There is little better than sharing the great outdoors with our dogs — sleeping under the stars, enjoying the warmth and camaraderie shared around the campfire. But, dogs enjoy routines and the familiar. Going camping with dogs, unless you do it a lot, is not routine, and the environments are always filled with many different and even strange sights, smells and sounds.
Best places to go
There are lots of places you can go camping with your dogs.
Tent camping and car camping are more popular with dog owners, and private lands are becoming more of a glamping type scenario where people are setting up stylish campsites that can be rented out by the day. Some private, pet-friendly campgrounds are North Carolina’s 4Paws Kingdom Campground & Dog Retreat, Washington’s John Wayne’s Waterfront Resort and New York’s The Getaway at Emerald Glen Farm.
Although U.S. national parks for the most part do not allow dogs in the backcountry, they are allowed in the front country. You can find these campsites and designated trails listed on the national parks website.
State and local parks have fewer restrictions for dogs on the trails and at their campgrounds. Each state park has its own website with pet rules you can read up on. Examples of state park websites are North Carolina; California; and Colorado.
KOA (Kampgrounds of America) is also typically dog friendly but does have rules, which you can find on its website. It has been around for 53 years and has more than 487 campgrounds across the United States.
The Bureau of Land Management, which sustains the health, diversity and productivity of the U.S. public lands, allows further access for dogs, and this is where more of the backpacking-with-dogs-style camping can be done.
It is every camper’s responsibility to check out information about where dogs are allowed in these parks and what rules you must follow. Typically all dogs must be leashed except in designated dog park areas, and sometimes there are restrictions on the number of dogs you can bring.
Dogs got skills
Getting your dog ready to go camping takes refreshing or developing skills that come in especially handy in the great outdoors.
Recall: Motivating a dog from point A to point Me
Recall at its core is getting your dog’s attention, motivating him to “Come” (to you), marking the action while he is coming from point A to point Me, and when he gets to you and completes the behavior, mark “Yes” and reinforce with a pea-sized food reward. (For more, see the DSD column Recalling Recall on dogster.com.)
Check in: Requesting disengagement, a short-range recall
One huge benefit for camping with our dogs is that it lets them take in new, novel information. We should actively participate in nurturing these experiences with our dogs. Marking and reinforcing when our dogs disengage from gathering information in new environments is a great natural way to help them to learn to check in with us.
An example of this would be when a dog finds an interesting smell on the ground. As he’s investigating the smell, at the moment he looks back toward you, briefly disengaging from gathering the information, you say, “Check in,” as you motivate your dog to come toward you to receive the food reinforcer you have at the ready.
Settle (mat): Not only lying down on a mat but settling and relaxing for an extended duration.
A dog camping bed is a great place to target for settling down on. Settling is more than a down stay; it gets a high rate of reinforcement and a pretty stable schedule of reinforcement. This increases the association of being settled for a long duration, with the goal of improving the likelihood/predictability of the individual dog choosing to go lie down and relax, in this case on a targeted camping bed.
Camp in your backyard first
Do a test run in your backyard. Set up a campsite with the tent and spend some time preparing for what it will be like to go camping with your dog involved. If you have a fire pit or camp stove, make dinner outside.
If not that, then have an overnight picnic and feed your dog outside. Spend the night outside in the tent with you in your sleeping bag and your dog on his camping bed. Doing this will let you know what is successful and what adjustments you need to make for when you’re out in the real world at a campsite where the bathroom isn’t nearby, where there’s no running water, there are constant night sounds and the comforts of home are the ones that you bring with you. If you don’t have a backyard, set up everything in the living room, and use your imagination to take that first baby step toward camping at a site where you’ll spend the night.
Bring as much food as your dog needs, plus an extra day’s worth. Dogs who regularly have a good appetite at home may not have the same appetite while camping, so bring some extra enticing toppers that your dog enjoys to help him be more motivated to eat in a new environment. Think campfire snacks for dogs. Bring along some of his favorite foods, which can even be blended to use as toppers to make his camping meals extra enticing and enjoyable.
Food should only be kept out while eating and then stored away so it doesn’t attract any wildlife. If you are in an area with bears, be extra vigilant. Don’t store the food in your tent, backpack or back of a pickup truck, as bears can smell it and get to it. For more information on properly storing your food, visit the nps.gov site.
The sharing of new, joyful, novel experiences is a beautiful thing as long as everyone is comfortable in the environment. Practicing the skills that will be used in real-life scenarios while camping will improve the likelihood of everyone enjoying the experience. Start out with an overnight adventure and the time spent together camping is short and fun during two days and a single overnight to start.
Also, have an exit plan, keep medical records available and know where the nearest veterinary hospital is to where you are camping. Always keep your phone charged and have a battery power pack that can charge your phone when there are no outlets around. Being prepared is a sure route to camping success.
Get in gear
There are some items that making camping more safe and enjoyable for your dog.
Dog camping bed: Bring a dog camping bed like the extremely popular Ruffwear Highlands Dog Sleeping Bag and Basecamp Dog Bed or a bed your dog is already used to.
GPS collar: Despite precautions, dogs can get loose in unfamiliar situations. There are many GPS collars, like The Link, Whistle Go Explore and Tractive. Read more in the article “Canine Activity Trackers You’ll Want to Try” on dogster.com.
Long lines: A 30-foot, half-inch Biothane long line is not only great for exploring when out on a hike, it’s also excellent for passive supervision at the campsite. Get a long line, either 20 feet or 30 feet, made from half-inch Biothane. Companies like Trailblazing Tails and Palomine Lines make great ones. I make my own out of Biothane gold I get from The Strap Warehouse.
Hitching systems: Allow dogs to roam free while attached to a leash connected by a carabiner to a long length of rope tied between two points, allowing for managed freedom of movement within the campsite.
Climbing rope can also be used as a hitching system, tied between two trees or staked out. You can attach your dog’s regular leash to this hitching rope with a carabiner. I prefer 25 kN locking carabiners and 50 feet of climbing rope. Ruffwear makes a campsite dog-hitching system called the Knot-a-Hitch from climbing-inspired components and hardware.
My hitching systems are usually on the ground, and the point of attachment to my dogs is always to their harness. If you think your dog could back out of his harness, attach a safety line from the harness to his regular collar as back-up management.
Water and food bowls: Collapsible silicone bowls like Loving Pets Bella Roma Travel Double Diner for Dogs are popular for camping, as are stainless-steel bowls, depending on the type of camping you’re doing. Always have water available for your dogs.
Dog first-aid kit: A must-have for camping. The Adventure Medical Kits Me & My Dog is a good one if you don’t want to put your own kit together.
Personal LED light: Campgrounds get really dark at night. Light up the night with an LED dog collar or a light to attach to your dog’s collar. Having an LED collar or clip-on LED light for overnight camping with your dog is an essential luxury that’s far better to have than not have. Noxgear makes great LED collars and harnesses, Nite Ize makes a great LED clip-on, as does Ruffwear with its clip-on called The Beacon Dog Safety Light.