A guide to the best dog backpacks (saddlebags) and how to use.
Published: January 3rd, 2020
Hiking with a canine companion can be rewarding, but bringing a dog on a trek requires some planning. The most significant challenge is supplies. How do you carry everything that you need along with all the gear that your dog needs?
Instead of carrying everything yourself, you can offload some of that weight with a doggy backpack. Designed specifically for a dog, these lightweight packs fit snugly on your dog's back and let them shoulder some of the burdens of carrying food and gear for a hike.
TYPES OF DOG BACKPACKS: SADDLEBAGS VS. CARRIER BAGS
Almost all dog backpacks are saddlebags. Unlike the single pouch construction of a human pack, a saddlebag has two panniers that fall to either side of your dog's chest. This design evenly distributes the weight across a dog's back and prevents injury. You may stumble across a few "dog backpacks" that look just like a typical daypack. These packs are not meant to be worn by dogs but instead are designed for carrying your dog, usually a small breed that is light enough to be shouldered by their human owner.
SIZE: MEASURING GIRTH, WEIGHT AND NECK DIAMETER
Size is perhaps the most essential feature to consider when selecting a pack. Be sure to measure your dog accurately to get a pack that fits correctly. You don't want it so big that it slips off your dog or so small that it rubs. Most dog backpack manufacturers have their own specific sizes, so you'll want to follow the instructions on their website.
First, you'll need to measure the girth of your dog by placing a measuring tape around the fullest part of your dog's chest behind its front legs. Second, you should know your dog's weight as some manufacturers use weight instead of or along with girth to size their packs. Third, you should measure their neck to ensure the chest strap fits comfortably in the shoulder region. Lastly, some packs require you to measure the length of your dog from the nape of their neck to the base of their tail.
A helpful hint: if your dog falls in between two sizes, then you should size up. It is better to adjust a pack down to fit your dog than try to squeeze a dog into a pack that's too small.
Although each pack is different, here are some general guidelines:
|Pack Size||Dog Girth||Dog Weight||Breed|
|XS||17-22 in||Under 20 pounds||Dachshund, Pug, Shih Tzu|
|S||22-27 in||20-50 pounds||Beagle, Border Collies, Cocker Spaniels, Australian Shepherds|
|M||27-32 in||40-90 pounds||Boxer, Doberman Pincher, Labrador Retriever|
|L/XL||32 in or more||Over 80 pounds||German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Bernese Mountain Dog|
FIT: AVOIDING HOT SPOTS AND CHAFING
Fit is right up there with size in importance. Dog backpacks should be snug enough that they don't slip or move while your dog is walking. Be careful not to make the pack too tight, which could lead to chafing and hot spots, especially around the chest area where the straps run under the front legs.
One critical feature to consider is adjustability. Some packs have a fixed one-piece construction, where the panniers are sewn into the body of the backpack. These packs have limited adjustment points, so you must choose the correct size carefully. Other packs have a small piece of fabric that runs along the dog's back. The panniers attach to the body of the pack using straps that can be shortened or lengthened depending on the size of the dog. This style is very adjustable and can accommodate a wide variety of dog shapes and sizes.
Adjustable front and side straps on the Ruffwear Approach dog pack
WEATHERPROOFING: WATER-RESISTANT MATERIALS AND ZIPPERS
Most dog backpacks are made with water-resistant nylon or polyester that will keep the pack contents dry under light rain. Look for zippers that are covered by a flap for the best rain protection If heavy rain is expected, a plastic bag or other waterproof liner is recommended.
WEIGHT: UNDER 2 LBS
Most dog backpacks weigh two pounds or less. Heavier packs tend to have larger panniers, rugged zippers, and extra straps for adjustment. You need to strike a balance between features and weight. The lighter the pack, the easier it is on the dog. Just be sure that you don't go too light and get a backpack that isn't equipped to handle the supplies your dog needs to carry.
Use the calculator below to find out how much weight your dog should carry, gear included (more on that further down in our FAQ):
DURABILITY: PAY ATTENTION TO THE HANDLE AND LEASH HOOK
Dog backpacks typically are made with durable nylon or polyester with heavy-duty stitching in high-stress areas like the handle and leash hook. Try to test out a pack before you purchase it. Let your dog wear it and try picking him up to see if the handle feel secure and if the straps hold without slipping.
CAPACITY: 10 TO 25 LITERS DEPENDING ON THE LENGTH OF YOUR HIKE
Dog backpacks are available in a variety of sizes to accommodate everything from a walk around town to a multi-day hike. In general, you'll want a pack that holds up to 25 liters for a multi-day trek and up to 10 liters for a day trip. Many packs come in one size and have panniers that hold enough gear for a day hike but can expand to fit more than a day's worth of supplies.
Your dog pack should have enough space for your pup's bowl, food, water and some treats.
COLOR: BRIGHT COLORS HELP YOU SPOT YOUR DOG EASILY
Choose high visibility colors like orange and neon green. These colors make it easy to find your dog in case he runs off into the woods or wanders around camp.
DESIGN: IMPORTANT FEATURES
It's the little details in the design that make one dog backpack different from another. Some packs are minimalist and only have a few straps, while others are more robust with padded chest straps and large handles. You should consider how you will be using the pack before deciding which model to purchase. If you are bringing your dog on technical terrain that requires a helping hand, then look for a pack with a sturdy handle. If you are mainly doing casual day hikes, then a minimalist pack with breathable mesh and a few simple panniers will be good enough.
Look for packs that have straps that fit securely and don't dangle down into a urine stream. Ideally, the buckles on the pack should have a protective layer of fabric that protects the dog from chafing and rubbing. Also, look at the handle and the leash attachment point and see how strongly they are stitched into the pack. You don't want the handle or leash hook to break when you need it the most.
Here are some common design features to look for:
The Kurgo Baxter pack features a rear-mounted leash hook, padded handle and external gear hooks.
Ruffwear is known for its durable harnesses, reliable leashes, and rugged backpacks. The Approach is the company's pack for a long day hike and features a single-piece construction in which the panniers are sewn into the harness frame of the pack. The design of the Approach pack is outstanding -- the zippers are rugged, the leash attachment is rock solid and the handle is sewn extremely securely into the pack.
The Approach Pack has two roomy panniers that can carry 2 liters of water, dog bowl, treats and waste bags. The straps are padded and buckle across the chest and abdomen. A flap of fabric protects the buckles from rubbing against the dog's skin. The Approach pack is made from durable 420-denier ripstop nylon with a soft liner on the inside.
There are two attachment points -- a durable metal ring and a fabric loop near the handle. We especially appreciated the gear loops across the top, which are useful for storing the leash when you are not using it. The pack has multiple pockets that you can use to store larger water bottles and small items like waste bags.
Though it is rugged, the Approach is not as adjustable as competing packs. You can only adjust the length of straps and how they fit across the chest. You can not change the height of the pouches because they are sewn into the underlying fabric of the pack. The rear strap also sits far back on the dog and may be sprayed with urine.
The Mountainsmith K9 hits all the checkmarks for what you want in a pack. It is easy to put on your dog. Unlike other packs that require you to place your dog's leg into the harness, the K9 pack from Mountainsmith simply slides over the dog's head and then buckles around the chest and legs. It is so easy and comfortable for your dog that he or she won't even mind putting on the pack.
A lot of forethought was put into the design of the K9, and it shows. The pack is adjustable in almost every direction. You can change the length of the chest strap on the front of the pack. You can extend the straps across the chest of even the biggest dog. Even the panniers have their own straps that allow you to raise or lower each pannier based on the girth of your dog.
Not only are the straps adjustable, but they also are padded and contoured for a snug, but comfortable fit. All the buckles and d-loops also have a fabric backing that prevents these hard plastic parts from rubbing up against the dog's skin. You won't have to worry about chafing and other other types of skin irritation. The straps and buckles and easy to adjust and hold well. They don't slip when weighted.
The K9 has plenty of pockets to store your dog's gear. Two large pockets can hold up to two liters of water and food, while the smaller slash pockets are ideal for waste bags, treats, or a first aid kit. The construction is durable with a combination of 420D and 630D nylon along with rugged zippers and secure stitching on the handle and leash attachment.
The Kurgo Baxter is a lightweight pack that hits the sweet spot between price and functionality. The pack has all the basic features you need in a dog backpack without all the fluff. It has a clip on the front that makes it easy to put on your dog You don't have to move his legs or feet. Just slide the harness over the head and secure the front buckle. It has two straps that fit across the chest and secure the backpack to you dog. Each strap is adjustable so you can get a snug fit. Unlike competing packs, the straps are not padded and the buckles lay against the dog’s skin. If you are not careful, the straps and buckles could irritate the skin and cause a hot spot.
The Baxter has two panniers that have plenty of room for treats, water, and food. Each pannier has a large pouch and a slash pocket for smaller items. These panniers are adjustable and can be moved up or down to fit a wide range of dogs. The regular Baxter pack fits dogs between 30 to 85 pounds with 3.75L of storage space while the larger Big Baxter pack holds up to 7.5L of gear and fits dogs over 50 pounds.
Kurgo kept the Baxter simple. The harness portion is lightly padded and contoured to fit across the back of your dog. The pack has two attachments points for a leash. There is a metal clip facing the rear on the handle and a front-facing metal clip with a bottle opener on the front chest strap. I never used the bottle opener, but it is there if you need it. There also are two loops on the top of the pack for attaching gear.
More tactical than casual, the OneTigris Blaze Tracker is designed for the working dog. It has a rugged, military-inspired design that looks professional. The pack not only looks professional, but it is also designed for the service dog with a slot for a dog ID card and a loop panel for a service dog or similar morale patch.
The two side panniers are designed more for daily use and not a long-distance hike.
They have a double zip pouch and an outer velcro pocket for storing small items. The panniers are ideal for dog snacks, some water, and even your phone or keys. A built-in drain hole protects the pack contents if a water bottle happens to leak. It has a built-in waste bag holder that makes it easy to grab a bag when you need a quick clean up.
The Blaze Tracker is made from rugged, water-resistant 1000D nylon and can handle both urban and backcountry environments with ease. Though the underside of the pack is padded for comfort, the straps are not. Unlike competing backpacks, the Blaze Tracker does not have a handle, which is disappointing. If you need to lift your dog over an obstacle, you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way.
As its name implies, the DayPak dog backpack from Outward Hound is designed for a short walk around town or a daytime adventure at your local park. Ideally, the DayPak dog backpack is suitable for street walks, parks, and beaches. It is not a rugged bag for traveling through rough backcountry terrain.
The standout feature is the breathable mesh body, which keeps your dog cool even when it is hot outside. The pack has two saddlebags with pockets to carry the essentials for your dog and yourself. The design is lightweight with small zippers, small buckles, and minimal padding. There is a handle to carry your dog and a single D-ring for a leash.
The Lifeunion Saddle Bag falls in between the lightweight and low-cost Outward Hound DayPak and the rugged Approach pack from Ruffwear. Like the Ruffwear Approach pack, the Lifeunion Saddle Bag has fixed panniers that are sewn into the body of the pack. You can adjust the chest straps for sizing, but you cannot raise or lower the panniers to fit your dog.
The panniers have a triangular shape that is wide at the top and tapers to the bottom. They are sized for daily use around town or at a campground. Because of their shape and size, you are limited in what you can stuff in the pack. Think essentials and not large bottles of water or big bags of food.
Though it targets the day user, the Lifeunion Saddle Bag is not a minimal pack. It is constructed with water-resistant 600D double polyester and has a rubber handle that provides a secure, non-slip grip. The pack and straps are lined with a soft mesh and are well-padded for comfort.
When your pet is too small to keep up on your hikes, there's always the Pawaboo Dog Backpack. This backpack is not for your pets to wear, but it is meant for owners to carry their petite pups. The Pawaboo is a forward-facing pack that lets you wear your dog like you would wear a baby. It has holes for its legs and tail so your dog can see the world while it sits comfortably on your chest. The Pawaboo is hands-free, so you can walk, hike and even bike with your dog. Because you are wearing your dog, the Pawaboo is suitable for dogs that weigh 15 pounds or less.
If you need a backpack for your dog but don't like the rugged outdoorsy look, then the Wellver Saddle Bag is for you. It is a great starter pack for shorter hikes and walks around the town. It has two large panniers and a well-padded chest strap. In between the two panniers is a breathable mesh that is ideal for warm weather hiking. Our only gripe with the pack is its length. It is longer than most dog backpacks, so you have to be extra careful with the fit, especially with male dogs. If the pack is too long, then the back strap may fall over a dog's male bits instead of the end of the rib cage.
How much weight should a dog carry on his back?
How much weight a dog can carry depends on a variety of factors, but the most essential elements are the breed and age of the dog. The target carrying weight for most dogs is 15 percent of the dog's body weight. Some bigger dogs like a Bernese Mountain dog can carry up to 30 percent of their body weight, while smaller dogs like a Pug can carry only 10 percent. Older dogs should carry less than the recommended weight, so you don't stress them too much.
Just like with people, you don't want to overburden your dog with too much weight. The amount of gear and supplies you should bring is based on the type of hike you are doing and the distance. Obviously, your dog will need to carry more weight on a long, multi-day hike and less weight on a short day hike. Watch your dog for signs of fatigue and adjust weight as needed. When packing your backpack, make sure you leave extra room in case you need to carry more of your dog’s supplies than expected.
Are backpacks good for dogs?
Backpacks are beneficial for dogs in ways you wouldn’t expect. When wearing a pack, a dog often goes into work mode and takes on the job of carrying its own weight. A dog that believes it is on duty will stay focused during a hike and won't chase after every squirrel it encounters on the trail. Some dogs also are comforted by the snug feeling of the pack. It can make a nervous dog feel more secure and helps them stay calm when encountering a stressful situation.
A pack also provides the dog with additional exercise. This extra effort will tire out the dog out after a hike so he or she will chill at the campsite. It also helps build endurance while training for longer hikes. Start off easy with shorter hikes and little to no weight in the pack. As your dog gets stronger, you can gradually increase the distance and the weight in the pack. Before you know it, your dog will be a pro at carrying his or her gear.
For a dog to reap these benefits, a pack needs to be appropriately fitted and not overfilled. A poorly fitting pack can lead to painful chafing, while an overloaded pack can cause joint pain and even injury. Watch your dog and be aware of cues that he or she is not feeling well. Look for limping, licking, or whimpering. Don’t ignore any concerning signs. If you push your dog too hard, you may end up having to carry him or her out.
Your dog is going to love that padding.
Most dogs are strong enough to carry their own food, water, and bowls. Collapsible bowls for food and water are preferable as they are lightweight and don't take up a lot of room in the pack. Make sure you carry enough food (usually twice their normal food amount if it is a strenuous hike), treats, and plenty of water. If you plan to collect water on your trip, be sure to filter it for your dog because dogs are susceptible to giardia and similar parasites, just like people.
Most packs are not large, so big items like bedding and clothing should be carried by the owner, if possible. A pack also is a great place to store the poop that you scoop on a trip. Just keep it in a pocket away from the food and enclose it a ziplock bag to contain the smell.
When deciding what to pack, don’t forget about water and how much it weighs. You'll need to bring more water on a hot day or on a hike without a reliable water source. You may be tempted to skimp on carrying water to save weight, but don't. Your dog needs ample water while hiking. It’ll help keep your dog well hydrated and minimize the risk of overheating.
Each pannier should be filled equally to keep the load balanced and the pack centered on your dog. A lopsided pack may slow your dog down, and could cause chafing or other injuries. As your dog consumes the food it is carrying, be sure to re-distribute the weight, so the pack continues to sit evenly on both sides.
Practice with the pack around the house and on short walks to get your dog comfortable wearing it. Get excited about the pack, and make it fun for the dog to wear. Give him or her plenty of treats and lots of praise on the first few hikes with the pack. You don't want your big hike to be derailed because your dog dislikes wearing his or her backpack.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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