If you have never been on a pack trip, you might be in a dither wondering exactly what to take. Not to worry. First-timers usually take more than what they actually need, but sometimes overlook a few essentials that will make any trip more comfortable.
Your first step is to read carefully the information sent to you by the outfitter to see what he recommends you bring. Many outfitters supply tents, but a few do not. Clarify what your outfitter does. If you prefer to take your own tent, even if the outfitter will provide one for you, ask him if he will have the space to pack yours along. It should be small and fold into a compact size.
Tents are not always necessary on pack trips, and many campers prefer sleeping under the stars. But a tent is handy for changing clothes, and a luxury in rain.
Very few outfitters supply sleeping bags. If your trip will be taking you into high-mountain country, buy or borrow a bag whose comfort range goes down to about zero degrees. Temperatures can drop well below freezing, even in midsummer, when you are camped above 8,000 feet or higher. Besides, you can always make a bag cooler by unzipping it, but it’s sure tough to make it warmer.
Some type of mattress will contribute to a good night’s sleep by making the ground more comfortable, and by protecting you from the ground’s chill and dampness. You can choose a traditional air mattress (be sure to take along a small pump) or one of the newer foam pads that do not need inflating.
If your tent does not have a floor, a waterproof ground sheet will protect your mattress and other gear. Ground sheets aren’t expensive, fold neatly and are also handy for stacking gear on outside the tent.
Two other essentials are a rain slicker and some type of hat. The best slicker is full length, so it covers your saddle and legs. Short slickers or ordinary raincoats will not keep your saddle or legs dry, and neither will some ponchos. Slickers will also keep you warm in cold weather because heat from the horse rises upward into the slicker.
Some people prefer rain jackets and pants, but they have two disadvantages: 1. You have to dismount to don the pants; 2. They will not keep your saddle, or anything tied on it, dry. A saddle that gets soaking wet stays wet long after it quits raining.
I personally don’t like to wear a hat, so I keep a baseball cap or rain hat stuffed into a saddlebag until it’s needed. Many people wear regular western straws or felts, and they do a fine job of shedding water. But if your hat is prone to blow off, use a stampede string so you don’t lose it.
The accompanying checklist includes other essentials, plus some optional items. How much to take depends partly on personal preference and partly on whether the outfitter gives each person a weight limit. Sometimes this is necessary to prevent overloading the pack horses in steep, rugged country.
On the checklist you’ll note that a saddle is listed. Although outfitters provides saddles, you might prefer to ride your own. As long as it will fit any average horse, this is okay with most outfitters. Two tips: 1. It should have saddle strings long enough for tying on a pair of saddlebags, a slicker and a jacket; 2. A back cinch is handy for tying down the saddlebags to keep them from flopping. Also, take along a breast collar to keep your saddle from slipping back on steep trails.
Saddlebags are usually a necessity for carrying your lunch, suntan lotion, extra film and even your camera, depending on its size. If it won’t fit into your saddlebag, get some type of camera bag that attaches to the saddle, because you’ll get tired of the camera hanging around your neck.
Cowboy boots are by far the most comfortable and safest footgear. Loafers will not keep your feet dry in wet weather, and athletic shoes are not safe because they allow your foot to slip completely through the stirrup. If you get in a storm with your horse, this means you could be dragged. If you don’t have boots, buy a pair and consider them an investment in comfort and safety.
On my first trail ride years ago, it never occurred to me to take overshoes to keep my boots dry. I only took one pair of boots, and they were soaked for nine of the 10 days. This was a ride in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where it showered almost every afternoon. In the evenings, I’d try to dry my boots by the fire, but walking through the dew-soaked grass in the mornings made it wasted effort. Talk about cold, wet feet. I would have paid a king’s ransom for overshoes. Although waterproofing of boots might keep them dry under mildly wet conditions, no amount of waterproofing will keep boots dry if you slog through mud and wet grass every day. As a result, I highly recommend slip-on overshoes.
If you have a pair of chaps, take them along. They protect your legs in brush country or timber, they shed water, and they help keep you warm in cold weather. In the mountains, it’s not unusual for everything to be wet in the mornings, either from dew or rain during the night. Chaps will keep your legs dry when wet branches slap against you – and even while you’re walking through tall grass.
You probably will not need long underwear for warmth on a summer ride. However, they will prevent chafing of your legs – especially if the skin is a mite tender from not riding for awhile.
Gloves are a necessity, and leather gloves are best. But if you will be going on a fall trip, where there might be snow or lots of rain, consider some type of water-resistant gloves.
Climate and trail conditions will dictate how much clean clothing you will need. Hot, dusty conditions might mean clean clothes every day to keep you socially acceptable, while cool temperatures and dust-free trails can helps clothes last two or three days. A good rule of thumb – figure on a clean change of clothes for every other day.
Depending on where you ride, there might or might not be an opportunity to dip into a stream or lake to clean up. But if you can, be kind to the fish and other wildlife and use biodegradable soap.
If you will be riding in the Rocky Mountains or other high mountains, it’s generally chilly in the early morning, warm and sunny later in the morning, cloudy, cool and sometimes chilly again in the afternoon, and chilly again in the evenings. Therefore, it’s best to dress in layers so you can peel clothes off as the morning progresses, then start putting them back on.
One final note. Many horse owners often wish they could take their own horses with them on pack trips. On trips going into rugged, remote country, it usually isn’t a good idea, for two reasons. The first is many private horses are not accustomed to crossing roaring rivers, boggy areas, seeing wildlife, etc., and can be a real pain, not only to their rides, but to the outfitter.
Second, the outfitter generally must turn his stock loose to graze. Private horses turned loose with them will be at the bottom of the pecking order and could get thumped on pretty good. They might also decide to head home in the middle of the night, even if they are hobbled.
On those rides, however, on which feed can be trucked into the campsites and horses can be tied, private horses are often welcome.
This article was originally published in the June 1987 issue of Western Horseman.