Most people wouldn’t peg a cat as the hiking type. But the truth is, they have some of the most wild senses of curiosity and adventure around! Ember, one of the Carolina’s original adventure cats, is constantly redefining what I thought is even possible with our feline friends.
Undoubtedly, the most frequent question I get asked about her is, “How did you manage to train a cat to hike with you?”. This seemingly simple question has a loaded answer, so here is our journey together.
I firmly believe pets come into our lives at the right moments, and they are the ones to pick us. In late March of 2016, while coaching a tumbling class at a local gymnastics facility, one of my students approached me to ask if I liked cats. At first, I thought she was being rhetorical because it’s pretty apparent (or so I thought) that everyone knows I absolutely LOVE cats. But no, she was genuinely asking because her two cats each had a litter, a day apart. Ironically enough, I was just talking about getting a cat earlier that week. If you ask me, it’s pretty hard to ignore signs as obvious as that.. or it makes for a great motivational push to impulsively adopt a kitty. Once they were a couple weeks older, I went to check out her army of fuzzy cuteness.
In the years prior, I had a running joke that if I ever got another cat then I would train it to hike the mountains with me. But as getting a kitten became a reality, I made the decision to follow through with it at full force. In my eyes, few things are actually impossible. With that decision in mind, I was specifically trying to avoid getting a female calico – as they usually are the most temperamental in my experience.
When I got to her house, I sat down with the kittens and within minutes this happened:
So, I ended up coming home with a tortoiseshell calico – the literal opposite of what I said I wanted! But when she sat in my lap and looked up at me with those newborn blue eyes, I instantly knew that we both shared a kindred spirit for adventure and exploration. In hindsight, a tortie was the perfect candidate for adventure training. They are known for their wildly instinctual and energetic natures, marked by a high intelligence – and Ember was no exception to these qualities!
This initial connection was the first, and most crucial, step in her training. I tell people that before any field work can begin, you first need to have an unbreakable bond with your cat (or any pet really). The obvious worst case scenario with any adventure pet is somehow becoming separated with them. To no surprise, cats are notoriously jumpy and agile when startled. Inevitably, you are also going to pass the occasional dog or wild animal – it’s imperative to know how they are going to react to these circumstances. Point blank was, I needed to know that if she was scared then she would come to me for protection. Knowing that I can be the occasionally ambitious hiker (and those who personally know me will say I’m severely downplaying that), I also needed to train Ember to be tolerant with excessive handling and being carried for potentially long distances. Let’s be honest here, we all know handling a cat can be a dicey game.
At the time, there was far less information available about how long cats could theoretically hike for and other important health related aspects. The information that I could find wasn’t extensive enough for the type of over night trips I was wanting to take on with her. Ultimately, that deep bond you create with your animal will have to give you the insight needed to judge their individual abilities. Initially, I knew the obvious: she would need to be used to wearing a harness, being picked up/carried/ riding on my shoulder, and riding in my car. Those are all things that anyone can start with immediately, as I did with Ember.
I essentially got Ember her harness the same day I got her – three years later and shes still rocking it! My theory was to just put it on her and keep it on her for a few days at a time, while I work on developing trust with her. The smallest harness I could find was still too big for her at 6 weeks. I ended up “ghetto fixing” it with some pipe cleaners to get it tight enough, and figured she would grow into it with no time. Fortunately, Ember wasn’t opposed to being picked up and handled, nor was she really to the harness. Don’t get me wrong, she struggled with it and it was awkward for her. But by the end of the first week it was basically apart of her. This is where a lot of owners struggle when training their adventure cat, and admittedly I had an easier time than most. It seems like the most common response, if the owner successfully gets the harness on, is to dead weight themselves. There isn’t a consistent answer on how to fix this, but my best advice to just let them be stubborn. Put the harness on, and leave it on the same way you would leave a collar on. With enough time, they will get used to it. It may take a couple days but distract them with some toys or treats – anything to get their mind off the harness and functioning normally. I would carry Ember into the backyard and the moment we would get outside, it was like the harness didn’t exist anymore.
During the initial two weeks of having her, I took her on consistent, short car rides. In order to acclimate her, the first couple runs were only 5 or 10 minutes – but they quickly increased as the days went on! I intentionally made it a point to drive steep, windy roads as well. My adventures take me down all sorts of rugged back roads. The sooner she got used to a rocking car, the better. Unlike other cats that like to ride on the dash or the floor, Ember basically just cuddles my lap the entire time. Almost three years old and not much has changed at all. But hey, at least she can do long road trips!
After two weeks, I decided then was as good as any time to take her out on our first adventure together. I often get asked if I any special backpacks I use, or if I’ve seen those “bubble window” packs for cats. My answer is yes – I have seen those things. And no, absolutely not. They are nice for those people who only want to bring their cat for a small stroll in the local park down the road, at best. I could no way go on a backpacking trip with her carrying that bulky (and tacky) thing. I have just always used my normal pack, with a rigid backing for some support to stand her hind legs on – this is where the shoulder training comes into play!
I made sure to stay close to home for our first hike, and kept it very minimal. Ember isn’t the type to ride hidden inside my pack anyways, her curiosity always gets the best of her. During that initial hike, she rode shoulder the entire time until we stopped at some picnic tables where I let her get some ground time in. All in all, I think we spent less than 30 minutes out total. Take it slow at first – smaller, more achievable, steps are better building blocks towards larger goals. To this day, I always give her a few minutes on the ground to sniff around and acclimate herself before beginning. Let them have some control and say on how the hike looks for them. After all, we share that natural curiosity for exploration!
I think the second most important aspect of training your adventure cat is consistency, especially in the beginning. This is where a lot of people fail. If you only expose your cat to it once a month, you can’t expect it to adapt. The key is persistent consistency, through gradually increasing steps. So we kept this on for a few weeks, each time extending our outings and drive from home.
Variety of exposure is the third most important aspect. I wanted my adventure cat to be ready to handle my ambitious lifestyle. So I made it a point to “try” different adventures with her to see what I can get to stick – or more like what she wouldn’t budge on! We’ve been hiking on open cliffs, bushwhacking deep in creeks, rafting across lakes, and much more!
Although despite my best efforts, I could never get Ember to be a swimming cat. She tolerates water, lets me give her the semi regular bath (although probably vocal about it), and she even loves sitting lakeside watching the water – she just won’t commit to that full body swim! But to be fair, one time I took her rafting across Lake Jocassee when she was 3 months and she took off the inflatable with a full on swan dive! At least she gave it a try.
While afternoon hikes were one thing, camping (with the eventual hopes of backpacking) were a whole other thing. After about a month, I figured that was about as good as any time to take her on our first over night trip. But again, that personal bond you have with your cat will have to be the deciding factor on when you think they will be ready for their first over night trip. I recommend keeping it simple, relatively easy to get to, and somewhere they have been before. It’s important to set up the trip in a way that’s going to make them as comfortable as possible.
There is no standard list of what you should bring that will work for every adventure cat – I think those things vary based on ability, intention, and length of trip. But here is a plethora of various aspects that I think can apply to any adventure cat:
I’ve tried to bring one of those little cubicle hideaways on trips but Ember is just way too curious to stay tucked inside. She spends most of the time exploring, but every cat needs a safe shelter they can rest and hide in. For us, that’s my tent. I don’t trust hammock camping with her because she would jump out in the middle of night to roam around the campsite. A tent gives her consistently familiar shelter during the day, and a peace of mind while I slept that she is still next to me. I usually bring a small, light blanket for Ember to sleep on. If possible, try to use the same gear, clothing, etc for outings. Cats cope with new situations better when they have a familiarity supporting them.
Food / Water
I recommend getting a pair of collapsible silicone bowls – one for water and one for food. I have only ever used them, and they have been wonderful this entire time! I avoid overly smelly wet food on over night trips because I’m afraid of attracting the wrong kind of animals. However, I do encourage bringing your cat’s favorite treats – it would be a good incentive for them to stay focused while following the trail, etc. Remember to hydrate as frequently as you can, but sometimes they may seem like they never want to drink. This particularly worries me about Ember; she gets visibly hot but insists on going long periods of time without water, despite my best efforts to get her to have some. Then other times she will drink directly out of my bottle. At this point, I have just learned to trust that she will drink when she is ready. I just make sure to give her ample opportunities to do so.
Distance and Weather
This one is highly subjective, and largely depends on what your cat’s interests are. As I’ve understated earlier, I am an ambitious hiker. Therefore Ember has been on treks stretching 11 miles, visiting multiple waterfalls on a hot summer day. I know of other adventure cats that could never do more than a couple miles. It just depends on how far your cat likes to walk and how far you’re willing to carry them (Ember walks about 70% of our hikes and rides shoulder for the rest). When we are on backpacking trips spanning multiple days, I keep the mileage closer to 5-ish a day depending on how hot it is. Listen to your cat, they will let you know when they have had enough and are done! Some cats like open balds, Ember doesn’t particularly like being exposed to the hawks above like that. Like people, they have preference. I know Ember’s preferred hike is through a closed-in trail, on a dry and cool day somewhere around dusk or dawn.. and it’s up to you to make sure you know what your cat’s preferences are too!
Temperature is a critical subject. It is far easier for them to overheat than it it for us. Generally speaking, we don’t hike much in the dead of summer unless it’s an unusually cool and overcast day. With her black colors, the direct sunlight can be harsh (that’s why she likes closed-in trails). I make sure to go at a comfortable pace when it is warm. On hotter days, I will frequently pour water on her to cool down. Ember actually likes it and it has made a big difference on those mid-day hikes!
Cold weather is the other side of the same coin. I’ve taken Ember out on in the snow, but only if I can stay within 10 minutes of my car. Other than that, I let her go out in our yard on her own terms. She’s pretty boujee about the cold weather/being wet, so she generally doesn’t venture into it. Fall and Spring weather seems to be her favorite, but that can vary with your cat! Remember, they will DEFINITELY let you know when they don’t like something – just pay attention!
I think most people fully intend on keeping their adventure cats leashed the entirety of their trips. While Ember can hike off leash, and first did so during a thru hike of the Roan Highlands back in 2017, I prefer to always keep the leash on her. Even though she hiked several miles on that trip without me holding it, I just can’t bring myself to always trust that. First and foremost, most everywhere you can hike requires you to leash your animals. If something were to uncharacteristically startle them, is a lot easier to control their reactions with a leash. It also keeps Ember focused on the trails. Left to her own devices, she’ll stop to climb every tree or explore every bush we pass. But with her constantly leashed, I can keep her attention to following the track. When we post up at a campsite or general hang out spot, I keep her tethered. Although I fully trust that Ember would never let me out of her sight, she often will hide in nooks and I’ll lose sight of her! So I have a 50-ft rope I keep track of her with. She has ample space to free roam, but I always have an instant line to her location and can quickly catch her in the event of an emergency.
Encountering Other Animals
This is another top frequently asked question that I get. Inevitably, you are going to be passing other dogs on the trail. Most of the time, those dogs will also be unleashed and be sprinting towards you if they spot a cat on the ground. When Ember and I pass other dogs, we always see them coming long before they are anywhere close enough for anything to potentially happen. I’m not saying that all dogs are going to try to charge your cat – in fact it’s literally quite the opposite and most just want to love on them/you. But I can’t put blind trust into a dog I don’t know, and I also don’t trust Ember’s reaction. She’s a fighter, and has no problem getting vocal and intimidating out there. So I always put her on my shoulder until we pass the dog(s). Now, she immediately stops, sits, and waits for me to pick her up when she hears a dog approaching.
In the rare instances that we pass wildlife on the trail, I initiate the same protocol that I do when we pass dogs/other hikers. Depending on the animal your encountering, my best advice is to secure your cat and then respond to the animal in the appropriate way you are recommended to for that particular species. One time in August 2018, Ember and I crossed a bear in Panthertown, NC. Luckily she was already on my shoulder when we encountered it, but that girl started growling at the bear! Bold move and I tried to quiet her, but it actually worked! The bear ran off and Ember had a smug sense of accomplishment about herself the rest of the day! Hopefully that will be the only time we cross that bridge.
Training Ember has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. She has far surpassed what I thought I could ever hope for in a cat. If you’re considering training yours to adventure as well, I highly encourage it! The bond you develop wandering together is something that I could never truly articulate in words. Hopefully these tips will aide you in your journey!
Over the years, Ember has caught the attention and won the hearts of many! In late Spring of 2017, she was featured in an article by the famous adventurecats.org – which you can read here.
Want to stay up to date with Ember’s adventures? Be sure to follow her instagram – – Ember_thewildfire