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By Maggie Slepian • July 7, 2022

The first pack string I ever saw was during an overnight backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park back in 2011. I crawled out of my tent one morning and looked out over the valley, squinting at a cluster of large animals. Are those horses? I heard a bell tinkling, then saw the gray bell mare wandering around and four or five other horses grazing nearby. I had grown up in the Northeast and had never seen horses just milling around out in the backcountry. I ended up chatting with the packers later that morning, and discovered a whole new world of horseback adventures.

Since then, I’ve been on plenty of pack trips. Some have been extended excursions, and some have been short overnights. No matter the distance or destination, the basics of packing a string and preparing for a pack trip remain the same. 

Below are some basic tips for preparing for a pack trip with horses. If you want to brush up on trail etiquette for sharing the trail with horses, you can find that here

Photo courtesy of Maggie Slepian

1. Have your own camping system dialed

Before you add horses and stock to your camping adventure, make sure your own system is dialed in. This means an understanding of your sleep system, tent, cooking setup, and all the small (but still important) accessories like headlamps, water filters, battery packs, layers, and toiletries. Your packing strategy on a pack animal will be similar in convenience to your own backpack. Camp items and larger things you won’t need until the end of the day can be tucked away, with on-trail necessities in saddle bags or horn bags. This means keeping snacks, water, a water purifying system, and layers readily accessible

2. What does your horse camping system look like?

Once you have your own gear figured out, you can fine tune your camping-with-horses system. Everyone does this differently—some packers like hobbles and a bell mare. Others prefer to use a high line or a portable electric fence with a solar or battery powered charger. Always use the safest practices for containment, and keep your horses in an area where they’ll leave the least impact. Bring extra gear with you too—a saw for cutting fallen trees, spare lead ropes and halters, and extra ties or stakes. Once you’re out in the backcountry, those resources aren’t available. It never hurts to be over prepared!

3. Know your route and regional regulations

Mapping your route and planning your campsite is a big enough challenge when it’s just humans and maybe a dog or two. Add livestock into the equation and it becomes more logistically challenging, with other elements to take into consideration. First, be sure the trail and land jurisdiction allows pack animals. Some multi-use trail systems have specific days set aside for motorized travel, so if you want to avoid the busier days, knowing the trail schedule ahead of time isn’t a bad idea. Other trails have stock limitations or require permits. Even if the trail is non-permitted and unregulated, be sure to know the grade and terrain. A trail graded for stock won’t go above ~10%, and will be more free of obstacles and hazards. Lastly, know the parking situation! It’s not a great start to the trip when you can’t park the trailer at the trailhead!  

Photo courtesy of Maggie Slepian

4. Practice being in a pack string on trail

Everyone’s herd system will look different. Some people have designated pack animals and designated riding animals. Some people like all of their animals to be equally well versed in riding and packing. Regardless, know your own system and keep your horses’ best interests in mind. Play to each of their strengths, and set them up for success. Your pack animals should be comfortable with their panniers and loads, spatially aware, and get along well in a string. Practice ponying in wide, open areas and without hard knots. Sometimes trail sections get tight, and you want everyone to be getting along and comfortable crossing water, bridges, obstacles, and narrow trail sections. A lowkey overnight trial run can’t hurt, in a place where if something goes wrong, you can troubleshoot and fix it quickly.

5. Familiarize your horse with life at camp

Your horses and pack animals should be well versed in trail riding and more remote outings, but packing is more than just riding along a trail. Your pack string should be comfortable with standing tied for long periods of time, they should respect portable containment like lightweight electric fencing, and it’s never a bad idea to have them hobble trained. Getting them used to tying on a high line doesn’t hurt either, especially in a controlled environment back on your own property. Getting your herd accustomed to the hours spent at camp and staying in one (unfamiliar) place will ease a lot of stress and headaches at camp when you want to be relaxing in front of the fire with your horses grazing happily nearby.

6. Food and water

Sure, you packed enough for yourself, but what about the horses? Make sure your destination has grazing or foraging, and that it’s free and clear of toxic weeds or brush. Bring supplementary feed if you think your animals will need it, and try to camp near a water source and allow your animals access to it overnight.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Slepian

Packing your horses and livestock can be an amazing way to access and experience the backcountry. Having your system dialed, your animals accustomed to the elements, and a good plan in place will be hugely beneficial and keep the trip running smoothly for an adventure you won’t forget.

Maggie Slepian is a writer and film wrangler, with decades of horse experience on trails, film sets, and in the arena. Learn more about Maggie at .