Dogs of packrafting! Yes, you can take your dog paddling if you start early & train them right
Story by Molly Harrison, photos by Molly, Lizzy Scully and Steve Fassbinder.
We pile out of the Subaru as though it’s a clown car- dog after dog spills out of the backseat and they go tearing off to the water. Soon the smell of wet dogs and dead fish wafts into the warm afternoon air. Of course, the first thing the whole pack does is roll in the rotting carcasses strewn across the shore. How could they not? Not much to do in the moment other than dunk them in the lake and laugh.
We begin to blow up our packrafts and throw sticks for the dogs in the water to get their zoomies out. A panoply of splashing and barking, everyone feels the excitement to get on the water. Soon I look up and around to find my pup Sprocket. A usual stick-water fiend, he’s nowhere to be found, which is strange.
My gaze lands on my packraft, now several hundred feet from shore, floating solo captained by only Sprocket at the helm. He looks downright serene as he floats further and further away from us. I have the goofiest smile on my face as we paddle out to meet him on the lake. It feels great that this boy loves packrafting so much he couldn’t wait for me.
Tips & Tricks for taking your dog packrafting
It’s an awesome feeling to include your best furry friend on your packrafting trips, but it also takes some important pre-trip consideration for safety, training, and comfort for you and your pet. This post will get into some tips and tricks for training and suggested gear. And a friendly reminder, do your research before you float! Many riparian areas are closed to dogs as sensitive wildlife habitats; make sure the area you’re traveling in allows dogs.
When you plan ahead and prepare for a packrafting trip with your dog, it’s important to remember that things can go awry with them just as they could with you. Some key concepts for pre-trip planning:
Temps & Terrain
Think of the temperature and terrain ahead- will your pet’s paws be too hot from desert slickrock in the sun and potentially blister, or could they crack and bleed from rocky terrain? Do you have a backup plan with exit routes if you need to evacuate? Are you packing adequate food and fresh water for their increased activity level? Prioritizing your pet’s needs in these ways can help avoid bigger emergencies.
Injuries may happen- prepare a small first aid kit for your pet. For cuts and scrapes I highly recommend Coban™ Self-Adherent Wrap with Latex to secure bandages and neosporin to prevent infection in the field. Use a small syringe with filtered water to irrigate wounds. Consider carrying tweezers to remove cactus spines or other impaled objects.
It’s also a great idea to carry an extra booty or two in case of injuries to feet- these can help your pup walk out on minor injuries without further irritating the site.I also recommend carrying a small amount of musher’s wax on longer trips to help keep their pads from cracking. Companies such as Adventure Medical Kits make premade pet kits with small “how to” handbooks for quick first aid tips.
Should my dog use a backpack?
Consider not using a backpack on your dog. While it is handy to have them carry some of the weight, the backpack can also greatly increase the risk of injury to your pet. Especially in the wet, sandy areas you’ll likely find yourself traveling, backpack straps can rub and irritate your pet and cause open wounds.
Should I tie my dog to my boat?
Never tie your dog to the boat as a means of keeping them in. This is a serious safety issue in the event that your boat flips over and a swim happens- a long leash is an entrapment hazard, and the dog being tied to the boat may make it impossible for them to swim to safety.
There are many options for appropriate gear for packrafting with your pup. Most any packraft models will work for a day out on the lake, but as you expand your paddling you may want to consider the following for boat selection:
The best options are open boats or self bailers that have plenty of room for dogs of all sizes. The self bailing floor is great because it is soft and insulated from the water, keeping dogs drier and warmer. You will also find that you get a significant amount of water in the open models with closed floors from your wet pup getting in and out of the boat. Boats with permanent whitewater decks may still be options for smaller dogs who are able to sit between your legs.
Ruffwear PFD (puppy flotation device!) Not only do these help keep your dog afloat if they find themselves in the water, but the large handle on the back is key for pulling your pup into the boat.
Consider bringing a small microfiber towel on your trip. Your dog will be wet and muddy after your day out! It’s nice to be able to give them a quick wipe down before they share your sleeping bag and tent.
Padding for warmth
Foam pad for the floor of non-self bailing models. The standard floor of a packraft is thin, and your dog might be cold right up against the water. An insulated foam pad folded in the front of your boat can provide comfort and stability for their positioning.
What it takes to get your dog on the water
Getting your pup ready for the water includes training time and patience. We recommend some of the following tips and tricks:
Blow up your packraft in the living room or backyard and let your pup get used to it. Sit in the boat and let your pet get used to getting in and out and feeling the material.
Use firm, clear commands in training. I use “load up” to get my dog to jump into the boat, and “okay” when we pull up to shore and it’s time to get out. This is important to make sure your pet knows what to expect when they’re in the boat.
Practice, practice, practice
Practice your most comfortable seating position. Depending on the size of your dog, you may want them all the way in the front of the boat for space. I personally prefer to sit with my dog between my knees, closer to my body. This allows you to clamp your knees together to contain their movement, which is especially important when boating moving water with your pup. The more they move, the more off balance your boat will be.
Diversify your paddling and start flat. Even if moving water is your ultimate paddle goal, give yourself and your pup time to work out the kinks on flat water with low risks.
Give them rewards like treats or toys when in the boat. Make sure packrafting is fun, and not a punishment!
Just like you would to progress your own paddling, practice is key to getting better and feeling calm. I recommend occasionally dumping your pup out of the boat in low-risk situations so you can both practice what it feels like to get them back in the boat.
Patience is a must. Your pup might not feel comfortable in the boat at first and training takes time. Don’t get discouraged if it feels like chaos at first- there are a lot of moving parts in packrafting with dogs. It’s worth the fumbles, embrace the fun!