Just you and your dog, exploring the mountains or forests together.
You take in the sights, he takes in all the musky scents. You both share in the sounds, the whole experience of being out there, together. What could be more refreshing for a woman and her best friend?
Hiking with your dog is a great way to get much-needed exercise and stress relief, all while bonding with your canine pal. It’s one of my absolute favorite pastimes with my own dog, Barley.
But getting the right gear in order is also necessary. Before you drift off into a daydream about the mountains of Washington or the forests of Maine, let’s talk about the best dog hiking harnesses out there.
The criteria for a fantastic hiking harness is a bit different than the criteria for the best training harness or no-pull harness. While many harnesses can go from “front country” to “back country” with ease, there are some extra considerations for hiking harnesses.
When I’m looking at hiking harnesses for dogs, I always keep in mind:
Freedom of movement. While this really matters for all harnesses, it’s extra important that a hiking harness lets your dog fully extend his stride. Many no-pull harnesses, for example, really restrict your dog’s shoulder movement. This is not a good idea for hiking!
Comfort. Avoid and harnesses that rub in your dog’s armpits or other sensitive areas. Again, this should be a given for all harnesses – but it’s really key to a good hiking harness in particular.
Bright colors. I’m not just a lover of all things bright (I am). Bright colors are a good idea for hiking harnesses in case the unthinkable happens and you lose your dog. Even though I’ve never totally lost Barley while hiking, I’ve often been grateful for his bright red harness when I’m straining to pick his silhouette out among dark rocks.
Sarah Stremming, a professional trainer and owner of The Cognitive Canine, lost her dog Felix while hiking around Christmas of 2017. They managed to locate Felix (on a cliff, using a drone) thanks to his bright orange hiking harness. Her dog survived relatively unscathed, all thanks to her dog’s bright, eye-catching harness. Listen to the episode Finding Felix to hear the whole riveting story.
Snug fit. A baggy harness, while seeming comfortable, can easily get snagged on brambles while hiking. Find a harness that is snug for your dog, or you might end up pulling all sorts of sticks out of his harness at the end of a hike! Worse, a loose harness can get caught on bigger logs and trap your dog.
Appropriate for your dog’s build. The “perfect” dog hiking harness arguably doesn’t exist, since what is comfortable and snug for a deep-chested and slender Whippet almost certainly won’t be comfortable and snug for a stocky American Bulldog. Pick a harness that fits your dog.
Weight-bearing handles. Not everyone needs these, but a weight-bearing handle on the back of your dog’s harness is really helpful for rock-scrambling in Colorado or crossing streams in Tennessee. You probably shouldn’t carry your dog by a handle, but it’s helpful for giving your dog a boost across obstacles!
We’re about to get into the best dog hiking harnesses, but let’s cover all of our bases first. Aside from the criteria for a good hiking harness, there are some other things to keep in mind when prepping for your dog’s trailhead debut.
Personally, I generally prefer to hike Barley in areas where it’s legal and safe to have him off-leash. This isn’t for everyone (or everyone’s dog). Barley and I have spent a long time working on his off-leash obedience and his recall (ability to come when called) around elk, bears, snakes, mountain bikes, and other trailside hazards.
Even when he’s off-leash, I have him hike in a brightly colored harness and have his leash handy – he never hikes “naked!”
There are plenty of reasons not to hike with your dog off-leash: dogs with high prey drive and independent dogs can be extra difficult to train to be obedient off-leash. Many areas don’t allow off-leash dogs in order to keep wildlife and other visitors safe. Many reactive or fearful dogs hate being approached by other dogs, and your off-leash dog is a problem for them.
Having your dog off-leash is always risky. No matter how much training you do, your dog could still blow you off and jump into a river to go swimming, chase a bear down the path, or bolt across the path of an unexpected ATV.
If you’re willing to accept the risks of off-leash hiking (and put in the training legwork to make it safe), there are lots of benefits. Off-leash time is hugely relaxing for dogs since most modern dogs almost never get to choose where to go and what to sniff.
Many stress- and anxiety-related behaviors dramatically decrease with regular free time in nature. The exercise and mental decompression are far better than on-leash walks or jogs in the city. Many dogs seem to be more tired (and relaxed) after hiking than after endless urban exercise.
That said, you can get most of the benefits of off-leash hiking if you hike with your dog on a 30- or 50-foot long line. This is the safest option until your dog’s training is rock solid.
Start hiking with your dog on a long line until you’d bet $100 that your dog will come running back to you around wildlife and other dogs. Your dog’s ability to listen in a quiet backyard or tennis court is not helpful if you run into a bear on the trail!
A long line or bungee waist leash is generally the most comfortable way to comply with leash laws and keep your dog safe until his training is up to par.
No matter how good your dog’s recall is, you’ll still want to utilize every tool at your disposal to keep your dog safe when hiking.
As I noted earlier, brightly-colored harnesses are a must and can help you keep track of your pooch in the thicket.
I also recommend always hiking with a light (for you) and a bell (for your dog). My secret is purchasing a few cat collar bells and putting them onto a micro-sized carabiner, which is then attached to Barley’s harness when he goes off-leash. The waterproof light is attached to the carabiner as well.
The bell allows you to hear your dog as he crashes around the underbrush, and may act as a bonus “bear bell” when you’re in bear country. The final benefit to the bells is that it helps keep your dog from surprising other hikers, as they can hear your pooch coming if you overtake them on the trail.
The waterproof light comes into play anytime that it’s a bit dim outside – don’t wait until it’s pitch black outside to turn it on. The main point of the light is to allow me to keep an eye on Barley if he’s ahead of me on the trail. Even with the light, don’t trust a collar light to keep your dog safe around roads – I always make sure to put Barley on a leash if we’re within a quarter mile or so of the road.
I personally don’t use a GPS collar with Barley, because we’re often out of cell service or outside of Bluetooth range (which many of the GPS collar options rely on).
Even the Garmin Astro, the best backcountry satellite option out there (it works without cell service or Bluetooth connection), doesn’t work outside of the U.S.
However, if you’re in an area that will work with one of the three options above (cell service, Bluetooth, or satellite) and hike a lot, consider getting one of these gadgets. After Sarah Stremming’s ordeal with Felix, she purchased the Garmin Astros for her dogs. When I return to the U.S., that’s the collar I will purchase for Barley.
GPS collars like the Garmin Astro help you locate your dog if the unthinkable happens and you lose your dog on a hike. While hopefully you never need it, you’ll sure be happy you opted for one in a worst case scenario situation.
It’s quite common in the U.S. to work with hunting dogs and other dogs that are often off-leash using e-collars (also known as shock collars, electronic collars, stimulation collars, and several other names).
That’s not the case everywhere in the world — in fact, Britain just outlawed e-collars, following the lead of Denmark, Norway, Scotland, Wales, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Quebec, and parts of Australia.
I fully admit that, properly trained, e-collars can be a great tool for communicating with dogs in specific instances. That said, I have never recommended an e-collar to a client. In the hands of most non-professional trainers, e-collars are just too challenging to use well.
The shocks, vibrations, citronella sprays, or other corrections that a shock collar delivers are quite difficult to use to teach your dog to come when called without causing other side effects. Many dogs trained using shock collars display significant behavioral fallout even if the training is effective. The dogs were noted to be more stressed in a 2014 study, as measured by body language such as calming signals and their salivary and urinary cortisol levels (cortisol is a hormone that indicates stress). The same study found that dogs trained with an e-collar were no more responsive than dogs trained using other methods, such as reward-based boundary training.
In short, I strongly recommend against the use of e-collars for improving off-leash reliability for your dog. The collars are stressful for your dog and are no more effective than other training methods. Teach your dog to listen to you by “paying him” with food instead!
On the note of gear – you probably don’t need, I generally don’t think most dogs need to wear booties while hiking. Most dogs that are moderately active and not on ultra-sharp footing will get by just fine on their own paws. That said, Barley wears booties if we’re crossing sharp skree fields high in the mountains of Colorado or if his paws seem tender at all that day.
As you’re preparing to take your dog hiking, keep these extra products in mind. As I said, I personally hike with Barley in a bright harness, a bell, and a light. Until you’re really confident with your dog’s training, rely on a leash to keep your dog safe. After that, a GPS collar of some sort is a great idea.
Now let’s dig into those harness suggestions!
See our quick picks here if you’re short on time, or keep reading for in-depth reviews!
|RUFFWEAR - Front Range Harness, Blue Dusk (2017), X-Small||4,307 Reviews||from $29.80||Buy on Amazon|
|RUFFWEAR - Web Master Harness, Twilight Gray, Medium||113 Reviews||$59.95||Buy on Amazon|
|Ruffwear - Web Master Pro Professional Harness for Dogs, Red Currant, Medium||29 Reviews||$99.95||Buy on Amazon|
|Babyltrl Lightweight No Pull Dog Harness for Medium Large Dogs, Adjustable, Easy to Wear, Reflective...||32 Reviews||$6.99||Buy on Amazon|
|Bark Appeal Dog Harness Breathe EZ Plaid, Medium 16" to 20" Neck- 10 1/2" to 13", Red||$20.00||Buy on Amazon|
Spoiler alert: there’s one brand that leads the rest when it comes to outdoor dog gear. Ruffwear makes three of the best dog hiking harnesses out there, and I rarely see a reason to experiment with other brands.
That said, there are some other dog hiking harnesses out there that are worth a shot! We went ahead and listed those three Ruffwear harnesses first, but don’t skip checking out the others.
Description: This harness does it all, and it’s my go-to for everything. You can use the no-pull connection in town if you need, and both the front and back clips on this harness are heavily reinforced. It even has a little pocket between your dog’s shoulder blades for keys!
PROS : This harness really has it all: bright colors, a reinforced D-ring for a leash on the back, a front-clip option for around-town use, comfy for most dogs, very well made. I love the reflective trim, and use the front leash clip to hold bells or lights.
CONS : The xx-small size still is too large for many micro-sized dogs. The smallest size is best for dogs that are at least 13 inches tall at the shoulder, which is taller than most toy sized dogs. It can be a bit long in the neck-to-belly strap for some dogs, resulting in sagging between the front legs. Finally, it lacks the handle that makes the Webmaster (below) so great!
Description: This robust harness features a second belly strap, making it extra-difficult for escape artists to wiggle out of. But what really makes this harness a step above the Ruffwear Front Range for camping purposes is the handle. Being able to assist your dog through difficult sections or big jumps is real bonus for rock-hopping dogs.
PROS : This harness is great for escape artists thanks to the extra belly strap. I haven’t met many dogs who can wiggle out of this one! It has many of the standout best characteristics of the Front Range, plus a weight-bearing handle that you can use to give your dog a lift. The reflective trim helps keep your dog visible, and the front leash clip can hold bells or lights.
CONS : Some users reported that the sizing wasn’t quite right for extra-large or extra-small dogs.
Description: The Webmaster Pro is designed for search-and-rescue teams that work in the winter. Its extra bells and whistles, therefore, aren’t of much use if you’re planning on mostly hiking in warm weather. The small side pockets are a nice feature, but you can’t fit very much in there – it’s certainly not a replacement for a backpack on overnight trips. It has all of the usual solid construction of Ruffwear’s products.
PROS : This harness has all of the benefits of the Webmaster, but has three bonus features that make it well-suited to serious adventures (especially in the winter): an extra-large handle for gripping with gloves on, all-metal attachments so that the plastic doesn’t break in the cold, and small pockets along the side for carrying necessities. This is truly the ultimate adventure harness.
CONS : This harness is probably overkill for most day hikes, but its pockets aren’t quite enough for a big backpacking trip. For true backpacking, you’ll probably want pockets that can fit food, water, and poop bags at least! With its high price tag, the Webmaster Pro is probably more than most mid-level hikers need.
Description: This harness closely mimics the shape of the Ruffwear Front Range, but is really designed with giant dog breeds in mind. Users really loved that the harness has a front clip, back clip, and comfy handle to support or control big dogs.
PROS : This harness is really a lifesaver for owners of ultra big dogs. While Ruffwear certainly makes some hefty harnesses, this harness is designed for large and deep-chested breeds. The reflective strips are quite generous, and the harness is nearly as solidly made as the Ruffwear products. The buckles are well-made and designed to be easy to use.
CONS : This harness doesn’t come in any colors that would be easily visible when your dog is hiking off-leash. That’s a big issue!
Description: This harness is the best bet for taking ultra-small dogs out on the trail. It is really comfortable for the dog and quite snug. Its biggest downside is its durability and tendency to get caught on burrs. Otherwise, this harness is great for taking the little guys on an adventure!
PROS : This harness is best for micro-sized dogs. Even though the Ruffwear Front Range will fit dogs as small as 13 inches high, many Chihuahuas are just 6 to 9 inches tall! The harness has an easy-open, yet strong Velcro closure. It’s a great all-purpose harness for small dogs.
CONS : This harness isn’t really made to “rough it.” Burrs, twigs, and other bits of nature will probably get caught in its mesh and Velcro. It only has one point of attachment for a leash.
The bottom line is that a great hiking harness should fit your dog well, stand up to intense use, and be visible to the human eye at a distance. Depending on what fits your dog well, there are hundreds of harnesses that can fit the bill. However, we think the ones we detailed here are solid picks.
Did we miss out on your favorite hiking harness? Promote them below, and we might get them into the next article on dog hiking harnesses!
Last update on 2018-12-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.