Transform Your Dog into a Trail Dog (part 1)

Your dog keeps pace at your side as you mount rugged mountaintops. He ambles alongside, exploring the gentle rolling hills. He keeps a wary eye out as you both dodge invisible orcs in the murky, damp woods.

A stalwart dog, faithful and stout of heart.

golden retriever sticks his tongue out looking at camera
My Golden Retriever @Jenphotographs

It’s a fantasy that most dog-loving hikers have. And bonus, they make a great photography model when the landscapes are drab or weather isn’t cooperating (had to tie in with photography!) .

Aside: while I don’t have a sidekick/hiking partner of the four-legged variety right now, I had one for 13 wonderful years. I’m a self-professed expert.

The reality is often anything but.

Dogs are like people. They have personalities and likes and dislikes. Some don’t like exercise. Some are pansies and get cold easily. Others prefer the comforts of their home.

small dog in woods
Cocker mix, I think?

With a little patience, yummy treats, and a smattering of dog training tactics, you can turn your dog into an awesome, always-up-for-an-adventure trail dog. Even a little foo-foo type toy dog can be a great trail dog!

Some people are concerned about planning and the logistics. But it’s not that much more work than taking children or introducing a virgin buddy to the joys of hiking. Once you have the basics down, it gets easier to go on a spontaneous hiking trip.


  • Adventure partner is awesome.
  • Can’t beat having your bestie along on a fun trip
  • Wildlife deterrent
  • They don’t talk back or whine. As much.


  • Extra planning and research first few times
  • Extra backpack weight
  • Poop logistics stinks. Literally.
  • Wildlife deterrent


There are some obstacles and challenges you’ll have to figure out in advance. Like choosing a good park.

Planning: Choosing Your Park

National Parks

With a few exceptions, the major National Parks (NPS) don’t allow dogs on unpaved trails or into the backcountry. There was a time when dogs couldn’t even step into campgrounds or the parking lots. But they’ve loosened up that restriction. These parks’ ecosystem are so fragile that a dog running rampant, barking their idiot heads off, could upset the natural balance for a few days.

“But my dog wouldn’t do that!”

Maybe you know that. But the park rangers and other visitors don’t.

Think about it. As an example, the Grand Canyon National Park alone got 6.25-million visitors in 2017. American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates that 36% of all households in USA have dogs.

Hypothetically, if 36% of that 6.25 million visitors brought their dogs, that’s over 2.25 million dogs. Even if all the dog owners were on top of their game, which is statistically unlikely, some dogs are bound to slip their collars and go exploring. Or get cranky and overtired and nip at a bratty tourist kid that won’t leave him alone. Or the owners might overlook them taking a crap by the Havasupai Falls and not clean up.

Shit happens.

If you figure only 10% of that 2.25mil make mistakes, 225,000 whoopsies is a lot in a fragile area, especially in regions where wildlife are still recovering from our ancestors’ mistakes — like overhunting buffalo in 1800s.

The good news is, the NPS managers are starting to realize dogs are an important part of visitors’ families and are finding ways to compromise. Some campgrounds now allow dogs.  It’s not really altruistic, though; they know more visitors with dogs translates into more money trickling into the local economic area’s pockets. As an example, a few of the major parks have dog kennels on the premises, and you can often find a local dog-boarding place nearby that’ll take your dog for the day.

Bad news? Still can’t take your dogs hiking in those parks.


If you definitely want your dog with you on your hikes, which you probably do if you’re reading this, turn your eyes toward National Forest Parks (NFP), State Parks, National Monuments, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parks. Most NPS have a NFP, State Park, or BLM park nearby, often sharing borders. Their policies tend to be looser (State parks vary), and dogs are more often welcome.

Behold my mouse-drawing skills! @jenphotographs

As an example, Parashant, a National Monument on the west side of the Grand Canyon, is reported to be gorgeous and even more wild. However, it’s not developed (I hope it remains that way!) and thus is less trafficked. It definitely isn’t for a beginner hiker. You will need to be comfortable with both offroading and backcountry hiking before tackling this park.

Parashant is on the left side of the canyon in this image.

Kaibab National Forest shares borders with southern Grand Canyon, and it has gorgeous geological features and plenty of wildlife, and 300 miles of trail for you and your sidekick to enjoy. Coconino National Forest, a couple hours farther south near Flagstaff, has stunning features as well.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, on the northern side of the Grand Canyon, also has striking geological features. It’s very reminiscent of the famous Antelope Canyons.

Vermilion Cliffs

With a little strategic planning, you and your furry hiking buddy can enjoy all that nature has to offer. After you become familiar with the nearby parks’ pet policies, it’ll get easier to go on a spontaneous day or weekend hike.

Choosing Your Trail

It’s tempting to pick a trail that promises to be remote, isolated, and wild. The fewer people there are, the easier it is to get that illusion that this terrain has been untouched by Man for thousands of years.

But just like any other person new to hiking, there’s an adjustment period. Both your dog and you will need a few trips to get the wrinkles ironed out and get comfortable with the new activity.

Instead, start with short, easy day trips at nearby parks. This’ll allow you to gauge whether extra water/food is needed, whether your dog needs some fitness help (a topic for a future Trail Dog article), just how long they can go without needing breaks, whether they need boots for rougher sections…

orange golden retriever dog sits in front of old wooden fence
My hiking buddy at 5yo @jenphotographs

Pretty much like any new hiker of the two-legged variety, right?

There are a number of websites that rates the popular trails and it’s pretty easy to find the ones that are good candidates for introducing your dog to hiking.

I also like the Falcon Guides’ “Best Dog Hikes in [Insert your State]” though the topo maps could stand to be bigger for readability. Their notes on the trails are helpful in assessing whether your dog can complete a particular trail.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Trail Dogs!

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