Hiking with a Dog

What breed is best for hiking?

This isn’t a question that is easily answered, though I see it floated on the forums a lot. Instead of trying to pinpoint what breed is best, I would rather explain a little about Sheila’s temperament and why I think she is a good hiking dog. The problem with singling out specific breeds as superior is that no two dogs are the same, despite breeding intentions. And also I think mutts are the best dogs on the planet (though I wouldn’t trade my Sheila for the world). That being said, let’s get on with it!

Sheila is standard-sized Australian Shepherd, standing at about 13” tall at the shoulder and weighing in around 47 pounds. Quoting the breed standard from the AKC page for Australian Shepherds, they are described as “animated, adaptable and agile, the Australian Shepherd lives for his job, which still involves herding livestock and working as an all-purpose farm and ranch dog. He needs a lot of activity and a sense of purpose to be truly content. The Aussie requires daily vigorous exercise. Although sometimes reserved with strangers, they are "people" dogs that want to always be near their families. Their thick coats require weekly brushing.” All of these things contribute to Sheila being a great hiking dog. Well except the weekly brushing, but we will talk about that later.

What makes Sheila a great hiking dog is the simple fact that she enjoys it. Walking for miles a day over interesting terrain becomes her “job” and she looks to us for guidance. Sheila is very well behaved and is a good listener. All of her excess energy is put to good use while we are on the trail, so it suits her quite well.

If you’re thinking about involving your best friend in your hiking and backpacking adventures, I highly recommend taking your dog for a few day hikes and overnight camping trips, just to make sure that they can handle the conditions and you can handle the added stress (yes, I said stress). Before we set foot on the AT with Sheila, she had gone on several day hikes, a car camping trip, and an overnight hike. These practice runs really gave us an idea about how it would be to have her out for multiple days.

If you’re considering taking your pooch on a long distance hike such as an AT thru, be sure your animal is well socialized. You will meet other hikers! You will be in towns! Having a friendly dog is a big plus in these situations.


Bringing up the topic of dogs on the trail is a hot button issue on most forums and social media. A small number of very vocal anti-dog hikers tend to drown out the majority of ambivalent hikers on the topic, so getting answers is often a contentious experience.

I’d like to take the contention out of the conversation for a minute, and present some general hiking-with-dog etiquette tips to avoid confrontation on the trail.
  1. Forget shelters. Trying to stay in a shelter with a dog is a recipe for disaster. If I don’t want my own wet and stinky dog on my $600 down bag, others in the shelter don’t want my dog near their $600 down bag. We stayed in the empty Woods Hole Shelter near Blood Mountain, and I honestly wouldn’t choose to stay in an empty shelter again. It was really difficult to make sure Sheila wasn’t going to go bounding into the darkness after a raccoon or something in the middle of the night. It is for these and many other reasons why it is best to shy away from shelters and to stick to tenting.
  2. Be courteous in camp. Show some common courtesy and ask if anyone minds if your bring your dog into camp. It has been my experience that they won’t mind at all, but be prepared to move on if someone has a problem. Be sure to keep your dog on a leash while in camp. I know I just said avoid shelters, which means you will be tenting, and if your backpacking during the peak time of year, you will probably be camping with other folks nearby. You will probably see these people on and off for a few days, so do the right thing, and avoid conflict.
  3. Don’t let your dog near the water source. This also seems to be a big point of contention on the trail, so if your pooch likes to cool off in the stream, make sure you keep them on a leash when passing by or filtering water. Even though we all carry these high-tech filters that filter down to 2 microns, the idea of drinking water downstream from a dog tends to weird people out. Also, don’t let your dog drink directly from the source. This could lead to a nasty bout of giardia for your pooch.
  4. Pick up after your pooch. If your dog leaves a pile in the middle of the trail, follow Leave No Trace practices and move it 200 feet off trail and bury in a 6 to 8 inch cat-hole. Carry baggies for in-town errands.
  5. Be able to take physical control of your dog quickly. I know the pains of trying to hike with a leashed dog, and I don’t think it is necessary to keep your animal leashed at all times, but being able to take physical control of them quickly is key to avoiding mishaps on the trail. You never really know when another hiker will appear around the bend (or come up from behind) or when an animal might appear or a particularly treacherous section comes up. Being able to take control of your animal quickly could prevent injury and confrontation.
These are the few big etiquette items I can think of at the moment. If I have a stroke of genius, I will update accordingly. Also, feel free to comment with your suggestions!


I wrote up a comprehensive piece on ticks on the AT and preventative measures that you can find here.

Sheila on the AT

Sheila on the trail lights up my life. Being able to take my best friend on the adventure of a lifetime is beyond rewarding. It is also a lot of hard work! Town visits will be complicated by the fact that we have a dog. A lot of well-known hostels will be off limits to us because of Sheila. We won’t be able to go out to the bar and sit at the AYCE buffet for hours on end. We have to factor in the extra costs of boarding her through the Smokies and we opted to board her through the 100-Mile Wilderness. Even our pack weight will be heavier because we have to carry extra water and some of her food. The decision to take a dog on a thru-hike should never be made lightly.

Below is a list of Sheila’s gear and my initial impressions.

Sheila's Gear

Granite Gear Long Howl Dog Pack - This pack is great! The harness is the best one I've found so far. I love the way it wraps securely around her waist and chest. The handle on the back of the harness is great for lifting the dog over rocks or out of the water. It is very durable and highly reflective. The saddle bags are removable, which is a plus since we want her to be able to shed her load in camp while also retaining the highly reflective harness. The bags are very roomy and the design is such that most of the weight is placed on the dogs shoulders versus their back. The strap and buckle system is a little complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it makes distributing uneven loads evenly a cinch. In her pack, Sheila carries her first aid kit, a brush, a bowl, and several days worth of food. We restrict her carry weight to around 5 pounds, but this pack could hold more.

Ollydog Mt. Tam Hands-Free Dog Leash
 - This leash isn't the lightest or the cheapest, but it works wonderfully. It has a simple system for strapping it around your waist and a very sturdy clasp. My only complaint is that the bungee part is a little stiff, and if your not careful your dog can jerk you down a mountain a little too quickly. Sheila tends to be much better behaved off of the leash than on, but we keep this for town and for camp.

Guyot Designs Squishy Pet Bowl - We got this bowl in the 24oz size. What can I say? It's lightweight, it's durable, it's foldable! I wanted something I could just shove anywhere and not have to worry about it being wet. This fits the billet!

Therm-a-rest RidgeRest SOlite Sleeping Pad - We cut this down to size for Sheila. It offers moderate protection from the cold ground and gives her a clue about where her "spot" is in the tent. This rolls up nicely and straps to the outside of my pack.

Ruffwear Cloud Chaser Soft Shell Dog Jacket - I never thought I would be one of those people who put clothes on my dog, but the weather we are going to be encountering mandates it. This jacket is awesome. It has a wonderfully fleece-y inside and a soft, water-resistant outer, making it windproof and waterproof. The material on the underbelly is treated with something that makes dirt and mud slide off easily. The long zipper on the side makes it easer to put on and take off than other jackets. It also has a highly reflective strip on the side so you can find your pooch at night. 

First Aid Kit - I put together Sheila's first aid kit with the help of several sites around the internets, including TeamUnruly, American Hiking Society, and PetEducation.com. The items I settled on include: Vetwrap (excellent stuff that sticks to itself and creates a water-resistant covering), non-stick gauze pads, regular gauze pads, a plastic medical tape, a paper medical tape, antibiotic ointment, cotton swabs, anti-diarherral, styptic pen, buffered aspirin, Benedryl, hip and joint vitamins, gloves, and her vaccination records printed on waterproof paper. We also carry all-purpose eyedrops, a Ruffwear Grip Trex bootie in case of injury, and a Tick Key. Some of these items are dual purpose in that they can be useful to us as well.

The people at TeamUnruly give a great walkthrough on how to make a tiny first aid kit for your dog and they are the ones that inspired me to pack as much of the kit as possible into the prescription bottle. When all is said and done, it packs down into a pint-sized ziplock.