What to Know About Off-Leash Hiking With Your Dog – 15 Tips

Note: Thanks to Julia Thomson from the blog Home on 129 Acres for sharing her tips for off-leash hiking with your dog.

One of my favourite activities to do with our dog Baxter is off-leash hiking.

It took us awhile to work up to being off-leash (see the story here), but now we’re regulars on the trails.

Beyond the initial training we went through, there are a few lessons I’ve learned to make off-leash hiking more enjoyable. I also reached out to a few of Baxter’s friends to ask for their suggestions, and I’d love to hear yours as well. Please leave them in the comments.

15 tips for off-leash hiking with your dog

1. ID your dog.

A good collar with tags—city license, her name, your cell and home numbers—is the first step. However, if the collar is lost, make sure your dog can still be connected with you through a microchip or other form of identification.

2. Carry your cell phone.

And make sure it’s fully charged. This can protect you as well as your dog. If you and your dog become separated, your cell number on her tag may mean you’re reunited more quickly. If you’re hiking with other people, share your cell number with them and make sure you have their numbers too.

3. Bring a leash.

Even though your plan is off-leash hiking with your dog, there may be times when you need a leash (perhaps the trail comes close to a busy road). Trying to walk a dog by hanging onto his collar is not fun. Bring a leash.

4. Leash up when you meet other people or dogs.

You never know how people feel about dogs. You never know how other dogs will react to yours. To prevent potentially uncomfortable situations, leash up when you encounter others on the trail.

Winter off-leash hiking with dogs5. Pay attention to your dog.

If you’re hiking with a group, it’s easy to get chatting with other people and lose track of your dog. Keep an eye on your dog and know where she is. This will make the experience safer for your dog and more relaxing for you.

6. Acknowledge your dog when he checks in with you.

Even independent dogs like Baxter “check in” every so often. It might be looking back over his shoulder to see where I am or waiting for me to catch up. Other dogs will run back to their owners every so often. Acknowledging this with a pat or a “hello” strengthens the bond with your dog and aids in better recall.

7. Encourage a strong recall.

If your dog is off leash, you want to be confident that she’ll come when called. Work on recall in calm, controlled situations and slowly increase the distractions until your dog will come to you even on a busy trail with other people, other dogs, cool smells and lots of things to look at. See other tips for training recall here.

8. Leash up if you want to.

I already said you should leash up when you meet other people or dogs, but you should also leash up if your dog isn’t behaving the way you want him to. If he’s not coming when called, there should be consequences. If he’s over-excited and looking for trouble (aka squirrels, deer, Sasquatch… ahem, Baxter), prevent a problem before it starts by clipping him up, even just for a short while until he calms down again.

Baxter off leash - Off-leash hiking with your dog

9. Poop and scoop.

Yeah, it’s not fun carrying a bag of poop as you hike, but a big pile of poop in the middle of a trail is not polite. If Baxter ventures off trail to do his business in long grass or thick brush—somewhere it’s pretty much guaranteed not to be stepped on—I will not scoop. In my opinion, this is one of the perks of hiking in the woods rather than walking through the neighbourhood. But usually, the same rules apply in the woods as they do anywhere else. Pick up after your pet.

10. Hydrate.
If water isn’t available on the trail, make sure you carry water for your dog. One woman I hike with totes a small backpack that fits a bottle and collapsible dish. I use a Gulpy (a combination bottle with built-in dish) that I carry in a waist belt leftover from my marathon training days. In cool weather, a drink at the end of a hike may be enough for your dog. On hot days, you may need multiple bottles throughout the hike (speaking from experience, trying to cool down an overheated dog when you’re out of water is not a fun experience).

Gulpy water bottle for dogs

11. Have a towel in your car.

Some dogs like to swim. Some like to roll (potentially in some disgusting things). Some like mud. A quick rub down at the end of a hike can save you a lot of clean up later.

Hiking with dogs

12. Consider dressing your dog in a high visibility coat.

We hike with a Great Dane who is the colour (and size) of a deer. She wears an orange vest on every hike so that she’s not mistaken for a deer. Also, the orange makes it easier to keep an eye on her in the woods (see #5 above).

Off-leash hiking with your dog

13. Have a first aid kit in your car.

Being prepared to treat minor injuries when they happen can avoid discomfort for your dog and anxiety for you.

14. Join a group.

Our trainer’s goal was to set us and our dogs up for off leash hiking. When we completed our classes we joined an email list of people interested in hiking regularly. Every night someone sends an email to the list saying “My dog and I are hiking here at this time tomorrow morning. The address is this.” Whoever wants can join the hike. Consider connecting with people through your vet, doggie daycare, groomer, trainer, pet store, Facebook group—wherever you kind find like-minded people. The social time is good for both you and your dog.


15. Help others.

Since everyone in my group went through the same training classes, we all have pretty much the same philosophy about dogs. This allows us to share advice and look after each other’s dogs as we need to.

I’ve learned that off-leash hiking is one of the most rewarding things I can do with my dog—for both me and him. I’ve also learned that with just a little bit of thought and preparation, I can make sure it’s a safe, pleasurable experience for both of us.

Thanks to Patti, Jeremy, Geoff, Nancy and Carolyn for sharing their tips.

Do you the rest of you have any off-leash hiking tips to share?

Please leave them in the comments!

Julia Thomson is a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating. She and her husband live on a 129-acre farm in Ontario, Canada. Read more posts from Julia here or follow her on Twitter.

Related posts:

How to train your dog to be off leash

Long-distance running with your dog

How to run with your dog

Off-leash hiking with your dog

33 thoughts on “What to Know About Off-Leash Hiking With Your Dog – 15 Tips”

  1. Be extra vigilant about ticks! Dogs who hike off leash are more likely to pick up ticks than when they just stay on leash.

    Toilet your dog BEFORE they get to be offleash, esp if you know they are likely to poop. While I also don’t venture far off the trail to scoop poop either, many of the habitats and areas where we are hiking WILL be damaged if a whole bunch of dogs are allowed to freely poop and potty. So you may think “Oh, my one dog this time is not a big deal,” which is true. If everyone says that, it adds up. It’s environmentally damaging. It also could lead to dogs not being allowed in some areas. As a result, I think it’s more responsible to try to have your dog go before they get to run free offleash. It doesn’t cover every instance of poop but it does reduce how much you are leaving a trace.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yes. One thing that helps is my dog usually does go right away as soon as we get to a trail. That way, I can pick up after him right before the hike and throw it in the trash if there’s one right by the start of the trail. It’s pretty much guaranteed he’ll go, so I sometimes just pace around for a minute with him before a hike … sure enough, every time!

      I don’t pick up after him if he strays far away into some tall grass or brush either, depending on where we are.

      1. Baxter does that too. Pretty much guaranteed right at the start of the hike. I don’t know whether it’s part of his over-excitement of hiking with his friends? The best part of that is it’s usually close to the trash, so I don’t have to carry it the whole hike!

      2. If the trail is a loop (or an out and back) and they go right near the beginning but not close enough to trash cans, I will sometimes bag it, hide it behind a tree, and then pick it up on my way out. Then it gets tossed and I don’t have to carry it the whole time.

        1. I’ve done that too! I used to have a dog who would always go just far in enough to make walking back to the trash can at the beginning a pain.

  2. Excellent tips. I have nothing to add but a cute story about my dog Smokey. When I first started hiking with Smokey off-leash, he’d run so far ahead that I’d lose sight of him and have to call him back. He came, but him going out of my sight was unacceptable… and annoying. So one day, just before he went out of my sight, I ducked behind a tree. I could still see him through the leaves but he couldn’t see me. You should have seen the look of horror on his face. He lost his mom! He ran like the wind coming back to see if he could find me. I jumped out. He was so relieved. From that point on, he would regularly look back to make sure he could still see me and never went too far ahead again.

    1. I can totally identify with your experience, as Baxter is a very independent dude. I love that you were able to establish your comfort zone with Smokey so well. His behaviour now is a great example of #6, the “check-in.”

    2. My dog, Ginn, would also run too far ahead when we’re just walking off-leash in the neighborhood. He’s way too energetic and playful and I can’t seem to have an off-leash walk with him anywhere! My hopes of hiking with him with no leash on almost ran out until I’ve come across this. Thanks so much for sharing your story, I’ll do the same with Ginn to finally teach him a lesson 🙂

  3. Ah, yes, always take a leash with you! I remember the time we went for a walk on the friends’ horse far. It’s a private property so we never had leashes with us. Except that time we got lost (long story) and ended up at Lost Forest camp ground. (I’m not kidding, that’s what the place is called). Before getting lost any further, I decided to go in and call hubby to get us. But I had no leashes. I did have a doggy water bottle with a shoulder strap, so I made “a leash” out of that. So always have a leash or at least a water bottle with a shoulder strap LOL

  4. Great tips! I’d only add to hike as often possible. Dogs who spend lot of time on the trails are more used to it and therefore better behaved. Pups who come to the nature once in a while can get pretty excited and can get carried away more easily. And we have to agree it’s the best possible way to spend time.

  5. Here in Hawaii, we have tons of beautiful hikes year around, and I try to take my Shiba Inu’s on hikes at least once a month. Shiba Inu’s are actually the breed of dogs that should NEVER be off leash but I put a lot of effort in training my Shiba Inu’s. One tip that I would add that has been indispensable for me is to keep your dog leashed for the first 10 – 15 minutes. During these first 15 minutes, I hike at a pretty strenuous pace and try to tire my dog up a bit before letting her go. This really helps calm the initial excitement and makes hers much more obedient for the duration of the hike.

  6. How do you find places that will allow you to hide or walk with your dog off leash? Local trails, state parks, etc around me are all posted that all dogs must be on leash at all times. I’m getting my new puppy (Boykin spaniel) in a couple of weeks. I’m now retired & can spend as much time as I need to train her…yes, it’s wonderful!…but I need a place where I can.

  7. Solid group of tips – one of my dogs has learned the CHECK-IN command – which means a full recall and touch on the head – allowing my dogs to run free on trails show confidence in their ability to make smart decisions – trust your dog – accept that you are taking risks with full off-leash on the trails – but being a parent that allows for a healthy life – means allowing certain risks – when I see my dogs hunting and running in nature – the feeling is truly wonderful. They would not be the same dogs if they did not have massive off-leash time in nature. Dogs were not evolved to be held on a leash all the time – how can they explore and grow?

  8. I love theses tips, it’s really great to be prepared with our pups just as if they were human kids, they are so worth proper training and enjoying life with

  9. I train them to come to a whistle that I carry, I hide and when I’m found we party and continue our walk so I don’t leash them every time they come, carry a squeaker some times to change it up and switch directions. Always say good dog when they check in and some times offer treats.

  10. Great tips! I’d only add to hike as often possible. Dogs who spend lot of time on the trails are more used to it and therefore better behaved. Pups who come to the nature once in a while can get pretty excited and can get carried away more easily. And we have to agree it’s the best possible way to spend time.

  11. As a new dog owner, but active hiker, I am very surprised that you don’t scoop or bury poop off trail. I am the first member of my family to own a dog, so I understand how one “less mindful” dog owner can ruin it for everyone. For many non-dog owners, there is nothing worse than hiking off trail (and especially on trail!) and stepping a big pile of what is obviously dog poop.

    By not scooping or burying poop, even off trail and especially on public land, I feel that’s where angry non-dog owners start asking for areas to ban dogs. There are many local parks in my area that don’t allow dogs, even on leash, because of this issue.

    As someone who is environmentally conscious, I try to be aware of what I put into the environment…. If you follow Leave No Trace Rules, you either dig a cathole or you carry every thing out.

    Links for dog poop and human poop guidelines:

  12. Great tips! I am a fan of hiking and luckily living in an area where you can easily reach to the hiking spot.
    I never thought to take my dog along with me due to difficult track and frankly speaking. I am totally stupid in this because I have no knowledge much about taking dogs on hiking.
    Your article has given me so many new tips which I am surely going to follow and take my dog on hiking in August. Wish me luck.

  13. Great tips! I especially like the one about the great dane wearing a vest so it is not mistaken for a dear, haha! I would add that if it looks like a dog pooped near water, to pick it up so as to not contaminate the water.

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