Even more than when travelling on foot, it’s essential to plan well in advance for a camping trip with a horse because when things get ugly in the backcountry, they get really ugly. Campers should first evaluate their level of expertise, both as riders and as outdoorsmen.
Whilst going solo may create visions of a poetic week in the mountains, novice campers should definitely go with at least one other horse-rider pair; hiring a guide or going with a group may be even safer and ultimately, more enjoyable. Additionally, starting with just one or two nights is advisable at first, with more time added as experience grows.
One should also take a hard look at one’s tolerance for roughing it.
For some, wilderness camping means bivying under the bare sky, whereas for others, a hotel without room service is practically too rustic. Find a balance between serenity and comfort, whether that’s sleeping on the ground, renting a cabin, or overnighting in a trailer or horsebox between rides.
Though many riders find peace and solace in a wilderness setting, some horses may be spooked by night noises away from home or may be unused to being turned out with strange horses on a tour. Consider the horse when making overnight arrangements, especially if the horse must be tied standing at the campground. Do some research in advance to discover if there are corrals or hitching posts available; otherwise, plan to create a hitch-rack with a high-line made of rope.
2. Assess Risk
A key element of planning ahead is assessing any inherent risks on the planned route. Depending on the location, wilderness riding spots can be loaded with hazards, although many of them can be avoided or reduced. Think about these natural threats before heading out with a horse:
- Insects and other biting animals like scorpions
- Poisonous plants
- Microbes in the water that render it undrinkable or unswimmable
- Predator wildlife, such as mountain lions, wolves, or bears
- Sunburn and heat/cold injuries
Don’t forget to bring insect repellent and netting, a plant identification guide (easily downloaded to a mobile phone), a water filter or potable water tablets, bear spray, jingle bells (to alert wildlife to your presence), bear resistant food containers, and sunscreen, as well as a first aid kit for both horse and rider.
Terrain is another major concern when camping on horseback. Riders should do their best to learn all they can prior to departure about the literal lay of the land. This is absolutely vital if riding into the backcountry for more than simply one night. Look for changes in elevation, water crossings, footing (think about horse shoes and boots), weather extremes, and human hazards like mountain bikes or off-road vehicles.
Fortunately, with today’s global connections, it’s usually quite simple to do a bit of armchair reconnaissance. These sources are excellent ways to obtain up-to-date information about trails and wilderness lands:
- Park rangers
- Government websites
- Hiking and travel guides
- Riding clubs
- Social media
- Local establishments that cater to wilderness enthusiasts
- Conventional topographic maps
- YouTube videos
- Google Earth
Of course, the reliability of the horse must be considered as well. Horses to be taken on wilderness treks must not only have the endurance for whatever distance and topography they’re covering, but should be confident and willing to obey their riders in an emergency.
3. Bring Feed and Water
Bringing along feed and water when heading away from civilisation is one of the greatest challenges faced by equine wilderness campers and often determines what else can be packed for the trip. Ideally, a wilderness campsite should offer grazing for horses, but some animals are not accustomed to pasture life. Also, some government lands forbid grazing or limit it to certain times of the year, so this must be checked in advance.
Experienced wilderness campers find it helpful to feed pellets made of whatever their horses are eating at home. Be advised that some areas troubled by invasive species require weed-free pellets.
If bringing pellet feed on a holiday, start feeding a bit of it to the horse a week or so in advance of departure to acclimate the digestive system. It’s not advisable to change a horse’s diet radically when travelling, even to sweet meadow grass, so always think about dietary disruptions that could precipitate digestive upset or even colic.
Advance research is vital in determining if there will be a potable water source for horses in the wilderness. If not, water will have to be trekked in. Even if good fresh water is available, some horses will be repelled by the unfamiliar taste. This is easily remedied either by mixing in some water brought from home or adding a little sports drink, preferably one the horse is already used to.
If the weather will be warm or if the horse will be sweating heavily, electrolytes may also be warranted. The general rule of thumb is that horses may need more of everything when working harder than normal on the wilderness trail.
Check with your vet before changing any aspects of your horse’s feed or water supply, on order to get the best advice for their needs
If camping for an extended period where one must haul in feed and water on foot, it may be time to bring along a pack animal, whether another horse, a mule, or a llama.
It’s still essential to load any pack equine properly, however, and they must be checked for overheating and other stress injuries, according to Steve Edwards, an expert on pack equines who has taught courses like “Spending the Night with Your Equine.”
4. Pack the Essentials
Once the food and water situation has been determined, it’s time to tend to the logistics of other necessary items, depending on how rough an experience one plans on enjoying. Care should be given to the selection of a saddle. A plantation saddle may be the perfect solution, as it is lightweight for the horse yet still offers adequate support for a long day of travel for the rider.
As well as a saddle and tack (with extra tack and lead ropes always advisable), common items to think about packing include:
- Clothing for the expected range of weather
- Riding skirt or protective chaps
- Riding helmet and spare boots
- Sunglasses and gloves
- Sleeping bag and pad
- Portable camp stools
- Human food (freeze and thaw along the ride to keep refrigerated food fresh)
- Cooking supplies, including camp stove, dishes, and utensils
- Haynets or containers for feeding and watering
- Horse grooming supplies
- Horse rug or fly sheet
- Personal hygiene items and cleaning supplies
- Recreational gear, such as fishing rods or photography equipment
- Emergency kit with duct tape, knife, fishing line, flashlight, extra batteries, matches, candles, leather sewing kit, etc.
Don’t forget that whatever rubbish is accumulated must be brought back out of any wilderness areas. Horse manure should be scattered at the site. To protect fragile waterways, equines should always be placed at least 60 metres away from water.