I absolutely love hiking in the desert with my dogs. It’s a rewarding experience for you and it’s good fun and exercise for them. And if you have a dog who needs constant exercise, it’s the perfect way to burn off some of that extra energy. Tired dogs are happy dogs. Its important though, if you want to get out to the backcountry, to bring along the proper dog hiking gear to keep your pup happy and safe.
However, I urge you to leave your pups at home during the high heat of summer. Normal temperatures in much of the Southwestern desert are 100+ degrees F during the day for most of June, July, August, and September. It’s simply too hot for your dog to handle safely.
They are closer to the ground than we are and can’t sweat like we do (dogs rely on panting to cool themselves off) not to mention they can burn their pads on the rocks. A good rule of thumb to follow is to leave your dog at home if the temperature is going to be greater than 90 degrees F anytime during the duration of your hike.
But you came here to read about hiking with your dogs…so let’s talk dog hiking gear. After spending more than a decade hiking the deserts of the Southwest (Arizona specifically), I’ve learned a thing or two (sometimes the hard way) about what gear to bring for my canine companions.
The Must Haves
You’ll need a sturdy 6 foot leash. Most hiking trails that are on national park land require dogs to be leashed at all times. Keeping your dog on leash allows you to remain in control. Even if you do opt to let your dog off leash, you should keep that leash with you just in case you need it (wrap it around your waist.)
Another point to note here is that retractable leashes are a bad idea for hiking. It’s too easy for them to get tangled in brush, cacti, or rocks. Or if you happen to see some wildlife (javelina, bobcat, quail, rattlesnake, rabbit, etc) you’ll want a way to limit how far your dog can run towards the critter. A fixed-length nylon or cotton lead is your best bet.
Collar and/or Harness
Some folks opt to have their dogs on collars and some folks opt for harnesses. Some even use both. I tend to use different setups for different dogs. Smaller dogs or breeds with smaller necks or shorter noses (think Chihuahuas , Pugs, Boston Terriers, or Cocker Spaniels) are better off with harnesses. Larger dogs and most sporting breeds (Labs, Spaniels, Pointers) are better suited to a collar.
Another option we’ve had wonderful experiences with is the Gentle Leader. This works great for puppies who haven’t learned their manners or older dogs who pull. The important point here is that you’ll need something that, when combined with a leash, helps you maintain control of your dog when the unexpected happens. My advice is to try each different combination and see what works best for your dogs.
Water and Water Bowl/Bottle
No matter the time of year, hiking in the desert is a dry business with low humidity and warm temperatures. Please bring water for your dog just like you bring water for yourself. The hotter the day, the more water to bring. Letting them drink from any water you can find (puddles, streams, etc) is just as unsafe for them as it is for you.
In my experience, dogs usually do better with a bowl or cup to drink from. A collapsible bowl is a great, lightweight option for hiking. Perhaps my favorite option is a bottle/bowl combo – like the Gulpy Water Dispenser.
They’re lightweight, easy to pack, and quick to use for those thirsty pups.
I know I get hungry when I hike. Dogs are no different. Hiking burns a lot of calories and they need to refuel just like you. You’re much better off bringing some of their own food and/or treats to prevent upset bellies.
First Aid Kit
Dogs with their natural curiosity have a tendency to get stung, poked, or cut while hiking. The desert landscape can be unforgiving. Tender noses stuck directly into cacti to sniff usually leads to some wounds that need tending. Dogs romping gleefully on rocks can lead to paws with injuries. Having a small first aid kit on hand is a great idea for both you and your dog.
Basic First Aid Kit Suggestions:
- Bandana (can be used as a muzzle in a pinch)
- Antiseptic wipes
- Gauze pads
- First aid tape
- Comb or hair pick (only way to get a cholla ball or burr out of a dog without embedding it in your own hands – I know this from personal experience)
- Tweezers (great way to remove smaller cactus thorns or spines)
- Small roll of duct tape (Quick way to get glochids out of snouts and feet. You’ll still need your tweezers to get some of what the tape doesn’t get. Try wrapping a 10″ piece around part of your trekking pole or another smooth surface to make it easy to carry) To learn the best way to remove cactus thorns click here.
Baby Waterproof Sunscreen
I know you’re thinking what? Dogs have fur! But dog noses have no fur. They sunburn. Also dogs with thinner or white coats or bald bellies can get nasty sunburns.
I always pack sunscreen for myself, so I simply choose a kind that works for my dog as well. It’s quick and easy to apply this to ears, noses, and bellies on dogs. And for those pooches who are very thin-coated, it makes sense to apply to their backs and haunches as well.
For day hikes, a smart strategy is to bring a large gallon-sized resealable bag and smaller waste bags. Scoop the poop into the smaller waste bags and store in the gallon-sized bag until the day is done. I have a small baggie dispenser that is attached to the leash, it’s pretty convenient to have it right at your fingertips.
If you opt not to pack waste bags, just make sure you’re burying your dog’s stool just like you would bury your own. Leave no trace is the best hiking motto for all species.
The Good to Haves
Dogs are usually thrilled to help their people. And most adult dogs in good health can be trained to carry up to 1/3 of their body weight. The good news for you is that they can usually handle their own food and some of their water.
Backpacks for dogs have much the same requirements for humans. They should fit properly without rubbing and the weight should be distributed evenly inside. Most doggy packs have removable saddlebags so your dog can start by simply wearing the pack minus the bags to get used to the feel of it. Here’s an excellent article on training your dog to wear a doggy backpack – How to Train Your Dog to Wear a Backpack.
Our favorite brand is Outward Hound. We’ve had the same pack for years and years. It’s held up incredibly well considering the wear and tear on it. In fact, it’s on its second doggy owner.
Dog booties have saved me a time or two. I originally had dog booties for one of my dogs to use for snow and backpacking trips. He had soft pads that tended to rip on the sharp rocks, causing limping and pain. His booties were great for protecting his paws from injury or covering up an already injured paw. When we moved to the desert of the Southwest, we realized that dog booties are good anywhere.
Dog booties are great for preventing injury if the terrain you’re covering is particularly rocky or sharp. They protect the paw by covering it up, but also provide additional grip to prevent slipping. They’re a great addition to a first aid kit. If an injury to a paw does occur, clean and wrap the wound, and then put a bootie over it. It’ll help keep the wound clean and help it be less painful to walk on in order to get you back to the trailhead. Hiking with a dog who has a cactus thorn in his paw is no fun – and neither is carrying an injured pup who can’t walk on his own.
My favorite brand of dog booties is Muttluks. They’re spendier than some, but last forever (I’ve reviewed several popular brands of dog hiking boots here). We’ve had the same pair for 15 years and they’re still going strong.
Heartworms are spread via mosquitoes and have been found in all 50 states. A chewable pill once a month keeps your pooch safe from expensive and life-threatening heartworm infestations. My dogs love theirs – they’re beef-flavored. Mosquitoes aren’t a huge problem in the desert, but when hiking you’re more likely to find standing pools of water from monsoons. Standing water = mosquitoes. Better safe than sorry. Talk to your vet about heartworm prevention for your dog.
Although not a huge problem in the desert, fleas and ticks are a real problem to handle once your dog has them. While ticks themselves cause minor skin irritation, the diseases they carry are the real problem. The most common tick-borne disease here in the Southwest is Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (which can be spread by ticks to both dogs and humans.) Ticks throughout the United States carry any number of other diseases, the most famous of which is Lyme disease. Your dog, once infected, can’t spread the disease to you, but the same tick that infected your dog can infect you.
I’d rather be proactive at preventing the problem. Especially when there are so many inexpensive flea and tick products on the market. Again – talk to your vet – you’ll be glad you did.
Now that you’ve got your dog hiking gear all figured out, perhaps most importantly, have fun with your hiking buddy. My dogs know that when the leash and boots come out, we’re about to go on an adventure!
- Dog Hiking Boots – Popular Brands Tested and Reviewed
- Desert Hiking Clothing – What to Wear and Why
- How to Remove Cactus Thorns
- DIY Camping Toilet
- The Best Camping Chair for Big Dudes