Code One: Horses Don't Like Surprises
Your horse, like all his brethren, is a creature of habit. This means he's most relaxed and comfortable (translated: most likely not to harm himself--or you) in situations he's been conditioned to accept. If he's a rookie at being away from home, let alone spending his nights on a picket line, or tied up to your trailer, you've got some work to do before you can safely take him camping. Your homework:
Code Two: You're Responsible--For Everything
- Train him to tie. If you can't tie your horse and be absolutely certain he'll accept the restraint, your horse-camping trip will be a nightmare.
- Hobble-train him. Not only will this make for excellent basic schooling in the realities of restraint, it'll also give you a safe, and environmentally sound way to feed your horse while you're camping (See Code Five.)
- Teach him to load, and to ride quietly in your trailer. You don't want to be dealing with a balky loader out on some lonely trailhead, and you won't want to be hassling with a bad hauler, either.
- Rehearse "wilderness stabling" at home. Practice tying your horse to your hitched-up trailer, and/or to a picket line, for gradually increasing periods, until he'll accept being secured there for a number of hours. (Smart idea: Camp out with him for a night or two in the pasture, so you both know what you're doing.)
"Getting away from it all." That's one of the main reasons you want to go horse camping, right? Just remember: That reward comes with a price. The very fact that you will be away from it all means you won't just be able to "911 it" if you get in trouble. Horse camping is an exercise in self-sufficiency, which means you must have the tools and expertise to:
- Maneuver your loaded rig in and out of tight spaces. Trailhead parking can be limited, and turnarounds can be tiny. Be sure you know how to back up your rig without jackknifing it!
- Change a flat tire. (Word to the wise: Pack a spare tire for your truck and your trailer, and get 'em freshly aired up before you leave home.)
- Deal with overheated engine. Summer heat, and hauling up steep grades toward mountain splendor, or across long stretches of desert, can steam up even the most faithful truck. (Smart idea: Bring along some plastic jugs filled with water, in case your radiator gets thirsty.)
- Administer basic horse/human first aid. Keep in mind, you're gonna be a long way from a vet or physician, maybe even from the nearest phone service. The savvy horse camper's rule of thumb: Keep a well-stocked first-aid box in your trailer, and pack a smaller first-aid kit with you at all times out on the trail. And don't leave your veterinary manual (you do have one, don't you?) at home on a shelf!
- Set up a campsite that's safe for both you and your horse. A complete guide to setting up camp is beyond the scope of this article, but we can run down a list of common causes of camping wrecks: tying a saddled horse to a picket line; tying to dead trees/limbs, or to any other unsecured "post" (including an unhitched trailer); tent/stove/campfire placed within kicking/stomping distance of horses; tie rope secured below horse's eye level (a major cause of entanglement/rope burns); camping near bee/wasp/hornet nesting areas; failure to inspect campsite for toxic plants/ground holes/jagged stumps or rocks; camping beneath an area's tallest tree (a potential lightning rod), or along a creek bed that could overflow during a flash flood.
- Build a fire in inclement weather. In these environmentally sensitive times, cooking/recreational fires are frowned upon, even forbidden, in some backcountry areas. But that doesn't mean you might not need a fire if weather threatens your life.
Safe horse camping requires some horse sense. For example: In the situation shown below, the picketed horse on the left could easily get his saddle/hanging bridle tangled in the ropes. But untacked, as shown on the right, he can move about without risk.
Code Three: Prevention's Better Than Repair
"Out there," you'll be just as far from your farrier, tack store, and auto mechanic as you will be from vet/medical aid. You'll cut down on a lot of potential for grief by doing the following before you take off:
Code Four: Respect Weather
- Have your horse freshly shod, to reduce chances of a lost shoe "blowout."
- Inspect every piece of tack for wear (especially your cinch, latigos, halter, and tie rope), and repair/replace if necessary.
- Fine-tune your truck and trailer. Have a mechanic inspect your brakes, belts, and hoses; get you trailer's wheel bearings repacked if you haven't done so in the last year.
?It Won't Respect You
Backcountry weather can be unpredictable--and while it's easy enough to take clothes off if you're too warm, you can't put on hypothermia-preventive layers if you don't have them. Our recommendations for horse-camping clothing:
- Polypropylene long johns, top and bottom. The fabric wicks away perspirations in hot weather, yet helps retain body heat during chills?the opposite if cotton, which literally can kill if it gets wet next to your skin in cold weather. Your "polypro" long johns will make great sleepwear too, and an extra top makes a fine fair-weather riding "shirt."
- Denim jeans, well broken in to avoid "seam sores." Denim will stand up to most brush; riding tights, while comfy, tend to shred on contact!
- Outerwear layers: warm vest; nylon wind shirt; wool- or fleece-lined, wind/water repellent coat. We prefer -- length for the latter; duster-length coats may look fashionable, but when you're at the mercy of Mother Nature, they can make getting on and off your horse a real adventure, especially in a big blow.
- Chinks (short chaps) and gaiters. These items cover the gap between your coat and boots, and offer great protection against brush/brambles as well as weather.
- Bandana (has a hundred uses, from neck warmer to emergency bandage); hat/cap (for shade); fleece stocking cap (wear while sleeping, to retain up to 30 percent of your body heat); poly/wool gloves and socks (several pairs).
- Boots you can walk as well as ride in. Recommended: a sturdy pair of low-heeled lace-ups with shallow-tread soles. Not recommended: your Saturday-night-dance cowboy boots. (Walk up a rocky trail in 'em and you'll feel why.)
When you head out to get back to nature, do it in a way that gives nature a break. For example: Instead of causing tree/ground-cover damage by tying your horse, and feeding him "imported' hay/grain (left), hobble him, and allow him to graze (right).
Code Five: Be Kind to Mother Earth
Obviously, horses are large animals, and can cause significant environmental impact; in order to keep great trails and wilderness areas open for horse-camping use, we each must do our part to keep our animals' impact to a minimum.
Follow these low-impact guidelines:
- Keep the total number of horses in your party to a minimum; we suggest six to eight, maximum, unless you'll be going to an established horse camp, with permanent stabling for greater numbers.
- "Travel light," taking advantage of camping/horse-packing product technology. With new lightweight gear/food-stuffs, you can reduce, even eliminate, the need for pack horses. (See above!)
- Ride only on established trails, and don't cut erosion-causing switchbacks.
- Don't tie or graze your horse near steam beds; they're especially fragile. Tie/feed him elsewhere, and lead him down to the stream to drink.
- Don't tie your horse to a tree, except in an emergency. Pawing damages roots, and the rope friction hurts the bark.
- If you'll be camping in an area without permanent stabling, take no horse feed with seeds in it; sprouted grain/grass seeds can introduce foreign plants to ecologically sensitive areas. Instead, plan to meet your horse's nutritional needs with a noxious-weed-free feed that's labeled as such, or by allowing him to graze. (But be sure he's used to feeding on grass before you leave home, so you don't upset his system.)
- Break up/scatter piles of manure before striking your camp. The droppings will break down faster, and they'll be less unsightly to future campers.
Now for a few words on how to reduce your impact on the places meant for all of us to enjoy:
- Bring your own firewood (provided you'll be camping in an area where fires are acceptable). The denuding of trees for fuel definitely is against the codes.
- "If you packed it in, pack it out." The really conscientious campers brings out any garbage he finds, not just his own.
- Never, ever leave used toilet paper for others to find. After you've used the backcountry's "facilities," bury your paper?or bag it, and pack it out.