Packing 101: You Can Do It!

Does packing into the backcountry with a pack horse or mule seem too complicated to master? I had a similar experience with another backcountry skill. Many years ago, I stood hip-deep in the crystal-clear

Does packing into the backcountry with a pack horse or mule seem too complicated to master? I had a similar experience with another backcountry skill.

Many years ago, I stood hip-deep in the crystal-clear waters of a stream near my home, enjoying a delicious day while trying to lure a rainbow trout with my fly rod. My casts were far from perfect, but on the third try, a big trout snatched the fly from the surface, and I knew for the first time the thrill of playing a trout on a light fly rod. I also kicked myself mentally for waiting until midlife to give fly fishing a try.

I’d been psyched out by the mysterious aura of fly fishing, by tales of “matching the hatch” with just the right fly, by fears that fly casting was far more difficult than fishing with familiar methods. Then a friend gave me a few minutes of instruction and said, “Just go do it.”

Many trail riders are similarly “psyched” at the idea of packing their camping gear onto a horse or mule safely and securely for a trip into the backcountry. They’ve heard about the mysteries of the diamond hitch, read about spectacular wrecks suffered even by experienced packers, and been told that packing is an art that takes a lifetime to master.

The good news is that basic packing skills are relatively easy to learn, and any necessary knots are probably ones you already know. Mastery of the art, though a laudable goal, isn’t necessary for safe, enjoyable travel up the trail to your backcountry camp.

Pack-Saddle Types

First, here’s a look at the two basic types of pack saddles.

• The Sawbuck. Also known as the crossbuck, the sawbuck is distinguishable by two wooden “Xs” protruding upward. Named for its similarity to a firewood stand, the sawbuck saddle is common throughout the world. Normally double-rigged (that is, held onto the pack animal with two cinches), sawbucks work well with the pannier method of packing, but not with the manty method. (More on these terms in a minute.)

• The Decker. The Decker originated a century ago in the mining areas of Montana and Idaho for carrying bags of ore and other odd-shaped, heavy objects. Like the sawbuck, the Decker consists of two wooden bars, which distribute weight along each side of the pack animal’s spine. Two steel D-rings (rather than wooden Xs) connect the bars.

A padded fabric cover called a half-breed overlays the saddle and contains two horizontal boards, which lie along the pack animal’s rib cage on each side. Deckers are normally single-rigged (that is, held onto the pack animal with one cinch). There are adjustments to move the cinch forward or back.

Both pack-saddle types are placed over a pad (like that for a riding saddle, except more generously sized). But the Decker does a much better job of protecting the pack animal, because of the half-breed and horizontal boards.


The Decker is also stronger than the sawbuck and more versatile, since it can be used with both the pannier and manty methods. Its slightly higher cost is more than justified. I always recommend a Decker to the rider who wants just one pack saddle. (For more on the Decker’s advantages, see “Why a Decker?” on page 40.)

Many variations of both the sawbuck and Decker exist, including some adjustable models. Standard versions allow modifying the wooden bars with a rasp, and some suppliers will custom-make saddles for your particular pack animal. Most pack saddles, adequately padded, fit the majority of horses.

Packing with Panniers

Packing Resources

Recommended suppliers:

Buckstitch Canvas

(307) 587-4426

Jorden and Jennifer Knudsen

Outfitter’s Supply

(888) 467-2256

Recommended books & DVD:

The Complete Trail Horse and Treading Lightly with Pack Animals,by Dan Aadland (The Lyons Press, 888/249-7586;

Horse Packing in Pictures,by Francis W. Davis (Western International, Inc., available from Outfitter’s Supply, 888/467-2256;

Mule Packing Decker Style DVD, by Bob Hoverson(available from Outfitter’s Supply, 888/467-2256;

The Packer’s Field Manual, by Bob Hoverson (Stoneydale
Press Publishing Company,
available from Outfitter’s

The very simplest approach to packing consists of a pack saddle and a pair of panniers (bags, boxes, or baskets that contain cargo). This French word, often corrupted to “panyard” in the West, has been around since Shakespeare: One of his plays mentions panniers.

Soft panniers (made from fabric) don’t protect the cargo as well as hard panniers (made from plastic, wood, or metal), but they’re easier on the pack animal, should he fall.

Panniers have rope or strap loops on top to secure them to the saddle. With a sawbuck, simply place the loops around the crossbucks.

With a Decker, thread the loops through the big D-rings on top of the saddle, or purchase four Decker hooks, and fasten these to the straps. Then you can simply hook the panniers to the D-rings, a time-saver.

Three things are particularly important to keep in mind when packing with panniers:

1 Keep them balanced. The two panniers must be very close to the same weight, within a pound or two if possible. To balance the packs, use a light spring scale, available at most packing-supply outlets.

2 Add a cinch. Add a strap or extra cinch below the pack animal’s belly to prevent the panniers from flopping. Otherwise, a spook could turn into a buck, and the movement of the panniers will likely accelerate the animal’s panic.

3 Pack carefully. Soft panniers must be packed with softer items inside toward the pack animal, more angular items outside. With both types of pannier, intersperse noisy items with soft ones (such as clothing) to cut rattles and other noises that might spook your pack animal. (Of course, seasoned pack animals will soon become quite tolerant of strange noises emanating from inside their packs.)

Adjust panniers to ride fairly high on the pack animal, their tops approximately level with the animal’s back. Packs too low on the animal’s rib cage tend to impair his breathing.

You can add a top pack for extra capacity; the traditional way to secure it is with a diamond hitch (in its many variations). Mastering the diamond hitch will strike envy into the hearts of amateur packers you meet on the trail. But if you don’t have time, inclination, or a competent teacher at hand, there are other, easier alternatives.

For instance, you can secure a light, cylindrical pack (containing a couple of sleeping bags or pads) crosswise on top of the panniers with ropes or straps attaching it to the saddle.

For very light top loads, such as foam sleeping pads, I’ve even used bungee cord. You can also purchase the Not-A-Knot system (available from Outfitter’s Supply), which consists of top packs that buckle directly to the pannier straps, thus eliminating any hitching with ropes.

The pannier method of packing is simple, quick, and easily learned. Because contents are readily accessible, I often pack one animal with panniers so that upon arrival in camp I can quickly access lunches, picket ropes, hobbles, and other items I’ll need right away. That said, I’ve learned that there’s a much better way to secure most of my cargo.


The Manty

A career forest ranger who cut his teeth packing in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains told me of the first time he saw Decker pack saddles with manties. Familiar only with sawbucks, panniers, and top packs, he watched a new ranger descend a mountain trail with a string of mules packed uniformly with manties basket-hitched to a type of saddle he’d never seen.

The new ranger, a transfer from Montana, soon converted my friend to this far more versatile style of packing. Since then, Decker packing has spread southward and is now common throughout the West.

The term “manty,” from the Spanish word for blanket, refers both to the canvas tarp (about seven-by-eight feet in size) and to the bundle that results from packing items within it. The verb describing this process is known as mantying. 

Mantying simply consists of placing gear on the tarp diagonally, folding up the bottom, then the sides, and finally the top. The manty is then tightly secured with a rope that’s three-eighths-inch in diameter and about 35 feet long with an eye splice in one end.

In a process much more easily demonstrated than described, a loop like a lasso is formed around the bundle lengthwise, pulled tight, and is then followed by two or three half hitches around the bundle. Each is pulled tight, and the bundle is tied off. The manty rope just secures the bundle — it’s not used for slinging the manty to the pack saddle. (For a photo sequence of this method, see

The Manty/Decker Method

You attach manties to the Decker pack saddle with a basket hitch, a simple knot. One end of the sling rope is permanently secured to one of the Decker’s D-rings. The other end threads through the second D-ring from outside to inside, then is allowed to drape toward the ground. The portion between the D-rings is pulled out into a large loop.

You lift the manty, lean it against the pack animal, and move the loop to a position about one-third of the way down from the top of the manty. Reaching down, you grab the loose end of the rope and pull hard, tightening the loop around the manty.

Then you bring the loose end up around the bottom of the manty and tie it off to the middle of the sling rope, where it crosses the manty horizontally. I simply use a half hitch with quick-release loop, then another half hitch, but many knots will work.

Although the process sounds complicated, students in my packing clinics learn to manty and sling loads in less than an hour. Like training techniques learned in clinics, mantying becomes another useful skill in your horsemanship repertoire, one you’ll never regret acquiring.

Why a Decker?

Here are six advantages of the manty/Decker packing method over the sawbuck pack saddle.

• Economy. A set of soft panniers and a top pack runs $300 to $400, while two manty tarps and the rope required cost well under $100.

• Versatility. You’re not limited by the dimensions of panniers, so all sorts of odd-shaped and outsized loads can be packed. Since manties typically hold more than panniers, no top pack is required.

• Balance. One manty can be a bit heavier than the other. Simply sling it higher so that it’s closer to the pack animal’s center of gravity, which compensates for the discrepancy in weight. Just watch the D-rings on top of the saddle to see that they stay centered. If they do, your packs are balanced, even if one appears larger or higher than the other.

• Safety. Should a horse fall or become bogged down, releasing one knot (or cutting the sling rope with a knife) releases the whole pack. Freeing a horse with panniers and a top pack is considerably more difficult, particularly if it’s all buckled together, as in knot-free systems.

• Pack-animal comfort. This method is easier on the pack animal, because of the horizontal boards in the Decker’s half-breed and the free-riding nature of a basket-hitched load.

• Wreck-resistance. Slung with basket hitch alone, a manty is free-swinging; if it hits a tree it tilts up, then returns to position after the obstacle is passed. Panniers are more likely to hang up.

Disadvantages? I can think of only two: (1) It takes a bit longer to manty your gear than it does to load a pannier, though the difference is slight; and (2) the contents of a manty are less accessible on the trail than those in panniers. For this reason, on trips with a single pack horse, I keep my lunch, first-aid kit, camera, and a few other essential items on my saddle horse in saddlebags or cantle packs.

To learn these skills, look for packing clinics in your area. One good clinic resource is the Back Country Horsemen of America (888/893-5161;

Packing is the logical extension of trail riding. There’s no freer feeling than to mount a good horse, grab the lead rope of the front pack horse, and head up a trail into a pine-scented breeze, self-sufficient, ready for adventure. Learning the necessary skills is part of the fun.

See you on the trail!

Dan Aadland raises mountain-bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are In Trace of TR; The Best of All Seasons; The Complete Trail Horse; and 101 Trail Riding Tips.

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