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Hiking With A Small Dog: Tips to Know Before You Go

Updated 01/09/2024 – Can you go hiking with a small dog?

The short answer is yes, you can take a small dog along when you go hiking.

In fact, depending on their energy level, small dogs can make excellent hiking partners.

We have taken our small 20 pound Ratdoodle rescue on a few easy to moderate trails over the past year. She did surprising well. Especially when you consider she spends most of her time hanging out on the couch.

But you need to decide what YOUR DOG can do. Just because another small dog is able to hike doesn’t mean your dog can or if they will even enjoy hiking with you.

To help you decide we have gathered some tips we have used and things you should consider when hiking with a small dog.

Before we get too far into the post note that is not a complete guide to hiking with a small dog. But a way to share what we have learned hiking with our own small pup. The information is based on my own experiences and research I have gathered for my dog. We go on short local day hikes. If you are planning to go on longer trails or back country hiking make sure to do additional research.

Hiking With A Small Dog: Tips to Know Before You Go -Bella
Bella chilling on the couch

Before hiking with your dog please see your veterinarian to ensure your dog is healthy and able to hike. Also ask your vet if they have any concerns with your dog hiking and what limitations they may have.

Our Story

Prior to Bella we had an English Springer Spaniel named Molly. Molly was a very active dog. She could easily spend hours playing fetch or plucking a Frisbee out of the air if allowed to.

Although she was not a large dog at a lean 40lbs she wasn’t small either. So when we decided to go hiking in Acadia National Park we didn’t think twice about taking her along.

But Bella was different.

As a rescue we had no idea how big she would actually grow to. Based on what we knew about her parents and looking at growth charts compared to her size as a puppy, I anticipated that she would be about 30lbs and taller.

As it turns out, fully grown Bella is about 20 pounds. Plus she has a longer body with shorter legs. Add to that she seems to get tired quickly when running around after a ball. Although that might be caused by her lack of interest rather than really being tired.

The two traits Bella does have going for her is she could easily hop up on our kitchen counters using a built in bench. We discovered this, one day when she ate part of a cake when we weren’t home. And she could easily walk a few miles on a paved path. But we were still concerned about her ability to hike on rougher terrain for a long distance.

Hiking With A Small Dog: Tips to Know Before You Go - Bella on a trail bridge
Bella on a trail bridge

Getting Started with Hiking with a Small Dog

Before Bella could come on hikes with us she needed to grow up. The American Kennel Club advises dog owners not to let a young dog take part in strenuous activities like jumping until they are fully grown.

This is to cut down on long term damage that can happen before their growth plates have fully developed. For many puppies their puppy growth plates aren’t closed until at least 12 months of age. Larger breed dogs will take even longer.

Since we didn’t know what Bella’s adult size would be, we waiting until she was 2 before taking her on ungroomed trails.

In the meantime we slowly started taking her for longer walks around the neighborhood, then graduated to easy groomed trails at local parks. By the time we were ready to take her on a natural trail we knew she could easily walk for 3 miles on flat roads. None of our hikes are more than 3 miles.

Whether your dog is still a puppy or an adult dog, my advice is to start slow and built up endurance overtime. Don’t push your dog to do more then what they are comfortable doing.

How Small is too Small When Hiking with a Small Dog

Let’s first set the perimeters of what a small dog is for this post.

The American Kennel Club classifies dogs that are less than 30 pounds as small. Personally I would say a 30 pound dog is more medium sized, but for the purpose of the post we will use this as the top weight limit. As for the bottom weight limit, dogs 15 pounds or less are considered part of the toy breed and dogs less than 5 pounds are considered to be teacup sized.

While both the toy and teacup sized pup also fall in the small range there are many dangers in the woods for these tiny dogs that would cause me to think twice about taking them on a hike.

  • They may be seen as easy prey if they go too far away from you.
  • A dog that small will find it harder to walk long distances.
  • They may not be able to handle the rocks and tree limbs that might block the path
  • Very small dogs are bred to be companion dogs. Being in the woods can be very frightening them

So for the purpose of this post small dogs are dogs in the 16 to 30 pound range. With that said it all depends on your dog. Weight alone does not determine their abilities. While researching for this post I did come across a 10 pound mighty dog that loves to hike. Bella resting on a trail
Bella resting on a trail

Things to Think About When Hiking with a Small Dog

1. Do your research

Before heading out on an unknown trail make sure you do your research. At a minimum you should know how long the hike is, the difficulty rating for the trail and what the terrain will be like. Many trails start off easy but get harder as you go further along. Keep in mind smaller dogs will have a harder time with rocky, uneven terrains due to their size. This means they will expend more energy and become tired faster.

I try to find out as much as possible about a trail before going out with my dog. This includes reading all the reviews I can find and looking at pictures of the trails.

Trail Link

The free version of is a good starting point when researching a new trail. was created by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to help people find trails. This site offers a searchable database of more than 40,000 miles of trail around the country.   

All you need to do is enter a zip code and Traillink will show you a map of hiking trials within a 2 hour drive. Once you select a trail from the map they then provide you will the length of the hike, trial surface and activities allowed on the trail like whether dogs are allowed. To gain more in-sight on the trail you can look at pictures that are uploaded by members and read member reviews of the trails. If you upgrade to a paid membership you can also download maps and print out trail guides.

One of the cool things I just learned about Trail Link is that they have a Dog Walking Trail Section.

2. Know your dog and plan appropriately

When hiking with a small dog you need to be realistic about what they will be capable of handling. Although some smaller dogs, like mine, can get over rock scrambles it does require more energy and time then it would for a larger dog. This means they will become tired quicker than you or a larger dog.

Also a 3 mile walk on pavement is much easier to handle than the same length trail that is uphill and uneven. Remember to take plenty of water and add rest breaks to give them a chance to re-energize.

Fear of other dogs

Another thing to think about is whether your small dog is fearful of other dogs. It’s not unusual for small dogs to be afraid of larger dogs.

If your dog is fearful or aggressive toward other dogs make sure to pick a less used trail or go when the trail is least crowded like in the early morning. Also if you do need to pass a dog on the trail stop in a clearing to give them as much space as possible to pass.

3. Learn about the possible dangers on the trail

Small dogs are more susceptible to the possible dangers on the trail. Therefore you need to do your homework and understand all the possible dangers that you may encounter. Things to watch out for may include:

  • Poisonous Snake bites
  • Bears
  • Coyotes
  • Wolfs
  • Ticks – You can find ticks in every part of the continuous United States. Know which ones may be in the area of your hike and plan according.

This list covers some of the common threats in my area. Make sure to research what they are in your area.

Remember you will have less time to treat a poisonous snake bite with a small dog and small dogs may be seen as prey by large animals.

4. Watch out for other dogs on the trail

Not all dogs are friendly. We have had a few incidents when out with Bella where an unknown dog on a leash tried to bite Bella. It happened just recently on a day trip to a small town popular with tourists. As we walked passed another dog on a tight walkway over a bridge the another dog lunged at Bella snapping at her. Since I made sure to keep Bella on the opposite side of me from where the dog was passing she did not get bit. But it was a very frightening moment for her.

5. Is your dog fully trained?

Make sure your dog is fully trained before going a hike with them. There may be times when you need your dog to leave something alone like a dead animal on the path or sit patiently while people or even a horse pass by you.

At a minimum your dog should know how to sit on command, stay in one place, leave it and come immediately when called. This last one is super important if they are off leash.

They also need to know how to walk on a lead near you. It is not going to be fun if your dog knocks you down while they are tugging on the leash. Even a small dog can knock you off balance if they suddenly pull on a hill with lose ground.

I would also practice non-verbal directional commands, like pointing to a direction they need to go in or coming to you without using words. These non-verbal communications may be needed to help your small dog get around obstacles or to protect them from wild animals.

6. Plan for the weather

First make sure you know what the weather will be like where you are hiking. Temperatures can greatly fluctuate from the valley to the mountains and also from the morning to the afternoon.

Also smaller dogs will be affected by the ground temperature more so then a larger dog since their bellies are closer to it. So plan your hike accordingly.

Learn how to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion in dogs at 11 Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion In Dogs from Noah’s Ark Veterinary Hospital.

7. Pay attention to hunting season in the area you plan to hike in

Here in the Northeast many of the hiking trails run through areas that also allow hunting. Therefore you should be aware of the areas and times that hunters might be active.

While hopefully a human should not be mistaken for a deer or other prey, a small dog might be mistaken for a rabbit or other small animal, especially if they run off from where you are.

Another concern with hiking with a small dog during hunting season is that some hunters use loose dogs to help with the hunt. Again a small dog might be confused as prey.

8. Know when your dog is getting tired

I touched on this early but small dogs will burn more energy on a hike then a larger dog. Therefore you need to pay attention to signs that they are getting tired or dehydrated. Signs they are tired include:

  • Excessive panting
  • Starts to slow down
  • Drooling
  • Loses focus
  • Starts to stumble
  • Lays down
  • Randomly sits down on the hike or
  • Starts to cry or complain

If your dog shows one of more or these signs let them take a break, give them water and a high quality treat. Also all dogs are different so any changes to their normal behavior could be a sign they are tired.

Tips for Hiking with Small Dogs - Pinterest pin

Tips for Hiking with Small Dogs

Here are a few tips for hiking with any sized dog.

1. Tick prevention

You can find disease carrying ticks throughout the USA. For this reason you should use some type of tick prevention for your dog.

We also carry a tick key in case our dog picks up a tick. It is very easy to use and works well at removing attached ticks.

2. Update Vaccines

Also make sure your dog is up-to-date on their Rabies Vaccine and Heart Worm medication before starting out on a trail. You never know what you might run into when hiking in the woods.

3. Have them go to the bathroom before you start the hike

This might not be something you think about when preparing for your hike, but whatever you take on a hike needs to leave with you. So it only makes sense to have your dog take can of business before you start. Although it will not guarantee that your dog will not go on the trail at least it will be less to carry.

Clean up on the trail 1

As anyone with a dog knows exercise tends to make them go more often, so even if they go before the hike they will mostly likely go again.

Since nobody likes to carry the poop on hikes, I suggest you use a poop hanger like the Dooloop.

If you don’t like the idea of poop dangling freely from the leash another option is a poop container like the Poovault which is sized for smaller dogs. There are many other options to choose from but these two options are Made in the USA which gives them extra points in our eyes.

4. Use a harness

After dealing with Bella choking herself when she was learning to walk on a leash we decided to only use a harness for our outings. A harness not only allows your dog to walk comfortably without worry of being choked, but is also prevents the possibility of them being hung if the lead gets caught on something as they are navigating difficult terrain.

5. Don’t use a retractable leash

While we do use a retractable leash while on our neighborhood walks they should be left home when hiking. Instead use a 6 foot lead. Not only are they lighter to carry but you will want to keep your small dog close to you to protect it from the dangers mentioned above.

6. Dogs should wear ID tags

Even if you use a harness have your dog wear a collar with an ID tag and their dog license. This will help with finding your dog if they are lost. Also have your dog microchipped in case they lose their tags.

What You Need to Bring When Hiking with a Small Dog

This list is intended for short day hikes. Longer of overnight hike will require more items.

1. Water

Bring plenty of water on your hike for you and your dog. Don’t forget a bowl for your dog. Using your hands to cup water for a dog wastes a lot of water.

2. Treats

Bring high quality treats for your dog to keep up their energy. They can also be used to help keep your dog focused if you need to distract them from another dog.

3. Leash and harness

I personally don’t believe in allowing dogs to roam on the trails. Not only can it be dangerous for your dog if they happen to come across a dangerous situation like a snake but they also can be a nuisance to other people on the trail.

Also leave the retractable leash at home. It just adds more weight to carry and can get tangled in branches and rocks. Instead use a 6 foot leash which is what is required in most parks anyway.

4. Dog waste bags

Do not leave your dog’s waste on the trail. It is not eco-friendly nor does someone else want to step on it. Also remember to bring a way to carry the poop out.

If you are looking for dog friendly travel ideas check out our post on Lake George NY: 14 Dog Friendly Things to Do, Dog Friendly Guide to Cape Co, Dog Friendly Shenandoah National Park & Vicinity and Newport, RI: Dog Friendly Things to Do and Places to Stay

For more tips on vacationing with a dog check out our post; Traveling With A Dog: Tips For An Easy Trip.

Do you have any tips for hiking with a small dog?

Please share any tips for hiking with a small dog in the comments below. Also please share your experiences.

Hiking with a Small Dog Resources