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How to Pack a Dog Backpack: What Do You Put Inside?

Does your dog have a dog backpack? My dog Zoey’s pack is one of the most useful items I’ve ever purchased, but it didn’t start out that way. I had no idea what to do with her pack when I first purchased it.

How do you pack a dog backpack? Your dog can carry 10-25% of their total body weight in their pack. Pack your dogs food, water, bowls, first-aid kit, backpacking bed, booties, and 1-2 toys. Let your dog carry everything they need on the trail.

Just remember that not every dog will be able to carry the same amount of gear. There are multiple factors that affect what your dog can carry in their pack.

How Do You Pack a Dog Backpack?

You can’t just head out on the trail with your dog and hope for the best. Dogs require special care on backpacking and camping trips. Luckily, the extra gear shouldn’t add much weight to your pack.

With the right pack, your dog should be able to carry most of his own gear. Dog packs vary wildly in price from budget packs that cost $20 to luxury packs around $150. Just keep in mind that some packs are better than others.

If you’re just getting into backpacking you should probably buy the Ruffwear Approach Pack. It’s moderately priced, durable/lightweight, and big enough for multi-day backpacking trips.

I eventually switched to the Ruffwear Palisades Pack, but it’s expensive. The removable saddle bags are way more convenient when loading/unloading gear.

So how do you pack your dog’s pack? Start off by following these simple steps.

  1. Figure out how much weight your dog can carry.
  2. Purchase a pack that fits and can hold enough gear.
  3. Choose the items to go in the pack.
  4. Slowly add gear as your dogs strength improves.

Figure out How Much Weight Your Dog Can Carry

Take a long hard look at your dog before hitting the trail. Is your dog physically active? How old is he? What breed and size is the dog? All of these factors will affect the amount of gear they can carry.

As a general rule, dogs should be able to carry 15%-25% of their body weight in a pack. Check out my post “How much weight can my dog carry in a pack?” for more info.

Dog WeightPack Weight
(25% of Body Weight)
Senior Dogs and Puppies
(10-15% of Body Weight)
20 lbs5 lbs2-3 lbs
30 lbs7.5 lbs3-4.5 lbs
40 lbs10 lbs4-6 lbs
50 lbs12.5 lbs5-7.5 lbs
60 lbs15 lbs6-9 lbs
70 lbs17.5 lbs7-10.5 lbs
80 lbs20 lbs8-12 lbs
90 lbs22.5 lbs9-13.5 lbs
100 lbs25 lbs10-15 lbs

Just remember that you can’t just load up a pack and hit the trail. It will take months of training to build up the required muscle strength. Start off hiking with an empty pack and slowly add weight.

Purchase a pack that fits and can hold enough gear.

It’s hard to say what size pack you need to get for your dog. There’s no size chart that works with every dog pack. Measure around your dogs rib cage with a string or fabric tape measure. Refer to the measurement guide and go with the larger pack if your dogs between 2 sizes.

I would recommend going with the largest pack your dog can safely carry. It’s always nice to have extra room for treats, toys and food.

The Ruffwear Palisades Pack and Approach Packs are big enough to carry my dogs water, food, bowl, treats, toys, first-aid kit and travel bed (my favorite). For day hikes you can go with a smaller/cheaper daypack like the Outward Hound Daypack.

Make sure that whatever pack you choose has lots of padding and multiple adjustment points. You don’t want the pack to slide around your dogs back causing chafing issues.

Keep in mind that small dogs won’t be able to carry much weight. You don’t want 90% of the total load to be pack weight.

What Do You Put in a Dog Backpack?

Dog packs are lightweight and usually have a capacity between 2 and 10 liters. Bigger dogs will be able to carry a larger pack that holds more gear.

Refer to the chart above to figure out how much weight your dog can carry. Don’t just guess on how much your dog’s pack weighs. Dogs get sore from hiking! Adding too much weight will increase your dogs risk of injury.

So, what do you pack in a dogs backpack? Pack everything that your dog could possibly need on the trail without adding too much weight. They you can usually carry most of their own gear since they don’t need much.

Make Sure You Weigh The Pack!

I can’t stress this enough. Load up and weigh your dogs pack before hitting the trail! Active dogs can only carry 25% of their total body weight. Seniors and puppies shouldn’t carry more than 10-15%.

Remember that extra fat doesn’t mean your dog can carry more weight. You will actually have to reduce your dogs pack weight to further reduce the load on their joints.

Figure out the healthy weight for your dog’s breed/gender and add 15%-25% to that weight. That should be the maximum combined weight of your dog and pack.

Start off light and slowly add weight over a few months. Dogs will quickly adjust to hiking and carrying a pack. Go slow and you will eventually get there.

Spread Out The Pack Weight

Think about your dogs center of gravity. Most of your dogs strength/weight is center mass near the ribcage. That’s where you want to load most of your dogs gear.

Spread the pack weight evenly around both sides of the pack. Balance out water bottles and pack food in small bags so it can be spread evenly. Keep heavy items close to the dogs body.

Your goal is to try to reduce pack weight and minimize shifting. Distribute the weight evenly and pack heavy items near your dogs body in the middle of the pack. Keep the center of gravity low around the bottom/middle of your dogs rib cage.

Don’t Pack Important Items In Your Dogs Pack

Never pack important items in your dogs pack! Even well-behaved dogs can run off and get lost in the woods. You should be carrying all important items inside your pack.

This probably seems obvious, but we’re all susceptible to mindless mistakes. I used to store my water filter in my dogs pack out of convenience. They always get water first so it seemed to make sense, but it was a terrible idea.

After 3 days backpacking my dog Duke ran off after a deer with my water filter in his pack. Thankfully, he came running back a few minutes later, but that could have been very bad. Don’t make a stupid mistake that could jeopardize your safety.

Training Your Dog To Use His Pack

You can’t expect a dog to just wake up one day and carry 25 additional pounds on their back. It will take a few months for your dog to get used to the pack.

Once they get over the mental hurdle of wearing a pack you need to train them physically. Start off by putting light loads in the pack and add weight slowly over time.

I recommend letting your dog wear their pack around the house to get used to it. After a few days add half of a water bottle to each side of the pack. Go on short hikes and slowly add half of a water bottle per week for small dogs and 1 water bottle for large dogs.

Hit the trail for short hikes and after 5-6 weeks your dog should be able to carry a full pack. Extend your trips to dayhikes/weekend trips once you’re both comfortable.