For me, there are few greater experiences than packing up a camp, saddling my horses and pack stock, and heading into the backcountry. I think of the smell of pines and saddle leather, the gurgle of a creek, the faithful footfalls of my horses, and a feeling of total independence as we work our way up the trail.
But this ideal is endangered. Every year, less land is available for trail riding and horse camping, as America becomes subdivided and paved. Meanwhile, restrictions on horses in the backcountry seem to multiply.
Keeping our backcountry footprint as light as possible is a crucial ingredient to our continued backcountry privileges. Here are 10 tips for keeping your presence light on the land.
1. Know the rules. Keep in mind that the land on which you ride and camp belongs to someone. The owner may be a private individual, a timber company, a state or local government, or a federal agency, such as the Bureau of Land Management or United States Forest Service. If a federal agency manages the land, then you, as an American, are part owner, but you share this ownership with many others. Treat any land on which you ride as you would the living room of a friend. Rules for backcountry use vary widely, even among tracts administered by the same government agency. To learn the regulations for your camping destination, go online, inquire locally, and read trailhead signs. When in doubt, call the local office of the agency involved (such as the district office of a given national forest). That’s a good idea in any case. You might just learn that a key campground or trail is closed, a bridge is out, or there’s a fire in progress.
2. Limit pack stock. Don’t overload your pack horses, but do load them to capacity. Every equine causes a certain degree of impact on campgrounds and trails. It’s better to load two pack horses with 150 pounds each than three with 100 pounds apiece. Reducing your string by one animal makes your party lighter on the land.
Limit your pack animals to a ratio of one for every two riders. Better yet, select extremely light equipment, and strive for a ratio of one pack horse to every three riders. With careful planning, it can be done without discomfort, assuming you don’t have to pack in all feed for your stock.
3. Leave weeds behind. Most public lands open to equestrians now require that you bring only weed-free hay or pellets for your horses; comply with these rules for the land’s benefit. Start your riding horses and pack animals on this feed several days before your trip; abrupt feed changes can cause colic. Plus, you’ll ensure the horses’ digestive tracts won’t be carrying the seeds of noxious weeds. Before leaving home, curry all horses thoroughly. Look especially for any clinging seeds or burrs you could end up introducing to the backcountry.
4. Take it easy on the trail. In extremely muddy weather, delay your departure until things dry up. Horses and mules are heavy, and they can cause wear on the trail even in dry conditions. Once underway, stick to the trail. Don’t cut switchbacks; if you do, you’ll create a steeper, alternative trail that others will use, making a path for eroding runoff.
Remember that friend’s living room. You wouldn’t throw so much as a gum wrapper on her living room floor; treat the trail the same way. Respect the work done by trail-maintenance crews. If the crew has placed a log across a fork where the trail splits around a tree, they have good reason for wanting you to take the other path.
5. Leave smaller campsites for backpackers. Ideal campsites for backpackers differ from those for horse campers. You need more space; backpackers can use small clearings, perhaps perching their tents on outcroppings overlooking streams or lakes. If you see a pretty campsite that’s marginal for horses but ideal for backpackers, pass it by. You’ll build better relations with hikers by leaving the campsite to them, free of manure and grazed grass. Look for your campsite farther up the trail.
6. Keep stock away from water. Many national forests require that livestock be kept 150 feet (or farther) from lakes and streams. Obviously, they’ll be closer when watered or when you ford, but keep such contact minimal by taking all your animals to water at one time. While fording, don’t linger. These steps will help to keep precious waterways clean.
7. Clean up. There’s no garbage service in the backcountry. If you bring something in, you must pack it out. The days of garbage dumps behind semi-permanent camps and of burying trash are (thankfully) long gone. Bring plenty of trash bags, crush any cans, and pack it all out.
A clean camp is a safer camp, because it’s less likely to draw bears and other potentially dangerous animals. This protects wildlife, as well. The saying “a fed bear is a dead bear” reflects the fact that bears that become dependent on human food sources eventually get into conflict with humans, ultimately bad for the bear, as well as the humans.
As grizzly range expands through the Rockies, an increasing number of forest jurisdictions require that all food be secured in bear-resistant boxes or hung high in the air whenever humans aren’t present in camp. In bear country, never store any food whatsoever in your tent! Black bears (which come in many color phases) are increasing throughout the United States, particularly in states that ban black-bear hunting. Although not considered as dangerous as grizzlies, black bears are food-seeking missiles. If there’s food in your tent, they’ll find it!
8. Keep campfires legal, clean, and safe. Recent droughts through much of the West and Southeast have resulted in frequent campfire bans, particularly during late summer. Obey all fire regulations, and make sure you have the latest word.
In wilderness areas, the recommended method has been the shallow fire pit, dug with sod carefully laid aside. Rock rings are discouraged – once blackened, the rocks stay that way nearly forever. After use, the fire pit is restored by carefully replacing the sod.
Even better is building the fire upon a reject fireproof blanket (available from many forest districts). These fire blankets are issued by firefighters as last resort protection in case they’re overrun by flames. A fire built on such a blanket does minimal damage to the ground.
Now, some forest districts prefer that you use any fire pit or ring that exists in the campsite you choose, the theory being that it’s better to impact just one small area. In any case, burn only wood and paper in the fire. Some food wrappers contain foil that melts down into a shiny lump of aluminum that will stay in the ground forever.
Thoroughly drown all fires when finished with them, and never leave one unattended. Causing a wildfire could prove an exceedingly heavy burden on both your conscience and your future finances.
9. Restrain your stock for low impact. Stock restraint in the backcountry must be secure-a walk all the way to the trailhead isn’t appealing-but also light on the land. Here are pros and cons of each method.
Leaving them loose isn’t practical. Some outfitters still turn their strings loose to graze where legal, the wrangler keeping one horse close and rounding up the string each morning. This method isn’t practical or advisable for recreational packers, and it leaves your animals vulnerable to straying and possibly to injury.
Tying to trees is a “no-no” and should be limited to very brief stops (perhaps when a pack must be adjusted) and to emergencies. The lead rope damages the tree bark, but more serious is the cupping of soil at the base of the tree, caused by impatient pawing.
Hobbling where grazing is legal is relatively light on the land and furnishes some restraint, although savvy horses can still cruise. Don’t hobble all your horses! Keep at least one completely secured.
Picketing (by a front foot-teach this at home) allows grazing and offers more security than hobbling. Move the picket stake frequently so your horse doesn’t graze an unsightly circle.
Highlines offer the most secure method of tying short. Build yours over a high, rocky area if possible, move it frequently, and use tree savers (or extra cinchas) on each end to circle the trees and protect the bark. When you disassemble the highline, scatter manure, and restore the area with your shovel
Portable electric fences allow grazing where legal, are light on the land, and are easily moved. Their biggest drawback is that elk, moose, deer, and bears can walk through them and turn your horses loose. Don’t trust electric fences at night or when you’re away from camp.
10. Dispose of waste properly. In developed campgrounds, restrooms are furnished, but in the backcountry the “cathole” method is usually recommended. Go to a high, dry location, dig a hole one shovel-blade deep, and use only plain, unscented toilet tissue. Replace the sod.
Dan Aadland (http://my.montana.net/draa) raises mountain bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are The Best of All Seasons, The Complete Trail Horse, and 101 Trail Riding Tips. Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir is now available in a new Bison Books edition.