Enjoy the outdoors horseback without damaging the environment with these guidelines.
For horsemen in love with the outdoors, signs of carelessness by fellow wilderness enthusiasts can quickly spoil a trip into the backcountry. Heavy traffic on our public lands has polluted water sources, left blackened earth where campfires burned, trampled meadows, and littered the forests and open ranges with trash.
To combat the deterioration of outdoor destinations, the National Outdoor Leadership School developed leave-no-trace guidelines for public land users. Designed to reduce the negative impact of camping, hiking, horseback riding, rafting, rock climbing, and other activities, these principles are designed to help outdoorsmen keep the wilderness the way they find it.
Because of the signs they leave and their feed and restraint requirements, horses, mules, and other stock animals pose special challenges. With attentive preparation though, riders can minimize their effect on the environment, and protect the outdoors for use by others.
First, contact Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service land managers for details on use regulations and trail conditions, and to obtain maps for the area where you want to ride. Be aware that the label “wilderness” has proven to be a strong lure. A better outdoor experience might be found in an area not popularized by a wilderness designation.
Look for sections of forest or public land where motorized use is prohibited. In many cases, hunting and livestock grazing are the only activities in these areas. Select horses and mules suitable for backcountry riding. If a horse won’t lead, doesn’t travel well in groups, is unfamiliar with necessary equipment, or unaccustomed to restraint methods that will be used in camp, put in some training time at home to prevent problems on the trail. And, remember that your slowest horse will determine your group’s rate of travel.
A key point: Make sure your horse is physically capable of handling a ride in the great outdoors. Don’t make a long weekend expedition his first ride of the year. Before a trip, condition your horse with regular exercise.
Reduce the loads you, your horse, and the pack animals carry by eliminating unneeded materials. Look for dual purposes in the gear you take. Ropes used to lash down a pack horse’s load might double as highlines. Solid panniers can serve as tabletops. Be innovative as you review your list of must-have items. A pack horse ‘s load should be limited to 20 percent of his body weight (200 pounds for a 1,000-pound horse), and a group should need no more than one pack horse for every three riders.
Bringing precooked food, packaged in reusable, sealing plastic bags reduces camp trash and the need for cooking fuel. Measure out correct portions before your trip, and get rid of excess packaging. It’s a good idea to repackage store-bought foodstuffs so you can alter the serving sizes and use proper containers. Gas cook stoves, small enough to fit in a saddlebag, are available from camping suppliers.
Don’t forget a water filter; USPS personnel recommend filtering water from all outdoor water sources.
Grazing may be limited near your destination camp, so bring along feed for your horse. Pellets, cubes or grain can be fed in nosebags to reduce waste and spillage. Ask local public land managers about possible requirements for weed-seed-free feed. (Some feeds contain seeds for noxious or nonnative plants.)
Your packing list should also include: lightweight sleeping bags and tents, camp stoves, utensils, drinking water for short trips, a shovel and ax, water containers (collapsible water buckets are best), a saw, insect repellent for horses and humans, matches, toilet articles, and a first-aid kit complete with items for equine injuries.
As a general rule, horses and mules have the right of way on a trail. However, if you have the opportunity to step out of a hiker’s or biker’s way, take advantage of the chance to show courtesy for fellow public land users. Remember that horses or mules might shy away from backpacks.
Keep your horse’s head a safe distance from the horse in front of you. If your horse kicks at other riders’ mounts, warn those behind you and, if necessary, move your horse to the end of the line. As a reminder to others, you might tie a red ribbon in your horse’s tail, tagging him as a kicker.
If you need to stop for any reason—to give your horse a drink, coax him into crossing a stream, or settle his nerves—don’t hesitate to signal for a stop. Be tolerant of your fellow riders’ needs and give them the time they need for these short breaks. Should you encounter a hazard along the trail, for instance a hole, slick spot, or dangerous limb, warn riders behind you.
Stick to marked trails and avoid the temptation to find a shortcut or blaze a new pathway.
Tents should be placed well off the trail, and on durable, dry, and level surfaces. Trailside camps create a poor visual for others using the trail, and can leave lasting damage within easy view. Try to place camps away from dead trees that could fall atop tents.
A nearby meadow can provide grazing for your horses, and stock water can be obtained from creeks or springs. Check with BLM or USFS personnel to create a list of possible campsites in the area where you’ll ride.
Many backcountry riders tie their horses to trees, scarring the outer bark and leaving long-term signs of their visit. Instead, restrain or confine your horses with the goal of leaving little or no trace.
Horses can be tied to a highline—a rope strung between trees—but care should be taken to prevent tree damage and injury to the horse. Attach one end of a strong, nylon rope to a tree, using a tree-saver. An old seat belt or cinch will work just as well. Place a knot eliminator, to which a horse will be tied-on the rope, 10 feet from the tree, farther if the tree’s branches will reach the restrained horse. Position more knot eliminators along the length of the rope, keeping enough distance between them to allow horses to make a full circle without coming into contact. Lastly, attach the other end of the rope to a second tree, again using a tree-saver, and tighten the rope, tying it in a quick-release knot. A highline should be high enough, about seven feet for a horse to cross beneath it.
To prevent horses from damaging the ground they’re standing on, place a plastic or tightly woven polyester scrim sheet on the ground below the high line. Air and moisture can pass through the sheet, but the ground below will be protected from a horse’s hoofs. A scrim sheet is especially useful with a horse that paws the ground. Secure the sheet by staking the corners to the ground.
Other restraint options include hobbles, picket lines, or portable corrals fashioned from ropes, plastic snow fence, or battery-powered electrified tape. With a temporary electric fence, tape is preferred over wire for its visibility. The electricity can also deter entry by wild animals. Plastic posts are surprisingly durable in high winds, holding the electrified tape in position. Rotate the temporary corral ‘s positioning to prevent overgrazing and reduce trampling.
Whichever method you prefer, follow the 200-foot rule: Horses should be kept at least 200 feet from trails and water sources. This prevents water contamination and ground damage in areas already high in traffic.
First, decide whether you need a fire. If you’re cooking with a gas burner, and can live without the nostalgia of a campfire, then you simply don’t need one. If you opt to build a fire, try to limit its lasting effects.
In higher traffic areas, fire rings—rock circles often used to enclose a campfire—might already be in place, left over from previous campers. This drives home the point that others have used the area, and can detract from the outdoor experience. Instead of creating your own fire site by forming yet another rock circle, try to use the existing fire ring. However, dismantle the ring once you break camp.
Since fire sterilizes the ground below it, creating a long-term negative impact, it’s best if a barrier exists between the ground and the fire. A Kevlar or Nomex fire blanket (a clean oil pan or several layers of aluminum foil will work), folded to about 4 feet square, makes a perfect surface for a layer of mineral soil, atop which a fire can be built. Look for loose soil around the root wad of a fallen tree; try not to dig unless absolutely necessary.
Burn dead limbs no bigger around than your arm and add wood only as needed. Large, blazing fires pose a danger, and are often counterproductive, since the extreme heat can make it hard for campers to get close enough to keep their entire bodies warm. If you break dead limbs off nearby trees, browse a wide area of timber so subsequent campers don’t come across a patch of trees completely limb-free below eye level.
When it’s time to put out the campfire, make sure the wood has burned completely to ash. Scatter the cold ashes over a wide area and return-the soil to its source. If you’ve used a fire ring, replace the rocks where you found them.
That most delicate of topics demands direct instruction when it comes to camping in the wilderness. One of the most advised methods of as human waste disposal is digging a cathole-a 6-inch-deep hole at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, or campsites. Bury waste with the dirt from the hole. Catholes should be widely dispersed, and situated so that other campers won’t discover them by accident.
On a quick, overnight trip, some campers can live easily without soap, but if you’re not among that group, shop for biodegradable soap that won’t harm the environment or damage water supplies. Washbasins should be used at least 200 feet from water sources.
Oil and grease produced by cooking should be strained off and packed out.
The Archaeological Resources Protection Act and National Historic Protection Act forbid the removal of cultural artifacts. Obvious examples are arrowheads, pottery, or jewelry left behind by Native American tribes, but the laws also protect items once belonging to early settlers, herdsmen, miners, and others. Anything with a cultural or historic value should be left behind for others to discover.
Fossils and deer antlers, and other parts of the natural ecosystem, also should be left where they’re found. Instead of taking these objects home, bring along a camera to capture photographic souvenirs.
Once your tents are dismantled and belongings packed, run a stick over the ground flattened by your campsite, in effect erasing your presence by scattering pine needles and cones over the site. Do the same in areas where your horses have stood, and use a stick to knock apart manure piles. Spread the manure over a wide area, but keep it away from water sources.
If you’ve created any temporary structures—lean-tos, benches, or walls—using rocks or timber, replace materials where you found them.
Paper trash can be burned, but plan on packing out your garbage, including food scraps and unburned fire debris.
Contact USFS stations or BLM offices in your area, or the area where you want to ride, for more information on responsible use of public lands. Both agencies welcome input from users, and can provide contacts for instruction on leave-no-trace methods.
This article was researched on a U.S. Forest Service trail ride in southern Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest. Special thanks to USPS staff, including Sid Hall and Tom Goodwin of the Saguache office, Jim Hong of the Conejos Peak office, and Jody Fairchild of the Divide office.
This article originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of Western Horseman.