A Complete Guide to Taking Road Trips With Your Dog

From apps to safety gear, we have your checklist ready. (Photos: Jaymi Heimbuch).

You’re all packed and ready to head out on your road trip when you turn and look down at your four-legged BFF sitting at your feet. You may be ready to get going, but is your dog?

Here’s everything you need to know to make sure that your pooch is ready for the open road — and that your journey together will be as smooth as possible.

Get Your Documentation Organized

Making sure you have important information about your dog is the first place to start when planning a road trip. There are a few simple apps that will help you get your info organized, and one of the best is the Red Cross Pet First Aid. Not only does it give you great information about canine first aid, but you can use the app to note your pet's medical records, including vaccinations, health issues, medications, license number, microchip number and what company he's registered with, any medical insurance information, and of course your vet's information. There's also a vet hospital locator in the app so that you can have this at the ready should you need it in an emergency.

Apps for Road Trips

While we're talking about apps, you probably want to download a few more that will make road-tripping easier. Dog Park Finder Plus is a great app for locating a dog park or a dog-friendly park no matter where you are, and BringFido helps you locate these as well as dog-friendly hotels, restaurants, stores and even events. Basically, if there's a place that's dog-friendly nearby, you'll probably be able to find it with this app. It's a perfect app when you're on the road.

Make Sure Your Dog Is Road-Ready

Before you head out on a long trip, try some shorter trips to see if your dog gets motion sickness or has anxiety about traveling. Take just a few short drives — 15 or 20 minutes at first, then half hour or an hour. If your dog shows signs of feeling ill, it may be just a matter of taking more short drives to get him used to the sensation of being in a car. Many dogs get over car sickness after a handful of rides. If it's not something your dog gets over, check with your vet about medications for motion sickness.

Perhaps your dog doesn't get motion sickness but instead get nervous or wound-up in the car. If this is the case, it could be a matter of working on desensitization, just like with motion sickness. A few short trips with treat rewards handed out during the drive from the moment the dog hops in the car to the moment he hops out could help. But if the issue is more severe and conditioning isn't working, then you may want to check with your vet for sedatives or supplements that can help your dog make it through a longer road trip. Rescue remedy, calming music, a DAP collar and other natural solutions could be helpful as well.

Packing List

packing for car

After you get your info in order, it's time to get your things in order. Your list will, of course, be specific to your dog, but here are things to keep in mind for your checklist.

  • Leash and collar with ID tags
  • Water bowl or water drinker with plenty of water (I'm a fan of the Gulpy)
  • Food bowl and food for each day on the road
  • Treats
  • Toys
  • Doggy waste bags
  • Blanket, bed or pad for sleeping
  • Soft crate
  • Any medications your dog might be taking
  • Proof of vaccinations, info for microchip registration, pet insurance, and any other necessary emergency documents (as we mentioned, there's an app for that)
  • Flea and tick control
  • Motion sickness medication or sedatives, depending on your dog’s needs

It already sounds like a lot and you probably haven’t even started packing the non-essentials! But it’s better to be prepared than sorry. Personally, I love using the Ruffwear Haul Bag to contain everything. It's made of canvas that's easy to clean out, has plenty of pockets so you can sort toys, treats, grooming things and other essentials in an organized way, and opens up wide so it's easy to find what you're looking for. Plus, it seems to fit everything you could imagine. Here's a list of everything I put in it for one long day trip: my dog's hiking backpack, a full water bladder, a water dish, two Frisbees, a Kong toy, a water bumper toy, a leash, an extra collar, a hiking harness, a car harness, wet wipes, a brush, a flea comb, and a couple of bags of treats — and there was still room to spare if we had wanted to add more. Of course, a shopping bag works too, but it’s nice to feel organized, and pockets do that for you.

In addition to the doggie basics like food and water, there are specific things you’ll need for your dog when in the car. That includes being secured for safety’s sake.


seatbelt dog

Just as you need a seatbelt in case of an accident, your dog needs a way to be secured in the car. Driving with a loose dog is risky because if you have to slam on the breaks, your unrestrained dog can go flying forward. If the stop is severe enough, your dog could be launched through the windshield or, has happened to some dog owners, into the back of the front seat, shoving you or a passenger into the dash or windshield. Having your dog secured is the only way to ensure they’ll be as safe as possible in case of an accident and won’t be a distraction for you as you’re driving.

One option is a seat harness. These specially designed harnesses use existing seat belts to secure your dog, and are specifically constructed to protect your dog in an impact. They’re much more than a simple harness for walking or hiking. The best options on the market have also been crash tested and rated, though to be frank, not many scored well. The Sleepypod Clickit Utility Harness is one of the top rated by Center for Pet Safety. Lately I’ve been using the Ruffwear Load Up Harness which is new to the market and was tested at MGA Research Corp., a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-contracted test facility. The harness is made with padded canvas and all-metal, strength-rated hardware for buckling up. It fits my dog securely and keeps him in place but allows him the freedom to sit up or lie down, making it great for staying comfortable during long trips.


A second option for securing your dog in the car is a crate. There are a wide variety of crates on the market designed specifically for transporting dogs in cars. You can secure a crate to the back seat using the seatbelt or luggage straps. Most of the time for trips, especially trips to the beach or hiking trails where my dog’s coat will be too filthy for a harness, I use the Noz2Noz soft crate. It’s super easy to fold open or close and stores easily in the car’s trunk or in a closet at home. It isn’t the most destruction-proof crate out there, but it’s versatile and easy to use, especially on road trips when it can be used for crating my dog in the car, in a hotel room, in a campsite, at a roadside restaurant and so on.

This brings us to another point: Even if you aren't going to crate your dog while in the car, you'll want one with you for when you're traveling, which is why it's on the packing list. They make it easy to keep your dog relaxed and secured when you're stopping for breaks or when you arrive at an overnight location. Dogs who are crate-trained will have an easier time adjusting to new places like hotel rooms. They know their crate is the safe and secure spot to be, a little piece of home they recognize despite the strange surroundings. So bringing a crate is an ideal way to keep a dog happy and calm — and contained — when you're busy. If you know road trips are in your future, it's smart to start crate-training your dog well before the journey so your dog is ready when it's time to hit the road.

Seat Cover

I use an old bed sheet, but it isn't the best option. I've been in cars with friends who use a seat hammock — specifically the Kurgo Wander hammock seat protector — and it looked like a great solution because it kept everything covered. There are quite a few seat hammocks like these on the market. The upside is that they completely cover the back of your car, so the backseat as well as the floor and the backs of the front seats are all protected. Plus, cleanup is easy.

However the downsides are that your car needs to have headrests so that the hammock can be secured, they can't be used with bucket seats, and it's impossible to use a harness with them unless you find one that has slots for the seat belt fasteners. The Deluxe Microfiber car hammock seat protector is an option for using a harness, thanks to the hook-and-loop openings, and there are quite a few options on the market, so just be sure to keep an eye out for this feature if you want to be able to buckle your dog in with a harness.

Safety rules for driving

1. Never Allow Your Dog to Hang Out the Window

Though it's great to let your dog stick their head out the window to enjoy the breeze that sends their ears and lips a-flapping, leaning out the window is a big no-no. First, it's simply dangerous in case another car or obstacle comes too close and side-swipes your dog. Second, it's extremely dangerous if your dog is unrestrained. There are countless stories of dogs falling out of the window while a car is on the highway. For the love of Fido, keep shoulders and paws inside the vehicle at all times.

2. Don't Let Your Dog Sit in the Driver's Lap, Ever 

I truly wish this didn't need to be explained but the fact is, I see it happening all the time. If you think texting while driving is distracting and dangerous, having a living, moving being on your lap is even more so. Even if your dog is well-behaved, you have an obstacle between you and the steering wheel. And what if your dog gets scared for whatever reason and squeezes onto the floor? Now there's an obstacle between you and the brake. Or if you have to brake suddenly and get slammed into the steering wheel — guess who you just squashed in the process? For many, many reasons, don't let the dog sit in the driver's lap. Ever.

3. Check to See That Your Dog Isn't Too Hot or Too Cold

Temperature control is an issue on drives, especially when it's hot and you need to make sure enough cool air makes it to the backseat to keep your dog safe from overheating. Check every so often to make sure that there's plenty of air circulation and that your dog is comfortable.

4. Keep Sound up Front So You Aren't Blasting Your Dog's Sensitive Ears

Dogs have far better hearing than we do, and the music you're blaring might not feel so great on his ears. Adjust the fade on the stereo so that the sound is in the front speakers, and this will keep your dog from having to endure quite so much noise during the long trek.

5. Make Frequent Stops for Water and Bathroom Breaks

You might feel fine and want to power through a long stretch of highway, but don't underestimate how quickly your dog can become dehydrated or how quickly his bladder can fill up. Stop every couple of hours to let your dog fill up or empty out. This will make him much, much more comfortable during your trip. Plus, it gives you a chance to play a little fetch to break up the boredom of the drive!

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.