Bark-packing: How to Go Hiking with your Dog in Illinois

June 27, 2022


Allowing your dog to hike outdoors is a wonderful opportunity for exercise, bonding, and mental stimulation. Time spent in nature is just as good for dogs as humans, and most dogs love it! Just for starters, dogs love sticks—do you know how many sticks there are in the woods? Plus all the fresh scents, sounds, sights they’ll get to enjoy. Not to mention, hiking with your dog is a great place to put their training behaviors to the test.

Like a true trail angel, we’ll leave some tips on whether hiking with your dog is right for you, how you can prepare ahead, some best practices, and finally, a list of recommended areas within Illinois! 

Is Hiking Right For My Dog?

Before buying equipment and pinning some choice spots on your map, you’ll need to know if hiking is right for your dog. Going for an outdoor walk isn’t quite CrossFit, but it can get your pup’s heart rate up! So before you do anything, get your dog checked up at the vet and get the green light from a professional. 

If this is your first time preparing to hike with your pet, make a vet visit before your trip. This will help cover some crucial bases. First off, it will ensure your pet’s health is up to that amount of exercise! This is especially true if your dog is smaller or brachycephalic (flat snout). 

Second, it ensures your pet is up to date on their vaccinations! Doing this beforehand keeps your pet safe from any unfamiliar bacteria and pathogens found in nature. Lastly, a vet visit is helpful to double-check that dog is microchipped. This is a good precaution if your pet is ever separated from you. Dog tags are great, but a permanent and electronically registered chip is better.

Preparing Your Dog to Hike

Once you get the go-ahead from your vet, you can start conditioning your dog for the hike. If your dog gets light physical activity, try taking them on increasingly longer walks before hiking and check how they handle the increased distance. If there are hills near you, try taking them regularly up these hills so they can acclimate to the uphill treks they’ll take outdoors. 

Depending on the breed, an average dog can walk up to 5–10 miles a day in fair weather. Hotter weather will reduce this distance as dogs may overheat if they’re out too long. Remember that dogs don’t sweat to keep cool: they pant! So they need extra water to retain water on hot days. Active dogs can go far above 10 miles a day, but if your pup hasn’t been outside the city or is a smaller breed, they’ll need some preparation.

Suppose your dog is smaller or has difficulty walking. In that case, you could consider giving them a lift with the help of a dog carrier backpack. You get a little extra activity, and they get to spend more time outdoors without getting worn out. Now you can recreate Yoda training Luke Skywalker like you (or at least some of us) always wanted.

Where Are Dogs Allowed to Hike?

While dogs are allowed in almost all National Parks in the United States, some areas in those parks will be off-limits to dogs. This is especially true for visiting wildlife refuges where the local ecosystem is preserved and protected. So before visiting with your pet, check which trails you’re allowed on, what times of the year they’re allowed, and any other relevant local policies. 

You can see the subsection on pets in public recreation lands for a complete list of federal regulations for bringing pets into National Parks and Forests.

What Equipment Will I Need?

Just like how you wouldn’t go out on a day hike without supplies, your dog shouldn’t go unprepared no matter their fitness level! Here are the essentials you’ll need:

  • Leash: Keeping your dog on a leash isn’t just proper trail etiquette: the National Park Service requires them. We’ll touch on the why’s and wherefore’s later in this article, but for now, know you’ll have to bring a leash no longer than six feet. Fixed-length leashes are strongly recommended (see our article here for more on leash types and other equipment), as extendable leashes are much more difficult to control.
  • Poop Bags or Spade: Another National Park Service requirement for trail-hiking with your dog. We’ll address another in more detail when we talk about best practices on the trail. Just know that you’re expected to pick up after your pet! Don’t have bags or want to use plastic? Be prepared to bury the waste underground 6-8 inches by National Park recommendations. 
  • Dog collar with ID tag: Microchipping is great, but still prep your pet with ready identification if they get away from you. Forest rangers and/or volunteers will also take comfort knowing your pet is registered and identifiable. 
  • Water Bowl (Collapsible, if possible) and Water: Remember how we mentioned dogs don’t sweat? Having water on hand is the number one thing your dog will need on a hike. Keeping them hydrated will keep them from overheating and keep them on the move.
  • Boots: These are great to have on hand if you hit harsh, rocky, or wet terrain. If you plan on winter hiking, boots are essential.
  • Jacket/Raincoat: You checked the weather report, right? If it’s looking wet or cold, pack a warm layer or raincoat. You’ll be thankful for it on the drive back home.
  • Food: Dogs get trail hunger too! Bring treats and food to keep them motivated, energized, and focused on you during your hike.
  • First aid: You never know what to expect in the wild woods! While there are kits available for purchase online, some first-aid essentials are
    •  A pet-focused first aid manual
    • gauze strips
    • non-stick bandages
    • adhesive wrap
    • hydrogen peroxide
    • antibiotic spray
    • cotton balls/swabs
    • bandage scissors
    • Tweezers.
  • Insect repellant: Mosquitos are open to any blood they can get, and your dog is just as viable as anything else. Mosquitos can also transmit disease, so if the mosquitos are feisty, you’ll want a pet-safe insect repellant, which leaves out chemicals that are harmful to dogs.
  • A Towel: For when you get back to your car and “leave no trace” in your dog’s fur and paws.

Trail Etiquette with Dogs

No matter the individual requests of a given park or forest, there’s a shortlist of best practices you can stick to when out on any hike with your dog. The national park service has a handy acronym for basic etiquette while hiking with dogs: BARK

BARK stands for…

  • Bag your pet’s waste

This is a part of the “leave no trace” principles, whereby campers and hikers are implored to help preserve wildlife through cleanup and proper sanitation. Like the human diet, most dogs’ diets don’t contribute to a wild ecosystem when they poop because the foods and nutrients they consume are not local to that ecosystem. 

Leaving their poo out does more ecological harm than good. Beyond that, who wants to step in a dog pie while out enjoying nature? So bring along some poop bags with you before hitting the trail!

  • Always leash your pet.

The national park service heavily implores dog owners not to let dogs walk off-leash for both their safety and the safety of local animals. Especially if your dog is a city-dweller, the outdoors is unfamiliar and unpredictable, and can even inspire hunting instincts in certain breeds. Not to mention that keeping your dog on a leash keeps them safe from unfriendly or unexpected terrain, plants, or people!

Some parks and forests will be laxer than others and allow off-leash walking, yet the National Park Service asks dog owners to keep pets on a leash no longer than six feet. If the area you’re visiting allows for off-leash walking and you wish to take advantage, at the very least, keep a leash on hand and keep your pet within sight.

  • Respect Wildlife

The previous two bullet points fold into this piece of advice. In essence, everyone visiting national forests or parks, whether two or four-legged, should make as little impact on the ecosystem as possible. You’re visitors, so be good guests! 

Help your pet be respectful by keeping them from chewing or dismantling plants, burying, digging, barking, or interacting with the local animals. In general, keep your pet on the trail while out hiking. 

  • Know where you can go

Check each trailhead if they’re pet-friendly and the local policies for bringing pets onto the trail. Get your pet suited up if they’re not allowed off-leash on a trail! Respect the policies of each park you visit.

National and State Forests and Parks in IL

Windy City Paws is a Fear Free Chicago dog walker and pet-sitter committed to providing helpful information to Chicago dog owners through its blog. Nathaniel Fishburn is a former WCP walker and current contributing writer for the Paws-First Blog. Thank you for your helpful info on how to get started hiking with your dog!