What’s it like to backpack with a cat?

Simon riding on JJ's backpack

Most people journey outdoors with their dogs, but I like to venture outside with my cat, Simon.

As an adventurer and lifetime nomad, I’ve experienced an array of incredible locations around the globe. Living a nomadic lifestyle, I barely had time to take care of my own needs let alone a cat’s, so raising a cat was far down my list of things to do.

So when Simon entered my life last year, it was a bit of shock.

I was used to going on adventures by myself or with friends, but in August 2016, my world changed when I found myself rescuing a stray mountain cat, whom I later named Simon.

JJ Yosh petting Simon the cat

Now, I’ve always been a cat lover because I relate so much to their often aloof and standoffish behavior. Funnily enough, my friends even call me a cat.

I grew up with a cat named Rookie, whom I considered my brother. And after Rookie passed away seven years ago, I was a little reluctant to raise another cat.

But living in the mountains of Colorado, you often see people climbing peaks with their dogs, and there have been many moments where I envied those people and imagined myself with a doglike companion that I could take wherever I go. However, being a cat person, that was kind of a tricky dilemma.

So when the opportunity to raise a cat that would enjoy tagging along on my adventures finally struck me, I embraced it full on. As we all know, cats are not necessarily known as the type to walk with us effortlessly on a leash, so right away I knew what I was up against. But I was determined to train my cat to be a cat-dog or an adventure cat.

Simon walking through mountainous landscape

Soon after adopting Simon, I put him through what I call “Kitty Boot Camp,” a training course I designed by to teach my cat how to hike on a leash and listen to commands. It was challenging, yes. Cats aren’t sprinters, nor are they long-endurance runners like dogs.

My strategy was simple: Start with short hikes under a mile and work him up to longer treks.

The most challenging part of teaching Simon to hike was finding a secure harness that he could stay in no matter what. The next challenge was building up the miles of hiking before he needed to be carried, and I discovered pretty early on that it was easier to have him perch on my shoulder when he needed to rest.

Simon riding on JJ's shoulder

Obviously, when you’re backpacking, you need to consider this additional weight, but being someone who loves to train and get fit, I welcomed the extra weight on my back.

The most interesting part of hiking with Simon in the backcountry is the reactions we receive from passing strangers. People usually have to take two looks to register if what they are seeing is real. “Yes, that is a cat on my shoulders,” I tell them.

Simon wearing harness in snow

Many folks snap photos to show their friends, and one of these photos actually went viral on Reddit this past summer. It definitely makes camping more entertaining, and I’m pretty sure Simon enjoys the attention.

When Simon and I first started camping together, I would haul in a portable litter box and also the litter. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I am dedicated cat dad. Luckily Simon learned right away to potty outside, so we could do away with the extra weight. However, I still travel with a portable litter box when I’m flying to destinations with Simon as it makes going on the go easier.

JJ and Simon kayaking

One thing I’m very mindful about when outdoors with Simon is wildlife encounters. Typically, small cats and dogs can be targets for mountain lions, coyotes and other large animals, so I always carry air horns and bear spray with me. I usually backpack with another friend too to help scare off unwanted wildlife encounters. At night, I make sure to keep Simon close to me.

Overall, I find the process of traveling with my cat to be a rewarding one. It’s difficult at times, but I think every great part of life has its obstacles, so I take each step with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, I’m just so happy to watch the sunset on a beautiful overlook with my cuddly furry feline named Simon. The challenge is worth it!

Simon pawing at pinecone in JJ's hand

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JJ Yosh is an experienced international mountaineer, rock climbing coach and outdoor trip organizer and leader. You can follow him and Simon on Instagram.