A Case for a Smaller Capacity Dog Backpack

With our new Moab Lite dog daypack now LIVE on Indiegogo, one criticism we get is that it doesn’t seem to offer enough capacity. To address this, we thought it would be helpful to explain a bit more about the inspiration behind the design, and why we intentionally designed a dog backpack with a lower capacity than what we frequently see on the market.

A man and his dog hiking in the beautiful Swiss Alps, the dog wearing the Moab Lite dog backpack

Infographic of Features on the Moab Lite Dog Backpack
The term “capacity” concerns us in three primary ways:
  • Weight

  • Bulk

  • Distribution


    As capacity increases, so does the ability to carry more weight. Without further context, added weight can be either good or bad. So let’s consider some canine-specific context. As outlined in much more depth in our article “Are Dog Backpacks Safe,” dogs aren’t designed to carry a lot of extra weight over long distances. Since dogs display wide variation in phenotypes—including size, shape, breed, bone-frame, joint health, and respiratory patterns—it is important to consider each factor specific to your individual dog. If you haven’t read “Are Dog Backpacks Safe” yet, consider giving it a read and then coming back to this article.
    For a healthy, active dog, the absolute maximum weight a dog should carry is no more than 25% of their respective weight. Keep in mind, that is an absolute maximum and only pertains to dogs that have already put the time in to work up to that weight; they are already well-conditioned and accustomed to carrying a load. For most healthy, fit dogs, we would be wise to cap that weight at 15-18%, and only if they have already steadily worked their way up to carrying that kind of weight. Many smaller dogs, dogs prone to certain health issues, younger dogs, or dogs that are not yet used to hauling weight should start with 5% and slowly work toward 10% before moving past that.
    A medium sized dog at 50 lbs./23 kg carrying two liters of water is already carrying 4.4 lbs./2 kg weight. Add that to the base weight of the pack itself and we are already at ~10% of the dog’s bodyweight. With some kibble or wet food, a collapsible bowl, and some treats, we start encroaching on the 15% mark rather quickly. A K9 coat, four booties, and a dog sleeping pad and/or bag can quickly exceed even the upper recommendation of 20-25% of the dog’s weight.
    If two liters of water puts us at the 10% mark for a medium sized dog, and two liters of crushed-kibble, a bowl, some first aid, and some treats puts us closer to 15%, we begin to see just how little capacity we actually need, at least for most of our trips.
    In fact, a larger capacity dog backpack can even become detrimental, encouraging an owner to inadvertently pack too much weight. Even if we are careful not to over-pack, the extra volume of a large capacity K9 backpack needs to go somewhere, which brings us to the next factor: bulk.


    One criticism I personally have for some of the larger capacity dog backpacks concerns the shape of the pack. Rather than accounting for the physique of a canine and distributing the bulk over the shoulder where the dog is strongest, many other packs simply add depth to the saddle bags to increase volume. Inefficient at best, and potentially harmful at worst, adding depth to the packs to increase capacity means that we have one of two options: either we fill the full volume or we don’t.
    If we do fill a larger pack while managing to keep it underweight, then we need to do so with lighter-weight, bulkier items like the dog’s coat or sleeping bag. Stuffing these items into the side bags means the backpack will stick out, often quite a bit on each side.
    Aside from being an annoyance every time the dog walks through brush and gets stuck, packing extra bulk into the side bags can actually hinder the dog’s gait.
    A pack that sticks out further on the sides is distributing the bulk and weight of the pack further away from the dog’s median line along the dog’s spine. This creates a sort of leverage that teeters side to side more so than if that weight were packed closer to the dog’s spine and ribs. Because of this teetering action, and because dogs often prefer to trot, this shifting motion can cause the pack to shift more significantly than a pack that contains the bulk and weight closer to the dog’s median line.
    Instead, a better option might be to roll up bulkier items and tie them down as a top-pack across the dog’s shoulders. For this reason, we decided to include lash tabs on each side of our Moab Lite daypack. This makes our lower-capacity dog backpack top-packable, so you can still pack your dog’s coat or sleeping bag, and even more efficiently than simply stuffing those items in the saddle bags.
    The DOGPAK Moab Lite daypack allows top-packing for bulkier items, allowing better weight and bulk distribution across the dog's shoulders:

    A dog wearing a dog backpack for hiking with a coat rolled across the shoulders as a top-pack

    The other option we have is not to fill the entire capacity of the side bags. This presents a similar set of problems. Without being filled to capacity, the items inside are free to slosh around with each step. This can create an awkward jarring feeling as the weight inside is continually suspended then halted, especially if the dog is trotting or running. We humans experience this ourselves when we try to run with an awkwardly packed rucksack.
    An under-packed, larger-capacity K9 backpack adds unnecessary weight and bulk and encourages slipping, rubbing, and jarring due to the items inside bouncing around as the dog trots along:

    An under-packed large capacity dog backpack

    Furthermore, without filling the pack to capacity, our stuff inside can become disorganized, allowing the weight to shift backwards and forwards, sometimes at different intervals on each side causing additional pack slippage. Not to mention, all that extra material is adding unnecessary bulk and weight to the base weight of the pack.
    If it is better to pack bulkier items on top closer to the dog’s spine-line, and if it is detrimental to fail to fill the pack to capacity, then it begs the question:

    Why are there so many excessively large-capacity dog backpacks on the market?

    While I recognize they can be useful for some people in certain situations, we decided instead to design a lower capacity pack that is top-pack ready. We touched on it a bit here, but it is worth also considering the physics of weight distribution in a bit more depth.


    Let’s break down the physics of the canine physique. This discussion concerns two main factors:
    • The shape of the dog in question

    • The way dogs move — i.e. their various gaits.

    Dogs come in all manner of sizes and shapes. Some have longer spines, like a thoroughbred race horse might, and others are stockier like a mule or a draft horse. Regardless of shape, dogs are strongest above their shoulders, which means a pack should encourage its contents to remain over the dog’s shoulders rather than allowing the contents to slip rear-ward.

    Diagram of dog wearing backpack over shoulders to best distribute weight

    As we mentioned in “Are Dog Backpacks Safe?,” dogs aren’t designed to carry heavy loads over long distances. Let’s talk about pack animals for a moment. Most animals used for packing have a similarly shaped skeleton. Donkeys, mules, and even llamas and goats have a relatively square shoulder compared to sport horses and, of course, dogs, who have a skeleton shape that favors speed and athleticism with a sloping shoulder.
    I worked as a professional horse and mule packer for several years, even working for the National Park Service in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. That is to say, I am familiar with some of the considerations needed when choosing the right animal for the right job, and also the right method of packing the weight.

    Cowboy leading a pack team of mules in Sequoia National Park

    As mentioned, mules and donkeys tend to have a short barrel (shorter spine length between their front and rear legs) and a square shoulder. Draft horses too were literally bred to have such a shape—a result of middle-ages armor becoming fully plated and therefore much heavier. This skeleton shape differs from the shape of many predatory animals, like canines or felines, who are built for speed and agility.

    Which brings us to the second point: the various gaits used by these different animals.

    When packing mules and horses, it is usually important to prevent them from trotting, lest the weight and pack begins to shift more, potentially causing a wreck (not fun).
    Contrast that with the preferred gaits of a dog. The most efficient gait for a dog (the gait that covers the most distance with the least amount of effort) is a trot. At a trot, the dog is still able to pant to help cool itself. That means dogs often prefer to trot a good amount of the way. This trotting motion causes the weight and bulk of a pack to shift more than when the dog is at a slow walk. As discussed in the previous sections, a large capacity pack that is not filled to capacity is prone to slosh around and shift more than a smaller capacity pack that better contains the items inside.


    With all of this in mind, and in seeing that there were not many options for a lower capacity dog backpack on the market, we deliberately decided to design just that.
    The Moab Lite is a dog daypack that offers enough capacity to comfortably fill, while also allowing the option to top-pack bulkier items. In my experience, it is just the right size for 95+% of our trips, including over-nighters and even multi-day expeditions, while also being slim and light enough to double as a daily walking harness.
    Keep in mind that dogs aren’t meant to carry heavy loads, and their physique and preference for trotting/running gaits already put them at a disadvantage. With that in mind, anything that I cannot fit into my pup’s pack, I will happily pack myself. I would much rather take the added weight myself than risk hurting my dog Thunder, especially now that he’s getting up there in age.
    The Moab Lite holds a capacity of about 6L for the M size, and about 7.5L for the L/XL size.

     Lightweight blue dog backpack

    So if you’re interested, be sure to check out our Indiegogo page to pick up a Moab Lite at a €30 discount. 
    If you made it this far, I applaud your sense of curiosity and admire your devotion to keeping your dog healthy and safe. As always, feel free to reach out!


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