Hiking Housecats Batman!

Last week, a couple bikers and compatriots-on-the-path complimented me on my hiking cat.  They asked: How do you keep him with you? - and - What does he do when he meets dogs on the trail?

So, here's a brief "how-to" about hiking house-cats.

I've hiked with a cat for seven-and-a-half years.  My first hiking cat, a fox-point Siamese named Gus, hiked for six years—through forest, desert, meadow, and trail—in both Arizona and Utah.  I, briefly, hiked with a black-on-white kitten named Powell before he died of FIP.  And now, Cecil O. Zonkey, a lynx-point Siamese, hikes with me.  We have another cat in my household, an all-gray female named Aggie; she also hikes, (but is reluctant to cover much terrain).

The first step in determining if you can successfully hike with your house-cat is to quantify the amount of attached-to-you he has in him.  A way to measure this (without going on a preliminary hike) is ask, does your cat:
  • come when called?
  • display interest in what you are doing, especially when it's something new?
  • follow you when you walk around the house?
  • enjoy human proximity (sleep at your feet / in your chair / your lap)?
The ASPCA has a survey, to place your cat within a nine-category personality matrix, which they call Feline-ality.  This test ranks cat's socialization and energy levels.  I think the top five "most social/most energy" felines may have what it takes to become good hikers.   On the other paw: aloof cats, very lazy cats, or those who are overly timid or easily frightened will become poor-to-terrible hikers.

I think indoor-only, neutered, males who have strongly imprinted on—and are possessive of—their owners, make the best hikers.  Outdoor cats may follow you for a walk, but they are not only dis-inclined to leave "their territory" but will quickly rely on instinctual survival skills, rather than you, in a crisis (which means they will run far away when a dog shows up to your hiking party).

Once you've determined your house-cat has enough attached-to-you in him, you'll need to [1] obtain and compile some specialized hiking gear and [2] find a good location to take your first test-hike (which may mean scouting it out, without your cat, ahead of time).  Obtain these items:
  • pet backpack
  • bottle of water
  • small container of cat food
  • hiking staff or walking stick
  • brightly colored cat-collar
  • large towel
  • training "clicker" or whistle
  • small flashlight
  • optional safety items (map, compass, cellphone, first aid pack, etc.)
Place the towel at the bottom of the backpack. Put the water and food in a pocket of the pack or under the towel.  Insure the cat collar has a break-away snap and your phone number written inside; put it on when you start each hike and take it off when finished—your cat will learn to associate this collar with hiking and know when you're finished by its removal.

The reason you need a hiking staff is not about: balancing on uneven terrain, removing spiderwebs from your path, poking into hollows (for snakes) before your cat does, or having something to waive over your head if you need to appear larger to a predator (all valuable, sound, reasons to have a walking-staff between shoulder and head high).  It's more about appearance.  Walking with a staff signals: hiker.  Your cat will associate your use of it with "hiking-time" and he will quickly learn that a hike—different from a rambling walk or stroll—is reasonably-paced, mostly trail-based, and that navigation is decided by you.

For your first house-cat hike, locate a place with as many of the following as possible:
  • dirt or sand trails (cats will naturally stick to a trail, but gravel can hurt paws)
  • mostly shady (or pick an overcast day)
  • nothing man-made nearby (no cars, tents, campfire pits, etc.)
  • no roads with vehicle-traffic within 200 meters (carry your pet in the pack until then)
  • a low pedestrian-traffic area (the less other hikers and dogs the better)
  • moderate temperature and weather (not raining, not too hot or cold)
  • a long, clear, distance of visibility is best (to see other hikers coming)
Plan on your first hike being a slow one, of no more than 1/2 mile to 1 mile (but he may surprise you with the energy to hike longer).  Your cat will need to get used to the new smells and sounds, and will need to be corrected (when he heads the wrong direction) by carrying him until he sees the direction you want to walk.

Be attentive to what your cat hears or smells; pick him up and/or put him in the backpack if you: suspect another animal is close, get too near to dwellings or roads, or your cat begins to display a belligerent I-don't-want-to-walk-in-that-direction streak.

Occasionally use the 'clicker' or whistle to get, and maintain, his attention (not to get him to come to you) there may come a time when you lose sight of each other (more-so as trust builds) and then a loud, familiar, noise will tell him where to find you.

The flashlight may never be needed, but it's better to be prepared.  At least once a hike: lay out the towel and teach him that when the towel is down and you're sitting he is not to explore beyond a comfortable distance (25 feet/8 meters or closer, depending on terrain and visibility).  As with anything, the more hikes you take together, the more comfortable/familiar you will become with communicating with each other, and the more challenges you can attempt together.

The answers to the questions from the beginning of this article: He stays with me because he's been trained to follow me on the path.  When dogs approach I pick him up.

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing. — Abraham Lincoln (President of America 1861-1865)


Mary Witzl said...

Thank you -- this is just amazing! Although I know people with cats who join them on walks or rambles, I had no idea people actually hiked with cats to this extent!

In answer to those questions, though, this cat obviously identifies with me. She's at my heels much of the day, talks to me non-stop, brings me dead prey, and invariably sleeps on top of me, always finding the most uncomfortable position for me when she does. But she would sooner fly to the moon than come to me when I call.

I can see Siamese cats being good hikers, actually. I once had a Siamese cat who came with me on walks, as well as a black and white male who thought he was a dog and would follow me for miles. Off now to find a good walking staff...

veach glines said...


The list of 'will your cat be a good hiker' questions aren't all-or-nothing...it sounds like your cat will be a wonderful hiker.

It's a very rare cat who will come every time it's called. My current one (Cecil O. Zonkey) will move closer to me 8 out of 10 times after I call him. Great when I need him to leave the thick brambles and follow me as I walk 50 meters away from him on a path, but not good enough to get him to come out from under the bed (because when I'm standing in the bedroom calling him, he thinks "why is that idiot calling me...we're already in the same room!")

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great article! How do you deal with your cats' litterbox needs? Will the cat typically be ok away from the litterbox for a car ride of up to an hour each way? I imagine cats might instinctively go outside off the trail... Any thoughts?

veach glines said...

Great question. My answer is too large for the comment box, so I wrote a new post to answer you.