How To Go Hiking With Your Cat, According To A Pet Parent Who Does It ALL The Time
Safety is key 🔑
As you gear up and head out for a hike, do you ever catch your indoor cat staring longingly at you as you leave? If so, you might’ve wondered if there’s any way to bring your cat along.
It might sound impossible, but for hiker and cat parent Albert Colo, it’s one of his favorite activities.
Because he’s based in New York, where it can get pretty cold for a good chunk of the year, Colo tends to take his cat, Mia, on hikes when he’s on vacation, which is something he’s been doing for a while now.
“The first big trip I did with Mia [was when] she was 18 weeks old, after all her vaccinations and her outdoor training were completed,” Colo told The Dodo. “Together we've done a few summits, visited a bunch of states in the U.S. and even left the country to Spain and the Caribbean.”
And according to Colo, there are three key steps to take before hitting the trail with your cat.
Step one: Harness acclimation
Getting your cat used to wearing a harness is crucial if you want to go hiking together, since she should always be on a leash when she’s outside.
“The best way to walk a cat on a leash (and the only one that I recommend) is with the help of a harness,” Colo said. “Cats should never walk on a collar, for several reasons but all of them regarding their safety. They can get tangled and trapped, tangled and suffocated.”
When looking for the best cat harness, Colo focuses on ease of use, safety and comfort. And because finding the right harness is so important, Colo actually designed one himself.
“Most cat harnesses are very extreme: They are either very safe (but then are bulky and uncomfortable for the cat) or very light and then lack the minimum safety features,” Colo said. “The harness that we've designed is safe yet comfortable for the cat. It has a self-tightening system that will increase restriction as the cat pulls but will release pressure if it is just walking normally, allowing maximum freedom without compromising safety.”
Colo also likes the PetSafe Come With Me harness, which is designed with an adjustable sliding strap for your cat’s chest that won’t put any pressure on her throat while still creating a snug and secure fit.
To get your cat acclimated to wearing a harness, it’s best to do some positive reinforcement training in the comfort and safety of your own home.
“Put it on for very short intervals of time, just so that our cat gets familiarized with it,” Colo said. “Using treats and play will facilitate creating the positive association.”
Step two: Leash training
Keeping your cat on a leash is super important for her safety when you’re out hiking together. Practicing this inside first is key because your cat can just focus on learning to walk on the leash, free of any distractions from the outside world.
“Leash training a cat is crucial before taking them outdoors,” Colo said. “The same way that you have to train a dog to walk by your side, not bark at every passing car and [not] chase other dogs, we have to train our cats to walk by our side, listen to our commands and habituate them with open spaces.”
In Colo’s training process with Mia, he moved her leash training outside only once she was super comfortable with it indoors.
“I could tell she was comfortable because she would engage in normal behavior with me and the surroundings as if the leash and the harness were not there,” Colo said.
Even then, he made sure they were practicing in quiet, outdoor areas.
And there are a couple things you should look for in a good cat leash.
“A very thin, short and light leash is best for cats that don't like walking on a leash,” Colo said.
Training your cat to walk on a leash is a lot like getting her used to the harness, because you’ll utilize positive reinforcement to help her create positive associations with her leash.
“While some cats will accept the leash quite naturally, some will struggle to understand that we are trying to guide them,” Colo said. “Using high-quality treats will help guide the cat.”
Step three: Outdoor acclimation
If your cat tried to pull a Houdini on you during harness and leash training, it’s best not to move on to the outdoor acclimation.
“I would not recommend anyone to make this step if the cat is still at a stage where they try to escape the harness; when outdoors, recalling a cat can get tricky,” Colo said.
But if your cat’s used to her harness and leash, and isn’t trying to slip out of her gear, it’s time to bring her outside.
“This step is not as much about walking as it is about getting our cat used to new stimuli,” Colo said. “Particularly for cats that have never left an apartment, outdoors can be overwhelming.”
And for Colo, this went pretty smoothly with Mia because he started acclimating her when she was young.
“Because I started taking out Mia when she was very little, it was very easy to socialize her,” Colo said.
Socialization is when you’re introducing your cat — usually when she’s a young kitten — to her environment and the things in it. The point of socialization is to help your BFF develop positive associations with the things around her so she isn’t fearful.
“Knowing that, I made sure that every experience outdoors with Mia was a positive one, and I was ready to comfort her and go back home at the slight sign of discomfort, so she would always be eager to go back out,” Colo said. “In just a few outings, she became the one that was asking to go out.”
It’s also worth noting that your first trip outside with your cat shouldn’t be the big hike — it should be quick and easy to help her acclimate without a ton of stress.
“The first trip outside with a cat should be short and sweet,” Colo said. “This means no cars, no dogs, and possibly no noises or big distractions.”
If you live somewhere that’s naturally pretty noisy, like a city, Colo suggests having your first walk outside your home be in the building hallway, in the parking area, on the roof or in a park (outside of heavy foot traffic times).
Being patient and picking up on your cat’s comfort level are extremely important when it comes to getting your BFF acclimated with the outdoors.
“Pushing our cat limits is tricky because it can trigger trauma,” Colo said. “It's best to follow their lead and call it a day when the cat has had enough. There's plenty of time, and we are doing this for them.”
What you need to go hiking with your cat
According to Colo, there are a few things you need when hiking with your cat.
Cat hiking backpack
A cat hiking backpack can be super helpful if your BFF needs some time off her paws. Some backpacks — like bubble backpacks — let your cat take in the world around her while riding around on your back.
“Cats won't walk more than a few miles,” Colo said. “I like taking a backpack to carry Mia in case she gets tired.”
Food and water
If you and your cat are going to be on the trail for a while, bringing along food, water and snacks is always a good idea. That way, you know your cat will be hydrated and well fed during your adventure.
To help with leash training, “I also take some high-quality treats,” Colo said.
Cat name tag
Whether you’re keeping your cat on her leash and harness or carrying her around in a backpack, you always want to be prepared in case she somehow slips away from you.
“I also like having Mia wearing a name/phone tag in case she gets lost,” Colo said. “People on the mountains don't usually carry microchip readers.”
To be extra safe, Colo also thinks having a GPS tracker is good for your cat because it serves as another way to locate your BFF if she runs off — and it’s helpful to have multiple options for finding her safe and sound.
“If everything else fails, the tracker can help us find a cat that has [wandered] out of our sight,” Colo said.
How to safely go hiking with your cat
Letting your cat outdoors without certain training or supervision can come with a lot of risks.
“Cats can experience real danger, threats like cars, dogs and other predators, as well as psychological stress and trauma, given that most cats have never left their home nest in their lives, except to go to the vet,” Colo said.
That’s why it’s so important that you’re with your BFF at all times when she goes outside, and take appropriate safety measures.
And when you’re going hiking with your cat, picking the right location is key.
“Choose a place that has no predators, [is] sheltered, and has little people so there's less dogs,” Colo said. He recommends forests, since the trees provide good shelter.
And most importantly, let your cat call the shots.
“If your cat is complaining, be ready to turn around,” Colo said. “Don't take your cat to a hike that you want to finish.”
Going hiking with your cat is all about doing it safely. So if you follow these tips, you and your BFF are sure to have a fun (and safe) time exploring the outdoors. And maybe you’ll end up like Colo and Mia one day.