Trail Tools

Don’t forget these essentials before trekking into the backcountry.

By CHRIS EYER with KATE BRADLEY BYARS • Photography by KATE BRADLEY BYARS

June 5th, 2018

150520 ChrisEyre 106Wearing a fixed blade knife in a secured sheath will ensure you’re prepared at the drop of a hat.

An Internet search can provide a wealth of information on what to take on a horsepacking trip. Half of that stuff, you won’t use. In most cases, layer your clothes, bring a warm sleeping bag, ensure your stock is well fed, watered and contained, and you will be fine. These items, though, are must-haves for the trail.

1. Fixed blade knife
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No matter what else you carry, you need a knife with a fixed blade. In an emergency, I can pull it out, not worry about having to flip out a blade, and handle whatever situation I am in at the time. A folding knife may not hold its shape if enough pressure is put on the blade. It is so important that I carry one on my body and an extra in a pack in case I lose one. Something always needs to be cut away when you inevitably get in a wreck.

2. Firearm
I carry a handgun, not for predators but in the event that one of my animals needs to be put down. Years ago, I was taught the proper way to put a horse (or mule) down. If a mule breaks a leg, there’s no way out of the backcountry for them. The options are to leave them to suffer and let a predator get them, or put them down. And I won’t leave one to suffer.

Note that if you put an animal down in the backcountry, you must tell the National Forest or Park services.

Lead the animal as far away from the trail as you can, put them down and then alert the appropriate authorities. Other packers who have been in this situation taught me to find the place to aim by drawing imaginary lines between each ear and opposite eye. The center of that “X” is where to shoot. They advised not to shoot in the eye as sometimes an eye shot is not quick and fatal. It’s horrible to think of, but I can’t think of leaving one of my animals in the backcountry hurt and suffering.

3. Ax or Saw
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Where I pack, an ax or a crosscut saw is absolutely essential. It’s not as big of an issue in Arizona, for example, to have a downed tree because the forest is not as thick and we can walk around or over the fallen tree. But here, it is inevitable that you will pack in and a windstorm will fall trees across the trail that will need to be cleared in order to ride through, because it is not always possible to ride down a mountain and around due to the dense forest or steep grade.

4. Veterinary Know-How
I think the No.1 killer of horses and mules in the backcountry is colic. Packers and riders in a hurry mistakenly don’t allow ample time for the stock to rest and drink, which can lead to the painful gut distress. If you allow your string to stop and drink water and they still colic, a first aid kit can save your horse’s life.

In addition to bringing a first aid kit for people, I also make sure to pack a separate one for my horses. My equine first aid kits are fully stocked with items I have needed in the past, like Banamine (flunixin meglumine) for colic. I also have gall salve for sores, sutures for cuts, and other items to deal with abscesses. I even have shoeing tools [like a rasp and hoof nippers]. Most people on a quick trip won’t have such an involved kit [as I have], but you need to have basic emergency essentials.


Chris Eyer breaks down more backcountry tips in the May 2018 issue of Western Horseman. Eyer works with the U.S. Forest Service and other groups to bring supplies into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The horsepacker is based in Stevensville, Montana. Follow him on Instagram for more of his wilderness tips and stories: instagram.com/muledragger.

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Tags: backcountrySafetytoolsfirst aid kitfirearmspackerknifetrail