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Leave No Trace Principles with a Dog

Leave No Trace Principles with a Dog

Most adventure dog parents I know or associate with are fairly savvy when it comes to the principles of leave no trace. For those who have never heard of them, they are seven sets of guidelines created by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics that provide direction to enjoy time spent in nature in a sustainable manner with minimal effect on the environment and other enthusiasts.

With increased usage from dogs, trails see more use. Like humans, dogs can cause a significant damage to the environment, so adapting the seven principles to pertain to dogs helps reduce the impact they have on natural areas. The suggestions below ensure dogs leave a minimal paw print on the trail.

Plan ahead and Prepare

Prepare for Extreme Weather and Emergencies

If you don’t know First Aid for pets (and yourself, for that matter), consider taking a class to educate yourself on what to do in the event of an injury or emergency.

Always carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. Adventure Medical Kits makes lightweight kits specifically for dogs, or you can simply add a few items to your own First Aid kit. I also carry the Field Guide to Dog First Aid e-book along on hikes, so I always know what to do in a given situation.

A few brands have begun to make backpack slings that allow dog owners to carry their pups more easily should their dog become incapable of walking. In a situation where your 30-lb+ dog requires you to carry him, this could be a lifesaver, literally. This one from Ruff Rescue Gear holds medium-sized dogs ranging from 40-85 lbs.

Understand the Rules

Leash rules are made to protect a natural area, national parks, and/or ensure that the other users of the trail enjoy their experience without disturbance.

Let’s be realistic, leash rules are often broken, so if you are going to hike off leash with your dog in an on leash area, avoid times of high use and have your dog under control 100% of the time (see below for more on off leash hiking).

Most hiking sites have information on the dog rules and foot traffic. Check before you go to know what you need to bring.

Hiking in Large Groups

Group hikes are a great way to meet new people, help your dog socialize and gain confidence with other dogs, and just have fun with others in nature. If your group exceeds more than six or so people/dogs, then spread out into smaller groups so that solo hikers and pairs are not inundated with loud conversations and a pack of dogs.

Just as humans practice leave no trace, dog owners must also ensure that their dogs leave a minimal pawprint in natural areas.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

If you plan to camp overnight in the backcountry, look for established campsites, or choose one on a strong surface like rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow. Pitch your tent at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.

An ideal campsite is one absent of vegetation. There is no need to have to clear a site by hacking down plants.

If your dog tends to wander, the Ruffwear Knot-a-Hitch is a great tether that will keep them close by while causing minimal damage. Bring a bed for them to know where to lay and teach them to sleep in comfortably in the tent with you.

Before leaving, inspect your campsite to ensure that you have gathered all of your belongings and collected all trash or spilled foods. This will deter wildlife from passing through in search of an easy meal.

Dispose of Waste Properly

Plain and simple, pack out all trash, including dog poop. It may seem unnecessary to pick up your dog’s poop in the woods where it will just decompose, however leaving it can cause some serious effects to the ecosystem.

Dog feces contains 23 million fecal coliform bacteria, diseases, and introduces foreign nutrients into the environment, which can lead to invasive species and water contamination.

This in-depth post covers more information about how to dispose of dog poop on hikes, including a variety of ways to carry it out, rather than bag it and leave it on the side of the trail to forget about pick up on the return.

Just as humans practice leave no trace, dog owners must also ensure that their dogs leave a minimal pawprint in natural areas.

Leave What You Find

Leaving items like rocks, sticks, and plants where you found them allows nature to take care of itself. Even creating or contributing to a cairn is not generally accepted by leave no trace principles.

Stay on the Trail

If you hike with your dog off leash, ensure that they remain on the trail. Allowing them to stray from the trail causes damage to the flora and fauna that grow off path. Further, if they drop a deuce, you may not notice and therefore won’t pick it up.

Try to prevent your dog from digging holes as much as possible in an attempt to leave the trail in the same condition as when you arrived.


During the  California and Arizona superbloom in the spring of 2019, tens of thousands of people flocked to wildflower locations to take pictures. Of course, this is perfectly fine, however many failed to respect the plants, walking over them or placing their dogs among a field for a photo.

The problem is that wildflowers only return if they are left undisturbed in order to seed again. When thousands trudge over them, the damage is irreversible.

So, by all means, take photos of your dogs among the beautiful wildflowers, just stay on the path and use photography techniques to frame the photo to make an appearance that they’re standing in the middle of a field.

For more on taking great photos of your dog, see this post that shares my best tips.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Of course your pup probably won’t be the one responsible for starting any campfires, however reduce the need for one by bringing extra clothing for yourself and a warm jacket or bed for your dog.

We love the Whyld River Doggy Bed for ultimate warmth (it was designed when founder Rachel’s dog, River experienced extreme cold during an outdoor adventure and it is fabulous). (Use code longhaultrekkers for 10% off)

Respect Wildlife

Remember that you are a guest in the home of the animals who live in environment you are visiting. Respecting them will not only ensure they remain wild, but will keep both you and your dog safer, ensure other users enjoy their experience, and provide potentially incredible viewing opportunities.

Animal Encounters

Dogs have a tendency to chase or scare off wildlife. In order to respect the animals who reside in the woods you are visiting, it’s important to manage your dog at all times.

Keep your pup on leash if he has a high prey drive. A long 30’ biothane leash is a wonderful tool for high prey drive dogs. It still allows them some freedom, while maintaining them under control.

Some animals make noises that your dog has never heard before, which may excited them and cause them to bark, disturbing the animals and ruining a viewing experience for other hikers. Treat these opportunities as training breaks. Work on focus exercises or redirect your dog to another command to take their mind off the animal.

Food Storage

If you’re camping, store your food and trash in a scent-proof container and out of reach of wildlife. Inadvertently feeding them human food can seriously impact their health, alter natural behaviors, and put them at risk to other predators and dangers.

I use a simple 10oz dry bag and a thin roll of paracord to store my food when I camp. Don’t forget to include your pet’s food in the storage. We forgot once and woke up to a raccoon outside our tent helping himself to Sora’s kibble!

Be Considerate of other Visitors

All users deserve to enjoy the trail and, as hard as it may be to believe, not everyone loves dogs.

Off-Leash Dogs

For users with dogs, this is quite possibly the biggest pet peeve among the hiking with dogs community. While I am all for dogs having the time of their lives on the trails, I am not all for them disturbing the experience for other users and their dogs.

If you hike with your dog off-leash, please, for the love of dog, have them under control at all times. When dog owners allow their hiking buddies to sprint up to other hikers—whether or not they have a dog, it hinders their experience.

For those without dogs, they may have allergies, a fear of dogs, or simply just not like it when a large beast comes beaming toward them at full sprint barking.

Even as someone who loves dogs, I am overcome with fear in these moments because I have no idea if this dog is friendly or not. Even if you scream at me from 100 meters away and tell me that he is, I don’t care. I do not want your dog coming up to me when I hike.

I’ve written a trail etiquette manifesto that asks all dog owners to pledge to comply with a number of unwritten rules when it comes to dogs. Following the guidelines helps assure everyone’s safety and comfort.

  • My dog may be shy or reactive and when your dog charges at us, it puts both my dog, myself, and your dog in a potentially dangerous position. Not to mention that it’s incredibly stressful.
  • I may be working with my dog on training skills, and while your belligerent dog may help us in some ways, it also detracts from the lesson and you know what? That is beyond frustrating.

If you’re someone who believes that owners with reactive dogs should not be on the trail, the thought is completely unwarranted and it is unfair to make that statement.

If you are hiking on a trail that requires leashes and your dog is off leash, my reactive dog is not the problem. Everyone deserves to enjoy the trail, and hiking with a reactive dog can be incredibly challenging when others do not obey the rules.

Yield to Others

Whether hiking in a group or on your own with your pup, I always choose to yield to other users. It’s simple courtesy, plus it offers good opportunity to practice “place” training.

How do you leave no trace when you hike with your dog?

What other practices would you add to this list?