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A Guide to Leave No Trace Hiking with a Dog
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A Guide to Leave No Trace Hiking with a Dog

One of the most rewarding things about having a dog is enjoying nature with them. If you like to hike or camp, you probably want to enjoy those experiences with your pup too! Taking your dog into nature can be a great way to bond and explore together. However, it is important to be mindful of the environment and be respectful when we are out hiking with our dogs. The best way to make sure we are hiking safely and sustainably is to follow the principles of Leave No Trace from the Center for Outdoor Ethics, or “LNT”. The LNT principles were designed for human hikers 25 years ago, to help people learn simple tricks for protecting wilderness even while they explored it. In this post, you’ll learn how to apply the 7 LNT principles to hiking with your dog.

Principle #1: Plan Ahead and Prepare 

Planning for your trip to the backcountry with your dog is important to keep you and everyone around you safe. If you’re planning on bringing your dog with you into a wilderness environment, make sure to bring everything that they might need. Bring enough fresh water for both of you (dogs drinking from streams and other water sources can get sick), booties or paw wax if your dog has sensitive paw pads, a leash, poop bags, a muzzle if that’s helpful to keep your dog from eating anything toxic while out, and treats or food to keep you both fueled up. Of course, only visit trails that legally allow dogs and check leash laws before you go to make sure you are following all local rules. 

How does planning ahead minimize impact on the earth? People who are prepared for their trip are less likely to accidentally damage resources or habitat around them or end up in an emergency situation that could strain the infrastructure of the community they’re visiting. You can never be too prepared! 

Principle #2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces 

Staying on the trail might not seem as fun to your dog as running up and down hills and through the woods, but it’s better for the planet and will allow everyone to enjoy their hike. Dogs (and people) going off trails in parks can cause erosion and soil damage or trample delicate plants. If you can, it’s best to stay on a trail. 

If you need to go off a trail (such as stepping aside to allow someone to pass you, or if there is no trail available), try to stick to durable surfaces like rock, sand or gravel rather than allowing your dog to play freely among plants and trees. If you’re in a group, walk single file to minimize the impact on the habitat. 

Principle #3: Dispose of Waste Properly 

This LNT principle is pretty simple: pack it in, pack it out. What you bring with you should come with you when you leave a natural area, and so should any waste you make. Yes, that includes your dog’s poop! Dog poop can contaminate drinking water or make animals sick. Plus, stepping in dog poop would be a real bummer for the hikers coming behind you.  

If you can, pick up your dog’s poop and carry it out with you, or leave it by the side of the trail to pick up on the way out (if you know you won’t be gone long and will be taking the same trail back). If you can’t pick up your dog’s poop for some reason (we all run out of bags sometimes!), and are in an area with soil rather than rock or sand, you can dig a hole and bury your dog’s poop about six inches in the ground and 200 feet from water sources.

Principle #4: Leave What You Find 

We all know “souvenir dogs” who are determined to bring every stick they encounter home with them. We might even know some people like that too! But as fun as it is to bring rocks, shells or sticks home as treasures from our adventures, the fourth LNT principle asks us to leave things behind. Leave these things on the trail for the next visitor to see. 

Leave What You Find also applies to our actions while in nature with our dogs—we shouldn’t alter the natural environment to accommodate us or them. That means that our dogs shouldn’t be digging holes, scratching up trees or moving things around. Try to leave the environment you pass through more or less the same as you found it (minus a few pawprints!). 

Principle #5: Minimize Campfire Impacts 

Whether you have your dog with you or not, you should be careful about where you build a fire while camping and clean it up when you are done. Do not build fires in areas with high fire danger, where fires are illegal, or where there is not much firewood available.

If you do build a fire, be sure to keep your dog away from the flames and manage them so that they can interact with the fire safely and have fun! Maybe you can even roast them a hot dog or two.

Principle #6: Respect Wildlife 

Dogs instinctively chase, bark at, and generally harass prey. It’s part of their genetic inheritance from their wolf ancestors. Some dogs have a higher prey drive than others, but pretty much all dogs do have some natural desire to hunt (whether large or small animals). However, as humans, it’s our job to make sure our dogs do not disturb the animals whose habitats we are visiting. With training, dogs can learn to ignore wildlife, but we need to be mindful of their thresholds when we are hiking. 

If your dog does not have reliable enough recall to leave an animal alone when called, even when in a new environment or distracted, you should keep them leashed. You can keep your dog leashed even on an off-leash legal trail. You can practice recall even while your dog is on a leash to develop their training. 

If you want to give your dog some freedom, you can use a long line (an extra-long leash that still allows you to grab your dog if needed). That way your dog can explore and the squirrels can live to see another day!

Principle #7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors 

The seventh and final LNT principle might be the most important one for dog owners to remember. There are many people and dogs who come to enjoy natural areas, and not all of them want to interact with other people or other dogs. They have the right to enjoy the space, just like you. So if your dog will run up to other dogs and people wanting to play, you should keep them on a leash even in off-leash legal areas. This will make it easier for others, including people who are afraid of dogs or reactive dogs, to enjoy their hike too.

Good trail etiquette really just comes down to simple respect and decency for those around us, dogs and people both.  

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Pawprints

The seven principles of Leave No Trace are really designed to help us meet one important goal: leaving nature just as beautiful for others to enjoy. Whether you’re a canine or human outdoor enthusiast, following LNT principles is an easy way to ensure respectful and sustainable hiking. We wish you many treat-filled, safe and exciting adventures outside!

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