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Packs and Trails with Amara the Shepherd

Hi, I’m Amara! I live in a van with my humans. They call it “vanlife.” I don’t know what that means, I just know I get to be outside almost all the time.

I love going on hikes and experiencing all the smells. I just got my very own backpack so I can carry my water, snacks, and toys on long hikes. When my dad first put it on me, it felt super weird. But when I realized we were going on the trail I was so excited! I did zoomies all around the van.

We hiked through the desert for hours until we found a beautiful lake for swimming. I had so much fun, I can’t wait to do it again!

Dustin and Amara packing in some fun on the trails with the Roamer™ Leash and Palisades™ Pack.

Tips for backpacking with your pup

This is Dustin, Amara’s human. There’s no doubt that Amara had the most fun on our hike. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a dog parent, it’s that having a pup allows you to experience life and everyday adventures in a whole new way.

For Noami and me, hiking is our favorite pastime. So when Amara joined our pack, there was no doubt we would bring her along on all our adventures. To say that she loves “going” is an understatement. All it takes is for one of us to pull out a pair of tennis shoes or hiking boots and Amara starts jumping for joy. We’ve taken her on dozens of hikes and she always does great.

For long hikes, I wanted her to be able to carry her own water and gear, so we opted for a Front Range™ Day Pack from Ruffwear. I was a bit nervous about putting a pack on her. Would it be uncomfortable and take away from her joy on the trail? Would the extra weight tire her out quickly? Would she freeze up and not want to walk at all?

Fortunately, Amara took to wearing a backpack the same way she takes to most things – with excitement and zoomies. On that first trip and the preparation leading up to it, we learned some dos and don’ts for backpacking with a pup, including how to tell if she’s uncomfortable.

Introduce the Pack and Ensure a Proper Fit

The first thing we did when we got Amara’s backpack was let her check it out and sniff around it. She’s generally a curious dog and likes to sniff anything new we bring into the van anyway, so this was easy.

Amara sniffing out the Switchbak Harness
Amara's recent sniff test with her new Switchbak™ Harness, which is part harness, part pack, and 100% great for day hikes.

Next we tried it on her and adjusted the fit. She was a bit hesitant at first, especially as I made her stand there while I adjusted all the straps. She was probably thinking “dad, what are you doing to me?” I adjusted the pack to fit snug all the way around. A loose pack will move around on your pup and a pack that’s too tight can cause chaffing. You should just be able to slide a finger between the strap and your dog’s body.

Once the pack was secure, we let her wear the empty pack around camp for a few hours to get used to it. Eventually she forgot it was there.

 Photos by Ruffwear Ambassadors Noami & Dustin

Take It For a Test Run

The next day we geared up for a short hike. I pulled out the pack and let her sniff it again. This allowed her to get used to the pack so that she wouldn’t be afraid of it. We kept the pack empty so that she could get used to hiking with it before adding weight. We took a short hike to a nearby river, stopping for a swim before returning to the van.

Balance the Weight Equally on Both Sides

It’s important to make sure the weight is evenly balanced on both sides of the pack. This will ensure a comfortable fit for a long hike.

Our first day hike with Amara’s new pack was 5 miles through the desert in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, so we needed to bring extra water to keep her hydrated. She carried 1 liter of water on each side of her pack in collapsible water bottles. We also added some trail snacks to one side and her Trail Runner Bowl and Hydro Plane Floating Throw Toy to the other. This made for a nice balanced pack.

Noami and Amara Backpacking

Check the Fit Periodically and Watch for Signs of Discomfort

Amara’s first time wearing the Front Range Daypack with weight in it, we stopped every mile or so and checked the fit, making sure the pack hadn’t loosened up or shifted and become too tight in one place or another.

Since our dogs can’t talk, they can’t exactly tell us when they’re hurting or uncomfortable. And some dogs, like Amara, tend to hide their pain. She once ran straight through a patch of cholla cacti and tried to walk it off as if nothing was wrong. We spent the next 20 minutes pulling dozens of cacti out of her paws and legs.

Unfortunately, not all pain is obvious. We have to pay close attention to know if Amara’s uncomfortable. Every pup is different, and you know your dog best, so look for small signs that are out of the ordinary and investigate if something doesn’t seem right. Amara’s typically full of energy and super bubbly when we’re outside, and she’s always in the lead when we’re on the trail.

If she’s whining or slowing down and walking behind us or trying to get our attention, we take that as a sign that something’s wrong. If your pup seems uncomfortable, check to be sure her pack is still fitting properly. Unbuckle the straps and check the areas where the straps make contact with her body. Pay particular attention to the “armpit” area under her front legs, this spot is susceptible to chaffing if the pack is too tight. Also check for ticks and burrs or anything else that may be stuck to her fur or skin causing discomfort.

Dustin and Amara in Switchbak harness sit by van.

Have Fun and Don’t Lock Your Knees

It takes a little while for Amara’s spatial awareness to adjust to the pack. Every time she runs past us, there’s a risk of taking a saddlebag to the back of the knee, especially early on the hike. Give your pup some extra space as they get used to navigating with the extra weight and bulk of a backpack.

Life is better with a dog. Watch and enjoy as your furry friend explores all the sights and smells along the trail. For us, Amara offers a constant reminder to slow down and find joy in all the little things this world has to offer.

Follow Dustin, Noami, and Amara's vanlife and backpacking adventures on Instagram @irietoaurora.