Do you love taking your pup on dog hiking trails? But you’re worried that dog hiking without back pain is a mere fantasy? Maybe you have a small dog and think he or she just can’t handle hiking. You may be shocked to learn that a small dog can hike just as well as a big dog. My dog, Henry, who is roughly 13 pounds loves to hike. Here’s one more shocker, there are many tricks you can use so you to help support your back while hiking. This means you end up without an achy back or at least reduced pain. So, today, let’s dig in and discover how to have happy dog hiking trails without back pain.
*Updated: June 3, 2023
Budget tip: Hiking with your dog and protecting your back isn't a budget buster. All the essential items you need for hiking are reusable and you can find sales if you look. It's like planting a tree you get to enjoy year after year. Henry and I both think it's good for the soul That's priceless! That's a great budget winner!
NOTE: First, always check with your doctor if you have any health issues. You want to verify that you should be hiking. Perhaps a walk is better for you. Also, don’t forget to chat with your vet to make sure your pup is healthy for a hike. Even a short dog friendly trail hike. You don’t want to conquer the mountain on your first hike.
What can I do to lessen my back pain while hiking with my dog?
Here are a few tricks I’ve learned that help my back prior to, during, and after hiking with my dog, Henry.
Don’t fool yourself. Hiking is exercise. You want to loosen up your joints and muscles prior to hitting the trail. You may also want to stretch along the way. Stretching will help reduce muscle fatigue and soreness. Additionally, it will improve your circulation and recovery time. Never stretch to the point of pain. Only stretch to where you feel a “good” stretch. Here are a few good stretches to do for your back prior to and after hiking.
Think about building your core muscles
Your core muscles are basically the deep back and abdominal muscles. They attach the spine and pelvis to your torso or trunk of your body. Your core muscles are responsible for supporting, moving, and protecting your spine. So, the stronger these muscles are the less pain your spine will experience. Here are some great core muscle exercises to help strengthen your spine.
Good shoes or hiking boots
My grandmother used to always say that your feet are your foundation and you have to take care of your foundation. She had a point. My mom use to always say that cheap shoes don’t help your body if they end up damaging your feet. She made a valid point as well.
Therefore, when it comes to your back and hiking, you want to look for hiking boots that are comfortable, weatherproof, supportive, and something you can wear for many hours. They probably won’t be cheap. But this is part of your foundation. You may find sales, especially around holidays or the end of the season, which can be great. In the past, I’ve found what I wanted and then waited for a sale. It was worth it.
Properly fitting backpack
Look for a backpack that fits comfortably and straps around your waist. You never want to overfill your backpack. However, you do want to be able to evenly distribute the contents, which should be fairly lightweight, across the back.
NOTE: For me using a backpack, even on a very short trail helps my back. It re-enforces my posture. Plus, at the bottom of the pack, I can put either one long or two shorter water bottles. For additional support, I will place the water bottles in the fridge for several hours. This lets my back experience almost a cooling massage as I hike. Honestly, this feels great!
Always remember your posture and try not to slouch. Yep, let your mom’s words come back to you loudly. Keep your core muscles engaged as much as possible, especially as you go up or down a mountainside. This will protect your spine from injury.
Many people find that using at least one trekking pole when hiking with their dog, helps to reduce their back pain. The idea of a trekking pole is to help to keep good posture throughout the hike. I haven’t tried this one yet, but the theory certainly makes sense. As the hike goes on, you can tire and that’s when bad posture can sneak up on you.
Listen to your body
As you are hiking with your dog, you’ll want to listen to your body. If you need to rest for 15 minutes, then do it. I always recommend starting with really short trails early in the morning and then expanding as you and your dog get more experienced.
Additionally, don’t forget to drink lots of water and offer your dog water as well. You’ll want to pack nutritious items to eat like bananas, dried fruit, and trail mix. Remember your dog may need some food as well.
Tip: Know your dog and your skill level. Don’t head out for a 12-mile hike if this is your or your dog’s first hike. Start small, maybe with a 1/4 mile hike, enjoy the scenery and work your way up.
Go at your own pace
I know it’s easy to get out on a dog friendly trail and then set some crazy goal. For instance, you see a mountain and think that’s where you need to head. That may not be where you need to go on this hiking expedition. Pace yourself and your dog appropriately so you can get off the trail before it’s dark.
Tip: Keep track of where you park and which way you went from your vehicle. I made this mistake once. It took me several extra hours to get back to my car. My dog, Henry was thrilled with the extra trail time. On the other hand, I was thoroughly exhausted and very grateful we didn’t meet any bears or mountain lions on the trek back.
What should I do after my hike with my dog to help with any back pain?
Stretching is always good to loosen up your muscles and joints. Additionally, an Epsom salts bath is wonderful for reducing pain and inflammation. Yep, this trick for pain has been around forever, but it still works. In case you’ve forgotten or never had an Epsom salt bath, it’s simply 1.25 cups of Epsom salt in a bathtub with as warm of water as you like.
However, if you are in a lot of pain, I really encourage you to seek medical attention.
Note: With physical therapy, I’ve learned exercises and how to compensate for back pain, including lower back. Physical therapy might benefit you as well. It could be something to discuss with your doctor.
What kind of prep and dog hiking equipment do I need?
Honestly, I should turn this part of the article over to Henry. He absolutely loves to hike and I’m sure would be able to tell you what’s needed best. But since he’s taking his mid-day nap, I’ll pinch-hit for him.
Foldable water bowl
Your pup will need a way to drink water while hiking and a foldable bowl is easy to hike with, clip on your backpack, or your belt loop.
I don’t know what it is, but as soon as we hit the trail, Henry has to poop. It’s the best remedy for constipation. Remember when you’re hiking whatever you pack in, you need to pack out. That includes poop and poop bags. Your dog’s poo isn’t as biodegradable as a wild animal’s poo. Besides, I always think that I’m in a wild animal’s home. So, I try to be a good guest.
Dog Booties or shoes
There are many dog booties on the market. Some are better than others. Honestly, I think they are trying to update the technology on dog booties a bit. It does take some effort to get your dog used to booties. However, if you’re planning to hike in a dog friendly area that is rocky or weedy, it’s a great idea. They’ll keep each of your dog’s paw pads safe from injury.
There are backpacks made for even small dogs. They allow your dog to carry his or her food, treats (if you desire), poo bags, and a foldable bowl. I would never recommend putting much weight on your dog’s back. You certainly don’t want to give your dog a bad back. Also, make sure the weight is evenly distributed in the pack.
A small amount of dog food
If you are planning to hike a great distance, or if your dog only eats once a day, then you’ll want to pack a little dog food. Henry generally is too occupied with all the sniffs to think about food. Although, he does drink while hiking.
Pet first aid kit
You could be surprised what could happen at any given moment. Life is full of surprises. For example, I have a friend who went out on her daily trail hike with her “dog pack” a few years ago. They were one mile into their 7-mile hike when the youngest pup of the dog pack, who was nearly 100 pounds at the time, got bitten three times by a rattlesnake. My friend jumped into full-on dog mom mode and carried her bitten dog one mile back to her car. Then she raced him to the vet. Thankfully, Luke had received the rattlesnake vaccination. It was touch and go for nearly two weeks, but he pulled through like a champ.
However, it goes to show that anything can happen at any moment. My friend did a great job saving her pup. It’s good to be prepared. This is a good small pet first aid kit to pack in your backpack.
Always check with your vet to make sure your pup is able to hike and there are no underlying issues. Your vet may even recommend other vaccinations if you plan to hike a lot with your dog. These vaccinations could include a rattlesnake vaccination. Your vet will also know if you should treat your pup with flea and tick preventative care medication.
Dog hiking vest
I always have a cooling vest for Henry when we hike, unless it’s the fall or winter. It helps him stay cool and he’s able to hike a lot longer. Actually, he can hike miles more than I’m willing to even think about hiking with his cooling vest.
Small dog hiking tip: If you’re hiking with a small dog, I generally try to go first over large rocks or boulders. The first time I thought I might need to carry him over a boulder. Nope. He leaped as if it wasn’t even there. I thought my small dog somehow morphed into a large Great Dane. Basically, never underestimate your small dog’s abilities.
Should my dog have a harness and leash on while we hike?
This will be up to you and your dog, as well as the trail rules. Personally, I like to keep a harness on Henry. I rarely take him off-leash. This is simply because I never know when an animal or dog will come bouncing out of nowhere. Another dog owner on the hiking trail may let their dogs off-leash regardless of the park policy or their dog’s temperament. While Henry is extremely friendly, I don’t know if the other dog, wild animal, or even person will be friendly. By having Henry on his leash, I’m able to get to Henry and protect him quicker.
However, I have many friends who use vibrator collars to retrieve their dogs while hiking. They let them roam the trails as long as the dogs are within sight. Although, it should be noted that each of these dogs is larger than Henry. But each, just like Henry, is extremely well trained.
Are there any safety tips to know when hiking with my small dog?
Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Even if you’re hiking in a group this is a good practice. Remember to check in with this contact person when you return. You don’t want to be a face on the 6 o’clock news for no good reason.
Tip: Look for trail maps. They will show the length, expertise skill level, and time it takes to hike the trail. This will give you an idea if a trail is right for you and your dog. You can find many trail maps online. They will also be posted within parks.
Take your cell phone with you. Even if your phone should die while on the hike. Or you and your dog should become lost, it’s still useful. Generally, authorities can ping the last spot you were at before the battery of your phone died.
Remember don’t try to get the impossible selfie with your dog hanging over a cliff. Always think about safety first when taking a photo or using your phone.
Take bear spray on the trail. I will generally hike with bear or pepper spray in my hand and ready to use. You never know what will happen or when. I mostly hike alone with just Henry. So, I’m always extremely cautious.
Dress in layers. As you hike it can get warmer, or cooler as clouds roll in along the trail. It’s always best to be prepared.
Don’t forget the sunscreen. Yep, even if you’re covered up to start the hike, as you peel off the layers, you need to make sure you’re protected from the sun’s rays. You may even want to put a small travel-size sunscreen in your backpack. Remember it’s easier to burn as you go up in elevation.
What should I do for my dog after his or her dog friendly hike?
Your dog may be tired. Of course, offer your dog food, and water, and allow your dog to sleep. I also like to give Henry a massage after our hikes. I figure if I’m sore at all, he is as well. The massage also gives me a chance to scan his whole body for any stickers, ticks, scratches, or other ailments which may have happened on the trail. I also like to check out Henry’s joints with his massage to make sure he’s not overly sore.
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Summary of happy dog hiking trails without back pain
Hiking with your dog can be very relaxing and soothing. Connecting with nature is always one of my favorite things to do with Henry. But I always look for ways to do it that protect my back from further pain. I can do this by stretching, using the right footwear, listening to my body, and taking care of myself after we return home.
Needless to say, hiking is one of Henry’s favorite things to do. I’m very happy to report he still gets lots of trail hikes each year. Although, he would probably say it’s not enough. He could be right.