages, non-stick pads, and tweezers are the bare minimum that you will need for human and canine alike.
I put my own first aid kits together (yes kits). My main kit stays in the trunk of my car and is contained in a small bin. All of the items are packed in separate zip-top bags so that I avoid ruining everything if I happen to open it in the rain or we get muddy or bloody. In my bin I have:
- a water-activated cooling towel (essential when travelling with brachycephalic breeds)
- a bear bell affixed to the handle of the bin (so I know if it gets knocked around)
- nitrile gloves
- alcohol in a spray bottle (mostly for me)
- antihistamine with the dog's dosage written out and taped on the bottle along with a syringe
- antibiotic ointment
- self-adhesive bandage
- various widths of bandages (can also be used as an emergency muzzle)
- triangular bandages
- large non-stick pads
- tick remover (shudder)
- needle-nose pliers
- safety scissors
My super light hiking kit is as bare bones as it gets:
- large non-stick pads
- medical tape
- self-adhesive bandage
- chopsticks (for emergency splints)
Check out our video for a more in-depth discussion about the first aid supplies that we carry:
If you would rather buy a pre-made kit, you can find several here. No matter what option you choose, make sure that you know how to use everything in there and consult with your vet when it comes to medications.
It’s a good idea to have some form of water treatment just in case the purification system at your campground isn’t working. It’s downright essential if you are going into the backcountry. If it’s something that needs to be measured, like tablets or drops, make sure that you factor in your dog’s water needs as well. Be prepared to strain the water before you treat it to remove large contaminants such as sand or vegetation; a simple bandanna will do the trick. This is another process that you will want to practice before you leave because some treatments, such as iodine tablets or drops, change the flavour of the water. If you or your dog don’t like the taste, you will not drink as much as you should. Filtration and other systems don’t alter the taste but be sure to carry something as a back-up. If all else fails, strain your water and boil it for at least a minute. Whatever you do, do NOT be tempted to drink untreated water and while I'll often let the dogs dip their muzzles to moving water like rivers, ponds, and lakes, stagnant water and water full of algae is completely off limits. There's just too much risk of them to pick of parasites or toxins from algae.
I had a Steripen Adventurer Pack, which was a small UV light. It was exceptionally light and convenient. Until it broke. I have not yet replaced it and I will likely go with a filtration system as that will help to purify enough water for the dogs.
Even if your dog has superb recall, every park I have ever been to requires dogs to be kept on a 2 metre (6’ leash). Luckily the staff have not been too strict with measuring tie-out lengths but that is because I keep the dogs away from other people and dogs. A good tie-out has to be strong enough to withstand your dog or dogs if they decide to charge something, be that a person, a dog, or a deer that decides to take a stroll behind your campsite (true story). There are several brands that make tie-outs that can either be clipped around objects or have a cork-screw peg. I like tie-outs that are made of coated cable with clips on the ends because they withstand the weather better, don’t pick up dirt or burrs, and won’t fray if you clip your dog's leash to it. Whatever you do, make sure that it is attached to a solid object like sturdy trees or even your car tire. If you attach it to the picnic table and you have a strong dog like King lunge at something while you’re cooking, it may prove disastrous with hot water and a cooking flame being jarred.
I have a bright orange coated cable with clips at each end. Ideally, I run the cable taut between two trees for Leo and Lilly and use a carabiner to clip their leashes to it. In a pinch, I run the cable through the handle loops of their leashes and snap the clips to themselves around something sturdy. Because King is so strong, I use a lunge line made for horses and I replaced the clip with a climbing-grade carabiner. I tie a loop as long as I want the line to be and run that around something extra solid.
This is a must have, whether you buy it or use a DIY recipe. Obviously dogs cannot use the same kind of repellent that people use, especially ones with DEET, but there are plenty of pet-safe products out there. If you’re out hiking, you want something that is effective against mosquitos, black flies, deer flies, horse flies, and ticks (shudder). You can also get a portable device such as the one made by Thermocell for your campsite.
I have the Thermacell Radius Zone. It is quite small and works well for mosquitos and black flies around the campsite. I am in the process of finding new insect repellent for the dogs as the stuff I used to use is not made anymore.
Dog Camping Gear
This is where you have to look at where you are going and figure out what you need to help keep your travelling companions comfortable. For the most part, you can use your regular equipment unless you're going somewhere rugged in which case you will need some specialized camping gear for dogs.
When car camping and staying in the front country, you can bring your dog’s usual bowls but if you are doing any long hikes or going into the backcountry, you will do well with collapsible bowls. There are several different styles and your dog may prefer one over the other.
If your dog has a thin coat or you're expecting that temperatures are going to drop, a coat or sweater will help to keep them from getting chilled. If you bring a rain coat, you won’t have to worry about your pup getting soaked in a sudden rain. No matter how fluffy they are, dogs can still get hypothermia.
Terrain is a very important thing to consider. Rocky ground with sharp edges or large areas with no shade can render your pup lame in no time. On those sorts of hikes, dog boots are essential to protect their feet from cuts and hot rocks. Make sure you take time to get them used to wearing boots before you leave and bring some back-ups in case they slip a boot or one gets damaged. Make sure to give their nails a trim too so they don't tear them while hiking (ouch).
If the most exercise your pooch gets is barking at the latest delivery to the front door, make sure you take the time well in advance of your trip to build up their strength and stamina. Your dog will push themselves until they can't just to stay with you so make sure they are as prepared as they can be for the trails ahead of them. This means considering the elevation, the climbs, the footing; every single aspect of the trail ahead of you needs to be accounted for. That doesn't mean that you have to replicate it exactly, but if you're going somewhere with a lot of elevation gain, make it a point to do hillwork. Find some technical trails so they (and you) get used to watching for roots or loose stones. If you have distances that you need to cover, make sure that you can cover them in the time frame that you will need to cover them. You have to take an objective look at yourself, your dogs, and anyone else that will be with you to make sure that everyone is fit enough to do what you are planning on doing. I found the best way for me to prepare for long distance and multi-day hikes was to go back over training plans for ultra runners. There's a whole new level of suck when you run marathon distances over trails to prepare for a trail ultramarathon. I am not in any way saying that you should start covering double-digit distances with your dog several times a week. I just found that the training principles and mental preparation were a big help.
You may want to have your dog carry some of their own gear which is a great way to lighten your load for long hikes and backcountry trips. As in all things, make sure you get a properly fitted backpack for hiking and give them lots of time to get used to wearing it, gradually increasing the weight that they carry. The general rule of thumb is that a dog should not carry more than 25% of their weight. I like to round their weight down and use that to calculate their max. Remember to take into account in the weight of the pack itself when working out their loads. It can be a bit of an art to keeping it evenly balanced but it’s a necessity to keep them from developing muscular imbalances or soreness.
Make sure you consult with your vet and factor in their age, fitness, and general ability before you start having them haul weight around. I’ve found that most dogs enjoy wearing a backpack if you make it fun and low-stress. King always looks so proud with his pack and Lilly actually seems to focus. A bit…
I have various collapsible bowls, most of which are the silicone kind that squish flat. I also have one that stuffs into a bag. This is not as efficient to carry in a pack and usually stays in the car.
For coats, King has one that I got from Shedrow (the Greenhawk brand) and Leo and Lilly share Bailey & Bella coats. Leo also has one of their fleece sweaters for overnight. He prefers it for sleeping and will stand on it until I change out his coats.
King and Lilly both have backpacks. King has the Kurgo Baxter pack and Lilly has the Crest Stone Explore pack from Outward Hound. My only regret is that they do not have removable saddlebags as the price for that feature just did not warrant it for me at this time. I like the Y-style as it sits a little lower on the chest instead of running straight across. King's neck attaches quite low and I wanted a pack that didn't ride up on his throat. Leo is too small for a pack, short of getting one custom made, and now that he's a senior he gets a pass. For training hikes, I weigh water bottles for each saddlebag. That way I know that the weight is exactly even and the bottles don't have any sharp edges or shift around a lot. For long hikes or ventures into the backcountry, I weigh out a set amount of food into ziptop bags. It's easier to dose small amounts of food without throwing the pack out out balance.
When You Get to Your Site
As in so many things, location matters. Most car camping sites will have either a defined tent pad or there will be a distinct area where tents have been set up in the past. The odds of getting a perfectly level site are slim so figure out the slope and orient your tent so that your head will be at the highest point. Even if the angle is gentle, you will feel it if you keep sliding to one side. One way to gauge the slope is to shake out your tent and lay it out flat before sprinkling some water on it. Watch to see where the water rolls and you'll get the slope.
Also consider where the dogs will be tied in relation to your tent, the fire pit, the table or cooking area, and your neighbours. It’s so important to keep your dogs from disturbing other campers, as letting your dogs pester your neighbours may have the camp staff coming to pay you a visit. Even if your dogs did nothing wrong, you may end up staying next to one of those people that hate dogs and will make up stories to get you to move. Or they may also have dogs and aren’t as responsible as you are with yours.
In the backcountry, the sites tend to be bigger and you’re less likely to have people as close to you but you might have fewer options for secure tie-outs. If the site has a fire pit, it may be less defined than the heavy duty metal rings or boxes often seen in front country sites. This means that you have to be extra careful about where your dog can go so they don’t walk (or play) into the fire or drag their tie-out across it.
As soon as we get to our site (if it's not raining), I put out the dog's outdoor blanket, water bowl, and some food. I set up their tie-outs and bring them out of the car along with one blanket that acts as a sacrifice blanket as it tends to get dirty. Then I pitch the tent, get the bedding all prepped, and take the dogs for a walk around the campground.
Keeping a Bear Proof Site
Even if you’re staying in an area where bears aren’t a problem, other critters can wreak havoc. This is why most parks have rules about putting food and other attractants away when you’re not at your site. What kind of attractants? Food obviously, but also bowls of water, coolers, food scraps and packaging, dog food, and smelly things such as deodorant and toothpaste.
With your car there, it’s a simple thing to put all of the food and garbage in the trunk as soon as you’re done cooking and eating. This is why I like to use an outdoor blanket for the dogs: it gives a clean area to put out some blankets for comfortable naps and acts as a giant placemat so I can pick up spilled kibble. This is especially important with King as he seems to hold kibble in his jowls. Not to mention the bowls that inevitably get tipped when a wrestling match breaks out.
I've seen people hang a garbage bag out on a tree overnight and then wake up to find garbage strewn about their site. Who would have thought that squirrels and chipmunks could climb trees? Crazy I know.
I never bring food or treats into the tent and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been changing into my jammies at the end of the day and had to dash out to the car to put the treat pouch in the trunk. It is just not worth having a mouse try and nibble on some kibble.
When you venture into the backcountry, all of the food and garbage needs to be put in a waterproof bag and hung from a tree at least 60 metres (almost 200’) from your campsite. To really keep it safe, you’ll need to go five metres (15 feet) from the ground and a few metres from the trunk. In areas with no trees, you’ll have to use a bear vault and secure it to something sturdy, such as a rock. Remember to pack your dog's food and any treats too.
Dogs may be able to detect a bear in the area long before you can but any chance of them acting as a deterrent is gone if the dog decides to chase after them. There’s also a very real risk of your dog going after the bear, getting said bear angry, and then turning tail back to you with bruin hard on it’s heels. Letting your dog roam the bush is fun for them but no matter how well trained they are, they are still an animal so it’s best to keep them on leash at all times. Just think: do you really want to risk losing your pup to the forest? And unless you want to keep up a constant dialogue like I do, a bear bell is a great way to let critters know that you're coming. As much as I like to see wildlife, coming eye to kneecap with a moose while holding onto 80 lbs of bulldog, 25 lbs of crazy beagle, and 20 lbs of Boston, is not my idea of fun. In a worst case scenario where the dogs get away, either by ripping their leashes away or catastrophic equipment failure, as long as the bell is still attached, you'll have a hope of finding them.
Leave no Trace
Even in front country sites, you should follow the principles of Leave No Trace. This is even more important when it comes to camping and hiking with dogs. These seven principles are:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
The big ones here when it comes to camping with your dogs are camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of others.
When you put your pup on a tie-out, you want to make sure that it’s causing as little impact to the environment as possible. So avoid letting it drag through fragile plants or cutting into tree bark. If that means padding a tree trunk or keeping them attached to you, then so be it. If it’s a well-worn campsite, there won’t be much that they can destroy.
It may be tempting to let your pooch poop off a trail and walk away but it can be damaging to the environment, attract wildlife, or introduce parasites. This is why you’ll need to bring lots of poop bags and carry it all out with you, even if you’re in the backcountry. I like to tuck used bags inside an extra bag and stuff it into the dog’s backpacks. That way they can carry their own poop out and there’s less risk of a leak (ewwwwwwwwww).
Keeping your dog on a leash and not letting them bark or chase after wildlife is a pretty simple rule to follow. Although it does get a bit weird when you have a bird chase after you. True story.
As weird as it may seem, not everyone likes dogs. Some people think that dogs have no place in the wilderness (insert eye roll here) or they had a traumatic event or came from a place where feral dogs will literally attack people. In either case, I try to keep my dogs from bothering other people because that’s just the right thing to do. Just as I don’t want random kids running by my site screaming at the top of their lungs, I don’t expect people to put up with barking dogs.
On a side note: I love it when people trash talk dogs out on the trail but have no problem with their little crotch goblins screaming the latest release from whatever drivel they're subjected to (is Baby Shark still a thing?), tearing up plants, and sprinkling Cheerios around like they're the latest incarnation of Johnny Appleseed. That's total sarcasm by the way.
That is my advice for camping with your dog. Let me know in the comments below what you do with your pooch.
Happy hiking and we hope to see you out there soon.