Eight ways to prepare for camping with your horse.
A cozy camp of wall tents with smoking stove pipes, nestled in an alpine meadow two days from the nearest road, is a sight wilderness wranglers love and take pride in. Backcountry riding and camping can vastly increase your enjoyment of remote pristine areas, but your comfort and even your survival depend on a good working knowledge of the camping equipment you need, and the ability to use the environment skillfully. Nature in the raw can be an unforgiving place, where trauma, hypothermia and disorientation may await. A sound education in horsemanship and wilderness survival will trump inexperience every time.
Top Survival Keys
There are important steps to camping in the wilderness, and often the most crucial receive little or no consideration. Here are some, listed in order of priority:
A well thought-out plan is number one, because it can turn a panic situation into the ability to make the best of any circumstance. An important consideration is first aid. You should be prepared in the event a horse or rider is injured, especially as you could be in a remote area far from medical help. Leave your name, planned route, destination and expected time of return with a person familiar with the nature of your camping trip. Allow for a reasonable grace period and agree on a plan of action in the event your party is overdue. A failure to plan is a plan for failure.
Shelter can be a wood stove in a wall tent, or just good quality rain gear, depending on whether your trip will last a few hours or days. Be prepared for the weather to make dramatic changes. A keen eye for changing weather patterns, cloud formations, high altitude wind indications and the behavior of wildlife can be helpful in predicting what is to come. Be ready to stop and protect yourself from hypothermia before getting too cold to think properly – seek adequate shelter or use good quality wind and rain resistant clothing.
Warmth includes the ability to build a campfire in the rain and wearing adequate layered clothing. A light moisture-wicking layer against the skin comes first. On top of this, one, two or even three layers of fleecy tops and bottoms, depending on the severity of the weather, will capture natural body heat. An outer shell that is wind and rain resistant, and a brimmed hat, finishes the wardrobe. A hiking/riding hybrid style boot is best on the trail. Staying dry is the key to staying warm; there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.
Dehydration must be avoided at all costs. If the natural water supply is suspect, then it is essential to pack an adequate supply of potable water, or carry a purification system. Moving water, meanwhile, such as streams and rivers, is your compass. Keep track of the watershed you are in and use it for navigation as often as possible. Never plan a camp without adequate water for you and your horses.
Once the trip length and number of riders are determined, prepare a menu from the time of departure to the time of return. The right quantities can then be taken into account, along with individual food preferences and allergies. The most perishable food should be eaten first. Make sure to include saddlebag trail snacks such as energy bars, nuts, dried fruit and bottled water, for stopping to make a meal is not wise if you have pack horses.
Strong, sound, sensible, solid-boned mounts familiar with steep terrain, water crossings and muskeg should be considered. A good knowledge of hobbles is welcome. A confident rider helps the horse feel courageous and provides a safe ride in very challenging conditions. Understanding equine psychology is wise. In order to get the most from your horse, you need his trust and respect.
Be sure your tack fits your horse. A double 3/4 rigged stock saddle with a horn, six to eight tie strings and a breast plate is very suitable for trail work. The back cinch should be kept snug. When double padding, the bottom pad should be 1” ahead of the top pad, which in turn should be 1” ahead of the saddle skirt to avoid backward slippage. If the pad is going to move, it will go out the back. Wilderness trails are best traveled at a reasonably slow consistent walk. This is particularly true if there are several riders or pack horses in the group. Four miles per hour is considered normal and will result in far less trouble. Inclines should not be taken at a jog or lope, even though horses have a tendency to attack slopes. Many a good cowboy has lost his life crushed by his falling horse loping up a steep slope.
8. Picket lines
It isn’t always possible or preferable to let your horses graze freely at a trail stop, even if they are hobbled. Picketing your horses on a high line is a good alternative and much better than tying to trailers or trees. The line should be high enough for your horses to walk back and forth under it. They like to shift directions to get a good view of everything around them, and if they are not restricted from turning back and forth, they will be much less frustrated and not prone to paw the ground or become distressed. Don’t put horses on a high line with their tack on. A good 50’ of static ½” line can hold several horses for several nights without lasting marks on the environment. Tying lead shanks to a separate lighter cord or twine between the picket line and shank will allow a chronic pullback to break away without taking the whole bunch with him. A Dutchman knot or ratchet strap is handy for tightening the picket line and a prussic knot works great for attaching a breakaway cord to the line.
By keeping these basic keys in mind, you and your friends will be able to enjoy a safe and comfortable equine camping trip.
Bj (Bryan) Smith has experience as an Equine Canada & Certified Horse Association riding coach, a horse trainer, packer, clinician, survival expert and Canadian Ski Patroller. He consults equine wilderness subjects at the university and college level. His course The Wilderness Wrangler is presently featured by Olds College. Bj is also a multi-award winning cowboy poet. For more info, visit bjsmith.ca.