How to Get Your Adventure Cat Ready for the Trail

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We all want to be outside whenever we have the chance. Those of us with dogs will often bring them along to share the adventure. But what if our best four-legged friend is a cat?

Cats are usually either left to roam as they please or locked up in the house, but almost never trained to join the fun. In the last few years, however, more and more cat owners have started harnessing up their adventure cats and bringing them along. A quick search of social media will reveal scores of cat-human duos hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, sailing, cycling, mountain climbing, road-tripping, camping and even surfing together.

adventure cats

Interested in getting your cat out on the trail with you? It’s tricky, but hugely rewarding fun. I’ve learned so much from taking my cat, Aífe, on outings that I want to share some tips I’ve learned. I checked in with REI employee Amanda MacLeod and her fiancé Dan Borowski to see what their experience of training their two cats, Leo and Beta, had been like.

Here are a few of the tips we came up with to get your adventure cat ready to hit the trails:

1. Get a really good harness.

adventure cats

Photo by Amanda MacLeod.

Cats’ bodies often seem to be made of putty, and if their harnesses don’t fit just right, they can wriggle right out of them. Only a few companies are making harnesses specifically for cats, but many harnesses designed for small Chihuahua-sized dogs also work great for cats. Choose one with wide fabric panels, rather than just a couple of thin straps; it will be a lot harder for your cat to escape from. This is especially important because it’s very hard to get cats to respond to commands, such as “come,” the way a dog would. And as Dan and Amanda put it, “Most cats do not follow you like dogs. They want to travel at their own pace and go where they want to (at least our cats!).”

2. Start slow and quiet.

adventure cats

Photo by Amanda MacLeod.

Don’t just scoop your cat up one day and plop it out in the open. Helping your cat adjust to walking on a leash and outdoor stimulus is an ongoing process. Dan and Amanda have had similar experiences training Leo and Beta: “Slow methodical exposure to the new harness and the outdoors is your best tool.” Let your cat get used to hanging around the house in its harness, let it sniff at and sleep on its gear. If you have a yard, try walking the cat on-leash out there, so it can get used to the idea in a safe place. If you don’t have a yard, nearby parks are great alternatives. Start mellow, and build from there.

Also, it’s actually way easier to get a cat to walk up a mountain than around a city block. Even after years of constant practice, my cat can still get stressed just walking a few city blocks. On the other hand, the very first time I took her out on a hike, she hit the trail running.

3. Be aware of threats to your cat’s well-being.

adventure cats

Depending on where you’re heading, there may be some big threats to cats, such as eagles, coyotes and mountain lions. But mostly, there will be lots of tiny ones: parasites like fleas, ticks, worms, mites and giardia. So make sure to check what large and minuscule wildlife are prevalent in the area you’re headed, and at what times of year.

You are also very likely to encounter dogs most places you’ll go. And those dogs may be excited to see your cat. Dan and Amanda confirm this: “Dogs will always be on the trails, and despite the laws they will often be off-leash running around and having fun. While this does not bother us, our cats are not fans! You always have to keep your eyes scanning for potential problems ahead or behind.”

Check out these tips for hiking with your dog.

4. Get a good pack.

Once your cat gets used to being outdoors with you, it will enjoy covering some trail on its own paws. But those are tiny paws, at the end of short legs. Cats are built to move very quickly in short bursts, not to trudge along for miles like our bipedal selves. So even the bravest, sturdiest cat is almost certainly going to need carrying some of the time.

adventure cats

You can re-purr-pose pretty much any good pack. When I first started taking my Aífe out and about, I used the only daypack I had—a little REI Flash 18. It worked fine, except the drawstring opening on that pack is narrow, and whenever she jumped out to walk around, it was really hard to get her back in. So I upgraded to the REI Trail 25. Find a pack with comfortable shoulder straps to bear the load of your regular items in addition to the weight of your cat. It’s best to have a pack that unzips most of, but not all, the way down, so there’s enough closure to hold her in but can allow for an easy escape  when she wants to.

Dan and Amanda’s cats sometimes need a lift, too. But apparently, their cats are happy to just ride on top of their owners’ packs. Don't forget to practice leave no trace principles and make sure to attach your cat’s leash to the pack, and stash some poop bags in one of the outer pockets.

The great outdoors might not be for every cat, but with enough persistence, patience and love, your cat might really surprise you. Mine certainly has. And watching her explore and grow has been the one of the most joyful, rewarding experiences of my life. So it’s certainly worth trying.

Happy trails!

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