My Dog is My Co-Pilot: Tips for Van Life with Furry Friends

My Dog is My Co-Pilot: Tips for Van Life with Furry Friends

  • Allison Hartz

Story and Photos Contributed by Laura Patton of @mobileroamers

Life is better with dogs. So why leave them behind when you’re hitting the road?  With the increasing popularity of van and car living to maximize outdoor playtime, lots of people have asked me how to live with dogs on the road. Whether you’re currently living in a vehicle and contemplating adoption, thinking about moving into a vehicle and wanting to bring your pup, or just looking to do an extended road trip with your best bud, here are some answers to my most frequently asked questions and tips for life on the road with dogs!

Dogs in the back of the van at the base of red rocks.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do the dogs do while you’re at work (or out to dinner, getting groceries, at the ski resort, or somewhere where they aren’t allowed, etc.)?

This is the question I get asked the most!  For us, the van is home.  We live in it full-time, year round, and as such Titan and Star feel comfortable hanging out in there just like they would a regular house.  We are able to control the temperature using sunshades and our roof fan (and by not living in hot climates) and blankets and jackets in the winter, so if they have to hang out for a bit they don’t mind.  If you’re traveling in a hotter climate, you’ll probably need a built in A/C unit that can run while the vehicle is off.  This past summer while we were working full time, we were able to rent a small piece of land and build a little fence around the van so they could hop in and out at their leisure.  Titan and Star do almost everything with us, but if they are going to be hanging out at “home” they get lots of exercise before and after.

Star and Colt in older approach packs in the mountains.

What if you want to visit a National Park?

Dogs are limited to developed areas in National Parks, which usually includes campgrounds, parking lots, and picnic areas.  This excludes them from trails and the backcountry.  Fortunately, many of the NPs are bordered by BLM or Forest Service land which have limited or no stipulations against dogs and can give you similar terrain to the park itself. Some parks do have differing rules based on the season. For example, some park roads that become snow covered and closed to traffic in winter are open to humans and dogs for cross country skiing during that time since the road is technically a developed area. In addition, you can look for National Monuments and State Parks as dogs are often allowed there.  If you’re traveling in Canada, dogs are allowed in Provincial Parks (Canadian version of National Parks) as long as they are on a leash.

Star and colt lay on sandstone rock features.

How do you handle living in a small space with large dogs?  Where do they sleep?

Titan and Star are pretty large – they weigh in at 75 and 60 pounds respectively. Our small space works for us because when you’re on the road or living in a van, you’re spending a lot more time with your dog than you would in a more “normal” situation, which helps your dog adapt to your lifestyle, get used to your habits, and find his or her space in the van. Plus, you’ll be spending lots of time outside exploring and adventuring in the wide open space. All the exercise helps tucker your pup out, which leaves them calmer in the van. As for sleeping, you’ll find Titan and Star sprawled out on the bed while their humans are squashed in the corner.

Star and Colt tired, taking a nap on the bed inside the van.

How do you handle keeping the van clean, dry, and mud free?

Make sure you have a designated dog towel and if your dog sleeps on the bed, a dog blanket.  We cover our bed with an old unzipped sleeping bag so even if they dogs come in wet or dirty they aren’t getting our bedding wet.  A little bit of mud and dog hair is a guarantee, but if you wait until things dry out a bit, it all sweeps right out the door, no problem!

Star and Colt in the snow.

What about the vet?

We have vets we like in a few key places that we visit every year.  This allows us to have the dogs’ annual exams with vets we know.  For unexpected trips to the vet, make sure you are always carrying your dog’s vaccination records and ask around- local pet owners are generally very helpful in giving out vet recommendations in the area.


  • Be flexible.  Things don’t always go as planned, and being able to go with the flow will save you lots of stress.  Wake up for a big hike and your pooch is pooped?  Go with your back-up plan of having a relaxing day of reorganizing the vehicle or grabbing groceries.
  • Have a large water receptacle in your vehicle.  Sometimes water filling options are few and far between.  Having a big container (we keep 7 gallons in the van) and filling it up at every opportunity ensures that your dog won’t ever be without the essential fresh bowl of water.
  • Teach important road trip commands like ‘go potty’ and ‘load up.’  If your dog is shy about using the bathroom in new places, be sure to brush up on their ‘go potty’ command before hitting the road.  The command ‘load up’ is crucial for us – the dogs know to stop whatever it is that they’re doing and hop on in.
  • Stay active!  Remember that a tired dog is a good dog and the more exercise and activity your dog gets, the more content they will be when it’s time to curl up for sleep in the truck bed at night.  Plus, getting out and exploring new places is a great reason to get on the road in the first place!

Do you have additional questions or ideas to share? Leave a comment below or connect with Laura on Instagram @mobileroamers.

Star stands on a rock looking out at the valley.

Leave a Comment

* Required
Personal Information



    Hi Laura, I liked your van-life blog on ruffwear. I’m in the planning stage of van-life. Where is a good place to land or do you keep moving?

  • JaneEllen

    I am a fan of people who live on the road and was so happy for your advice about taking dogs along.
    Your advice was right on the money and solutions to keeping the living area clean helpful as well.
    About 2-3 years ago I seriously considered making the move to a van and do some traveling with my dog. I was serious about it and followed You Tube to see what people were doing and how they were doing it. I knew it would be a big adjustment but felt up to the challenge……..then I broke my arm near the wrist, naturally it would be my dominant hand, dang! Had to wait about 8-10 days in a temporary cast before surgery. My BT was 15 years old and been slowing down but still eating well, playing 2-3 times daily “get the ball” her favorite fun time but would gradually decrease
    the amount of time she was active at this.
    While waiting for the OR and arm wrapped up I began to notice more sleeping, not climbing up on my bed, waiting for me to pick her up and put her down(painful for me). Now I noticed a more rapid respiratory rate at rest so I took her to my vet and her work up showed an enlarged heart and was referred to a veterinarian cardiologist. We talked and I went home to make some very hard decisions.
    To make a long story shorter, I reluctantly and deeply sad made a decision to euthanize her. Over a period of three days her respiratory rate got faster and more labored though she still ate and went out to potty there was no playing but she would look for her ball and briefly carry it around the house. The day before my surgery she passed away in my arms, gently, quietly with grace.
    The next day I had surgery, was casted and re-hospitalized for intractable pain due to failure of MD to prescribe appropriate analgesics. During my three month recovery I reluctantly gave up my idea to travel but not my interest in the travels of others.
    So delighted for your ability to keep at it and that the dogs seem happy to!!!
    Wishing you happiness and safety as you see the beauty that is America.
    Jane and her wacky sidekick Lola, the Boston Terrier, the new love of my life and my fourth BT.