How to Choose The Right Dog Hiking Backpack

dog backpack for hiking

Dog backpacks, not to be confused with a backpack for carrying your dog is a fast-growing market in the outdoors sphere. If you’re taking your dog on a hike with you, whether it’s a long or a short one, being able to have your dog carry its own items can make a really big difference (and especially so on a backpacking trip). There are so many on the market designed for different purposes, from lighter weight general hiking to heavier weight backpacking style models that it can be hard to make the right decision. Below, we’ve outlined some of the main areas to consider when buying a backpack for your dog.

Editor’s note: This article is part of our guide to the best dog backpacks for hiking, be sure to check out the rest of this guide for our top buying tips:

Related content: 20 Best Hiking Dogs to Keep You Company on the Trail

Hiking Dog Backpack Tips

Your dog is a loved companion and when you take them out for a hike, you want to make sure that they are being looked after and as comfortable as possible. If you are going to introduce them to wearing a backpack, this is even more important. There are some things you need to consider making sure their experience is the best it can be.

Don’t Overload Your Pup’s Pack

Just as you wouldn’t overload your own backpack whilst out for a hike, because of how uncomfortable this would feel (and how miserable you’d be) you want to make sure that you aren’t doing this for your dog either. The usual recommendation is to not load your dog with more than 10-15% of its bodyweight. A dog can carry up to 25% of its bodyweight, but this could be troublesome as it can cause strain to its joints.

Load Pack Weight Evenly

Just as we learn to distribute the weight in our backpacks evenly to make them as comfortable to wear as possible, you should do the same for your dog and its backpack. Put the heaviest of items at the lowest point (in the saddle bags) and toward the body. You can test this by putting the filled backpack over your leg (thigh) and hanging down the sides to see if the weight feels evenly distributed.

Never Make a Dog Carry Your Gear

A dog shouldn’t be made to carry your hiking gear, and a dog backpack isn’t designed to carry this. This can set a bad president and over time, and expect your dog to carry more of your items – when it should only be carrying the items it needs for its own safety. If you are going on a longer trip, you should also assume you will likely carry more of your dog’s items and not the other way round.

Take the Pack on a Test Run Before Longer Trips

Like you would for any hiking gear, such as backpacks and hiking boots, you should make sure you take your doggy backpack for a few test runs before you attempt something longer. This will give you the opportunity to see if there are any problems with your dog’s hiking pack and any areas that need attention. This will also allow you to see how the backpack affects your dog and how it takes to wearing it. If your dog hasn’t been used to carrying weight on its back before, you can build up to slowly adding more weight and the items it will need to bring to not overload it at the start. 

Weatherproof the Inside of Your Dog’s Pack

Unlike many of the hiking backpacks available for us humans today, dog packs aren’t always waterproof. This can cause problems on the trail if your dog’s items are getting wet – especially if you’re on a longer trip where some of the items are needed for your dog’s comfort at camp in the evening. Even worse if your dog’s food is getting wet! We would recommend waterproofing the inside of their puppy backpack with a waterproofing spray and treatment such as Grangers Performance Repel Plus Waterproofing Spray.

Buy Your Dog Some Protective Booties if Their Paws Aren’t Ready

Depending on how used to hiking your dog is, you might want to consider getting them some protective booties for their paws. These can be a great buy for your hiking dog anyway, as they protect against any rough surfaces, or anything that can get into their paws and around their claws, but also helps to insulate them from the cold, ice and snow, especially in alpine climates. If you’re buying a backpack for your dog, it will be putting more pressure on their paws as they walk, and in turn, can lead to more pressure, cuts and abrasions. We’d recommend the Ruffwear Grip Trex Dog Boots.

Dog Hiking Backpack Comparison

There are many different features and designs available when it comes to dog backpacks, but there are some main features and considerations you should think about when making the right decision for your dog’s needs.

Your Dog’s Comfort

Your dog needs to be comfortable when wearing a backpack – and things like padding and where there are hard buckles, plastic etc are areas you should look at before making your decision. These are all areas that can rub against your dog’s skin and could get stuck in fur if not fitted correctly. You should also take note of how breathable each of the packs are so as to prevent overheating for your dog. Ideally, you’ll want to make sure that the saddlebags can be detached, allowing you to carry these instead, but this isn’t on all dog backpacks (and generally the more budget options may remove this feature).

Adjustable Straps

If looked after, a dog backpack is a piece of kit that should last you a very long time on your adventures. With this in mind, the adjustability of the backpack is important, as your dog’s body can change over time. The adjustment will mostly come from the straps, with multiple used to keep the backpack in place on your dog and to stop it moving around too much whilst in use. In most instances you will want to ensure that there are at least two straps across your dog’s middle or tummy and straps across the chest front too.

Dog backpacks differ in how they are put on your dog – with some needing to be put over the dog’s head, and others where you pass the paws through. You know your dog best, and especially if your dog is nervous, you’ll want to consider which kind of wearing method your dog would prefer.

Handles

You’ll find that most dog backpacks on offer have a handle which is located at the top of the pack (so when wearing, will be face up on the dog’s back). This should never be used for lifting your dog as a dog backpack is not built to do this and does not offer enough support around the ribs to do this. A handle is just for helping your dog over any obstacles, such as up rock stairs or keeping a tight control of your dog when needed. You want to look for handles that are more padded to make them more comfortable for you as the operator to use.

Leash Attachment Points

Most dog backpacks will have one of more leash attachment points and these will most likely be found at the top of the backpack – facing up as the dog is wearing. It’s important to make sure that these are well made and strong enough for the dog you have (and these should be stronger and more robust if you have a larger dog).

Features

These are a personal preference and will be determined by how you will be using the backpack. A very common thing is for a dog backpack to be sold in brighter colors, and this makes it easier to see your dog whilst you’re outdoors. You’ll also find that some dog backpacks have reflective strips and piping/trimmings to make your dog easier to see at night. There are also many that contain built in water features (such as bladders and containers) and even poop bag dispensing. Though, the most important thing is to make sure that the backpack fits your dog well.

Pockets & Storage Capacity

You’ll notice on the dog backpacks featured in our main review, that the pockets come in a range of sizes and shapes. You’ll generally find them called saddlebags and these will often have a large pocket with a smaller pocket on it. The pockets on a dog hiking pack should make it easier for your dog to carry the weight needed and you should always ensure that most of the weight is at the bottom and at the front to make sure that it isn’t pressing too much on your dog’s spine or shoulders.

The weight should also be balanced. In terms of storage capacity, this will vary depending on what it is designed for. For example, a pack aimed at a backpacker will have between 300 cubic inches (5 l) and 1,465 cubic inches (24 l) for storage. A smaller pack will have anything from 93 cubic inches (1.5 l) in storage capacity and is intended for shorter walks.

Size & Weight

To make the right decision for your dog, you will need to measure both your dog and the backpack (which we’ve provided as much information on as possible in our main reviews and comparison tables). Dog backpacks are usually sold from XS to XL and vary between fitting dogs at 4 to 50 pounds in weight. If your dog is between sizes, it is usually best to get the larger size. When wearing, you should easily be able to get two fingers between your dog’s body and the straps of the pack.

The pack weight itself should be as minimal as possible to not overload your dog, so you should always check how heavy the pack is with contents in before loading onto your dog. As a general rule, you should not allow your dog to carry anything over 10/15% of its bodyweight.

Materials & Durability

A dog backpack for hiking needs to be made from materials that will last, are practical and as weatherproof as possible. Most dog backpacks take their cues from human hiking packs and use things like polyester as their main material. It is easy to clean, waterproof and is abrasion resistant. You’ll also find things like leash attachment points will be made from metal and are stitched into the pack, along with Velcro which is used to keep some areas closed. Zips are common, too. Mesh sections help to keep the backpack as breathable as possible and to ensure that your dog doesn’t overheat.

How to Hike with a Dog with a Backpack

Whether you’re new to taking your dog out on hikes or are wanting to take the next step and take your dog ‘barkpacking’, these tips should set you up to enjoy even more fun together on the trail.

How to help your dog get used to hiking with a backpack?

It’s always best to do a few trial runs before you head out on a big hike, but even just your everyday dog walks will be good for training your dog to use a backpack. Try introducing your dog to the backpack first by allowing the dog to sniff and explore the pack. Once your dog is used to the backpack you’ve bought, it’s time to try and put it on – make this a fun experience for your dog and reward with treats so they associate putting the pack on with positive reinforcement. For the first few days, this is all you need to do – put it on and take it off, to get your dog used to the feel of the pack and the sensation of wearing it.

Once you’re happy with how the pack is sitting on your dog, and your dog Is feeling calmer around it, start your first walk with the pack empty, and over the course of a week or so, add a little extra weight until you’re at the level you want your dog to carry (remember this should only be 10-15% of its bodyweight). Once your dog has become used to carrying their pack on shorter daily walks, you should be good to go with shorter hikes. You can then rinse and repeat this as you train your dog to handle longer hikes, by using shorter hikes for building up. 

How much weight should I add to my dog’s backpack?

You should only add 10-15% of your dog’s bodyweight to its backpack – this is to prevent your dog from overcarrying and remove any worry of strain to your dog’s body. Carry any more, and your dog could feel extremely fatigued and struggle, especially in hotter climates.

Are dog backpacks bad for a dog’s back?

Provided you get the right size for your dog, and your dog is healthy, wearing a backpack should not pose any problems to your dog’s health or their back in particular. If your dog has arthritis, it should avoid carrying, as should giant breeds. They should also not be used for immature dogs and puppies either. If you’re concerned, you should ask your vet and see what they recommend, as they will be happy to make suggestions for you.

Should I size up or down on my dog hiking backpack?

It is generally recommended that if your dog is in-between sizes, that you are best to size up to avoid any rubbing or chaffing to your dog’s body. It is advised to make sure you can fit two fingers between the pack and your dog’s body to ensure that it correctly fits your dog.

How should a dog backpack fit my dog?

Your dog’s backpack should fit snuggly on the body without moving around too much. Generally, with most backpacks, you’ll be able to adjust the straps to get a good fit. You want to make sure that there is space for two fingers to fit between the dog’s body and the pack to avoid any rubbing. The weight put in the bags should also be distributed evenly with the heavier items at the bottom and to the front to avoid movement. You’ll want to use common sense and ask yourself if the pack looks too big for your dog or not – this should hopefully be pretty obvious!

What to measure on a dog hiking pack

You’ll want to refer to the manufacturers listing for the exact measurements of the pack and see how this fairs up to your dog. Most manufacturers will offer up information about what size and build your dog should be for a certain pack size, so this can help you make informed measurements. You’ll also want to measure how far down the pockets will come on your dog’s sides to make sure that there is not likely to be any dragging at all.

How to tighten straps on a pup’s backpack

Each manufacturer’s information will be different, as this completely depends on the model you’ve bought. Most manufacturers do have video instructions or information on their website about how to correctly fit and tighten the straps on your pup’s backpack. Generally, though you’ll want to follow these steps:

  1. Secure the strap for the back of the belly to the belly buckle
  2. Adjust the chest strap so that the pack feels secure
  3. Tuck the loose part of the chest strap into the chest panel/section
  4. Secure loose sections where possible to Velcro tabs

How to pack your dog’s backpack

Packing a backpack for your dog will be pretty similar to how you pack your own backpack. Your dog’s strength is in its front so the heavier items and equipment should go towards the bottom and closer into your dog’s body, at the front. Lighter items can be at the top and towards the back which will sit closer to your dog’s back.

Conclusion

There are a lot of choices on the market when it comes to dog backpacks and they can make a real difference to your hike if your dog can carry some of its own equipment, including water (and especially on longer trails). We hope the advice we’ve provided on the important things you should consider when buying a backpack for your dog has allowed you to make an informed decision to suit you and your dog’s needs out on the trail perfectly. You may also enjoy our article on the 20 Best Hiking Dogs, too. 

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