Hiking with the Big Dogs

Taking your little pup on outdoor adventures
Photo by Julia Sumpter

Photo by Julia Sumpter

Ellie has been my outdoor companion for the past six years. She goes camping and hiking, rain or shine, and she’s only 10 inches tall.

I admit it’s fun to see the look on hikers’ faces when they realize there’s a short little dog with me. The idea of my 7-year-old dachshund making it to the end of a 5-mile hike with an incline and creek crossings is the ultimate underdog story. But, real talk: Little dogs need an opportunity to explore and follow their noses just as much as big dogs.

And just like with big dogs on the trail, I make sure to obey leash laws. While they’re kind of a pain for dog owners, leash laws are in place to protect wildlife, hikers, and other dogs. If your dog is obedient to voice calls, socialized, and friendly, other dogs might be reactive and territorial, and express unhappiness if your friendly pup gets close. Additionally, not every person on the trail or in the campground is a dog person. So even if your big — or little — pup is friendly, other dogs and people may not be receptive to your drool-y, panting, yipping, and yet lovable beast all up in their space.

Through the years and multiple adventures, there are a few tips I’ve picked up about exploring the outdoors with a small dog that help keep our excursions happy (and safe) for her and me.


Photo by Marjorie Clark.

1. Be aware of distance and intensity. Ellie can easily go five miles, but if the trail has a significant vertical climb or many obstacles, she’s done at four. It took experiencing a few adventures to discover her limit, two of which ended with her 12 pounds riding (not so) comfortably in my arms back to the car. If you’re unsure of your pup’s limit, start with shorter hikes and work up the miles until they become conditioned to the distance and terrain.

2. Watch for signs of exhaustion, including panting and slow, low-energy steps, and be ready to pack out your friend.

3. Look for obstacles. My pup is surprisingly limber and spry — her 4-inch legs handle stairs, logs, and creek crossings like a champ. But she certainly can’t handle a 5-foot leap up a slippery boulder. I let her navigate finding an alternate route, and she’s pretty good at it, but that time we came across an old-growth tree blocking the trail? She needed a lift.

4. Know that your small pup is working really hard. Ellie works many times harder than long-legged dogs to travel the same distance. She’s also closer to the ground, so puddles and snow piles are within range of her chest and belly and can be shocking to her system. If the weather is particularly chilly or wet, I make sure to bring her jacket or a towel to keep her warm during the lunch break. I also pack extra snacks for her, and make sure we frequently pause to rehydrate.

It’s rewarding to take Ellie out and reach the top of the mountain or secluded lake where the big dogs play. It’s especially rewarding when she sees her harness and is excited for an adventure. She loves it as much as I do.

Trail dog first aid kit

Just like humans, dogs can get into shenanigans while out on the trail. Here’s a selection of items that would be useful if the pup gets injured or into something she shouldn’t, but be sure to check with your vet if your dog has any breed-specific issues, or if you plan on carrying medication for the pup.

  • Antibiotic ointment, plus stretchy bandages, scissors, and rubber gloves.
  • Eye wash or saline solution in a squirt bottle to flush a cut or wound.
  • Wet or grooming wipes.
  • A towel or emergency blanket: maintaining body temperature is important for dogs, too.
  • Travel water and food bowl
  • Potable water and treats: Just because there’s running water doesn’t mean it’s safe. Pack water for you and your pup.
  • Poop bags: Because #LeaveNoTrace is the goal for people and pets.
  • Tick nipper: Dogs get Lyme disease, too. Be sure to check the dogs for ticks soon after ending the hike to ensure they don’t transfer to you or the rest of the family. Or the cat.
  • Benadryl or other dog-safe antihistamine: Dogs get allergic reactions to things in the wild, too. But check with your vet before heading out to ensure you have what you need and proper doses. Also ask about pain medications.

If this sounds like a lot to carry, consider getting the dog her own pack. A healthy, active pup can carry up to 20 percent of her body weight and safely pack her own gear. Including packing out her own full poop bags.


is the digital content producer at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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