Teach Your Kitty to Camp, Sail, and Hike by Your Side
Learn how to turn your house cat into an Adventure Cat.
We’ve all been there, walking in a park or forest, when suddenly a stupidly adorable scene grabs our attention: a fuzzy, four-legged friend making its way down the trail next to its owner ahead of its leash, paws padding along, ears perked up, high-pitched meows ringing in the air—hang on, is that a cat?
Indeed, this is no dog. And it’s no ordinary cat either—this is an Adventure Cat, with capital letters and a flying cape to match. Like that one random car commercial everyone talked about, it turns out the feline variety can do more than just yell at birds out the window and stretch out across your keyboard right as you start to type.
Adventure Cats—the kind of kitty that wears a leash, hikes in national parks, goes camping and kayaking, and, swear to God, even surfs—are more than a mere internet fad. It turns out (almost) anyone can train (almost) any cat to be a confident outdoor enthusiast. And not only is it possible, it’s also good for the cat, both mentally and physically (because yes, feline diabetes is a real thing).
Even if both you and the furrball have no plans to climb peaks any time soon, you can still train your cats to hang with you outside, be it in your backyard or local park. The key difference between an outdoor cat and an Adventure Cat? Well, the leash, for one thing—but also that you can enjoy the great outdoors together, trekking side by side. (Leash traveling also protects the local bird population and protects cats from wildlife or traffic.) Now you can watch them chomp on blades of grass in real time, relishing every precious second.
Here’s what to know about training your cat, getting them used to a leash and a backpack, and all the things you can do once you’re ready to brave the outside world together.
So what would possess someone to do this?
“Cats can do more than you think,” says Laura Moss, author of Adventure Cats, founder of its namesake organization, and basically the initiator of the whole feverish trend. While some immediately think of the lazy indoor cat cliche, Moss explains why felines shouldn’t be confined to four walls.
“During quarantine, during COVID, we all kind of became indoor cats in a way. And a lot of us, we went kind of crazy,” she points out. “We think, ‘My cat has it so good—they live inside and they get everything they want handed to them, all this attention.’ Yeah, if we lived a life where we never went outdoors and got everything handed to us, that would be fun for a couple of days—but it would get old pretty fast.”
Don’t just take Moss’ word for it—the pros are in on it, too. For her latest book, Moss worked with veterinarian Lynn Bahr. “She didn't feel she was doing the right thing by telling everybody to keep cats indoors,” Moss says. ”She found so many cats that were suffering from physical and mental illness because of that lifestyle.”
In the wild world of kitty debates, outdoor versus indoor is a hot one—outdoor cats have more stimulus and exercise, but tend to have shorter lives by up to 12 years due to encountering traffic, wildlife, natural or synthetic poisons, parasites, or diseases. Plus, modern domestication has led to unattended outdoor cats killing up to 2 billion—billion!—birds every year, so keeping cats indoors (or on a leash) helps stem the slaughter of local, sometimes-threatened species.
Leash training provides the best of both worlds, where your indoor cat can benefit from all the safety perks while also getting to venture outside and exercise those wild, wannabe-jaguar instincts. The end result is a healthier, happier pet.
Us humans can expect a more enriching relationship with the outdoors, too. Aside from the obvious health wins, let’s be real: It’s entertaining as hell to watch a cat captaining a boat while wearing a tiny life jacket.
Go fishing with Fluffy
Over the years, Moss has met cats who go water tubing, rock climbing, ride in strollers, and, in Norway and Michigan, hit the slopes—or at least trot in the snow alongside their owners on cross-country ski trips. And the internet has been quick to capture it. Tiktok, Youtube, and Instagram showcase countless cats hiking, camping, boating, van-lifeing, biking, piggyback-skiing with goggles—the list goes on. You name it, and some cat has tried it while their clever human stood by with a camera.
“The biggest thing is just looking at what your cat wants. I love hiking, but I have friends who hate it—it's the same thing with cats,” Moss explains. “I think every cat should be given the opportunity to decide what they want, because indoors, we decide everything for them, what they eat, where they use the bathroom, what toys they have access to.” Maybe your cat would actually like swimming, climbing on top of rocks, or pouncing at things moving under the snow, if only given the chance.
The key is allowing the cat to take the lead (metaphorically, of course), choosing when to walk out of its carrier, step in the water, or stroll down the trail. In short, no throwing kitty in a pond or dragging them through the woods. Exposure and agency are vital parts of the process.
Once you’re ready, you can take your cats to national parks they’re allowed to visit, like Acadia, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone, and many others. Just make sure to check the park websites to see if there are any trail restrictions.
But there’s an adjustment phase for people, too. Adventuring with a cat usually requires a different type of hike, often at a slower pace, where nature is being explored rather than raced through. And there’s always the option to carry the pet in a cat backpack—complete with a little window—while you cover ground. But that’s also up to the kitty, as cats have varied needs, proclivities, and personalities. “Some cats will walk for miles,” says Moss. “Some will do miles as long as they're in a backpack. It just depends on your cat.”
Curious to see what your little buddy might be able to handle? Thankfully, organizations like Adventure Cats and the ASPCA have your back…
Enter the cat personality quiz
Just like you might want to know how your horoscope will affect your week, you can also get a read on whether Garfield will turn out to be a Mount Everest champion or a picnic lounger. The ASPCA categorizes feline personalities into purple, orange, and green. Their quiz was actually designed to match adoptive owners with pets, but Moss considers it a good indicator as to how adventurous a cat might become.
According to the professionals, “purple” cats are hyper-cautious, shy around strangers, and potentially jumpy. This is the kind of cat that, no matter how affectionate they are behind closed doors, always hides under the couch when company visits and instantly skedaddles at any loud noise. Purple cats might want to sleep in a patch of sunny grass, and would probably be most comfortable hanging in a backyard, private apartment rooftop or garden space (yup, there’s a whole section of Adventure Cats dedicated to urban mousers), or a screened-in catio, if you will.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, “green” cats appear fearless. They might startle at a noise, but quickly turn curious and get down to investigating, wandering into every room of a new space and foolishly climbing into places where they’ll surely get stuck. They could also run around the house in a frenzy performing some impressive acrobatics when they’ve deemed it play time. And they just might rub against the leg or hop into the lap of pretty much anyone who comes over, making you feel only slightly betrayed, if you were being honest. It probably goes without saying, but these daredevils are the most adventurous—once they try it a couple times, they might run out the door as soon as the leash clicks on.
“Orange” cats, on the other hand, fall somewhere in between. They don’t look for trouble, but they don’t necessarily run away from it either. And while they might not be glued to the window, itching for a taste of freedom, they definitely like to gaze outdoors on occasion. These guys are likely down for an adventure, but might need a bit more encouragement and patience than their greener counterparts.
Once you’ve determined which color you—er, your cat—identifies as, you can start planning out the activities you might want to do together. But first, you’re going to need a leash.
How to get your cat to wear a leash—and maybe high five, too
Young kittens are obviously the easiest to train, since they quickly adapt to whatever they’re exposed to. But you can, in fact, teach an old cat new tricks—or any trick at all, for that matter. “It's often simple commands, like getting your cat to jump on your shoulder or jump into a backpack,” says Moss. “My cats come when called, they sit, they spin, they high five.” Some people even train their cats to use the toilet, but that’s a whole different story.
No matter what wisdom you’re trying to bestow upon your cat, make sure to keep that spray bottle in the cupboard. “Cats don't learn if you punish them—which is awesome for cats,” says Moss. In her book, she explains how felines don’t associate punishments with their own behavior (it could never be Whiskers’s fault, of course). Instead, they associate the bad feelings with you, and learn to either fear you or hide their actions.
Instead, she says, “it's all positive reinforcements.” That means food. Prepare to bribe your cat (some more than others) with a whole lot of treats. You’ll also need a harness, leash, and a cat backpack for comfy transport.
Begin by introducing your cat to the gear by either leaving the harness by their bowl or giving them a treat every time they sniff it. Then, put the harness on them and give the cat a treat right away, something you’ll repeat every time you slip it on. Once they’re strapped in, distract the cat with toys (and, most likely, more treats). “It's showing them that they can have multiple behaviors in the harness,” Moss explains. “Because it's weird—cats aren't used to wearing clothes.” It’s important to make sure the harness fits well, since they might back up or contort their way out of it when scared (which could spell disaster mid-hike).
Next, attach a leash to the harness and allow your cat to walk around the room while you lightly hold the end of the lead. Eventually, you can try gently guiding (never pulling) and calling the cat toward you with a command word and an accompanying treat, letting them snack each time they approach successfully. Always provide a treat when taking off the harness at the end of training, so the whole experience has a positive association. All this happens indoors—and can take several days, depending on the cat—before you even think about stepping out the door.
When you are ready, Moss recommends carrying your cat outside so it doesn’t get used to walking out on its own—including darting outside without a leash (bad kitty). Starting with a quiet space like an enclosed backyard, let ol’ Felix slowly explore the area on-leash, using toys and giving them treats to coax them out of their shell. After roaming around at their own pace, they’ll be outdoor champs, and soon ready for bigger trips. (For a refresher, the Animal Humane Society has a 58-second video breaking down the whole training process into five easy steps.)
To further your cat's education or make sure it’ll come when called when confronted with tricky situations outdoors, consider using clicker training. Pick up an inexpensive, keychain-sized clicker tool from a local pet shop, then click, give a treat, click, give a treat, and keep repeating that until they learn to respond. “Worst comes to worst, if your cat gets off the leash when you’re outdoors, having your cat respond is such an important thing,” Moss explains. Just don’t try clicking to get your cat to take yucky medicine or settle down for a vet visit, otherwise it’ll stop working. They’re smart little buggers.
Next stop: the open road (or the friendly skies)
The last component to achieving Adventure Cat status is actually transporting your furry pal to all that beautiful nature. Because unless you’re a lucky scoundrel who lives right next to a national park, some form of travel is generally involved. And while you could just throw kitty in a carrier and be done with it, the idea is to make sure the cat doesn’t hate any part of the process, so that it wants to come on adventures with you.
If your cat is skeptical about the carrier, evoke a positive association by treating the enclosure like a mini dog house. Serve them their food inside of it, fill it with toys for playtime, or throw in some blankets whenever your cat wants to nap.
Moss recommends carrying your cat around in the carrier while rewarding it with treats before climbing into the car, and then only driving a short distance at first (with plenty of treats before, during, and after), so they get used to the sensations. Once your cat is comfortable, it’s a good idea to feed and tire them out a bit before a longer drive, so they’re more inclined to snooze once you hit the road.
For flying, driving, or even camping, you’ll need a portable (sometimes small and collapsible) litter box, possibly one that fits in the carrier. For long hikes or backpacking, some people opt to carry the cat’s litter (which cats recognize the smell of) in a plastic baggie and spread it on the ground outside (though you’ll need a disposable box in the tent for overnight use).
Placing the litter box in the carrier is especially crucial when flying, since you’re not allowed to open the carrier at all once you’re airborne. It’s also important to check the airline’s pet policy in advance, since it varies and often requires a separate fee. You’ll also need to take your cat out of the carrier to go through TSA, so leash them up ahead of time lest Scrappy decides to bolt and gets lost in the terminal.
Along with all the normal stuff you’d bring hiking (AKA water, snacks, a flashlight, etc.), consider packing along a feline first aid kit. You may not need it, but you never know what dangerous plants your cat might eat or tick-loaded brushes they might get into. A cat backpack is also crucial here, serving as a refuge from heat, cold, rain, dogs, or exhaustion.
Moss’s book gives many more specific tips as well as stories about some extraordinary cats she’s met, in the hope that your cat, too, can be extraordinary. It only takes a little training and patience. But just think: Somewhere out in the world, right now, a cat just had a harness put on, stiffened up, and fell over onto its side, refusing to move. Don’t worry, you’ll both get there—just put one paw in front of the other and keep on trucking.