Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ultralight Trips: Packing Without a Pack Horse (PNER Convention Notes)

I really enjoyed this educational talk by Kim McCarrel and now I am even more interested in doing packing trips with horses someday. I can’t think of many things more enjoyable than enjoying a point-to-point trail, exploring new trails, seeing beautiful views, and relying on my partner. Kim McCarrel has been an avid trail rider for over 20 years and has ridden the horse trails all over Oregon and SW Washington. Her trail guidebooks are “must haves” for Pacific Northwest trail riders – I enjoy her guide book for my area. It’s very comprehensive and packed with information! You can learn more about Kim and her books at her website. I’d highly recommend it for trail riders in the West! 

If a backpacker can carry everything they need for the trek on their back – so you should be able to carry everything you need on your horse as well! The challenge is carrying horse feed and gear along with everything you will need on the trail. If you are an experienced trail rider, your horse is in good shape, you can ultralight camp.

The main things you need to consider for ultralight packing trips are: perfecting your high-lining skills, the ability to plan your trip carefully, and embracing “leave no trace” principles.

High Lining – the most efficient way to secure your horse on the trail!
  • You will need tree savers, rope, and the skills to tie the knots (quick-release bowline, alpine knot, and the prusik knot).
  • To set your high line, use a branch to push it as far up the tree as possible. Tie prusik knots on your line before you leave home (you can tie it on with baling twine which is cheap and weights almost nothing). This knot allows your tie-loop to slide anywhere along the rope that you want, but the knot will stick in place when your horse pulls on it.
  • Bring more rope than you think you need, and ensure you have rope without stretch (bring at least 100ft of rope).
  • On the first tree tie a quick-release bowline knot (instructions on how to tie a bowline at the TrailMeister website)
  • On the other end, put in an alpine knot – hook a carabiner to it and block and tackle to get the rope as tight as possible.
  • Finally, tie your horse so its nose is close to the ground so that they can lie down, eat, etc.

Planning Your Trip
Careful planning is needed for any ultralight trip. Considering where you are going to get water is key. Will you find it along the trail? Is there water that you can camp next to (it's absolutely crucial that you have water where you camp)? For grazing, the rule of thumb is that your horse needs to graze 1.5 hour in morning and at night. You can also carry pelleted feed – but that’s a challenge because of the weight and bulk of that kind of feed.

Leave No Trace Principles
These principles are paramount when you are in the back-country. Essentially: leave the area the same if not better than you found it. This goes beyond packing out your trash, but pertains to your impact on the land overall. With land and trails for horse use disappearing it's also important to consider what other trail users will think about your presence. Some important considerations include:
  • Meadows – these are sensitive ecosystems, especially when they are wet. Don’t take your horse out into a wet meadow as your horse will damage it. Instead, allow them to graze in dry meadows.
  • Cat holes – bury your waste when you’re out on the trail. 6” deep, using a trowel (they make folding ones). And carry out your toilet paper. Never build your hole close to water closer than 200ft (which is about 70 steps).
  • Streams and lakes – only water your horse where the trail crosses the body of water or at a bank that is rocky or sandy because horses will tend to stir up sediment.
  • Manure – never make camp closer than 200ft to a body of water. Use cathole shovel to scrape away everything on the ground where you are high lining (pine needles, branches, etc.) and when you are done scrape the pine needles and forest stuff back to where horse was. Fling manure into bushes, not open areas. This leaves the area nice for successive campers and keeps the horse area clean.
  • Fires/campfires – often they are not allowed, but if there is no burn ban… clear all burnable debris within 10ft of the fire ring. Only used downed wood. Use rocks to line fire pit. You can get several layers of aluminum foil to help protect the ground from the fire. Fire cloth is also a thing (Norco may carry it, but it can be heavy).

The equipment and supplies you will need (and suggested supplies):
  • Water purification – McCarrel uses Sawyer water filter system – and it weighs nothing!
  • Cooking – McCarrel uses a Jet Boil system. You can get lightweight pans that nest inside each other. Remember: the kind of cooking equipment you have will dictate what food you can have! 
  • Sleeping considerations – You will need some kind of protection depending on your preference. A bivisack (props up over your head), or a lightweight tent will work. Everything McCarrel carries for sleeping weighs around 6lbs!
  • Clothing and toiletries. This includes
  • Food – You will bring lots of freeze-dried if you use a jet-boil; almond butter is great and pack-able; tortillas – to make sandwiches with; nose feed bag if your horse is getting pellets; sporks!
  • Baby wipes are the best thing ever on the trail as you can give yourself a “bath” after a dusty day on the trail.
  • Human first aid kid – benadryl, triangle bandage, and general supplies.
  • Collapsible water bucket.
  • Cigarette lighter and matches.
  • Though she doesn't carry one herself, carrying a gun was discussed when it came up from commentators in the audience. What if you need to put your horse down on the trail?

McCarrel then did a show and tell of her pack and bags, pulling things out and showing how she balanced her load. It's very important you keep track of side-to-side balance (ie. drink out of your water bottles evenly).

Front pack. Put the heavy stuff in the pommel bag because horses spines are not connected to their hips. They can carry more weight over their shoulders. Also put things up front that need to be accessible in your front packs. The list of things she carries in her front back include: horse pellets; water bottles; carry GPS always, with extra batteries; folding saw; a flashlight with battery outside of flashlight to conserve the batteries (flashers are good in an emergency); camera; leatherman; salt (for your horse); and a good headlamp. Also include clothing that needs to be easy-to-reach, like a poncho (this covers more than just your jacket, and may be easier to put on).

Rump pack. In her back pack she carries: air mattress (she has self-inflating pad); fleece, waterproof jacket, and clothing are all fitted around sleeping bag; horse first aid kit with banamine, bute (in a powder form), topical analgesic, fly spray (you can soak paper towels with fly spray in baggie as well). Also include a horse brush hoofpick; shoelace for tack repairs; little kitchen garbage bag to line your helmet with to serve up your horse water! The things found in the rump pack can be bulky (the sleeping bag especially), but they are lightweight.

McCarrel also spoke about riding the Metolius-Windigo Trail, which is located in Central Oregon. She has a new book out describing the trail, it's camps, and different challenges. This article goes into more detail about trekking on this scenic trail. The photos she shared of her packing trips on this trail were gorgeous and it's gone on my bucket list!

Other resources include the Trail Meister website. You can find horse trails and camps through this site, along with lots of helps with how to tie different knots.

Anyone want to go packing with me sometime?


  1. Great tips! It sounds like a great talk. I love that there are still people out there willing to pack and camp with their horses - it seems like a dying art.

    I took a Leave No Trace Master Educator course years back that had an emphasis of packing stock in the backcountry that covered all of what you've mentioned and more. It was a great 2½ weeks. One of the things you point out here that stuck with me more than other things was how to tie a horse to a hi-line, in particular, so that their nose can touch the ground. Our instructor, who has nearly 50 years of professional packing experience, told a grueling tale to help us remember WHY it is so important, too.

    He told how another packer he met once lost a horse because it couldn't get its head to the ground to stand up after lying down. I hadn't thought much about it, but a horse has to be able to put its head to the ground in order to be able to stand up. This packer hadn't given his horse enough slack so it couldn't get it's head to the ground and thrashed about trying for hours until it died!! Tell ya what, I've never forgotten that and have always made a point to make sure my horses can get their heads to the ground whenever I tie them to ANYTHING just in case.

    1. Wow, I didn't think of that but that's a very good point! thank you for telling your story.

  2. Thanks for the post. I wish we had more state of the art ultralight horse equipment available. For instance, there is no way to bring a compact manure fork other than cutting one down yourself.It woild be nice if we could find saddle bags made of Dyneema.