January 16, 2018 7 min read

Keep your dog comfortable and your ultralight gear safe while backpacking with your canine companion.

Words and photos by Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa.

In all of my years of hiking with dogs, a frequent question that comes up is how do you keep your dog safe and cozy at night without sacrificing your ultralight backpacking gear? The purpose of this article is to help you learn some ways to keep your pup comfortable at night, and prevent them from destroying your gear in the process. With gear becoming lighter and lighter each year, the technology allowing for this is often thin, lightweight fabrics that can tear easily from rocks, sticks, thorns or those dog nails if you are inclined to bring Fido along for the hike.

The shelter and sleep system I use varies with the time of year and the conditions I will be in. My true preference is to cowboy camp under the stars at night, but rain, snow, and in the summer biting bugs sometimes force me to use a tent. With the average shelter and sleep system pushing close to a grand, you are right to be concerned with having your dog quickly destroy your tent or $200 sleeping pad. With all this said, I have spent countless nights sharing my shelter (or lack thereof) with my dogs over the years, and have never had a tear, hole, or mishap by following some of the techniques which I am going to share with you. [Karluk, my current hiking dog, is a 9 ½ year old Lab mix who tips the scales at 65 pounds, not a small dog.] But before we discuss protecting your backpacking gear, I’d like to share my thoughts about having your dog out with you in the field.

Our dogs need many of the same protections against the elements as we do.

In order to protect their gear from damage, some people choose to leave their dog out in the elements at night. It always makes me sad (and frankly a little angry) when I see photos online of people backpacking who are all cozy in their hammock while their dog is forced to sleep on the bare ground, in the dirt below them. What gets me even worse is when I see people all laid out on their warm pads and bags with gear strewn about the tent, and the dog is forced to sleep out in front of the tent. If your dog is used to sleeping indoors at home, why are they outside your shelter on trail? Your dog needs to be insulated from the cold ground and cold air, just like you do. It is my opinion that my dog is an endurance athlete, just like me. When backpacking he needs a good comfortable night’s rest to recover, just like I do. We all want to reduce pack weight, and get that base weight down as low as we can. If you are backpacking with your dog, the reality is that you are going to need to carry some extra oz’s (and dare I say pounds) to keep them as comfortable as possible while on trail.

At home, my dog sleeps in a crate in my bedroom, on a big soft bed and we keep the temp around 64 degrees at night. For Karluk those are the conditions he is used to sleeping in. Out on trail, the temp is pushing in the low 30’s in the high alpine at night, and he’s chilly just like me. So the kindest thing to do is have him in the tent to stay warm right beside me. It would be cruel to make him sleep outside in the elements while I’m in a shelter. In fact, I go to the extreme and actually spoon him at night under my Alsek quilt on 3 season hikes. In the winter, I bring both my Alsek and Flex 15 so he can have his own dedicated quilt to sleep in while camping.

Since we now realize that Fido needs protection from the elements, let’s get to those pointers that will help protect your gear from Fido.

Concern #1
I’m worried my dog is going to tear a hole in my ultralight quilt or sleeping bag while in the tent.

This can be a valid concern, especially if your dog likes to make a nest and turn in numerous circles before settling down for the night. However, with some common sense and training you can easily keep your lightweight sleeping bag safe. If your dog is retiring to the tent before you, I suggest not pulling your bag out and laying it in there unattended with your dog. Leave the bag in your stuff sack or even better, in your pack liner so it can fluff up and still be protected. Generally, I let Karluk in the tent before me, but I oversee him going in. Instead of letting him make a nest, I command him to sit, lie down, and relax (teaching your dog to relax or settle at home can be very handy when out in the wilderness in new places).

Concern #2
I don’t want my dog to pop my high-end sleeping pad.

With high-end air mattresses like the Therma-Rest Neo Air or Sea to Summit series of pads pushing the $200 mark, you are correct to be concerned with putting a hole in your pad. I will say this though, I used a Neo-Air on the Continental Divide Trail thru-hike I did in 2016 and got 4 holes in it all together. The material they use is much tougher than many of us realize.

The number one way to help prevent a hole in your pad (or quilt or tent floor) is to make sure you keep your dog’s nails trimmed short and smooth. Although, even a freshly trimmed a dog’s nail can be jagged when freshly cut. To help prevent one of these nails from damaging your UL gear, try taking a small file to smooth out your dog’s nails prior to going out in the field, an even better way to achieve smoother nails is to take your dog on daily long walks, the more your dog walks on concrete in particular the smoother their nails will become form the natural wear this rough surface provides.

I always have a dedicated sleeping pad for my dog. We have been using the Gossamer Gear Night Light Torso Pad. This pad doubles as my backpack’s padding, and then at night I pull it out and unfold it for Karluk to sleep on. However, he quickly figured out that once I am snoring away, he can put his back along our tent wall and slide me right off my pad onto his. Many a morning I wake up on the small pad only to see Karluk spread out in all his glory on my Neo-Air. After 7 years of this common occurrence, I treated Karluk to his very own Neo-air. Now when we backpack together, I just carry the extra 11 oz. for him to be comfortable at night. I’m glad he “told” me which pad helped him get a better night’s rest.

Concern #3
I’m worried my dog is going to tear the bottom of my tent.

Just like your sleeping pad, sleeping bag or quilt, the number one cause of damage will be untrimmed nails or nails with sharp edges. To avoid ripping the floor out of an UL shelter that very well might have cost you $600, I recommend a few things:

  1. Do not leave your dog unattended in the tent if they have a tendency to dig, or make a nest to sleep in, as a quick swipe could become a big hole.
  2. Use something to protect the floor of your tent. Two great items would be a UL polycryo ground sheet
    for the spring and summer. In the winter I use a mylar space blanket for the extra warmth and a good protective barrier.
  3. Consider putting some socks on your dog when you go into the tent. Ruffwear makes a great set of these called the Bark’N Boot Liners which work well. Or consider bringing a couple of pairs of baby socks to do the job.

While keeping your dog warm with your own coat is super nice (and super cute), there is gear made just for Fido.

Now besides protecting your gear from tears, holes and virtual mass destruction from your dog, here are a few other FAQ’s I get about taking your dog backpacking:
How do I deal with a wet dog wanting in the tent?
For this I always pack a Shamwow (or similar light weight pack towel) that I can use to dry Karluk off from the rain and mud to help keep us both dry and clean at night.
How do I keep my dog safe when cowboy camping?
Sleeping under the stars is one of the most rewarding things a backpacker can do to feel their connection with the cosmos… I always clip Karluk to his leash at night, and the tie the leash to my pack. This prevents him from wandering around at night, potentially being injured by something. This also helps protect wildlife from being disturbed by his presence.

What’s the best way to keep my dog warm at night?

This is not only important for keeping them comfortable. Just like you, it will help them conserve much needed calories. I do two things to keep Karluk warm at night. First, I always carry a Ruffwear Quinzee Jacket, this light weight synthetic puffy is the perfect layer for Karluk to wear in the evenings around camp. Second, as mentioned above, Karluk gets to use good backpacking gear too. Often, I snuggle under my quilt at night with him, and it is one of the many reasons I love a quilt versus a sleeping bag. I can get him settled down beside me then drape my quilt over the two of us for a warm night’s sleep.

I hope some of these tips and answers to the common FAQ’s have been helpful. Overall, backpacking with your dog can be a wonderful experience, and a great way to bond with your pup in the backcountry. Keep the nails trimmed, and the dog well outfitted with their own pad and sleep system. After a full day of hiking, they should be just as tired as you, and will likely lay down calmly to sleep in natures wonder.

Portland, Oregon resident and Katabatic Gear ambassador Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa has hiked over 6,000 miles with his canine companions over the years. He is a sought-after speaker, teaching people about responsible backcountry use with their dog, ultra-light hiking and a variety of hiking-related topics. You can find out more about his adventures with his dog on his website, https://www.allgoodsk9adventures.com/ or his other site www.thedagodiares.com.