Camping with Your Dog: How to Have a Successful Camping Trip with Your Pet
Three veterinary experts offer up tips for camping with dogs, from how to prep and what to pack to ways to keep your four-legged friends safe in the great outdoors
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
In my opinion, the great outdoors is never greater than when you’re exploring nature with a four-legged friend. And it seems a great deal of Americans agree, as camping with dogs becomes a trending search topic as soon as the season opens.
According to research conducted by Embrace Pet Insurance and Kampgrounds of America, half of U.S. pet owners surveyed take their dogs on hiking trails with them, a statistic that’s likely on the conservative side, once you account for foster and volunteer programs like Weekend Warrior and Dog for the Day. To be honest, watching my shelter-saved pit bull, Sable Sugarpig, bounce along happily as we plunge down a new trail is a large part of the reason I hike in the first place.
Sixty percent of pet owners go farther—literally—and take their pets on vacation with them. Of this large percentage, 30% are camping with pets. It’s an amazing way to bond, even if you’re a first-timer in search of ways to enjoy camping for beginners.
That said, when it comes to camping with dogs, there are several things to be mindful of, from heat stroke in dogs to what kind of dog camping gear your furry pals might need. To best prep adventure lovers like you, Reader’s Digest spoke with three veterinary experts for their best tips for camping with dogs. From how to prep and what to pack to what you need to buy, ways to deal with emergencies and everything in between, here’s what you need to know before you take your dog on the road with you.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more camping tips, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
Things to consider before you go camping with dogs
First-time campers might think camping with dogs is as simple as packing a bag and hauling your animal buddy off on an adventure. Not so! Though our more outdoorsy four-legged friends always seem ready to explore at any given moment, we need to properly prepare to make sure they stay safe. So consider the factors below before you break out the family camping movies and start getting fully hyped up.
1. Talk to your vet
It’s hard to acknowledge that our precious puppies are aging, but the sad truth is that they are, and quickly. It’s a smart idea to check with your vet before bringing your pet on an outdoor excursion like camping, advises Cara McNamee, DVM, a veterinarian with Resurgence Veterinary Mobility, a specialty veterinary physical therapy and rehabilitation center in Atlanta. “If your dog has any mobility or overall health concerns prior to your trip, please have your pet examined by your vet well in advance to determine if they are able to accompany you,” she says.
Juli Goldstein, DVM, a vet partner of Native Pet, adds that getting a professional’s green light is important also for dogs that may have underlying medical problems, such as heart disease or diabetes. “These and young puppies or senior dogs may not be good candidates,” she cautions. “A nose-to-tail physical examination is critical, especially since you will likely participate in physical activities, and can help ensure your pet can safely enjoy camping.”
2. Condition your dog for extended physical activity
Got the vet’s OK? Great! But as much as dogs want to get up and go, like humans, they ought to train for any strenuous extended activity. “Even if you’re not planning to venture out on long hikes, exposure to the outdoors and walks to and around your campsite can stress your dog’s body, especially if they prefer couch cuddles to exercise,” warns Dr. Goldstein.
So before you lace up your hiking boots and head out on a camping adventure, prepare your pet. As Dr. McNamee’s team advises, if you plan to do significant hiking with your pup, work up, over time, to the distances and terrains you expect to cover. A good guideline: Do about five to 10 minutes of hiking per week (don’t push for more at the start!) to avoid fatigue and soreness.
“Use caution when spending time outdoors with your pet during warmer months,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Generally, if it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for your pet, so limit outdoor exercise to the cooler hours of the day and never force your pet to exercise.”
When you do take your dog out for physical training, make sure to time its meals. You don’t want to feed your little pal immediately before or after exercise, which poses health risks. “Large-breed dogs are especially at risk for stomach bloat or gastric dilatation and volvulus, a twisted stomach, which is a life-threatening emergency,” she adds.
3. Familiarize yourself with the signs of overheating and overexertion
Heat stroke is a medical emergency and can happen even without significantly hot or humid weather, according to the vets at Resurgence Veterinary Mobility. What happens from there is especially scary: Your pup could go into shock or have seizures. The veterinarians we talked to urge pet parents to bring their dogs to a vet at the first sign of symptoms like drooling, dry gums, hot skin, excessive panting and rapid breathing.
Other signs of heat stroke in dogs may include vomiting, diarrhea, bruising without apparent trauma, collapsing, muscle tremors or decreased coordination, according to Dr. Goldstein. Some may seize or become unresponsive in very severe cases, says veterinarian Michelle Dulake, DVM, co-founder of Fera Pet Organics.
Dr. McNamee says this goes double for shorter-nosed dogs like bulldogs, and Dr. Goldstein warns that brachycephalic breeds like pugs and French bulldogs are at exceptionally high risk of heat exhaustion. “They must be closely monitored. Stop all activity right away and bring your dog for immediate care if they are showing signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” Dr. Dulake says. “Move your dog to a cool, shady area, pour cold water on them and offer cold water to drink. Then get veterinary care immediately.” A dog cooling vest might also come in handy.
4. Get current on all preventatives
“Spending time in the woods will increase your pet’s chances of being exposed to potentially infectious diseases and parasites, so make sure your dog’s vaccinations and parasite controls are up to date,” Dr. Goldstein says. Dr. Dulake couldn’t agree more, emphasizing that flea and tick medications should be top priorities to “prevent tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis.”
5. Update your dog’s microchip
“It’s easy to get distracted by nature’s beautiful sights and sounds while on a camping adventure,” Dr. Goldstein says. “The same holds true for your dog, which could lead them to accidentally wander off to explore their new surroundings.”
Because of this, it’s vital to ensure your dog is microchipped before camping. “Microchipping your pet is the easiest, most cost-effective way to ensure your pet does not become a missing pet statistic,” she says.
While you’re at that initial vet visit, go ahead and ask your veterinarian to check that your dog’s chip is properly functioning, Dr. Goldstein suggests. And don’t forget to check whether the microchip is registered with your current contact information—it’s usually a quick update you can make online.
6. Confirm that your chosen site allows dogs
After all that work, it’d be a shame to get turned away at the gate! That’s why Dr. Goldstein suggests making sure your field is Fido friendly. “Many places allow pets to accompany you on camping trips, but most camping sites or national parks have strict rules regarding bringing pets on trails or camping areas, so check for their pet policies,” she says. “Nearly all areas will require pets to be leashed to ensure their safety from wildlife and vice versa.”
After all, just as interacting with wildlife puts your dog at risk of contracting diseases, the reverse is also true. “Wildlife is equally at risk from disease-causing agents that your pets may be carrying,” says Dr. Goldstein, “so reduce risk of contact by cleaning up your pet’s feces to remove the lingering scent and prevent disease spread.”
7. Plan to keep your dog close and secure
It’s easy for dogs to get overstimulated and tempted into chasing all sorts of interesting things. Those things could be as harmless as a squirrel or could have you frantically googling “what to do if you see a bear.” The last thing you want to have Rover doing is, well, roving!
“I recommend keeping a leash on your dog at all times,” says Dr. Dulake. “Bonus: It will also keep them out of trash!”
As Dr. McNamee notes, that doesn’t mean you have to restrain your pet to an extra-small area. “Using a long line/leash with a stake at your campsite can help keep them from running off,” she says. And it’ll also give them a good range and freedom of movement. Just make sure the line is set up in a place that will allow the dog to remain a part of the group but won’t drape across the fire.
And remember that camping games aren’t just for humans. While you might be able to hold people together with some good campfire stories and campfire songs, dogs will need a bit more activity—or else they’ll become more interested in their surroundings. The Resurgence Veterinary Mobility pros suggest bringing treats or dog puzzle toys for them to work on (and be distracted by).
Of course, that’s not to say you should keep them from enjoying their surroundings! Not only is camping with dogs a wonderful way to bond, Dr. Goldstein says, but “spending time in nature with your dog also provides numerous opportunities for your four-legged best friend to sniff and explore new sights and smells, which is a great way to exercise their mind and support their brain’s well-being.”
8. Consider your sleeping arrangements
You know you’ll be sleeping cozy in a tent, but have you thought about where your pup will bed down? Even at night, “it’s safest to keep your dog with you, as you have a bit more control over them and they’re out of any nasty weather conditions,” Dr. McNamee says.
That means that whether you’re car camping or catching your z’s in an RV park, your dog shouldn’t be far. In fact, when you’re looking for the best tents for camping, whether on a dog-friendly beach or at a free campsite in the woods, you should make sure it’s big enough to fit your whole group and your dog.
The bottom line: When it comes to camping with pets, your dogs should never be left to brave the elements and wildlife alone. And unless properly secured, they should never be left alone at all.
Dr. McNamee suggests using a portable crate—I bring this one for Sable—if your dog is crate-trained and/or you have to leave the site without your pet. But there are far more streamlined solutions too.
If you get the best camping air mattress or camping sleeping pad and a sleeping bag, you’ll find that your dog will happily sleep with you, just as if you were at home. Sleeping in a camping hammock instead? Consider investing in one of the best camping cots for your furry companion. An inflatable, foldable or lightweight travel cot is clutch, especially for older dogs or dogs with joint stiffness, giving them a much better option than the hard ground. It can also help keep them from getting too dirty if they kick while dreaming!
9. Create a routine to keep them clean
Even though you’re outdoors, keeping your dog’s paws and coat clean should still be on your mind. It can be as simple as wetting a washcloth and giving them a quick wipe-down with water, just to get pollen and dust off so their skin doesn’t get irritated. Pet wipes are a less-eco-friendly but very convenient alternative.
Just as important as those wipe-downs, regular light cleanings give you the opportunity to check their paws for damage, burrs and ticks. And you’re going to want to “check frequently!” Dr. Dulake says. Side note: Consider this your reminder to pack products that’ll help you deal quickly and effectively with ticks!
If you do find any ticks, don’t panic. Tweezers will get the job done, but I highly recommend packing a tick twister like the ZenPet Tick Tornado. I used this great invention more times than I would have liked on my previous dog, Lt. Baxter Bear. Unlike tweezers, this simple and inexpensive tool dislodges the entire tick in any state of engorgement without leaving the head embedded, which can occur with traditional means of tick removal.
Dog camping gear: What to pack to have a great time
While you’re thinking about the best hiking boots, best coolers for camping and best camping chairs, don’t forget to consider Fido’s comfort too. Just because you’re out in the wild doesn’t mean your dog is prepared to rejoin nature as is. It’s important to remember that today’s canine companions are fully domesticated and rely on you to survive in and enjoy the great outdoors even more than they do at home.
Here’s some of the best camping gear our veterinary experts recommend:
- Longer leash: A longer leash can give the impression of freedom, allowing your dog to wander while keeping them safely close by. Dr. Goldstein recommends a fixed-length leash “for proper control should you encounter wildlife or other pets.”
- Travel bowls: Ceramic bowls are great for home, but don’t risk cracking them while camping. Collapsible silicone travel bowls are lightweight and space saving, while stainless-steel camping bowls are easy to clean and resistant to damage.
- Airtight food container: Whether it’s a cooler or a storage container, you’ll want to make sure you have a clean receptacle to store your dog’s provisions to “avoid spoilage or invasion from wildlife,” as Dr. Goldstein puts it.
- Reflector harness: A good-quality harness makes it easier to grab or control your dog. And in addition to making your buddy easy to find, reflectors are clear signals that your dog is a domesticated pet and poses no danger. A harness with pockets or a doggie backpack can also do double-duty for carrying around poo bags, treats and more. Consider adding a small LED safety light to it too, if it’s too much for the dog’s collar.
- Paw protection: Dog paws may seem tough and leathery, but they’re vulnerable to sharp rocks, spiky plants and simple overuse. Both Dr. Goldstein and I love Musher’s Secret protective wax, and I also always keep moisturizing balm on hand for after hiking. MudBuster’s paw cleaner also helps get the great outdoors off your pet’s paws.
- Poo bags: This is an obvious one, but it’s a trip-ruiner if forgotten! Disposing of your dog’s waste properly helps ensure that the campsite remains dog friendly for future furry camping companions, keeps your campsite from attracting flies and wildlife, and prevents diseases from spreading among any visiting animals, from other dogs to critters and even humans. Try to buy compostable and/or biodegradable bags, such as those made with cornstarch—they’re kinder to the environment you’re out there enjoying.
FAQ and extra tips for camping with dogs
We’ve covered a lot of (camp)ground already, but our veterinary experts have found that those who are new to camping with dogs often have a lot of the same questions and concerns. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions—plus extra tips, including what not to do when camping with pets—about taking your dog on a long outdoor adventure.
How much food and water should I bring?
The Resurgence Veterinary Mobility team was unanimous here: Always bring more than you need! As Dr. Goldstein notes, you ought “never allow your pup to drink from a stream, pond or standing water because it may contain dangerous bacteria, algae and other potentially deadly microorganisms.”
For hydration, Dr. McNamee recommends planning for two liters a day for a 50-pound dog. That works out to be just short of 68 ounces. At the bare minimum, Dr. Dulake says, you should plan for at least one ounce of water per pound of body weight per day, increasing the amount for greater activity levels, temperatures and trip durations. The higher any of those numbers are, the more water you’ll need.
As for dog food, consider your planned activities. “During a camping trip, your dog may require added calories to keep up with the activity demands on their body, especially if you are swimming or going on extended hikes,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Bring their regular daily food allotment for the trip, plus some extra so their body can keep up with the physical demands of being outside and any camping activities.”
How can I safeguard against stomach upset?
Don’t make any sudden changes to your dog’s diet. Dr. Goldstein’s nutrition-focused background is why she cautions pet parents to stick to their dog’s normal meal plan.
“Consistency is vital in preventing upset stomachs or gastrointestinal illnesses,” she says. “Travel and new environments can be stressful and may result in stress-related changes to your dog’s bowel movements. Bringing gut-supporting supplements [as a vet with the company, she likes Native Pet’s probiotic] can help keep your pet’s gut balanced and healthy.”
Personally, I find the brand’s Pumpkin Powder to be a lifesaver! Canned, plain pumpkin puree is a well-known and effective home remedy to bind runny dog poo, but for convenience, I swear by this shelf-stable, easily portioned, super portable and considerably less messy nutritional supplement.
And, of course, never, ever allow your dog to ingest trash, wild plants, berries or mushrooms. “Many are pet-toxic,” Dr. Goldstein warns. And you never know what’s in someone’s garbage bag. From chicken bones to onions to chocolate, gathered refuse can pose a mortal danger.
How can I plan ahead for pet emergencies?
As you get excited for your great getaway, it’s easy to focus more on positive, fun outcomes. But it’s important to have a game plan in case things go sideways. Have a current picture of your dog with you always. Look up where the closest veterinary hospital is and save its location. But know the limitations of relying on a vet. “If you’re camping, it may take time to get your pet safely there,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Packing a pet first aid kit will prepare you for unexpected injuries or accidents.”
You can purchase a premade kit, but she says it’s simple enough to build one: Gather the supplies listed in the ASPCA’s guidelines and “place them in a watertight bin or box to keep all supplies clean and dry,” she says. “Also buy a pet first aid book, or consider enrolling in a pet first aid certification course. Include important paperwork in your kit, including your dog’s vaccination records and pertinent medical history, your veterinarian’s address and phone number, and contact information for the closest veterinary emergency hospital.”
What types of treats and toys should I bring?
A couple of tough outdoor toys that are easy to wash can be a lot of fun for camping pups. If you plan to take your dog swimming on a beach, floating fetch sticks can be great too.
You’ll want things that your dog will work on for a bit, such as the puzzles Dr. McNamee mentioned, but “toys” can also mean long-lasting chews. Items like these are great for dogs to “enjoy during downtime at the campsite while sitting around the campfire,” Dr. Goldstein says. Dr. Dulake suggests calming supplements to help your furry pal feel relaxed and at ease in an unfamiliar environment.
And don’t forget some healthy dog treats! “Have pocket-size ones on hand if you will be hiking for extended periods,” Dr. Goldstein recommends. She advises choosing treats that are easy to store and carry. And if they’re functional, even better!
I like to give Sable vet-developed Zesty Paws soft chew supplements as treats after strenuous activity too—it’s similar to the way athletes consume recovery foods after sporting events.
Should I have a different approach for camping with multiple dogs?
At Resurgence Veterinary Mobility, it’s common for several dogs to be working on their rehabilitation at a time. So the team knows what it’s like to wrangle multiple pups at once. They say no major changes are needed to accommodate camping with more than one dog—unless the dogs aren’t used to being around one another, such as if they’re from different households.
If you’re vacationing with dogs other than your own (say, during a camping trip with friends or family), plan ahead. Aim to get the dogs acquainted with one another before your big camping trip to avoid unexpected surprises or personality clashes, the team advises.
What should you pay attention to? “Make sure they aren’t food aggressive,” Dr. Dulake says. “If they are, I would recommend not taking them on a trip with other dogs.”
And with that, you’re ready to have a blast with your best friend. Whether you’re camping in a pet-friendly national park or going the luxury camping route, it’s time to gear up and get ready to multiply your fun as you camp with your dog—the safe, smart way.
- Cara McNamee, DVM, cVMA, CCRT, veterinarian with Resurgence Veterinary Mobility
- Juli Goldstein, DVM, vet partner of Native Pet
- Michelle Dulake, DVM, veterinarian and co-founder of Fera Pet Organics
- Embrace Pet Insurance: “Research Reveals 30 Percent of Pets Camp with Their Families”
- National Park Service: “Pets”