Whether you are peak bound or park bound, the best dog backpack can be very handy for you and your dog.
With the advancements in our own back strapped rigs comes also the advancement in packs for our dogs. Your dog’s back is a finely tuned structure. It requires ergonomic structuring that differs vastly from your own back. It functions quite differently from the back of load-bearing mammals who are also horizontally-disposed. Your pup is designed to run, jump, lay, sit and walk in a manner that is as natural as the centuries of evolution resulting in your furry hiker.
Because the structure of your dog is harmoniously balanced, any weight applied to it and structure fitted around it needs to comply with every movement and motion performed by your miraculous mutt. Thankfully, these actions have been studied in-depth by veterinarians and product developers alike. The result of these studies are the packs you see today at the summit and at camp, trusted among the most adamant of dog owners. Let’s dive into some of the best of these backpacks and unpack what makes them right for your dog.
The dog backpack is essentially a harness with pockets. Harnesses have varied through time and served many purposes, but none other than a leashing tool is the most common of these uses. The harness is a great system for distributing tension that may be found from a taut leash through, and most importantly, around the dog’s torso and mass.
The harness design is optimized by typically having a post-shoulder positioned latching point for the leash. This area right above and behind the dog’s shoulders is the least invasive spot to connect a leash and alleviates tension caused by collars that fasten only around the neck by having the chest and shoulders bear the load of a forceful pull, which is strenuous on the neck and quite unhealthy for a dogs neck over time. This also eliminates the possibility of your dog choking.
However, most hiking dogs are free and don’t require a leash. This is good for both dog and owner as it can be less complicated when climbing up tough sections and scrambles. Your dog, because of its size and ability, will often take slightly different routes than you when climbing and descending features.
The hiking dog will often run into problems that require its owner to solve. That’s where the handle comes in. This is, in my opinion, the most revolutionary and important feature on harnesses and dog backpacks alike. The handle allows you to God-swoop your pooch from situations that could be severely treacherous for them, and redeploy them safely on the trail or stable ground.
The position of the handle is crucial in the design of the harness pack. When danger is encountered, you want to be able to pull, lift, or carry your dog to safety without any problems. The handle of harnesses and packs should be positioned at the center balance point of your dog. Large dogs can benefit from a handle a little more shoulder-placed as they may be too large and heavy to vertically lift anyways.
Our 5-year-old Blue Heeler Sable has followed my Husband and I through situations that challenge stamina and coordination of both owner and pet alike. As agile and skilled of a trail dog she is, preemptive measures have been taken. Getting her safely across boulder fields, up vertical faces, and even onto the top of our van.
On a dark night, a wet log crossing can be a large risk to take to reach camp. For even a brilliant dog, a slippery patch of algae-laden wood can go unseen and risk your dog’s life. In crossings and climbs alike, we have avoided dangers by passing Sable like precious cargo.
Your dog’s life, safety, and happiness should be considered as important as yours when planning and undertaking a hike or trip. A harness can make this planning easier and safer and let you and your pup travel farther. If your dog falls victim to a trail-danger, a harness can be your only means of extraction and can help you get him or her back to safety in a fraction of the time it could take without one.
The Dog Backpack
With so much of your dog’s strongest surfaces covered by sturdy well-strapped material, weight can be applied. However, just as though a fully packed 90L bag would crush an untrained hiker, so will your dog’s pack if it is not properly packed.
Think about the size of your dog. From their leg structure to their abdomen circumference. How are they built? A Corgi may be able to tote around a collapsible dish, food, leash, and pick-up bags, but might not fare so well against the addition of a few full water bottles. Although the weight loaded may be quite less than the recommended maximum of 25%, problems can still occur. The Corgis’ tubular frame sits close to the ground and its stretched from hip to hip.
Since properly packing a Corgi—or other low-slung elongated dogs—can be a challenge, there are packs we will further mention that serve these dogs well, as they maintain the bulk and weight properly placed which keeps from unnatural arching of the back.
Some dogs, like their owners, push themselves hard when out and demand a lot of their gear. Moving freely and comfortably is essential for any dog who is running with a pack. That is achieved often times by a type of pack that is modular in design.
These dog packs have a harness design which simply uses their adjustable straps between pockets and the latch/handle point. This gives less support for life-flights, but more ability to properly strap each pocket around your dog. The Kurgo Max Dog Pack, for example, makes great use of this level of adjustability while still maintaining all the aspects of a safety-inspired harness.
What to Pack
When deciding what to pack in your dog’s bag, use your imagination and think logically for life on the trail. It may serve a tired, hot dog well to carry no more than your windbreaker. But most dogs are tough day in and day out. A youthful and capable pup can carry nearly all of its own necessities, making a truly fair trip out with your partner.
The first thing that you should consider including in your dog’s pack is a first-aid kit. All the pieces are incredibly packable and lightweight and can be safely stored inside a waterproof bag, and no dog pack should be found without one. A good first-aid kit for a dog, in particular, should include:
- Medical tape
- Quick Clot
- Cotton balls
- Ace wrap
With a first-aid kit sealed and tucked nicely into your dog’s pack, other essential dog-specific items can be conveniently stored. A leash is always important to have with you, as it can serve a lot more of a purpose than just legally tying your dog no more than six feet away from you.
Sable is an independent hiker and is rarely ever found on a leash. However, due to laws and regulations, a long piece of paracord is always found coiled in her pack. Paracord can work as a compact leash and can aid in times of peril. A sling, tourniquet, and even pulley system can be the difference between life and death, and all achievable through the proper use of paracord. Additionally, a lightweight climbing rated carabiner is attached for quick clipping and releasing, along with an added measure of utility should Sable need a hoist.
A collapsible water dish is often forgotten but makes life much easier when the stream is far and you need to pour your pup some water. To keep weight down and make use of our own waste, a simple plastic sandwich bag is always found in Sable’s pack; as rolling the edges down creates a perfect lightweight water or food dish. Her water is also stored in her pack by means of two 12 ounce water bladders. The bladder is preferred in a dog’s pack because it forms around their body much better, and can be compacted when empty. The food she carries is stored in two sandwich bags, zipped shut.
With enough space and weight allowance for Sables’ 35-pound self, we add in a light or glow stick to keep track of her in the dark. She also totes her Ruffwear Grip Trex in case the terrain is either sharp, scorching, or ice for long periods. And of course, she carries her own pick-up bags.
Keep in mind the type of pack your dog is wearing, the weather, and the possibility of river crossings or a splash in the lake. If your dog’s pack is not waterproof, storing items you don’t want wet in a dog’s pack can be a bad idea, as your dog may decide now is a good time for a cooling bath.
Water bottles/bladders, sealed and zipped first aid kits, and food bags stay in my dog’s pack regardless of the condition, as a wet encounter would not compromise any of the packed goods. With the lids tightly on, we often store empty bottles in the large side pockets of Sables’ pack, saving time and adding a lightweight flotation aid in case of a river incident. Though Sable loves a swim in the creek, pack bearing or not, she knows that it is in her best interest not to swim with a heavily weighted pack.
How you chose to pack your dog’s bag is limitless. Allocate items you may need to frequently grab to your dog’s pack. It can be incredibly convenient not having to take off your own pack to retrieve an item. Ensure you have what it takes to help your dog at any time, no matter where your own backpack is. A well-packed bag may give them some flotation aid and improve their leg strength.
Dog and Discipline
It’s hard to pick a bad pack these days. However, it is easy to pick the wrong pack for your particular dog. Let’s take a look at some great packs for differently disciplined and displaced dogs.
Even an extra small dog pack can be overbearing for an extra small dog, no matter the company. When choosing a pack for a small dog, it is important to first observe what the dog will be carrying. A leash and single food bag are much more noticeable weights to a Jack Russel than a Mastiff. Most small dog packs are built with enough space to hold these potential objects. This could lead you to unknowingly overload your dog’s pack in reference to your dog’s weight.
It is also notable that a pack on a small dog can become cumbersomely close to the ground when fully stuffed. This can be irritating for the pup to say the least, as the pack will be driven into roots and rocks sticking up from the trail. This is ann unpleasant experience for your dog as well as a potentially wet and ripped pack.
For these reasons, certain designs of packs are better for small dogs. My personal favorite to see on small trail dogs is the Outward Hound DayPak. What makes this pack ideal for the mini-dog is its appropriately small pockets that hang higher on the dog’s torso. This lets puppies and small dogs confidently step and maneuver the terrain and give them an opportunity to grow in strength.
Small dogs can still carry weight, it just takes extra precaution to ensure you are properly packing your dog.
Medium Size Dogs
The term medium when describing dogs can vary drastically. The Heeler is a medium-small dog that bears width in the torso while maintaining a modest height. Similarly, pit bulls can be looked at as medium-sized dogs due to their dense builds.
Contrary to these breeds, pointers are thin and agile medium-sized dogs that stand above most other medium-sized breeds. So what kind of pack suits a medium-size dog best? Well, it is again a matter of build and discipline.
The Ruffwear Singletrak is essentially a hydration pack for your pup. Designed as a pack for running dogs, the Singletrack features smaller, more ergonomic pouches that hold items close to the dog’s body. This pack is revolutionary for both small and big dogs alike. It does not leave much room for overpacking, so weight worries are less of a concern (the medium packs just 3.3 liters). Dogs that benefit most from this pack are those that are trail running, and dogs that struggle with pack rotation issues. Many wispy-structured pups can have plump packs hang with a good center of gravity around their slender bodies.
Those medium breeds with a more barrel chest tend to push the storage pockets out significantly, causing each side of the pack to wiggle and slide above and below the dog, even when properly strapped and sized. With the same handle placement and leash clipping points as the other Ruffwear packs and harnesses, the Singletrak is likely all that most will ever need.
For a thru-hiking Heeler or other medium-sized long distance dogs, there are packs that can really bring all the necessities of trail living. The Ruffwear Palisades pack stands out as the most versatile, comfortable, and useful of these packs and has proven to be a trail-dog parent’s dream. Great for the full spectrum of dog sizes, the Palisades pack is a two-in-one full-size dog pack and harness that uses a 5 point adjustment system, as well as bag compression straps to keep gear tight. What’s so convenient about this pack is its ability to quickly detach completely from your dog. As a two-part pack, the Palisades is essentially mounted to Ruffwear’s most sturdy harness, the Web Master. This frees you from the hassle of getting your dog in and out of the harness as you can just unclip the pack itself, leaving your pup still safely harnessed.
Herders, workers, hunters, and retrievers make up a large part of medium size dog breeds. These are dogs that have been bred to endure specifically tough situations and demand a properly fitted pack. Always make sure the pack you chose for your medium size dog fits well. Ensure your dog will not back out of the pack, and that the pack does not fit too tightly as many thinner medium size dogs will often require a small sized pack.
The pack market seems to cater towards bigger hounds more extensively than other dogs. The military, law enforcement, and even search and rescue teams have designated tactical packs that let the large working dog do its job to the fullest. A larger breed can undoubtedly carry more weight, making the hassle of getting them in the car all worth it on the trail.
Care should still be taken when packing a large dog. Many big breeds are disposed to joint issues and other problems that would make pack-bearing unreasonable. These problems most often happen with age but can be detected earlier in a large dog’s life. If a problem exists, be sure to talk with your veterinarian before mounting a pack to your dog.
With hips in place, joints healthy and heart young, your dog is ready to tackle the trail with its gear, and maybe even some of yours. Your large breed dog can easily carry the typical five pounds of supplies they need. With all the room inside large packs, fitting your windbreaker, puffy, and even your own snacks can be incredibly convenient. Bulky but light-weight items of yours are great to store with your big dog. The weather and water situations still apply, however, a well-packed bag atop a Great Dane will be much safer in a creek crossing.
Other great things to relocate to your dog’s pack are items like a flashlight, towel, or even your inflatable sleeping pad. It is still in the best interest of your big dog to pack softer good towards the inside, as it adds cushion to the dog’s ribs and allows for a more natural range of motion. This option is great as long as you don’t surpass the recommended 25% of your dog’s body weight and limit activity to slow and methodical movements. Big dogs can happily overwork themselves to a damaging point. With a bigger dog comes more water and more food. Make sure nutrition and hydration are met and adequately supplied.
With so many packs to choose from, let’s establish some key differences based on your dog’s purpose. The tactical and purpose-built assistant dog packs we mentioned don’t only serve government divisions flawlessly— these packs are tough, useful, and full of technology. Even if your dog isn’t defending a platoon, chasing bad guys, or taking fire, a MOLLE Harness really opens the door for your dog to carry anything under the 25% mark.
The OneTigris MOLLE harness utilizes bungee straps that cross along the top of the harness to quickly stuff a leash, jacket, or trash found on the trail (do your part!). The sides are where versatility really becomes apparent. The OneTigris uses a MOLLE rigging system that allows the user to strap on either side any appropriately sized tactical bag with a corresponding MOLLE system. With three rows of mounting on each side of the vest, you designate what and where you pack on your dog. This freedom allows for you to properly balance your dog’s pack. Though, you won’t be packing much right away.
In addition to the vest, you will need to purchase your own MOLLE compatible pouches. However, the choice is yours, and the tactical pouch market is only expanding. Drop into an Army surplus store or search online and you will find these things in abundance. From a sleeping bag pack to a pistol holster— a MOLLE equipped pack will fit your dog and its gear like a glove.
Big dogs can use any size-appropriate pack under the sun and are not limited to tactical vests such as these. A popular pack among many large dog owners is the trusted Mountainsmith K-9 Dog Pack. This “dogonomically correct” pack has been a staple in the adventure dog community and has 30 years of pack building history. This pack also offers a plethora of adjustment options to keep comfort and stability.
The Choice is Yours
As your dog’s owner, fitting them with the right gear is your duty. Should you chose to use a pack on your dog, proper fitment and comfort should never be compromised. Many pups will reject even the best dog backpacks, and that’s okay. Take time to help your dog and train them to associate the pack with good times. Put it on them unpacked when you go for a walk, even if it’s just down the road. Keep the experience loving and don’t be afraid to try another pack if your dog decides to wiggle their way out of the unit.
With all the gear available there is surely a pack that is right for your dog, big to small. Give the pups a purpose and let those working dogs be fulfilled and proud. Not to mention a literal weight off your back. Explore fits and styles to see what pack will best suit your application. Whether its a river canyon or a morning park jog, a dog pack can bring you the goods.