Imagine exploring a tree-lined trail through the woods. Picture yourself communing with nature beside a fresh forest stream. Envision reaching the top of a hiking path and looking out across a spectacular mountain vista—all with a cat at your side.
Wait, what? A cat?
When you imagine a companion for a rugged hike through the woods, a cat may not be the first animal that comes to mind. But a growing number of cat parents are setting out to change that. Maria Roper and her cat Rio (of @adventurrio); Candace Stroh and her cat Olive (of @olive_the_adventurous); and Jessie Russell and her cat Milo (of @miloandmoki) are among the scores of “adventure cat” parents introducing their feline friends to all that nature has to offer.
“I get a lot out of just watching Olive look at the birds and the bugs and smell the flowers,” Stroh says. “The way she’ll get excited about something, jump out of the backpack and run down the trail on her leash—it just makes me happy.”
Many cats have a natural inclination for exploring the wild, these parents agree—it just takes training, the right gear and some patience. So, are you ready to tell your cat to take a hike (with you, of course)? Here’s how to get started.
Respect Your Cat
The first rule of Adventure Cat Club? Don’t force it. Not all cats are well-suited to hiking and other outdoor activities, Stroh says. “Cats have different personalities,” she points out. “Some cats don’t want to go outside. It would be horrible to take your cat outside just because you think it looks cool.”
Many cats are skittish about new experiences, Russell adds, so don’t be discouraged if they’re disinterested or avoidant at first. If you slowly acclimate your cat to the great outdoors (more on how to do that below), there’s a decent chance you have a hiking cat in your future. “But if your cat doesn’t respond well to that,” Russell says, “then obviously that’s something you shouldn’t do.”
Even after cats get comfortable on the trail, sometimes they’re simply not in the mood for an outdoor trek. (Adventure cats are still cats, after all.) “I always ask myself, what’s Olive’s mood for the day?” Stroh says. “Is she going to like going hiking today? If she’s not going to like it, then I’m not going to force it.”
Choose the Right Cat Hiking Gear
Each of our experts agrees that there are three cat hiking gear essentials you need to keep your cat safe and secure in the wild.
A Cat Harness
Make sure it fits securely, to prevent your cat from slipping out. Russell suggests an H-style harness, such as the Catit Adjustable Cat Harness, for training. But if your cat is like her Milo, often pulling at the leash to get to the next exciting tree or flower, consider switching to a harness with coverage across the chest. “I don’t want all that pressure going on his neck,” she explains. “It works better to have a harness with a sort of chest plate on the front.”
Wearing a harness probably won’t come naturally for your cat. That means you’ll have to introduce the concept slowly, with plenty of treats along the way.
When Milo was a kitten, Russell says, “I started by showing him the harness and not even putting it on—and giving him a treat.” After a few days of that, she says, “he learned that every time I brought the harness out, it was a great thing.”
The next step was laying the harness across Milo’s body, without strapping it on, accompanied by plenty of treats for rewards. “Milo needed a couple of days of doing this periodically until I could actually clip the harness on,” she says. “When I did finally get the harness on, I let him wear it for a few minutes, and then I would remove it and give him some more treats.” Gradually, she extended the amount of time Milo wore the harness, until he seemed fully comfortable in it.
Training an adult cat may require a slower pace than a kitten, our experts agreed—each began training their cats for the adventure life while they were kittens. But older cats can learn new tricks too! No matter how old your cat is, taking it slow is key, Russell says—if you push your cat too far, too fast, they may form a negative association with the harness that can delay or even outright cancel your plans to scale the nearest mountain together.
A Cat Leash
For your first cat leash, choose a length of 6 feet, Russell suggests, at least until you’re both comfortable together on the trail. Now that Milo’s a pro, she says, “I usually bring two 6-foot leashes so I can attach one to the other. That way I have either the 6-foot leash that keeps him closer to my body, or a 12-foot leash that I can let out as he needs more room.”
Most harnesses come with a matching leash, like the PetSafe Come With Me Kitty Cat Harness and Bungee Leash. Pro tip: It’s a good idea to carry an extra set. “That way, if one breaks, we can still enjoy the rest of our journey without Milo having to stay secured in his backpack,” Russell says.
What, you thought your fierce feline was actually going to walk the whole way with you? Cats don’t have the same stamina dogs do, Roper says, so they’ll often need to be carried. That’s a lot easier to do in a cat carrier backpack, which allows you to keep your own hands free while hiking. A pet backpack like the Pet Gear I-GO2 Escort Dog & Cat Carrier Backpack also provides your cat a calming, cozy space, separate from the sensory overload of nature.
Look for a backpack wide enough to allow your pet to lie down comfortably, Russell suggests. Keep your cat on a leash, even when they’re in the carrier, and make sure the other end is always securely tethered to the backpack or in your own hand. “My backpack has a top opening flap, so that way, if he wants to peek his head out, he just puts his front feet on top while his bottom feet still touch the bottom.” Extra pockets to hold other hiking gear are also a nice bonus, she adds.
“It’s important to train your cat to be comfortable in whatever carrier you decide to have,” adds Roper. Practice at home, encouraging your cat to hang out in the carrier and offering treats and other rewards when they do. Learn how to get your cat used to a carrier here.
And feel free to get a little creative, too! “I carry the backpack as a front pack instead, because Rio doesn’t like it when she can’t see ahead,” Roper says.
Carry Your Cat Outside
When it’s finally time to venture outside, it might seem intuitive to leash up your cat and stroll out the front door together—but that’s a big mistake, Russell says.
“I never let him walk out of the house on his own,” she says, “even if he is wearing a harness and a leash.” If your cat feels comfortable walking out the doors of your home, she points out, they might try to do it at inopportune times, like when you’re greeting a visitor or bringing groceries inside.
“I always carry him out or have him in his backpack,” Russell says. “So he doesn’t door-dash whenever we open the door.”
Start at Home
Just as you eased your cat into wearing a harness, you’ll also have to move slowly while acclimating them to exploring nature. That means your first trip into the wild should be somewhere very close to home—like your own backyard.
“We practiced a lot at home before we ever went on an actual hike anywhere,” Milo’s mom Russell says.
Carry your cat outside and set them down in a safe area. Then, follow their lead. “I just wanted Olive to explore and smell,” says Stroh of her first outings with her cat. “I didn’t try to make her walk in a certain direction or anything like that.” Watch for signs of stress in your cat’s body language, such as tail thumping and dilated pupils, and bring them back inside if they seem overwhelmed.
On the other hand, if they seem curious and confident, it’s time to hit the trail.
Choose a Peaceful Trail
Not every trail is an ideal match for your cat, so you’ll want to do some research to find the perfect pick. Avoid areas that are often crowded, Roper advises. Like many cats, she says, “Rio prefers it when we are not around a bunch of people.”
Trails that require dogs to be on leash are a safer bet too, Russell adds. That way, any dogs your cat encounters will be guided by a human hiker—who can restrain their dog if they try to chase your cat.
Finally, pick a trail that gives your cat a clear path to follow. “When you’re training them, cats prefer to follow narrow trails,” Roper says. “It’s easier to walk on a narrow trail than a very wide path or a field. And that’s something that can teach a cat to walk forward with you.”
Don’t Forget Car Training
“One of the things people don’t think about is that if they want to train their cat to be an adventure cat, you basically have to get them to enjoy the car as well,” Roper says. If you don’t live within walking distance of the epic hikes you plan to take with your cat, then adventuring is going to involve at least a little bit of driving—and you don’t want that travel to stress your cat out before you’ve even taken one step on the trail.
There’s only one way to get your cat comfortable with the car: exposure. Just like with harness training, the key is to start slow, and gradually increase the length of your rides over time. “I started with 5 minutes in the car, then 10 minutes, and then up to a 20-minute car ride to get to our destination,” Russell says.
For longer trips, cats can ride in a crate securely strapped into your vehicle. Remember to provide food, water and even a litter box for them to use on the trip. Get more tips on how to acclimate your cat to the car.
Let Your Cat Explore
If you’re used to hiking with dogs, be prepared: hiking with your cat is going to be a very different experience. Cats generally like to move slowly and explore their surroundings, rather than walking alongside you like many dogs are trained to do.
“Set your expectations of why you’re going on the walk and what that might look like while you’re walking,” Russell says. “Milo’s got his own direction. He’s got things to do and he doesn’t walk like a dog.”
Avoid yanking on your pet’s leash to steer them back to the trail, she adds. “I use a leash that’s not retractable. So if Milo goes in a direction that I don’t want him to, I’ll just stop walking. When he gets to the end of the leash, he just sits down and has a look around. And then he usually looks back at me to see what we’re doing next.”
So take a deep breath, relax, and move at your cat’s pace. Hey, appreciating nature is what it’s all about, right?
Prepare for the Unexpected
The outdoors can be a beautiful and exciting place to explore, but it can also pose risks to your cat. Wild animals and other hikers’ pets are just a few potential threats you need to be ready to encounter.
“One thing I’ve learned is that some people don’t follow the rules,” Stroh says. She and Olive have encountered free-roaming pet dogs on trails with explicit leash requirements, for instance. And often, your cat will hear a threat approaching before you do.
“You really have to take cues from your cat,” she says. If you notice them displaying stress signals, pick them up and tuck them safely into your backpack. That will keep them out of harm’s way if a dog or other potentially dangerous entity appears on the trail.
Make sure your cat's flea, tick and heartworm preventatives are up to date, too, as going outdoors puts them at greater risk to pests. Find out more about preventing fleas on cats.
Mind the Heat
Cats are sensitive to high temperatures, so it’s up to you to make sure they stay cool and comfortable while you explore.
“Milo is a long-haired cat, so even in the springtime, when it’s still cool enough for me to need a sweater, he sometimes needs a break in the shade,” Russell says.
Make sure you have water for your cat and a travel-friendly pet bowl for them to drink from, and plan to stop and relax in the shade anytime you notice signs of overheating or dehydration. Signs of overheating in pets include excessive and constant panting, a wobbly walk, lethargy and collapse. “If I notice that Milo’s not being his usual, curious, happy, leading-the-way kind of cat—if he’s looking a bit lethargic, or tries to lay down a lot—that’s a definite sign that maybe we’re pushing it a bit too hard,” she says.
Relax, Enjoy and Bond With Your Cat
Together, you and your cat have worked hard to embark on a new adventure together. Now’s the time to reap the rewards—and not just by taking Instagram-perfect pictures.
Each of our cat-hiking experts told us that bringing their pets on the trail inspires them to walk with intention, to take each step at their pets’ pace and appreciate the beauty around them in a new way.
“Hiking with Milo adds another element that makes you slow down, take things in and enjoy the moment,” Russell says. “There are so many moments that we walk by every day and don’t take any notice of, but being out there with them gives me a different perspective. It’s definitely mutually beneficial!”
Success Starts With the Right Cat Hiking Gear
Prep your cat for the trail with these essentials:
Now that you know how to hike with a cat and what gear you need, there's nothing stopping you from exploring the great outdoors with your favorite feline. Happy trails!