Adventure outdoors has a way of bringing people together, and for many families, backpacking with a dog is a way to bond with their four-legged friend. Few people know that connection quite as well as Nicole Handel and her trail dog Bear.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Handel was never the outdoorsy type, but after inheriting Bear in the aftermath of a breakup she realized that, like most dogs, the active German Shepherd loved spending time outside. The two began hiking regularly in the woods and mountains near their home in Vermont, and what started as a way for them to get some exercise together quickly turned into a deeper connection.
They began a tradition of “summit hugs” when they got to the top of the mountain; Handel would kneel down to pet Bear and ask him for “hugs,” and when he put his paws on her shoulders she would scoop him up for a big “bear” hug. A photo of the two embracing atop Mount Mansfield went viral in 2017 and quickly made the duo Instagram stars.
From Mount Washington to Moab, Handel’s feed shows her doing everything from hiking and climbing to mountain biking and splitboarding, all with Bear by her side. In addition to all this, they go on one big backpacking trip per year and anywhere from five to 10 shorter jaunts, covering every type of terrain from deserts and canyons to rainforests and alpine meadows. If anyone knows the ins and outs of taking a dog out on the trail, it’s Nicole Handel. So, we caught up with her to get her top tips for backpacking with your favorite four-legged friend.
First things first, make sure they’re ready for the trail.
Before you pull up to the trailhead, you’re going to need to make sure your pup is up for the challenge. Backpacking with a dog is taxing for humans and canines alike, and you don’t want your dog to bite off more than they can chew. Handel recommends checking with your vet before anything else. “Your vet can assess your dog’s fitness level by feeling their legs, hips, and paws, and also recommend a suitable distance to start with depending on your dog’s breed, age, and ability,” she says.
From there she recommends starting small and easy and keeping an eye on how they are managing. “Do a mile on soft dirt and pay attention to whether they are keeping up or not, if they are lifting up their paws in pain, limping,” or showing any other signs of difficulty. This is especially important for older dogs or smaller breeds. And if you have a puppy, make sure you ease into things and follow your vet’s advice in terms of when to get started hiking. Although Handel carried Bear in her arms on some early hikes, he did not start fully hiking on his own until he was about eight months old. It may be exciting to have a new hiking companion but always make sure your vet has cleared your dog for activity before you get them on the trail.
Get the right gear.
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Gearing up looks a little different when you’re backpacking with a dog and careful planning at home can save you a lot of headaches on the trail. You’ll be carrying everything you need on your back, and your dog should do the same.
Handel has two different sized Ruffwear dog packs for Bear, depending on the length of their trip and the time of year. Inside the pack Bear carries water, food, a collapsible bowl, an LED collar to wear at night, a PackTowl to clean mud or water off his paws before coming into the tent, poop bags, and a small Adventure Medical Kits dog first-aid kit. In addition to that, Handel carries a Whyld River sleeping pad for Bear, which “gives him a soft, comfortable surface to sleep on in the tent, as well as insulates from cold when we winter camp,” she says.
Know when to leash your dog.
Now that your pup is outfitted with all the gear they’ll need to conquer the backcountry, it’s time to get out there and start exploring, right? Not so fast. Before you step foot on the trail it’s important to know the proper etiquette for bringing your dog along and to make sure that your dog is adequately trained to handle whatever you may encounter. For Handel, this is the most important aspect of hiking or backpacking with your dog.
First off, the age-old question: do I leash my dog or not? For Handel it’s simple. “My general rule of thumb is this: If your dog does not have perfect recall — and I mean that they will come back to you immediately no matter what they’re doing — they should not be off-leash while hiking or camping, ever,” she says. “This is for your own dog’s safety, as well as to respect others who may be on the trail.” She stresses that no matter how friendly or harmless your dog may be, you never know how other dogs or people will react, and it’s important to respect everyone else’s experience on the trail.
For example, on a recent trail run Bear startled a woman heading in the opposite direction. “She saw Bear and said that she is terrified of large dogs and is prone to panic attacks,” says Handel. “Luckily, Bear is trained to always heel to my side unless given permission to roam around me, so we asked her if we could pass by and we did, with no issue. But if Bear didn’t have that training and etiquette, he’d likely have really scared that woman.”
So if you would like to keep your dog off-leash, take the time to train and discipline your dog. Handel stresses that this doesn’t have to be all hard work and toil. “I think that more folks could benefit from using hiking and backpacking as a place to have some fun and do a bit of training with their dogs,” she says.
“I love to work the same obedience commands with Bear that I would do at home, but on the trail.” For example, at home, Handel uses the “place” command to get Bear to go to his dog bed — his own place in the house. On the trail, Handel will keep Bear close by pointing to a tree stump or large rock and using the “place” command. “He hops up excitedly, and gets the benefit of mental stimulation and feeling like he has a ‘job’ while we are out having fun,” she says. “The same can be said of having your dog heel or having your dog sit and stay while you hike ahead. Make it fun but make it functional, too!”
Whether your dog is properly trained to stay off-leash or not, be sure to check the pet regulations for wherever you’re visiting. In many places, dogs are required to be on-leash at all times, and in other spots, dogs are prohibited altogether, so make sure you’re up to date with regulations before planning your trip.
Pick up after your dog.
Spend enough time backpacking and at some point, you’re likely to come across someone else’s waste — unfortunately it’s an aspect of trail etiquette that many humans have yet to master for themselves, let alone for their dogs. Disposing of waste is important not just for health and hygiene, but also to preserve the trail for others. Failure to do so not only ruins the experience for everyone else, but it also jeopardizes future access for dogs. “Plenty of once-dog-friendly places, like local ski mountains, have shut down access to dogs because of waste and plastic being left behind,” says Handel. “If you are in the wilderness and are digging a hole for your own waste, you should be doing the same for your dog; if you are packing out your waste, you should pack out your dog’s waste. Simple.”
Prepare for emergencies.
While there’s a lot of fun to be had exploring remote backcountry, at the end of the day it’s a wild place, which means it can be unpredictable. It’s important to go in with a plan for what to do if something goes wrong, and also to know the steps you can take to reduce the chances of an emergency in the first place.
Encounters with wildlife can be extremely dangerous or even deadly for dogs. For Handel, it all comes down to training. “We go backpacking out west once a year, where there are grizzlies, mountain lions, moose, and other dangerous animals,” she says. “These are all animals that could be really dangerous if Bear had contact with them. So again, knowing when to leash your dog is imperative.” If your dog is still struggling with recall, Handel suggests drills and training at home until it’s foolproof, and keeping them on a leash otherwise. Another easy preventative measure is to put bells or jingling dog tags on your pet’s collar to ensure you’re making enough noise to scare off any wildlife.
In case of medical emergencies, Handel always makes sure that Bear is carrying his first-aid kit, stocked with supplies to help with small injuries like a torn paw pad, an allergic reaction, or a minor wound. In particular, Handel stresses the importance of self-adhesive medical wrap as Bear is prone to cutting his paws on sharp rocks and ice. “Being able to clean and wrap these things while on the trail is so helpful,” she says.
Enjoy bonding in the great outdoors.
While it’s important to prepare for everything you may encounter on the trail, don’t get so caught up in the details that you miss the best part: experiencing an adventure in the wild with your companion. Handel sees adventuring outdoors as a unique way to spend time and bond with a dog, and she couldn’t imagine leaving Bear behind when she goes out into the wild. “When most people ‘vacation’ with their dogs, they still spend a chunk of time leaving their dog in a hotel room or with a dog walker or in the car,” she says.
She’s noticed that some of the deepest bonding has come not necessarily from any specific experiences, but rather from the sheer amount of time they’ve spent together, away from the bustle and distractions of civilization. “When backpacking or taking longer road trips, Bear and I are together 24/7,” she says. “On this most recent trip, we spent 16 days and nights straight together. There wasn’t a single moment that we were apart, and through that amount of exposure, you really come to know another being. Most of the time is silent and some is uneventful, but just being together facilitates that bond.”
For Handel, a life outdoors has always been the foundation of her bond with Bear, but it’s even more special because it’s a life they created together. “We have learned how to do everything we do together,” says Handel. “I didn’t splitboard or mountain bike or run or rock climb or camp when I got Bear, so he has learned how to be a part of all of these worlds alongside of me. There’s something really special about figuring these things out together, and in some ways, encouraging one another. I think that in the same way that humans bond after doing challenging things and spending long days together, humans and dogs bond, as well.”
A version of this article was previously published on January 3, 2020, and was updated on April 7, 2022.