Published in the April, 2012, issue of Trail Blazer.Click Here for a PDF file (13MB) of the article
Light Weight Horse Camping
So you want to camp with your horse in the backcountry, far from the trailhead where the only sound is the wind gently rustling the leaves; where the stars and moon shine brightly over whichever meadow that is home for the night; where the rumbling of generators, and the rattling of trailers pulling into camp is but a memory. Sounds fantastic, but how to make it happen?
The traditional method of camping with horses and mules in the backcountry involves the use of pack stock to carry the assortment of gear that usually accompanies us. Unfortunately, only 4-5% of horse owners own a spare equine that is trained to pack and an even smaller percentage possess the essential knowledge to competently use a pack animal. While visions of wall tents, cushy beds, roaring fires, and hearty Dutch oven meals in the backcountry are certainly romantic, there are other ways to escape the confines of civilization which are easier for the average horse rider to accomplish.
With preparation and forethought you can safely enjoy the many benefits of backcountry camping off your horse without the expense and hassle of pack stock. The peace and serenity of true wilderness areas can be ours if we make use of some of the techniques of modern ultra lightweight hikers. It may be heresy to mention but we do live in the 21st century. Don’t let the riding and camping gear of the late 1800’s that so many people cling to out of “tradition” hold you back from truly experiencing the remaining wild places that can be accessed by horseback.
Well, are you ready to ride into the backcountry for a day or two without the use of pack stock? I’ll be the first to admit that initially an endeavor of this sort can seem daunting. By keeping a few main points in mind anyone can venture into what was once the exclusive realm of packers.
The main tenants of light weight horse camping are preparation, weight, and volume.
Prior Preparation Prevents Predictably Poor Performance
Before you head out into the great outdoors you’ll need to make sure that you and your mount are ready for such an adventure. A little knowledge will go a long way to making your foray not only safe but also pleasant enough that you’ll want to make a return trip. Of course, you’ll also want to ensure that you and your mount are physically up to the task.
Camping without pack stock means that your mount will be grazing for its breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s your job to learn what conditions you can expect to find and to plan your trip around adequate feed and water. For example you’ll want to know where to find a meadow sufficient for grazing, preferably near a stream. Not only will you want to know where suitable stock feed can be found, but you’ll also want to know what to expect on the trail getting to your destination. High elevation trail riding trips can easily encounter snow covered trails well into August. Similarly, water is a major concern in other areas and you may need to adjust your travel plans accordingly. I have found that Forest Service offices and local backcountry riding groups are invaluable sources for this type of information.
Another bit of preparation involves learning a little rope work. Any true horseman will know a handful of handy knots. At a bare minimum you should be familiar with the bowline, the half hitch, and the power cinch. With the quick release versions of these knots you’ll be able to construct a strong highline that will keep your equine partner in camp while you slumber. Common sense rules; learn to string a highline and train your horse to tie on a highline at home, not out on the trail. Waking up without your horse is a poor way to start the day when you’re 20 miles into the wilderness. An old proverb speaks to camping in the backcountry “Trust in God, but tie up your horse.”
Weight and Volume Are Your Enemies
Because we’re asking our riding mounts to haul not only ourselves but also our wilderness home on their back we must be vigilant about reducing weight at every opportunity to prevent any unnecessary burden on our equine partner. Nor is it enough that the gear we take into the backcountry be light weight to save our horse’s back. The gear must also be very compact. This is primarily for the rider’s safety. If gear is piled higher than the saddle cantle it can hinder your ability to dismount thus placing yourself in a potentially very dangerous situation. Your wellbeing is paramount, don’t jeopardize that by strapping a folding chair to your saddle (yes, I saw this once and it still boggles me.)
The main areas where we can reduce weight are:
Rider and Horse Weight - Ask your doctor what your ideal weight should be and try to get there. Bam, I’m done with that hot potato. While you’re at it check with your Veterinarian regarding your horse’s weight and fitness condition as well.
Tack Weight – Tack weight is tricky. Yes, there are a multitude of light weight saddles available, regrettably a new saddle can be expensive. If you have the opportunity to upgrade to well fitted light weight tack, go for it.
If a rider’s weight is a verboten topic and we can’t expect trail riders to run out and buy new saddles just for horse camping, then camp gear and food is where we will have to learn new ways to go light. Luckily for us the hiking community has already done most of the hard work. Let’s look at some of the ways we can shed the pounds. I’m confident that the cowboys of lore, being the pragmatists that they were, would have used this type of gear had it been available.
Shelter – We need some type of protection from the weather because yes, it will rain even in the paradise of a gorgeous mountain meadow in summer. And if it doesn’t rain, the morning dew alone will soak the unprepared to the bone. Fortunately the days of the 40 pound canvas wall tent are long gone. Instead, there are many models of tents that weigh less than 5 pounds and are compact. Instead of a tent I have found that I prefer a hammock and tarp when camping in the backcountry for their combination of low weight and comfort. The tarp I use measures 12 feet wide by 16 feet long. I find this is plenty large enough to shelter two people, our saddles, gear, and also provide a covered cooking area if needed. The hammock has an integrated bug net to keep insect beasties at bay and hanging ensures that rocky uneven ground doesn't conspire to keep me tossing and turning throughout the night.
Sleep System - While a traditional heavy canvas bedroll is a romantic notion on a dry summer’s night, the temperature doesn’t have to drop very far, or heaven forbid it starts to rain, before you’ll retreat to your truck’s heated cab, or wish that you could. And please don’t even think about having your riding buddy carry a bulky air mattress. Affordable and high quality sleeping bags can be found that weigh less than 3 pounds. I use a down bag but many synthetics are available that beat down filled in terms of weight, compression, and cost. Equally as important is a sleeping pad which provides insulation from the cold ground, or air if you’re hanging a hammock. You might think that the sleeping bag does that, but you’d be wrong. The weight of your body compresses the insulation under you. This compressed material lacks the air spaces, or loft, that provides the insulation. In short your back and butt will get cold without a sleeping pad. Secondary to insulation a sleeping pad’s other job is turn rocks and roots into a cloudlike cushion of comfort. I have used my horse’s saddle pad for this purpose, in an attempt to further reduce weight but I find that for only 11 ounces I can sleep better and not smell like my horse the next day.
Camp Kitchen – Although many people are fine with PB&J’s for the duration of a multiday ride, I like eating well and I also function best with a hot cup of coffee in the morning. This means that I bring along a stove and a container that I can make dinner in or heat water. Reliable single burner stoves and a small fuel canister together can weigh less than 13 ounces. A small one liter pot will weigh under a pound and heat plenty of water for hot beverages and meals. As a bonus you can also store your stove and fuel canister inside.
Food - You’ll find that food for you and your mount will be the major determinant to how long you can stay in the wilderness. Indeed food is the only area where my load differs greatly from those with pack stock. For the human component, hiker fare is in order for these trips. A two day one night backcountry trip would consist of one breakfast, two lunches, and one dinner. The menu often looks like this:
Feed for your mount comes from pre-trip planning. At the recommended 1.5% to 2.5% of body weight per day for a horse we simply cannot ask riding stock to carry an additional 25 pounds of feed per day. Instead we must plan the trip around areas known to have good grazing and readily available water. Forest Rangers, land managers, and backcountry riding groups are excellent sources of this type of information. I do carry at least a pound per day of hay pellets mixed with some sweet grain for my horse on these trips. The additional weight could be used for other items (like steak and eggs) but the horse likes it and I like thanking him for his efforts in getting me into a piece of paradise and for memories that will last a lifetime.
For grazing I use hobbles and turn him out for an hour or so during the morning, noon, and evening. With the use of hobbles we can both eat at the same time with me watching him graze while I prepare and eat my meal. When you graze your mount in the backcountry you really should use either hobbles or hand graze with a lead rope. I know a man who swore his horse would never leave the meadow because he had a strong bond and knew his horse well. He let his horse loose to graze at leisure. You may have heard him swearing as he made the long hike back to the trailhead. By chance someone caught the horse as it wandered between rigs at a trailhead and notified the local forest ranger.
Unlike hikers, trail riders need a way to keep their mount secure during the night. The most common way to accomplish this is what is commonly referred to as a highline. A very strong and very light weight material used by commercial builders called “mule tape” serves as my highline. (CAUTION: mule tape is very thin, thus if a horse gets tangled it can be a medical disaster. Mule tape is best used only after you learn to create a safe and sturdy highline with the traditional 3/8+ inch rope and your horse is trained to highline. ) BTW – Mule tape is white and at first glance looks similar to the material found in electric fences. The first time I used mule tape as a highline the horse wasn’t happy to be so near something that it was convinced would give it a nasty shock.
To illustrate a typical light weight horse camping trip, here is my gear list including the weights of every item that goes with me and my horse on an overnight outing without pack stock. If you ride and camp with someone else; which I strongly recommend, the weights will be somewhat less since some items, such as a stove, tarp or tent can be used by more than one person.
This should help you in realizing your dream of saddling up and heading into the wilderness with just your riding stock. Start with learning, planning and training at home, then on short trips to refine what works for you and your mount, and finally on to the really beautiful country as you get more comfortable. With planning and consideration you can experience some of the magnificence of the backcountry without using pack stock. Ride on.
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