The companionship of a dog can be one of the most rewarding experiences when you are camping. Unlike most humans, dogs are quiet, low-maintenance and easy to please. And they’ll probably enjoy the adventures even more than you!
Plan and Reserve in Advance
Learning how to camp with a dog first requires you to find out the varying rules and regulations for dogs at each park. Most developed campgrounds on public lands welcome dogs but not usually at “dispersed campsites” in the backcountry where you can pitch your tent wherever you want. Your daytime activities for hiking and exploring will depend on which trails are dog friendly. Once you find a good dog friendly trail you will then look for a nearby campsite. Most campsites will require reservations up to a year in advance, entrance fees and a parking pass to use the land.
Many national parks are pretty dog friendly and will allow you to bring your dog to developed areas, lodging facilities, trails and campgrounds. Basically, dogs are allowed to go anywhere cars are allowed to go. You must always have your dog with you as they are not allowed to be left on their own. This National Park Service map is a helpful resource for rules about dogs.
Like the national parks, state and local parks have varying rules so consider your daytime plans and check with the agency that manages the land. This is especially the case if your destination is the water. Some beaches allow dogs but others won’t in order to protect certain wildlife or over sanitation concerns. But it’s common for state and local parks to have trails with access to dogs and even dog amenities in the park.
There are over 440 million acres of public lands combined under the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Most of this expanse is dog friendly, so you have extensive opportunities for backpacking with your dog. If you should go deep into the backcountry and dispersed camping areas, the only guideline the Forest Service or BLM offers is to use common sense. If your dog responds well to commands you can even let her go off leash (but have a leash on hand in case other hikers come by). And your dog should also be microchipped and wear a collar with ID tags.
Finding a “Car Camping” Campsite
“Car camping” does not mean sleeping in your car. It is when you load up your car with your gear for the trip, pull into your campsite, and set up your tent on a designated tent pad. You will have to park at a “walk-in site” and walk from your car to where you will camp. This can be a couple hundred feet up to 1/2 mile. If you reserve a walk-in site, be prepared to carry your gear (or use a folding wagon). Don’t expect a lot of privacy at campgrounds you can drive to. But people usually do a pretty good job of keeping to themselves and it can be really fun to get to know your temporary neighbor.
Types of Dog-Friendly Campgrounds
It is wise to research where you’ll be staying since there are several different types of campgrounds. Knowing the basics of each campground type can help you decide where to start searching and know what you might expect. As mentioned previously, “dispersed camping” is pitching your tent anywhere. For this reason, it’s not really for beginners.
There is no fee but there won’t be any services or amenities like trash removal, restrooms, water, fire pits, or picnic tables. “Rustic amenities” means at least one outhouse, one picnic table and fire pit at your campsite.
There may or may not be garbage service at the campsite.“Moderate amenities” usually has flush toilets and will have water and garbage service. The campsite will be more maintained with better picnic tables and tent area. May also have electrical and water hookups for an RV. “Comfort amenities” add showers and electrical/water hookups for RVs. Private campgrounds may have WiFi, small convenience stores, and off-leash dog runs, rec centers, or swimming pools.
Tips for camping with your dog
Rules for camping in developed campgrounds, from Forest Service and BLM lands to national and state parks, are similar. Here are the basics.
YOUR DOG IS YOUR CONSTANT COMPANION – Don’t plan to leave your pup at camp alone when you embark for that day hike, whether tied up at camp or kept inside the tent or car. It’s not only potentially disruptive for other campers, it could also endanger your canine companion. Weather can change fast, wildlife can wander through or other unforeseen circumstances could arise in your absence.
GET A TEMPORARY ID TAG – Along with your dog’s regular ID tag, purchase a low cost temporary tag that has your campground name and assigned campsite number. If you aren’t in a campground or can’t get the assigned number ahead of time, have the phone number of the nearest ranger station on the ID instead.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY – Have a recent photo of your dog on your phone to show people if she gets lost. Have a copy of her rabies vaccination and registration too. Add your regular veterinarian’s address and phone number to your contacts. Know the phone number and address of a veterinarian near your campground in case of emergency. Make sure your dog is up to date on flea meds and shots before you go camping.
KEEP YOUR DOG ON A LEASH – Your dog will be tempted by nearby campers cooking and eating, or squirrels running around everywhere. That’s why campgrounds nearly universally require that dogs remain on leashes of no longer than 6 feet. Bring a shorter leash too for narrow trails or for use together with your other leash to tether the dog quickly to a tree. Also bring a tether (tie out anchor) crate or portable exercise pen to confine your dog while you set up camp or whenever you have your hands busy and can’t hold their leash. Check with local establishments and restaurants if pets are allowed inside ahead of your trip.
KEEP THE CAMPSITE CLEAN – Be ethical and leave nothing but footprints. This applies to your dog as well. More people camping with dogs means more dog waste in the woods which can lead to soil and water contamination from bacteria and parasites. Always clean up after your dog with pick-up bags.
FOOD AND WATER – Bring bottled water because you cannot trust the potability of streams, rivers or lakes for you or your dog. Giardia, toxic chemicals or other harmful bacteria are found in most natural source water. If you must use natural water, bring Giardia tablets and a tiny bottle of bleach to add to your water (a couple of drops for a gallon). Pack a couple extra days of food for your dog in a waterproof container or plastic zip lock bags. Use a bear box to store your food if available at the campsite. Don’t forget to bring feeding bowls.
TENT BUDDIES – There will be lots of wildlife roaming around at night, so park rules usually require dogs stay inside the tent or RV with you. And you wouldn’t want your dog to get hurt by a coyote, run off through the woods or get sprayed by an angry skunk! Keep them safe and quiet inside with you. Sleeping gear (blankets, coat or sweater, booties) for dogs can make the experience comfy and warm for all. To help insulate your dog from hypothermia, bring a folded up all-weather tarp to put between the ground and your dog’s bedding.
PROVISIONS – Your kit should include a bowl, water and kibble. If you’re hiking or backpacking, consider adding a dog pack to carry everything. Learn more about how to fit a dog pack. You and your dog will be active all day long and could get into trouble so bring a first aid kit. Bring your dog’s favorite toy in case they get a little anxious at night.
RELISH YOUR TIME TOGETHER – Don’t just sit together around the campfire and then curl up together in your tent on cold nights. Your dog is going to want to explore. Be good to yourself and your dog and get plenty of exercise hiking on the trails and exploring the surrounding area. Drink in the vast beauty of nature and take home wonderful memories of bonding with your best friend!
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