Are Dog Backpacks Safe?

Our previous article discussed some great uses for a dog backpack both on and off the trail. You can access that here:

Why use a dog backpack?

As we mentioned, it is necessary to properly assess whether it is ok for your dog to wear a backpack and how much weight they can safely carry. In this article, we outline a few important considerations to consult with your veterinarian about.
  • How much weight can my dog carry?

  • Are dog backpacks safe to use?

  • Does my dog need to be a certain age to carry a backpack?

  • Can all breeds wear a backpack?

  • Does the size of my dog matter?

If you and your vet determine it is ok for your pup to carry a backpack, the next question is usually:

How much weight can my dog carry?

We will start with this question to provide a foundation for what a “reasonable load” for a dog is. Assuming your dog is healthy and fit, the general recommendation regarding the amount of weight a dog can safely carry is not more than 25% of the dog’s weight. Keep in mind, this is the upper extreme for healthy, fit, and properly conditioned dogs and should not be exceeded by any dog. Realistically, however, most dogs should probably carry much less weight than that. A reasonably fit dog who has been well trained and conditioned to carry a load, and who is a veteran of hiking and camping, should probably stick to a pack weight around 15% of the dog’s weight. If your pup is on the younger side, the older side, or is not yet accustomed to the additional weight, keep the load size at or under 10% of the dog’s weight until you can be sure it is safe to increase the load from there. The reality is dogs are not really meant to carry much extra weight.
Our first product, the Moab Lite daypack, was deliberately designed with this notion in mind. It is intentionally a smaller, slimmer, ultralight pack in order to prevent over-loading and poorly balanced weight distribution. The adjustment straps across the spine aid in lifting and securing the load close to the dog’s ribs and over their shoulders where the dog’s frame is the strongest. Many bulky backpacks on the market either encourage over-loading or simply get in the way due to extra unused pack material. While a conditioned trail dog on a multi-day trip might make good use of a larger backpack, the versatility of our slimmer daypack made for a better and more versatile design choice for our first pack.
What about sled dogs? While sled dogs are trained and conditioned to pull heavy loads over long distances, the angle at which the force is distributed through their sledding harness differs compared to the angle of force from a loaded backpack. Still, there is no reason a healthy, conditioned dog with a properly fitted backpack cannot carry additional loads on long hikes, as long as certain precautions are taken. On to the main topic:

Are dog backpacks safe to use?

There are a few factors to consider before determining whether it is safe for your dog to wear a backpack. Generally, these factors include your dog’s size, age, breed, fitness and conditioning, mentality, training, and any health concerns specific to your pup. Even the best backpack might not be a safe choice for your dog if the bag is too heavy, fits poorly, or elicits a fearful or aggressive reaction.

Size:

Size is an important one, and right away we can rule out the extremes. If your dog falls on either end of the size extremes, it might be safer for your pup to skip the backpack all together, and possibly any long treks as well. Extremely small dogs can lack the bone and frame constitution to carry any kind of additional load. They can be predisposed to certain hereditary conditions that compromise the joints, bones, and supporting connective tissue as well. Extra-large dogs sometimes share a higher predisposition to bone and joint related conditions too, like hip dysplasia, osteochondrosis, hypertrophic osteodystrophy, and panosteitis (growing pains) arising from rapid bone growth during developmental years. While the relative size of their frames can allow some larger breeds to carry more gross weight (compared to a smaller dog), the relationship is not necessarily linear and there will be a point of diminishing returns where that amount of weight becomes harmful.
For this reason, our initial release of the Moab Lite daypack will come in two different size options: S/M and L/XL. These two sizes cover the majority of dog sizes that fall within the safe zone. The hope is that we will be able to offer additional sizes in the future, but the initial run will only offer these two sizes. Feel free to reach out with any sizing questions you might have.

Age:

Predictably, very old dogs might not be healthy enough to carry too much extra weight in a backpack on your hike. Some common concerns are arthritis, ligament injuries, and possible heart conditions. What some people might not realize, however, is that younger dogs and adolescent dogs also might not be ready to carry much extra weight. It takes a while for a young puppy’s bones and skeletal structure to fully develop and for their growth plates to close. Puppies do a large portion of their growing between 4 and 8 months, and by 12 months, the bulk of their long bone growth is established. Still it can take 18 months and possibly even longer for the growth plates to close. As a general rule (with exceptions of course), larger breeds require more time for their bones to develop and their growth plates to mature. Overexercise during these developmental periods could be painful and lead to bone and joint issues in the future. Additionally, larger breeds that tend to grow quickly can sometimes be susceptible to panosteitis (growing pains), and an exerting hike might be painful both during and after.

Breed:

Certain breeds of dogs have a higher prevalence of debilitating conditions that could be worsened by carrying extra weight. Some breeds have a hereditary predisposition to joint issues like hip dysplasia. Some breeds are disadvantaged by the physics of their skeletal structure, like Dachshunds whose elongated backs and short legs are simply not meant to carry extra weight on their backs. Some brachycephalic breeds (breeds with short snouts) have higher overall rates of respiratory distress, however there is a wide range in severity between different brachycephalic breeds and even between individuals within the same breed. In addition to difficulty breathing, some brachycephalic dogs might struggle to keep cool on a warm day hike. Dogs do not sweat through their bodies to keep cool the way humans do. Instead, panting helps them regulate temperature through vasodilation, increased surface area, and evaporation. A dog with an exceptionally short snout might struggle to keep cool due to a lack of surface area on which evaporation can occur.

*On a side note, keep in mind that dogs cannot pant properly while running. On a hot day, be sure to give them breaks between bouts of running so they can effectively cool themselves off through panting.

Fitness & Conditioning:

It takes time to develop endurance. The same is true for developing supportive tissue in the muscles, joints, and bones. We need to build up to longer runs or hikes with proper conditioning. Just like with humans, this requires a consistent routine alternating between shorter hikes or exercises that gradually increase in length or difficulty in order to properly build up your dog’s endurance and resistance to potential injuries caused by overuse, inflammation, and inadequate rest. Ligament ruptures, joint issues, and chronic arthritis are just a few potential consequences of doing too much too soon with your pup.

Mentality and Training:

It is important to properly introduce your pup to the backpack. Go as slowly as you need to, remain patient, and use positive reinforcement to reward them when they do well. The backpack can feel awkward to wear at first, and some dogs will initially struggle to move with it on. Again, be patient, remain positive, and help them figure it out. Usually, they will begin to get a feel for it and learn they are free to run and jump and play as though they weren’t wearing it at all. However, every dog has a different personality. If at any point you notice your dog is overly fearful, anxious, or aggressive due to the backpack, stop and take a step back. It could be that you are asking too much of your dog too soon, in which case you might be able to help reassure them by taking smaller steps. In some cases, a dog might simply be too anxious or scared, possibly due to past traumas or simply because of their personality. In this case, you may need to consult with a reputable trainer who can help you determine whether you can change your approach or if it is better to nix the backpack all together. More on training here.

Health Concerns:

There are numerous factors that influence your dog’s overall health, and it is important that you consult with a veterinarian who can help educate you on what these concerns might be for your specific dog. Some concerns might be hereditary due to breed, others might be congenital and specific to your individual dog. Arm yourself with a thorough understanding of what those concerns are, what to look out for, and what to do if you have an incident.
In addition to educating yourself about your pup’s health concerns, it is also important to have a basic understanding of dog first-aid and keep a few essential supplies. Before you hit the trail, make sure you understand what dangers are associated with that particular area and climate. Are there lions, tigers, and bears? Rattlesnakes? Snow and ice? Heat with little shade? How bad are the ticks? Any local laws for dogs on the trail? Is it hunting season?
I would like to reiterate that, while I did consult with three trusted vets to write/validate this article, I myself am not a veterinarian. I have worked extensively alongside vets and vet techs as a horse trainer, dog trainer, and livestock manager for a dozen years in almost as many countries. I have packed horses and mules carrying significant loads through the backcountry of some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the world. I have hiked extensively in the Rockies, Sierras, Appalachians, Andes, and Alps with my pup Thunder for 12 years. I have trained my dog to be a cattle heeler, therapy dog, avalanche search and rescue hound, psychiatric service dog, and an all-around good-boy; and we have been to 45 states and 30 countries. I only mean to say I have learned a fair amount along the way, but perhaps the most important thing I have learned is how little I actually know. Sometimes, we don’t know what we don’t know, so please don’t take my word for it: consult with a trusted doctor, or three, and while you’re at it, learn some basic K9 first aid before you hit the trail. We’ll see you out there!

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