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Elle Ossello | 06.24.2018

It’s a generalization, sure, but we don’t feel like we’re going out on a limb when we say that there’s a significant overlap between those that love dogs and those that love public lands. So if you’ve clicked through to this blog, you're likely aware that America’s national parks are not exactly known for being dog friendly. The good news: There are 640 million acres of protected, public land in the United States—that’s a nearly incomprehensible 28% of the total surface—and national parks represent only a portion of these lands. So, if you’re raring to get out with your furry family member and marvel at these vast, varied, and protected public treasures, you’re in luck.

Understanding the types of public land

While the East Coast certainly enjoys its small share of public land, the great majority is in the west. The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service are the entities responsible for maintaining these lands and making (and enforcing) the rules. To break it down as simply as we can:

Most likely to be dog friendly

Generally dog friendly with heavy restrictions

Most likely to prohibit dogs:

But clearly (as evident by the slippery language used in the category titles above), it’s impossible to say definitively whether the particular public land you’d like to visit allows dogs. The takeaway: Do your research. Most likely, every single slice of public land you’d like to visit has a website and clear pet regulations front and center. 

In the end, it’s imperative to remember that there are myriad priorities these management agencies honor, such as conserving the land, plants, and wildlife, and all take precedence over your weekend exploring with your dog. Remembering that you play a part in public land stewardship will help you navigate situational protocol when there’s no signage around to lay it out for you. 

What to bring

For anyone, dogs included, an adventure on the trail or off the grid is exciting and sometimes surprisingly taxing. A pup that is used to chasing a ball every day or romping around the dog park is not likely to be physically adjusted to a jaunt in new territory. Make special considerations for breed as well—a dog with a thick coat is ill-equipped to handle the blazing desert heat, and likewise, a small or thin-skinned pup will chill quickly in snow and colder temperatures. Pack booties, cooling or warming harnesses, and other specialized gear items accordingly.

As you’re making considerations for your own supplies, always remember to bring plenty of extra fresh water, and keep a packable bowl on hand during longer hikes. Think about packing extra snacks or food to compensate for the tons of extra calories consumed, and always bring along a small first-aid kit replete with the essentials. 

Let’s talk about off-leash

Generally speaking, neither BLM or Forest Service-managed land requires a leash in the backcountry, though you will typically be required to leash your dogs in developed areas like campgrounds. Knowing if your dog is ready for an off-leash backcountry adventure, though, is a slightly different story.

Truly, when it comes down to it, everything listed in the section above is moot if excellent communication skills, a solid recall, and self-governance are not in your dog’s wheelhouse. This is where things sometimes get tricky—many folks who bring their dogs into Utah’s wide open desert scape or Eastern Oregon’s expansive grassy plains revel in unleashing their dogs for the first time and watching them enjoy what looks like their natural state. And it is a beautiful thing. But dogs that are successful in these situations are those that have been slowly introduced to it over time (and trained OUT of digging, chasing, and otherwise). 

It’s impossible to offer sound advice to all that may be reading, but remembering that these public lands exist for preservation might help you guide your decision making when you’re miles from anyone in the heart of a public space. Above all, the principles of Leave No Trace strictly apply to you and your pup. Pack it out!

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