Features June 2003 Issue

Taking Your Dog on Camping Trips

Preparation is key to enjoying your dog’s overnight outdoor adventures.

By Mardi Richmond

Camping is one of my favorite vacations. There is nothing better than heading out into the wilderness, sleeping under the stars and hiking your days away. And camping is one vacation that you can fully share with every member of the family, including your canine friends!

If I could take my dogs on a cruise ship, or if five-star luxury hotels catered to the needs of high-energy dogs, I might be more excited about those vacation options. But camping really is one of the few vacations that allows even the most boisterous of our four-legged friends to easily join us on the adventure. Plus, it’s a wonderfully inexpensive way to see the world – no hotel bills and no kennel or dog-sitting expenses.

WDJ’s editor and her son took their Chihuahua on a backpacking trip in the Sierra mountains. The tiny dog was a trooper until the rocky trail took its toll on his feet. This summer, they’ll pack Mokie’s booties, so they don’t have to pack Mokie.

Preparation is key to guaranteed enjoyment on your first few camping trips with your dog, however. I learned this about 20 years ago, on my very first dog-camping trip with my Border Collie/Lab cross, Charlie.

Charlie had come into my life only a few months earlier, but seemed to be the perfect dog for backpacking. He had energy and stamina and loved to hike as much as I did. From our many day hikes, his feet were tough and he was already used to wearing his dog pack.We headed out, following a deer trail up the Little Sur River in California’s Los Padres National Forest.

That night, I learned that hiking and camping were two distinctly different activities for this young dog. The biggest problem arose when he decided that my little tent was something to be avoided at any cost. Leaving him alone outside of the tent was not a safe option, and it was too cold and damp for me to sleep outside with him. I set to work convincing him that our tent really was an okay place to be. After what felt like hours of coaxing, he finally joined me inside the tent. Throughout what remained of the night, he woke me up by growling at every little nighttime noise.

Needless to say, neither of us slept much that first night. But we did see the raccoon family that came to visit at 3 a.m. and a doe with her fawn as they waded across the river shortly before dawn. And, that first sleepless night paid off. Charlie adapted quickly. By morning, he had learned to watch through the tent screen without growling, and he had discovered that my down jacket made a perfect dog bed. The next night he willingly followed me into the tent. From that time on, he was my champion backpacker and camper.

Charlie was my first canine camping companion and, in spite of that first sleepless night, he introduced me to the joys of camping with dogs. If you’ve camped with your dog friend, you probably know what I mean. You get to walk together, set up camp together, eat together, and even cuddle in the tent together. After being together every minute of a 24-hour day, you’ll get to know each other in a whole new way.

Of course Charlie also helped me realize that it would be much easier (and I’d be more likely to get a good night’s sleep) if I considered my dog’s needs before heading out on a camping adventure. A little preparation can really make the difference in everyone’s fun.

The perfect place
Finding a great place that offers the experience you are looking for and allows dogs can sometimes be a trick. Many places have dog restrictions that limit access. One of the best ways to find a good spot in your area is to ask other people who camp with dogs. Ask your friends, the people who work at your local outdoor store or animal supply store, the folks who work in your vet’s office, or your dog trainer. You might be surprised at how many people know the perfect spot to camp with dogs.

In addition, check out camping guidebooks (try your local library!) or look on the Internet for information about camping in a specific area or park. Many guide sources will tell you if dogs are allowed, but if they do not, you can call the camp area and ask.

As a rule of thumb, National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Lands most often allow dogs. State parks, local parks, and private campgrounds vary from location to location. National Parks will often allow dogs in the actual campground, but usually ban dogs from any trails surrounding the campground.

Once you find a place in a guidebook or hear about a great spot through a friend, investigate a little further before you go. Rules and regulations about dogs are always changing. A place that accepted dogs last year might not this year. Call ahead and ask if dogs are allowed and if there is an additional fee for the dog. In addition, ask if there are any restrictions for dogs on the surrounding trails or beaches. It could be very disappointing if the only place you and your dog can hang out together is at the tent site.

Ready, set, go
Getting your dog ready for a camping trip can be as simple as throwing his bed and food in the back of the truck, or as extensive as spending weeks or months conditioning. It all depends on your dog’s experience and what type of trip you plan.

For dogs who haven’t been camping before, getting them used to the tent or camper ahead of time is a great idea – or you may find your first night anything but restful! Try setting the tent up in your living room or backyard for a few days and let your dog sniff and explore. If your dog is well socialized and adjusts easily to new situations, this may be all it takes. If your dog is a bit timid, you may want to specifically train your dog to sleep in the tent. (See “Getting Your Dog Used to a Tent,” end of story.)

One of the most common issues for dogs who are new to camping is the issue of nighttime noises. Some dogs will cower, growl, or bark at every rustle, bump, and bang – and not without reason. Camp noises are often the noises of wild animals. Many of our city dogs have not heard the chatter of a skunk or the rustle of a family of raccoons. So how can you help your dog settle in so that you both get a good night’s sleep?

First, have your dog sleep near you. I find that having a leash on my dog (and holding the leash while I sleep) is a good way to get a new dog used to the idea that you are still in charge, and they are still safe. Put your dog’s bed right next to you, near your head. Sometimes that’s all that is needed.

Second, make sure all of your dog’s basic needs are met. Make sure he has had lots of exercise, isn’t too hungry or thirsty, has gone to the bathroom, and is warm enough. A tired, well-fed, and comfortable dog is more likely to sleep soundly.

Third, try a socialization program specifically designed to help your dog get accustomed to being in the wild and the night noises that go with it. Start by taking regular walks in the woods or other wilderness areas. Visit different places so that your dog becomes comfortable anywhere, not just in one location. Once he is happy about his wild walks and relaxed about daytime noises, extend your outings to include picnics or other “hanging out” time. Start taking walks at dusk, when the animals and noises are at their height.

Fourth – and this is for the dog who really cannot settle! – plan on turning your first few nights camping into training sessions. Have great treats available. Try simply giving your dog a treat each time you hear a noise. Have your dog learn his “spot” in the tent. Offer the kind of reassurance that works best for your dog. For some dogs that may mean calm words; for others, a no-nonsense cue such as “go to bed” helps them feel safe. Teaching your dog to tolerate nighttime noises may seem like a lot of work, but it will be worth it when you can share years of camping fun with your dog friend.

You may also want to do a little daytime training to help him learn the camping ropes. Give your dog a place in camp to hang out. Show him his place and make it a pleasant experience by giving him a pleasant chew or stuffed Kong.

If you are in a crowded campground, help your dog understand that other campers passing by are friendly. Greet people with an upbeat tone and give your dog treats for remaining calm and quiet. You may even want to enlist the help of friendly campers, asking them to give your dog a few treats, too. Be sure to help your dog feel safe in his new environment by letting him know what is expected from the start. When your dog knows that you will be in charge in this new and exciting place, he will be much more likely to settle in.

From bones to beds
When you camp, what you bring is all you have, so advance planning is needed to make certain you and your dog are comfortable. Your dog’s needs fall into a few categories:

• Shelter and sleeping gear: A good shelter and a comfortable bed are essential ingredients for every camping adventure. I highly recommend that you have your dog sleep with you in your tent or RV, rather than leaving him alone outside or even in your car. He will be more comfortable, protected from the elements, safe from predators, and less likely to be riled by night sounds if he sleeps near you. If you are car camping or backpacking, you and your dog will need a good tent.

• A caveat: Dog claws are hard on tent floors. Some of the best, lightest backpacking tents are most vulnerable to dog claws. You can extend the life of your tent by teaching your dog not to scratch at the floor, and by covering the floor with other gear so he walks and sleeps primarily on the bedding. Towel off a dog’s paws before he enters the tent. And, if your dog might race out of the tent, be sure to snap your dog’s leash on before you open your tent door to exit, especially in the middle of the night! There is nothing worse than having your dog charge off after an animal in the darkness, when other campers are around and you don’t want to yell!

If you are car camping or traveling by RV, bringing along your dog’s regular bed or sleeping crate can add to his comfort level, which can mean a good night’s sleep for you both. On backpacking trips, you can bring a lightweight dog bed or have your dog share your sleeping bag. Your jacket or parka can also double as a dog bed if you don’t mind dog hair.

• Protection from the elements: Your dog will, of course, need his basic fur coat for protection. Will he need additional camp clothing? For cold weather or heavy rain, consider bringing a sweater or coat for your dog. For warmth and comfort, those made from fleece are a good choice; for wet weather, a parka made of Gore-Tex or treated nylon can offer good protection.

• Food, treats, and water: The basic rule of thumb for feeding dogs while camping is to give them the same food that they generally eat at home, and usually in the same quantity. The exception is if you are planning (and getting your dog into shape for) a strenuous excursion. Your dog may need extra energy for backpacking, sledding, or skijoring. Don’t forget to include your dog’s favorite training treats in with your supplies. Even if your dog is a camping veteran, you could encounter a new or unusual experience that would benefit from a few training sessions.

Camping generally involves lots of activity, so your dog may need to drink more water than usual. If the area you are heading to doesn’t have a drinking water source, carry or purify enough water for your dog, too. If you can prevent it, don’t let your dog drink straight from rivers, streams, or other natural water sources; dogs are as susceptible as humans to waterborne diseases such as giardia.

• Grooming supplies: Ticks, fleas, burrs, mud, and other natural things will find your dog when camping, no doubt about it. If you are car camping, bring along a brush, flea comb, towel, and a dry or wet shampoo. In addition to your regular flea or tick protection, consider adding some type of protection from biting insects such as mosquitoes and biting flies. If you are backpacking, you may choose to travel light and take a minimum of grooming supplies. But definitely leave a towel, shampoo, and extra water for grooming at your vehicle – just in case you need to clean off your dog before a long drive home.

• Leashes and other restraints: You will need to have a regular leash and a flat collar for your dog. Even if you are going to an area where your dog is allowed off-leash, he may need to be restrained part of the time; you never know when you might meet up with a mama skunk and her babies on the trail! You may also want to bring an x-pen or crate to keep your dog confined while in camp.

• Miscellaneous: A food and water bowl, dog pack and booties, toys and balls, your clicker and treat pouch, sunscreen and insect repellent (for dogs), and health certificate or proof of vaccinations are all good ideas. Don’t forget to bring along plastic bags or a pooper-scooper. Even if you are traveling into the wilderness, it’s best to clean up after your pooch. (Note: If you are burying your waste, it’s usually okay to bury your dog’s, too. Don’t leave it exposed to contaminate the environment.) In addition, be sure to bring along a first aid kit with supplies for your dog, as well as for you.

Any time you travel, make sure your dog wears identification that includes a number that can be reached when you are away from home (like a cell phone or a relative’s phone number).

Fun for you, fun for your dog
Camping is fun, and spending time with our dogs is fun. When you combine the two, the good times multiply. Special canine camping activities add to the enjoyment. Of course, hiking tops the list. After a great camp breakfast, setting out for a day of hiking and exploration can be a great time for you and your dog. But other activities and games lend themselves to camping adventures, too. Fetching sticks, balls, and Frisbees is always enjoyable, and a great way to wear out your dog so you can relax in camp, watch the birds, or snooze in the shade.

How about doing agility, wilderness style? You can teach your dog to hop over low branches, walk across logs, and climb up a rock “A-frame.” Think about a game of “find it” or “hide and seek.”

Perhaps the greatest enjoyment is that camping allows me to live a little more like my dogs and to see the world through their eyes. When I camp, I wake up with the sun, eat when I’m hungry, walk and explore just for fun, and rest when I’m tired – just like dogs do, most days! Sharing the experience with my dog friends is a great way for me to remember to simplify and take life a little slower. My dogs remind me to notice my surroundings and encourage me to stay in the moment. Truly a great way to spend a vacation!


Also With This Article
Click here to view "What You Can Do."
Click here to view "From Back Country to Cushy Campers: Your Camping Options."
Click here to view "Getting Your Dog Used to a Tent."
Click here to view "Questions for Campground Managers."

Mardi Richmond is a writer, dog enthusiast, and trainer in Santa Cruz, California. She is the co-author of "Ruffing It: The Complete Guide to Camping with Dogs," which is undoubtedly one of the most complete resources on camping, hiking, and other outdoor adventures with dogs. See “Resources” for more information.

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