Update: Ruffwear recently released a new version of their Approach packs – now in Meadow Green and Orange Poppy. The new version is very similar, but with color-matched webbing. One important change is that they eliminated XXS, which means that Robin will never wear another Approach – I would never put him in oversized XS bags.
Update: Robin now wears a modified Approach with XXS bags on an XS harness. We became aware that the XXS harness was too small and the back belly strap hit right over his floating ribs, which were at risk of being broken or damaged if he was lifted too quickly. The XS, his true size, fits in the soft tissue closer to the groin which is safer for lifting. However, since Ruffwear’s bags are oversized, I could not use XS bags on him without being cruel, so I tore his XXS bags off and attached them to his XS harness.
- Sizing and colors: XXS (13-17″ girth) to L/XL (32-42″ girth) in Campfire Orange and Pacific Blue.
I got Robin his first pack within a month of adopting him. Though his absolute maximum carry, four pounds (a quarter of his 16 pound weight), is not a big burden for me, it’s very helpful to have quick access to hiking necessities like poop bags, treats, or an LED collar.
When researching packs, my utmost concern was his safety. Although he never carries his maximum load, I wanted to make sure that the pack would safely distribute the weight without putting pressure on his spine or back. For a dog of his size, I had a choice between Kyjen Outward Hound’s pack and the Ruffwear Approach Pack. In comparing the two, however, the Kyjen model seemed to be more cheaply built, and not as well molded to fit the body and keep weight off the spine. I felt that this was a safety and comfort issue. (2016 update: Outward Hound has redesigned their pack and also added a “quick release” version with detachable saddlebags. They both now use a mesh suspension that looks breathable but not necessarily supportive.) I decided to go with Ruffwear despite the price, since the pack’s harness suspension looked sturdy and well padded. Ruffwear has three lines of dog packs: the Approach, the Singletrak (slim and designed to carry water) and the Palisades (larger with detachable bags), but the Approach is the only one made in XS and XXS.
We first tried an older-style Approach in Glacial Blue, size XS (5L size), then switched to a current model Approach in Campfire Orange, size XXS (2L capacity). The ratings below will be for the orange, current model, but I’ll mention how the older model differed in case anyone is considering the old style. In between selling the blue pack and buying the new orange one, I emailed Ruffwear to find out whether the new model was worth the premium. Here’s what they said:
“The major part is the harness of the pack. When we redesigned the Approach to the current model in spring of 2013 we had three main goals; improve the fit, lighten the overall weight of the pack, improve the materials for increased durability and function. There is a new size chart on the current model making it easier to get pups in the right size. On the harness, the fleece lining on the strap covers and interior harness body was replaced with ultra smooth nylon and brushed mesh which is lighter, less bulky, and more durable. The older model with the fleece lining was attractive to dog hair, dirt debris, snow etc. The harness body on the new model is also more pliable then the older version and wraps/hugs the body better. The saddlebags are using a lighter weight nylon fabric that has the same durability. The capacity/size of the saddlebags are the same as the older model. The current model has new extra pockets on the top of each saddlebag for quick access to small items.”
The orange pack is as well-designed as any human pack you can find. It’s built on a standard gray Ruffwear Webmaster harness, and the packs are attached with a strip of gray webbing. It has a sturdy leash ring close to the neck, a padded low-profile handle, and a reinforced tow loop at the back of the harness. There are five points of adjustment (three on the chest, two on the belly straps), so it could probably be fit to pretty much any body type, and the plastic quick release buckles and strap keepers work smoothly. If your dog is foot shy, it’s worth noting that the chest strap between the front legs is attached to the front belly strap, so one foot has to be fed through when putting the pack on. Each belly strap has a smooth nylon pad and a short section of elastic to allow some give for a more comfortable fit. The elastic sections are sewn onto a continuous strap, so a failure would still leave the nylon strap intact.
The bags themselves are made of durable, lightweight nylon and have a large main compartment and a tiny zip pocket on the lid, along with a daisy chain along the top for strapping on a pad or jacket. On Robin’s XXS pack, the little pockets are only big enough to hold one or two poop bags. Each bag has a horizontal strip of reflective trim that makes him look a bit like a UFO in low light (the harness also has reflectors above the strap attachment points that aren’t visible when the bags are in place). To keep the bags from flapping when the dog is running, Ruffwear added a little strap on the bottom of each pack to hold it to the belly strap (they call it the “flopper stopper”). The left-side flopper stopper has to be clipped around the belly strap when the pack is put on, which can be difficult on a small, wiggly dog.
The older blue pack was similar in design, but slightly less refined- the harness and belly pads were lined with fleece that picked up a lot of hair, and it was black, which showed more hair and dirt. Aside from the lack of zip pockets in the lid, the only main feature it lacked was the little buckle on the flopper stopper. Instead, the belly strap had to be threaded through the flopper stopper before fastening, which was a little more difficult. The main thing that I really liked about the older design was the handle- for a small dog, the low profile handle is hard to grab (I can only get two fingers into Robin’s, and I have small fingers), while the hard, reflective handle on the old model was more prominent. I’d prefer to see the handle made a little larger, even on the XXS model.
Robin’s blue pack was a size XS (17-22″ girth). With an 18.5″ girth, he should have been solidly in that size, but while the harness was a perfect fit, the packs hung comically to his knees and each bag was nearly as wide as his body! For the one hike we did in this pack, I binder clipped the bags from the inside so that he wouldn’t trip all over them.
When I purchased the new style pack in orange, I sized down to XXS (13-17″ girth), figuring that I’d replace the straps or extend them somehow so that he could at least wear proportionate bags. Surprisingly, when it arrived it fit him with a couple of inches to spare (enough to wear two jackets underneath), so it seems that Ruffwear builds a little extra space into their sizing. The bags on the XXS are just right for his body- they reach down almost to his belly. Unfortunately, while the straps are long enough, the harness is a little shorter in the back than I’d like, so the back belly strap hits him a little farther forward than it’s supposed to. It fits well enough, but I’d rather Ruffwear shrink the size of their bags so he can wear his proper size and I can grab him with a bigger handle. I can’t imagine bags of this size on a dog in the lower end of this size range- they would suffer from the same problem as Robin in his XS pack. If your dog is toward the middle to bottom of a size range, I highly recommend trying a size down first.
The pack is perfect for day hikes, and was also good for carrying small items we needed while backpacking (headlamps, carabiners, snacks). We generally keep it loaded up with poop bags, a bowl, a jacket (any of Robin’s lighter weight fleeces and nylon jackets fit in one side with room to spare), a bell or LED collar and some nonperishable treats, so it’s ready to go for the next hike. In the beginning, I had him carrying water in 8 oz soft bottles, but I stopped doing that after I saw him get exhausted on our Mount Lowe backpacking trip. Although he was only carrying around 2.5 pounds (including the 0.7 pound pack), the weight made a big difference for him and I didn’t like see him plodding along rather than darting everywhere.
It’s pretty quick to put on and take off, although the flopper stopper is hard to clip when it gets grit after a stream crossing. I added an elastic cord and toggle to the daisy chain on the top of the packs, which is perfect for holding a rolled up jacket or small bed, and can be tucked away into the top pocket when not being used.
To introduce a pack to your dog, I recommend bringing it along and introducing it partway into the hike, rather than before, so your pup has no time to worry about the strange new gear. This also helps form the association to hiking. Another option is to immediately start a game of fetch. Start with no weight, and slowly add more as needed. Robin likes his pack because of the associations with hiking, but he doesn’t like to be fussed with so I try to make adjustments once we’re on the trail rather than at home.
Build Quality: 5/5
Every inch of the pack is designed to last. The stitching is very tight and thorough, and everything is heavily reinforced. The nylon bags suffer some pilling from rubbing against trees and branches, but the wear looks to be totally superficial. The most likely failure point would be the plastic buckles which could be a concern for a larger dog that’s also an escape artist. The harness should also not be used to hoist a dog in a climbing situation. For those scenarios, consider the Ruffwear Webmaster Pro, with all-metal hardware, or the Doubleback Harness, which is weight rated for climbing.
If the bags on Robin’s proper size were proportionate, this pack would be a perfect 5/5. Everything about it is designed for adjustability, comfort and lasting durability, but I found the sizing frustrating and see a lot of dogs on Instagram in what I consider to be oversized packs. I think it’s potentially dangerous to put dogs in such large bags, since many people may not think about weighing the bag and could easily go over their dog’s maximum load. Robin’s original XS pack (5L size) would have weighed over 11 pounds if packed full of water!
Best for: Any dog with a girth over ~15″ that’s in good enough health to carry a little weight on hikes and backpacking trips.
Not ideal for: Dogs in the low end of the XXS size range (all dogs toward the bottom end of the other size ranges should be sized down where possible); strong escape artists that could be lost with a plastic buckle failure; climbing and hoisting scenarios.
Warranty update 2015: After about 25 miles, I noticed the pilling of the bags and some wear to the reflective trim. It seemed like an unexpected amount of wear for relatively light use, and since I was planning a modification that would void the warranty, I wanted to double check with Ruffwear. Customer service was concerned by the wear to the piping (they thought the pilling of the bags was normal since it occurred in areas that would normally rub against trees and walls). They generously sent me a replacement pack, totally free of charge, and recommended that I donate the older pack to a humane society. See my Approach modification here.