How to Camp with Your Dog and Safely Avoid COVID-19
Sara Sheehy spent 18 months traveling the United States in a camper with her dog, Lemhi. Here’s what she, and other outdoor experts, want to teach you about camping with your furry friends.
Sarah Sheehy, Heidi Wachter, Kate Morgan, Kathryn Welch
Sara checking emails while Lehmi gets comfy in their self-renovated camper ⛺️
The sun sets over the nearby mountains as you light your campfire and settle in for an evening under the stars. Your dog lays next to your camp chair, curled up with their nose tucked under their tail. You reach down, scratch behind their ears, and give a sigh of satisfaction.
Sound idyllic? I think so, too.
Camping with my dog is one of life’s pleasures that makes my heart squeeze, and I do it every chance that I get. My dog, a hound and cattle dog mix that I adopted as a puppy, has camped with me in 42 states and road tripped for tens of thousands of miles. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about how to prepare for and enjoy the experience of camping with a four-legged companion.
Ready to start planning your trip? Let’s dig in.
Should you take your dog camping? 4 things to consider
Let’s start at the basics. Before you book your campsite and start daydreaming about all those Instagrammable camping photos, take a few moments to consider whether camping is the right activity for your dog.
How will you know? Begin by asking yourself these questions:
Does your dog like the outdoors? My dog loves nothing more than running through the forest and sleeping on the hard ground, but not every dog thinks that outdoor pursuits are the bee’s knees. If your dog prefers couch snuggles to outdoor romps or gets anxious when away from home, camping may not be an enjoyable experience for them.
Is your dog aggressive or barky? Camping will put your dog into close contact with people and other dogs. If they have aggressive tendencies, especially on a leash, a camping trip will be stressful for both you and them. Dogs that constantly bark will be a nuisance to your camp neighbors, and may get you in trouble with the campground managers.
Does your dog have health issues? If your dog has serious health issues or a weakened immune system, consult with your vet before camping. Campgrounds see new dogs every night, and certain diseases, such as canine distemper, canine parvovirus, and kennel cough, are spread through dog urine and saliva.
Could breed or age-related problems arise? “I have to plan carefully to bring my dogs to the campground,” says Kate Morgan, a writer who often travels in her camper van or tent camps with her English bulldog, Chunk, and Rottweiler, Olive. “Chunk is both geriatric – he’s 10 years old – and a breed that’s notorious for things like breathing problems and trouble dealing with heat. Olive’s breed means she’s sometimes discriminated against by campground policies, or other campers get nervous around her despite her sweet disposition. That’s just the beginning of a whole list of things I have to consider.”
Will your dog have the chance to enjoy the trip? Are you planning for dog-friendly activities, or will your pup be left alone while you’re off having fun? If your dog can’t enjoy the trip, too, consider leaving them at home with a trusted boarder or pet sitter.
Finding a dog-friendly campsite
If you and your pup are ready for an outdoor adventure, then it’s time to book that perfect campsite.
Reserve America is the go-to spot to find and reserve camp spots in local and state parks across the United States. Begin by searching the area you’d like to camp and then click on individual campgrounds to see the rules and regulations for camping with your pet(s). Once you’ve uncovered the right spot for you, you can reserve your campsite directly through Reserve America.
If you’re looking to book a campsite in a National Park or National Forest, Recreation.gov is the website for you. Recreation.gov has over 103,000 reservable sites on federal lands across the country. Each listing includes details on if you can camp with your pet, how far in advance you can make reservations, and which amenities are offered at each campground.
For a comprehensive look at public and private campgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Baja California, check out Campendium. Campendium’s extensive database of user-submitted reviews will help you research campgrounds, National Forest and Bureau of Land Management dispersed camping areas, overnight parking options, and RV dump stations. Campendium also shows user-reported cell coverage, which is especially handy if you need to log into work while you’re away.
Heidi's dog Cash enjoying the shoreline 🌅
How to find a secluded camping spot during Coronavirus
If a public or private campground isn’t your cup of tea, why not look into camping on private land? The idea of renting out campsites on private property is growing in popularity, and many of these spots offer a quiet night’s sleep far from the crowds.
HipCamp is sometimes called the “Airbnb of camping,” as it connects campers to private landowners who have room for a pitched tent or parked RV. You can search by location and type of camping (tent camping, RV camping, and “glamping” experiences), and then further refine your search by filtering the listings by “Pets Allowed.” Be sure to read any listed pet rules, and if in doubt, contact the landowner before making your reservation.
Tentrr is similar to HipCamp in that the campsites are on private property, but instead of bringing your own gear, a glamping camping setup is available on-site! This is an excellent option for those who want to relax in nature without having to pitch their own tent. Every Tentrr location welcomes well-behaved pets and their owners.
Did you know that Airbnb lists campsites, too? Though more limited in number, campsites can be found by filtering for “Unique Stays,” then “Campsite” or “Camper/RV.” Be sure to click the “Pets allowed” filter to ensure that your pup is welcome before you book.
Not in the US? Not a problem. Campspace and HomeCamper both offer camping experiences on private land across the globe. Be sure to double-check that the property is listed as “Pet Friendly” before arriving with your dog in tow.
Preparing for your trip: 5 must-dos
Your campsite is booked, and your dates are locked in. What’s next? Before you begin gathering and packing your gear, take the time to prepare for your trip using the following checklist:
Do your research
Check out a campground map, and maybe get a birds-eye-view. “Before I arrive at any campground with my dogs,” says Morgan, “I use the Google Maps satellite view to make sure I know where our site is in relation to other campers and any designated dog parks or potty areas, and that it’s a site where the dogs will be able to find a shady place to relax.”
Microchip your dog, and update your contact information.
If your dog isn’t already microchipped, now is a good time to get that done. Mishaps happen! Microchipping helps to ensure that a lost pup can be traced back to its owner. If your dog is already microchipped, make sure that your contact information is up-to-date. At the very least, make sure Fido’s collar id tag is up to date.
Make sure your dog is vaccinated and get a health certificate.
Check with your vet to verify that your dog’s vaccinations are current and ask for a printout of their health certificate. Some campgrounds ask for proof that your pup is fully vaccinated, so bring the health certificate with you to campground check-in.
Apply your dog’s flea and tick preventative medications.
Do this before you leave. If you’re traveling far from home, ask your vet if any other preventative medications are recommended for the area you’re going to.
Locate the nearest vet
Write down the name and contact information of the nearest veterinarian’s office to your campground. Keep that information on you at all times in case of an emergency. “I always scope out nearby emergency vets in advance and write down their phone numbers and addresses,” Morgan says. “If something goes really wrong, I don’t want to waste time frantically searching the internet.”
Tent camping with dogs 101
Tent camping will put you in close contact with the elements, so it requires a little extra planning for your pup. You can absolutely have an enjoyable and memorable experience tent camping if you think through a few key details:
Plan to co-sleep. Having your dog sleep outside unattended is never a good idea, especially when there are unknown animals and humans around. Plan to have your dog sleep “inside,” which means your tent needs to be big enough to fit the two of you and other family members. Give your pup their own sleeping pad and space; otherwise, you might find them trying to share with you.
Keep dog food secure. Not only does your dog love their dog food, but wild animals do, too! Keep extra critters out of your camp by ensuring that any kibble and treats are in a secure bin, and if possible, stored inside your vehicle. Unless you’re camping in a place known to have bears. At that point, you’ll want to store all food in bins provided onsite, in your car, or purchase bear-proof canisters. When doing the latter, place the container at least 100 feet away from your campsite. The last thing you and your dog want is a food-motivated bear in your campsite!
Be careful with dogs with a high prey drive. If your dog has a high prey drive, be extra cautious with them in an open campsite. Make sure they are safely secured, even when you are nearby. If you see wildlife, consider putting your pup in the car until the wildlife moves on.
Never leave your dog unattended in camp. Apart from being against most campground rules, it’s neither safe nor wise to leave your dog unattended in your campsite. If you go, the dog goes, too!
Sara Sheehy's dog Lemhi surveys a HipCamp property in Yucca, Arizona
RV camping with dogs 101
If you own or are renting an RV, there are a few special considerations that you’ll want to take into account when planning your camping trip. They include:
How will your dog travel? Depending on your RV setup, your dog may have options for where they hang out while you’re moving from point A to point B. Think about what is the safest and most comfortable for them. You won’t want a dog pinballing around the motorhome while driving, so they may need to be restrained if they are unpredictable. Remember that dogs should never, ever, travel in a tow-behind trailer.
Where will your dog sleep? Dogs benefit from having their own space in a house, and the same is true inside your RV. Make a spot that is all their own, where they will find their bed, favorite toys, and a water bowl. This will become their go-to place when they want to relax.
Keep them comfortable when you’re not there. If you plan to leave your dog in your RV for any amount of time, make a plan for their comfort and safety. Leave dogs only for short periods, and never leave your dog unattended on a warm or hot day without reliable air conditioning or temperature control.
4 important ways to protect yourself from COVID-19
Many people are choosing to enjoy road trips and camping this year instead of long-distance air travel. Camping during the pandemic is possible but requires a bit more flexibility and a heightened awareness of how to camp responsibly and safely. Here are a few tips for camping during COVID:
Check out less popular spots. Outdoor tourism is seeing record numbers this year. Avoid the crowds by getting off the beaten path and enjoying lesser-known destinations like national monuments, state parks, and county parks.
Keep your distance. The Center for Disease Control recommends keeping at least 6 feet away from people not in your household, even when you’re outside. Wear your mask, wash your hands, and try to travel close to home to avoid having to stop for gas, food, and bathroom breaks.
Be flexible. Keep your plans adaptable. You may have had your heart set on that popular hiking trail with your pup, but the parking lot is full when you arrive. Make a mental note to return when it’s less busy, and find a new spot to explore.
Leave no trace. With so many people engaging in outdoor recreation this year, we all must do so responsibly. Clean up after yourself. Stay on established trails, properly dispose of all waste (including human and pet waste), light campfires only in designated fire rings, and make sure that campfires are completely out before leaving your campsite.
How to pack for you and your furry friend
The good news about packing for your dog is that their gear doesn’t take up a lot of space. Still, you want their things to be easy to find and contained. Pack dog supplies efficiently by purchasing a small plastic bin and storing all dog-related gear inside. Keep the bin somewhere that’s easy to access so that it’s a breeze to grab a leash, a bowl, or a poop bag whenever you need them.
Essential camping gear checklist 🏕
Ready to start packing? Don’t miss a single item on this essential dog gear checklist:
Dog food and treats in a durable bag or bin: Pack enough dog food and treats for the length of your camping trip plus at least two extra meals. Use the extra food to provide additional calories on days when your dog is particularly active, and as a buffer if your trip gets delayed. Don’t forget the treats!
Pet medications: If your pet takes any regular medicines or supplements, pack enough for the length of your trip plus two extra days for emergencies. If you’re traveling across an international border, store the medicine in its original container and bring a copy of the prescription from your veterinarian.
Dog bowls: Pack one for food and one for water. Opt for metal or collapsible plastic bowls over ceramic bowls, which break easily. Something simple like the Cozy Courier travel bowl will work just fine.
Water bottle: Active dogs need extra water, so pack a spare bottle if you plan on hiking, running, or biking with your pup. Here’s a list of betterpet’s favorite bottles.
Leash, LED collar, and identification tags: Six-foot leashes are often required at campgrounds, so if you typically use a retractable dog leash, be sure to grab a six-footer, too. LED collars are a no-brainer. (Check out the Illumiseen — it’s USB rechargeable.)
Poop bags and a Dicky bag: Don’t forget about your dog’s waste. Bring an adequate supply of poop bags for the length of your trip and a Dicky bag for storing full bags until you find a trash can. (Frisco poop bags are a great option because they’re eco friendly.)
Dog bed: If your dog isn’t comfortable, you’ll hear about it! You can bring your dog’s bed from home if your tent or RV has the room for it or invest in a camping-specific dog pad. The Coolaroo is a great option if the weather’s extra hot, but something simple like the Cheerhunting waterproof bed is a great all-around pick.
Pet first aid kit with a tick key: Accidents happen, so come prepared with a dog first aid kit that includes a tick key and antiseptic solution. This kit from Kurgo is great. Also, check out the Tick Twister Tick Remover Set if your first-aid kit doesn’t have one. (See Handling Emergency Situations below for more information.)
Lemhi helps to set up camp in Yurt at Galena Lodge, Sun Valley, Idaho
Special gear for camping in cold conditions
If you’re going to be camping in colder climates or seasons, keep your dog comfortable with these extra additions to the essential gear checklist:
Dog coat. A dog coat is especially important for shorthaired and single-coated dogs, but are worth considering for most breeds. My dog loves to wear his Lands’ End puffer coat on chilly mornings and has even worn it through the night on unusually cold camping trips. The PETCEE waterproof jacket and Gooby sports vest are also great options.
Dog booties or paw wax. Icy, snowy, or cold ground can be rough on the dog’s paws and lead to injury. Slip-on a pair of dog booties for cold weather exploration, or try a dog paw balm like Pawtection.
Insulated dog sleeping bag. Most modern dogs are not acclimatized to sleeping on frozen ground. Help them retain their body heat by packing an insulated dog sleeping bag. (The DOGHELIOS Trail Barker is as legit as they come for temps below freezing.) An insulated dog bed and blanket can work fine too, but sleeping bags are more versatile.
If you have a bit of extra space in your camping bins, consider bringing a zip line tether setup for your campsite, and a hands-free running leash for exploring. A zip line tether, like the Snagle Paw Tie Out Runner, gives your pup a bit more room to roam while confining them safely within your campsite’s perimeter. A hands-free running leash makes hiking, dog walks, and yes, even running, a more pleasurable experience for you and your pup. (The Sparklypets leash has the best reviews on Amazon by far.)
Your dog’s breed and special needs can also change your packing list. Brachycephalic breeds (or dogs with short snouts, like bulldogs, pugs, and boxers) are often more sensitive to heat and humidity. Consider a cooling mat (we’ve heard great things about this one) to help them regulate their temperature.
Basic campground rules and regulations
Every campground has different rules and regulations for camping with your pet, and it pays to research them ahead of time. Though I’ve listed the most common regulations below, when in doubt, be sure to call ahead.
Camping with your dog in a national park
National parks in the United States are not the most welcoming territory for dogs and their owners, but if a must-see park is on your camping route, you can make it work with a bit of planning.
Most national parks welcome dogs in what they call their “developed areas,” including campgrounds, parking lots, sidewalks, and bike paths. Dogs are typically not allowed on backpacking trails or in wilderness areas, so if you plan to get active in the park, it’s best to leave your pet at home with a trusted caregiver.
Be sure to pack a leash because, in the areas where dogs are allowed in national parks, they must be kept on a six-foot leash at all times, including at your campsite.
Camping with your dog in state and local parks
State and local park campgrounds are great options for camping with your dog. The vast majority welcome dogs in their campsites, and many also allow dogs on their trails, beachfront, and elsewhere in the park.
Most state and local parks will ask that you keep your dog on a leash and not leave your dog unattended at the campsite. Rules vary by state and locale, but a quick internet search should get you all the information you need about having a great time in the park with your pup.
Camping with your dog in National Forests and on Bureau of Land Management land
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manage vast swaths of public land across the United States, much of it maintained for the quiet enjoyment of recreationalists. While you’ll find both National Forest and BLM developed campsites available for camping, there is also plentiful “dispersed camping”—camping areas without amenities outside of a campground—on these public lands, especially in the American West.
You’ll find few rules in dispersed camping areas for your dog, except to use your best judgment. If your dog is great with voice commands and always sticks close, you might leave them off-leash at camp. If your dog chases game or doesn’t play well with others, you’d be wise to keep them leashed and in sight.
Camping on dispersed land comes with the extra responsibility of camping carefully and responsibly, but the rewards can be just as great. Peace, quiet, and immersion in nature? Yes, please.
Camping with your dog in a private campground
Private campgrounds are run as independent businesses and will have their own rules and regulations for welcoming pets. Though many private campgrounds do allow dogs, you need to pay extra-close attention to their restrictions of size, breed, and the number of pets allowed.
A growing number of private campgrounds in the United States do not allow so-called “bully breed” dogs, including pit bulls, boxers, bulldogs, and rottweilers. If you have one of these breeds, be sure to call ahead before making your reservation. Some campgrounds also have size restrictions and/or a limit to the number of pets you can bring. Do your research so that there aren’t any surprises when you arrive for a night under the stars.
Heidi's dogs Daisy and Ruaridh
Proper dog etiquette: The unwritten rules
No matter where you choose to camp, there are a few unwritten rules that every responsible owner should take to heart. These will help keep your dog safe and respect the enjoyment of fellow campers and their pets.
Pick up your dog’s poop. Pack a roll of poop bags and keep a few in your pants or jacket pocket. Be sure to pick up your pup’s poop and dispose of it properly in a waste bin.
Do proper dog introductions. Do not assume that everyone wants to meet your dog or wants their dog to meet your dog. Allowing your dog to run up to strangers or wander into your neighbor’s campsite is not only rude, but it can also end in dog aggressions or human disputes. Ask before making any dog to dog or human to dog introductions.
Don’t let your dog chase wildlife. One pleasure of camping for many people is enjoying deer or elk grazing in a meadow and listening to birds chirping. But wild animals aren’t going to come around an aggressive or barking pet. Never let your dog get into an encounter with a wild animal. Your dog is likely to lose.
Keep your dog quiet. Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than listening to the incessant barking of a neighbor’s dog. Don’t be that neighbor. If you know that barking is an issue, work on bark training before your trip. If your dog barks due to anxiety, check out calming supplements to see if they help.
4 common emergencies and how to handle them
Adventurous dogs have a way of finding trouble, but don’t let this keep you from planning that camping trip or taking that hike. Here are a few of the common issues you may run into while camping or hiking, and how to handle them:
Insect stings and bites. These injuries are as common in dogs as they are in people. They will be uncomfortable, itchy, and may produce red patches or hives. If your dog is stung by an insect, check the area for a stinger and remove it carefully with tweezers from your first aid kit if it’s present. If there is itching or swelling, Benadryl can help. Call your vet (or your vet’s emergency line if after hours) for the proper dosage for your pup. Also, do a tick check each night, and remove any ticks with a tick key.
Cuts and scrapes. These can occur on your dog’s body or paws when hiking or exploring near camp. Treat these abrasions by cleaning out the wound, drying it, and applying a bandage. Gauze pads and vet tape work wonders to cover cuts on your pup, just be sure to not tie them on so tightly that it restricts blood circulation.
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Dogs can suffer from these just like humans. Signs of heat exhaustion include excessive panting and saliva creation, and a reluctance to continue hiking. Keep an eye out for these signs so that you don’t progress to the more life-threatening heatstroke, whose symptoms include vomiting, muscle tremors, seizures, and loss of consciousness.
(Treat heat exhaustion by moving your dog to the shade and slowly cooling them down by applying compresses of water to their neck and stomach. When they can move comfortably, make your way back to the trail-head at a slow pace)
Snake bites. They aren’t that common, but they can happen. Signs of a snake bite include swelling around the puncture wound, particularly on the neck, face, or legs. A snake bite, even a non-venomous one, necessitates an immediate vet visit, so get back to the trailhead as quickly and safely as possible. If the dog is small, carry them. Don’t go Hollywood on a snake bite either—no tourniquets, sucking the venom out, or enlarging the wound. Just make your way as calmly as possible back to your car, and to the nearest veterinarian’s office.
Create an emergency exit plan. Anytime you’re hiking with your dog, especially if you’re planning on going more than a mile or two, you need to have an emergency exit plan. Your dog could injure a leg or paw, have a bad wildlife encounter, or, depending on their age, quickly become too exhausted to hike out. If they’re a larger breed, that presents a serious problem. An emergency harness can help you carry them back to the trailhead.
5 final tips for camping with your dog
Remember that your dog can go to a surprising number of places — First-time campers: Don’t assume that dogs aren’t allowed—call and check! Dogs are often welcome on beaches, on outdoor dining patios, on the trails, and in parks. BringFido is an excellent resource for finding dog-friendly activities wherever you are.
Rainy days are the best — A rainy day usually makes campers groan, but for your dog, it’s a golden ticket to uncrowded trails, empty beaches, and plenty of room to roam. Grab a raincoat, and make the most of it!
Pack your pup’s favorites — Even the most adventurous dogs love seeing and smelling familiar things. Pick one or two toys that your pup prefers and bring them along, so they have something to play with when times get stressful or boring. Also, pack your dog’s favorite treats for when they need a bit of extra motivation.
Have a swimmer? Embrace it! — If your dog loves to swim, pick a campsite with a dog-friendly waterfront nearby. Be sure to pack a towel to dry them off and, if you’re going boating, a doggie life vest. My dog is particularly susceptible to ear infections, so I bring ear cleaner and a small towel to clean and dry their ears after they swim.
Have fun! — Camping with a canine companion is one of life’s pleasures and a way to make memories that’ll last a lifetime. So book a campsite, try something new, and stay safe! We’ll see you out there.