Best Dogs For Hiking: Top Breeds For The Trail

Tail-wagging, tongue-lolling, bounding down the trail: you’ve seen them—dogs hiking or backpacking with their humans. It’s clear they’re enjoying the journey: the hiking dog is eager, energized, agreeable, as happy about the bugs and the weather as he is the difficult uphill switchbacks. Hiking with friends is fun, but your best, most reliable companion on the trail finally may be your dog.

Hiking with a dog can enrich the experience for both of you, and for your hiking colleagues, but is best undertaken with a canine who’s got the moxie. It’s wise to leave puppies and senior dogs with compromised health at home. And before you hit the trail with any dog, ask yourself:

  1. Can he keep up? Engage in a vigorous outdoor play session to see who tires out first. If he did, he probably doesn’t have the endurance needed for a hike.
  2. Is he obedient? Place him in the company of other dogs —will he still come to you when he is distracted? If not, he’s not ready for the trail, unless you can keep him leashed for the entire hike. Work on obedience with him: a long-distance return and emergency “drop” on command are crucial for backcountry hikes. Even if he is obedient, carry a leash that you can quickly attach to his collar or harness if you should encounter an aggressive dog or other dangerous situation.
  3. Does he have good hiking genes? With the few notable exceptions below, short-legged dogs should be left at home or only taken along on very easy, short trails. And shorter-snouted dogs—Boxers, Pugs, and French or English Bulldogs, for example—are susceptible to respiratory issues that make long distance hiking difficult or impossible.
  4. Does he have a clean bill of health? Make sure your hiking dog has regular checkups, and keep his vaccinations and flea and tick preventive medications current.

Most healthy, physically fit dogs can handle a hike through flat terrain that lasts no longer than your longest regular walks at home. But if you really want to hit the backcountry with your best friend along, several breeds stand out as the best hiking dogs. Here we discuss a few of our favorites, along with a few honorable mentions.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback

So-called because of the characteristic “ridge” of hair running the length of his spine against the direction of the rest of his coat, this dog was bred historically as an African lion hunter. With his low-maintenance short hair and efficient stride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback adapts better to heat than most breeds and as such has no problem hiking in it. As much as he is sinewy and strong, the Rhodesian Ridgeback temperament is also fearless and loyal to a fault: if your backcountry hike will take you well off the beaten path, there is no other dog you’d sooner have by your side—he is hands-down the best protector against outdoor threats. And he has earned the moniker “Navy SEAL of dogs” for good reason: his thick pads can handle the roughest of terrain. Rumor has it the Rhodesian Ridgeback can keep pace with a running horse as far as 30 miles. Among the best outdoor dogs, this intelligent, faithful, hardworking breed makes a superlative hiking partner.

The Vizsla

A pointer of Hungarian extraction, the Vizsla is an exceptionally trainable dog. She is a natural runner who excels at speed, strength, endurance, navigating obstacles, and jumping—she is even a strong swimmer. And because of her short coat, she adapts well to hikes in warm to temperate climates. She is a good-natured gal who welcomes a hike of any duration and makes an excellent watchdog, an admirable trait for camping.

The Bernese Mountain Dog

Hardy, affectionate, intelligent, a gentle giant: these are all attributes of the Bernese Mountain Dog, an animal who possesses a natural love of the outdoors and who craves an active lifestyle. A working farm dog from the Swiss Alps, he was made for drafting and droving (moving livestock); his German name, Berner Sennenhund, in fact, means “alpine pasture dog.” He can pull ten times his body weight, and because of this mighty work ethic has no difficulty at all packing in supplies for your backcountry adventure.

The Bernese Mountain Dog loves a large “playground” and thus takes a shine to hiking. Easily trained and naturally obedient, he’ll stay by your side unleashed. His agility allows him to navigate rocky terrain effortlessly, and his heavy coat makes him an excellent cold-weather hiker.

The Labrador Retriever

We can’t say enough good things about America’s most popular dog, your favorite and ours. The family choice for thousands and for good reason, the Labrador Retriever loves running and playing and being outdoors in general. She has been described as weatherproof, waterproof, and tenacious—excellent qualities all. The consummate athlete, she is also friendly to a fault and loves to explore. This makes her a delightful hiking partner for you to be sure, but also for others you encounter since they’ll recognize her as a non-threatening, tail-wagging presence on the trail.

Smart, trainable, strong, and hardworking, the Lab will agreeably pack in seven to ten pounds of gear in most climates, but does not like extremes. Bring a good stick or a Frisbee to satisfy her voracious appetite for play, and by all means keep her moving—Labs love to eat (she’s not picky, keep an eye on her) and are prone to obesity; give her loads of exercise to help maintain her girlish figure. She also loves to swim and enjoys hikes that extend her this opportunity. You really can’t go wrong hiking with a Lab.

The Portuguese Water Dog

This cheerful fellow is a champ: he was made for hard work, herding fish, retrieving lost tackle or broken nets, swimming as a courier between ships or from ship to shore, and in general shines in the surf—there is not much he hasn’t done. But in spite of his love for water, he’s at home on terra firma, too. So if your hiking adventures will take you to the beach or the lake, he’s top dog. Above all, be prepared for an active lifestyle: the Portuguese Water Dog is adventurous and thrives on daily mental stimulation and physical exercise. Like the Lab, he possesses a friendly demeanor which makes other hikers comfortable around him. But he also loves being within sight of you; this makes him an excellent companion on the trail, ill-suited to leave alone for long periods.

The Siberian Husky & The Alaskan Malamute

They are distinct breeds to be sure, but share some attributes, notably their propensities as cold-weather traction dogs. The Malamute is the bigger and stronger of the two (weighing between 75 and 85 pounds), comfortable over harsh terrain in cold climates: she can endure temperatures to an impressive 70° below zero. Her massive feet perform like snowshoes, her sharp claws grip the ice. Be advised she rarely barks and thus makes a poor watchdog; she may also exhibit a strong prey drive and a willingness to go after small animals.

Coming from the same genetic stock, the smaller Siberian Husky should not be overlooked as an excellent hiking partner. At 35 to 60 pounds she’s more compact than her Malamute cousin, but as happy in the snow and extreme cold. The Husky is sometimes seen as more social than the Malamute, and generally makes a good family pet. She needs loads of exercise, and is happy to cover long distances with you on the trail, especially in the cold. She has also earned a reputation as an escape artist with a strong prey drive. And like the Malamute, the Husky makes a poor watchdog: she may howl to identify with her “pack,” but is less willing to alert you to an intruder with her barking.

Honorable Mentions

The Australian Shepherd is a plucky, hike-worthy canine. Nicknamed the “ghost-eye dog” because of his distinctive, otherworldly eyes, the Aussie is a herding dog known for his excellent work ethic, impeccable social skills, and protective nature. He’s ideal for an active family and makes a good companion for anybody who enjoys exploring different types of terrain. Steep inclines and long excursions are child’s play for him, and his agility and obedience are unmatched; avoid temperature extremes with this otherwise hardy dog.

  1. The German Shorthaired Pointer is an affectionate fellow with above-average intelligence. He’s a bit like our beloved Lab, marginally more difficult to train. And like the Lab, he started purely as a hunting dog and evolved into a worthy family pet owing to his winsome personality. He has a strong prey drive and will possibly bolt at the sight of a small animal, but makes a good guard dog, helpful in the wilderness; you will tire on the trail well before he does.
  2. The Jack Russell Terrier possesses an audacious spirit in a compact package. The Jack Russell has boundless energy and does not tire easily; she’ll stick by your side on the trail and makes an excellent watch dog at your campsite, alerting you to potential intruders.
  3. The Rat Terrier possesses many of the Jack Russell’s admirable qualities, but barks less and is arguably more trainable; do not be surprised if she gifts you with a chipmunk or mouse, as she was made for pest control. If you love hiking but your lifestyle otherwise rules out a larger dog breed, the Jack Russell and the Rat Terrier each makes a surprisingly praiseworthy companion animal for outdoor adventuring.
  4. And don’t forget the mutt! There are plenty of adoptable mixed breed dogs who make excellent hiking buddies. Just make sure your beloved mutt meets the benchmarks above.

Hike well, hike safely, and hike often, and by all means hike with your dog: including him in your backcountry adventures will make both of you experts, sweetening the experience and galvanizing the already-tight bond between you.

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