Backpacking in the Sierras with your favorite furry friend? Yes, it is possible. Thanks to the dog-friendly policies of our national forests, you can hit the trail with Fido for the weekend and experience similar terrain–and most likely fewer people–to what you would find in the neighboring national parks of California.
Lola and I recently spent a long weekend in Emigrant Wilderness, part of Stanislaus National Forest. This national forest sits just northwest of the Yosemite border, and features a similar assortment of pine forests, summit worthy granite peaks, and high alpine lakes teaming with trout. Lola loved it and I was so happy to be able to share a weekend in the backcountry with her instead of being confined to the campground on leash.
Here are a few highlights of all the gear we brought on the trip.
Thule Versant: This 70 liter backpack is the perfect size for bear can country. I was able to stuff in three days worth of gear and food for both me and Lola. The hipbelt features a waterproof, roll-top pocket to keep your electronics safe from rain or water crossings. The other side of the hipbelt comes with a zippered pocket for easy access snacks and lip balm. You can actually customize the left side of the hipbelt and swap out the electronics pocket for a water bottle pocket or zippered pocket accessory.
Over 4 inches of adjustment room in both the torso and hipbelt enable you to dial in the perfect fit. I find Thule backpacks provide a super comfortable carry under load and the company has really worked to cut the weight down–the Versant weighs less than 4 pounds when empty.
A large U-zip on the front of the pack lets you get at your gear without having to pull everything out from the top. The removable lid converts to a sling pack for summit hikes and sits wonderfully flat on top of your pack with a full zip opening so all your stuff doesn’t fall out when you need to access your snacks or sunscreen. A large, front shove-it pocket is great for quickly stowing an extra layer.
One bummer: Although in theory the angled water bottle pocket on the side of the pack is brilliant, my Hydro Flask bottle keep falling out. It might work better with a bigger water bottle such as a 1 liter Nalgene.
BioLite Stove: Fires are permitted in the Emigrant Wilderness below 9,000 feet so it is the perfect place for a BioLite stove. You will find twigs, pine cones, pine needles, and other bio-fuel everywhere. Plus you can charge your phone and BioLite PowerLight Mini while you cook dinner. I paired it with the GSI Bugaboo Backpacker for cooking and eating.
Food: Good To-Go Pad Thai, Treehouse hot chocolate, and Underwood Pinot Noir makes for a great meal.
HOKA Tor Ultra Hi WP hiking boots: Now you can get the classic HOKA cushioning in a hiking boot. After long days on the trail under heavy loads, your legs and feet will thank you for wearing these boots. An eVent membrane and gaiter-like upper keep water, dirt, and rocks out of your shoes, while the Vibram MegaGrip outsole with 5 mm lugs provides ample traction and durability. Note: These seem to run a little big so you might want to try them on before buying or order a 1/2 size smaller than normal.
NEMO Aria Sleeping Bag: I am a side sleeper so love the spoon-shaped bags from NEMO. The Aria uses hydrophobic down on the top for extra warmth and packability, with synthetic insulation on the bottom. The 20-degree F rating is plenty warm for even early season backpacking–I also used this bag in Iceland over the winter and appreciate the extra down in the foot box for the women’s models. A sleeve in the hood keeps your pillow in place or creates a pillow out of your down jacket, while a small zippered pocket near the top of the bag is the perfect place to store your phone or headlamp at night.
NEMO Fillo Elite Pillow: This ultralight backpacking pillow uses a super soft jersey cover and a small layer of insulation that feels great to sleep on.
Ruffwear Highlands Sleeping Bag and Pad: Lola lounged and napped on her sleeping bag around camp and it kept her warm in the below freezing weather at night. I also brought the Fernie Sweater for her in case she got cold at night–if you have a short haired dog, you might want to pack them a jacket.
Ruffwear Headwater Collar: Lola was in and out of the water all the time so this lightweight, waterproof collar is just the ticket to stink-free happiness.
Water Filter: This area is a big pack-horse route and old cattle grazing territory so you will definitely need to treat the water. I still use the Platypus GravityWorks filter for all my backpacking adventures.
Bear Cans: Bear cans aren’t mandatory in Emigrant Wilderness but as it is still bear country, you are required to at least hang your food. I find bear cans way easier to use and they protect your food from chipmunks, squirrels, ants, rain, etc.
No Service Zone: You will find pretty much no cell service (yay!) anywhere in the Emigrant Wilderness so plan accordingly. Take a GPS and at minimum a paper map and compass.
Permits: You need an overnight camping permit for Emigrant Wilderness. It is free and can be picked up at the Mi-Wuk or Summit Ranger Stations. Note that neither of these are open on weekends so you need to call ahead to tell them to place your permit in the box outside if you plan to show up Sat or Sun.
Tips For Backpacking With Your Dog
I find backpacking with your dog a bit like backpacking with kids. You aren’t going to crank out 20 miles a day, but you are going to have way more fun.
- Baby steps: Unless you own a Border Collie or some other breed of dog that loves to run and run, start small. I started Lola with car camping, then short overnight backpacking trips, and then finally a full weekend with bigger mileage and elevation gain. She did great on this trip and I am so proud of her–even if she still wants to get up and explore at night and hogs the sleeping bag.
- Snacks and water: Your dog needs snacks and water just like you. Be sure to stop often and let them drink. Emigrant has tons of streams for your dog to cool off in or to drink. I bought cheese sticks from the Kennedy Meadows store for Lola as there isn’t anything she won’t do for cheese. I also fed her a bit more than normal at each meal to ensure she kept up her energy.
- Dog boots: The trail to Kennedy Lake is nice and sandy with just a few rocky sections but some places, like Desolation Wilderness, are all granite. Your dog’s paws will get cut up on that terrain if you don’t put some boots on her.
- Rest: Lola and I stopped and made a hot lunch each day just to give her a chance to rest a bit.
- Medication: Don’t forget your dog’s medication if necessary.
- First Aid: Doggie first aid kit or things you need to fix her paws, remove ticks, etc.
- Leave No Trace: Bury your dog’s waste just as you would yours. Enough said.