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Horse Packing – The Romance vs. the Reality

Horse Packing – The Romance vs. the Reality

We’ve all seen photos of amazing scenery and bucket list-worthy places to visit on horse or mule back. It’s easy to romanticize traveling with our beasts and let me be very clear – it is a privilege to be able to partake in these adventures. Venturing into the backcountry with our horses can be a fantastic adventure full of the best memories we’ll ever look back on. You see the incredible photos on Facebook or Instagram and think, “I want to do that!” Unfortunately, what you see isn’t necessarily the whole picture. We should be more upfront about it, mention the less glamorous parts, and stop striving for perfection on social media.

Yes, this photo looks idyllic, and it was. What it doesn’t show is Celeste and I dipping water into buckets with coffee cups. Water under Montana’s Chinese Wall is in seeps and getting enough for the ponies was a challenge.

I’ve visited the emergency room not once but twice during backcountry rides. There’s nothing Facebook-able about hospital stays. Do you think mosquito bites are itchy? Try wearing a cast over the summer after a mule slips in a river. You have no idea. There are also backcountry days in 90-plus-degree heat without a shower. The dust cakes on the sweat, and you have ten more days before you’ll have a chance to enjoy real cleanliness.

Despite these and other struggles, I still think that visiting the backcountry on horseback is one of the best things you can do if you can. As I said, it’s a privilege. The least exciting parts of my trips are also some of the most notable; some make for great tales years later, and there are a few that I would rather forget because they were rather grim. Sure, most of the time, it is spending quality time with friends and the ponies. And that’s great! But can we stop pretending that it’s always perfect? There are bad days, challenges, and of course, the hard parts you weren’t expecting.

Of course, there are different types of backcountry excursions, and many people may opt for an organized or luxury vacation. Still, it’s different for those who are more into a DIY experience.

In the reality of horse packing, the positives outweigh the negatives 100 to 1. After all, you’re riding horses! However, I’m going to be blunt here. If you’re a prima donna, packing probably isn’t for you. Of course, you can still travel by horse and experience new places by choosing an alternative option, but the reality of packing isn’t necessarily pretty.

Again, a camp spot that appears to be idyllic. Not shown are the mules that refused to eat the lush bear grass, which was the only grazing the area had to offer.

There are days when you long for your shower because you know just how far to turn the tap to get the perfect temperature, and the days when you want the comfort of your bed, not sleeping on the ground.

There are times you want just to be able to go to the kitchen and eat whatever is available. But I think the thing most people miss (I know I do) is the endless supply of clean clothes that home offers.

The struggles of the average backcountry packer are real. But that’s what makes the experience authentic. I wouldn’t trade a nearly sleepless night watching the stars with my wife for anything in the world.

Leading a short string under the Chinese Wall. Not shown are the years of preparation to learn the skills required for such a trek; the months of planning and several long days in the saddle just get here. The trip was worth every minute of all of them.

The reality of horse packing is that it’ll improve your life: It will also leave you poor in money but rich in memories, experience, and life. Home is not where your belongings are; it’s where you unpack your heart; for me, that’s a remote wilderness area.


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