Protecting Trails

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an international nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado, that promotes responsible outdoor recreation. The wing of instruction specifically aimed at equestrians resides at Ninemile Wildlands Training Center, in the Lolo National Forest, Montana. This center certifies instructors and teaches an array of additional backcountry skills.
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The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an international nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado, that promotes responsible outdoor recreation. The wing of instruction specifically aimed at equestrians resides at Ninemile Wildlands Training Center, in the Lolo National Forest, Montana. This center certifies instructors and teaches an array of additional backcountry skills.
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I can close my eyes and see it, and I can smell it, too, the pine smoke from a campfire, pungent perfume to the nostrils of a Rocky Mountain horseman. I can feel the quickening of my horse's fluid muscles as he perks his ears forward and whinnies to his buddies in the valley below. I can visualize the scene as I've many times enjoyed it, stopping my impatient horse on the ridge above to look at my wilderness camp.

In the valley below, there's a wall tent perched in a small grove of aspens 100 yards from the creek, and a highline rigged on rocky ground, Major and Redstar waiting patiently tied under it for their turn to graze. My human companions sit on stools around a campfire, carefully constructed as requested by our local district of the United States Forest Service. The cooking area is a couple hundred feet away from the tent, marked by a protective tarp fly rigged to a trio of aspen trees, its location chosen by the direction of prevailing winds.

Two more horses graze at the ends of their picket ropes, their freedom limited by a line attached to a hobble-half on one front foot, a swivel, and a picket pin driven securely into the ground. Both had been hobbled to graze freely, but were wisely secured when I took off on my solo ride, lest they attempt to follow me.

When asked to visualize paradise, some people think of a beach on a tropical island. Others think of the exotic cities of the world. But the backcountry horseman is more likely to think of an ideal camp - a comfortable home constructed only of those things brought to the wilderness on the backs of animals.

And a key ingredient to satisfaction with such a camp is the extremely slight footprint it leaves on the wilderness when camp has been broken. Our presence in the location must be as close to the "leave no trace" ideal as we can possibly make it.

'Leave No Trace'
A generation or two ago, less thought was given to long-term effects of humans and animals traveling through pristine country. Fewer square miles were paved over at that time, and more backcountry remained. Further, many Americans were still caught up in an inherited philosophy that could be summarized as "use it and discard it, because there's plenty more."

But we've found out through hard experience that there isn't "plenty more." We've reached the western ocean, we've converted backcountry and ranch country into suburbia and mall parking lots at an alarming rate, and it's dawning on us that we'd better take care of the pristine country that remains. Gone is the old-fashioned horse camp, with its extremely heavy equipment, its caches of gear left in the backcountry for the next trip, and its garbage dump.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (800/332-4100; is an international nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado, that promotes responsible outdoor recreation. The wing of instruction specifically aimed at equestrians resides at Ninemile Wildlands Training Center, in the Lolo National Forest, Montana ( This center certifies instructors and teaches an array of additional backcountry skills.

Instructors are quick to point out that the "Leave No Trace" slogan is an ideal more than a reality. It's impossible to take ourselves and our heavy animals into the wilderness without leaving some sort of sign that we've been there. The focus is on keeping impact as minimal as possible.

Conscientious Camping
Before we take a closer look at that ideal camp in the valley, let's pay some attention to minimizing the impact of our travel to this pristine place. First, we'll choose lightweight, compact gear, such as a synthetic Relite tent, which is half the weight of canvas.

Then we'll pack our gear on as few animals as possible. We don't want to overload our pack animals, but we won't take two when one will do. Every hoof on the ground means additional impact. One pack animal, carrying around 150 pounds, should be able to supply two wilderness travelers with everything they need in the backcountry for an extended stay; with light backpacking gear, the ratio might extend to one pack animal for three riders. (These ratios may not work in cold-weather situations, when you need more fuel and warmer gear, or when you must pack in horse feed.)

If we can, we'll avoid travel during extremely wet weather when the ground is more vulnerable to erosion. We won't cut switchbacks on the trail, and, of course, we won't let so much as a gum wrapper elude our grasp to trash the trail during our ride in. We'll also bypass pretty campsites that are too small to be ideal for horse camping. Leaving these for backpackers improves relations with other wilderness users and prevents concentrating our stock in too small an area where impact will be greater.

The camp described earlier was carefully assembled. Locating it 100 yards from the stream (or lake) minimizes impact on water quality. We'll also forgo the all-too-common photo opportunity of posing on our horses perched on the shore of a lake or stream. Bypassing that temptation lessens chances that our animals will choose that very time to leave manure in that clear mountain water.

Assuming that grazing is legal, we'll constrain our horses by hobbling, picketing, using a highline, or a combination of these techniques. When using a highline, we'll look for a high, rocky place where the ground is least fragile, to minimize impact.

We'll secure the line to trees with commercially available tree savers (wide straps with attached tie-rings; by tying horses to these rings, we'll avoid damaging the tree with rope pressure and friction). In a pinch, we'll use packsaddle cinches. (We'll carefully go over cinches when we break camp, removing any debris that might irritate our horses.) When picketing, we'll frequently move our horses to prevent their grazing an unsightly circle.

Hobbled horses do the least damage, but they can travel fast and far, so we'll closely supervise our hobbled horses. We'll also keep one horse tied short in case we have to go after the rest. When we break camp, we'll use a shovel to scatter manure and repair obvious ground damage as best we can.

We'll locate the cooking area downwind from the sleeping area. A bear, scenting food, is thus likely to stop at the cooking area and not continue to our "bedroom." We'll keep our tent food-free, knowing that "a fed bear is a dead bear." That is, the bear that becomes dependent on humans for food either will go into winter lacking the fat deposits necessary for survival or he'll become a nuisance bear, inevitably experiencing a conflict with humans that he'll eventually lose. If we leave camp unattended, we'll either string our food packs high overhead on a rope between trees or close them in certified bear-resistant panniers.

And how about the campfire? First, we'll check with the land steward (whether private or government-related) for campfire regulations. Where campfires are allowed, the standard low-impact prescription used to be to dig a shallow pit, laying the top sod aside, enjoying the fire, then drowning it, scattering the ashes, replacing the sod, and watering the grass.

The downside to this method is that the grass doesn't rejuvenate well and ashes tend to change the soil's PH balance. Further, heavily used campsites became checkered with repaired fire pits.

A better method is to build the fire on a used (no longer serviceable) fire blanket - the type firefighters use to protect themselves should they be overrun by flames. These are often available for the asking from your local USFS district.

In frequently used campsites, it's often preferred that you use an existing fire pit rather than build a new one. In any case, forget putting a ring of rocks around the fire; such rocks stay blackened forever.

For additional details on Leave No Trace practices, see "A Low-Impact Checklist," below. Also contact the Backcountry Horsemen of America (888/893-5161; Ask your local chapter to provide instruction to your riding group in Leave No Trace methods.

Low-Impact Checklist
Here's an 18-point checklist for low-impact wilderness horse camping adapted from my book, The Complete Trail Horse.

Check regulations.Check all local, state, and federal regulations for the land on which you plan to travel.

Avoid mud. Avoid travel during rainy seasons, particularly in regions with heavy topsoil. Muddy bogs pockmarked with horse tracks scar the countryside, cause erosion, and sully us further in the eyes of those who oppose livestock in the backcountry.

Get a dog-sitter. Consider leaving your dog at home to minimize impact on the wilderness. If you must take him, treat his waste as you do that of humans.

Pack feed. Pack in feed, unless you're certain there will be abundant natural (and legal) grazing available.

Reduce exotic weeds.When you pack feed, use certified weed free feed to help keep exotic, nonnative noxious weeds - such as leafy spurge and spotted knapweed - out of the backcountry. Bales are easiest to pack in mantys, but weed free pellets or hay cubes are also available. Start your horse on weed free feed several days before the trip to help ensure that unwanted seeds aren't transplanted in his manure. Use mesh feed (nose) bags for grain and other supplements to keep them off the ground. Before you leave, thoroughly clean your horse's coat and hooves so he's seed-free. Remove burrs (which are seeds) from his mane and tail.
Travel light. Travel as lightly as possible but within limits of safety for both humans and horses. If you can, go without pack animals during short trips in favorable climates, where you don't need to pack in feed. But limit your saddle horse's total load to 25 percent of his body weight, and distribute so that his loin area isn't stressed. On better-equipped trips, limit two riders to one pack animal (one to three or two to five are even better ratios).

Stay on the trail. Don't cut corners on switchbacks. Respect obstacles set by trail crews to steer you around eroded stretches.

Manage cigarette butts.If you smoke, completely extinguish each cigarette, then put the butt in your pocket to burn later or pack out. Never leave a cigarette butt behind on the trail or in camp; the filter isn't quickly biodegradable.

Select your campsite carefully. Bypass any camping sites better suited to backpackers. Keep horses out of the camp area itself.

Be fire-conscious. Use a backpacking stove for cooking. If fires are legal, burn only dead, downed wood. Keep fires small, and build according to the regulations you determined earlier. Be extremely careful with fire to avoid causing a wildfire.

Leave trees alone. Don't cut any living trees or shrubs. The days of the pine-bough bed are long gone - sleep on a pad or self-inflating air mattress. Don't drive nails into trees, and don't dig a trench around your tent.

Contain with care. When possible, hobble your horse rather than picketing him (assuming that grazing is legal). Tie to trees only when there's no other option and then only to large ones for very brief duration. For long-term tying, rig a highline using tree savers, wide straps, or cinches around trees to protect the bark. Locate the highline over high, rocky ground.

Avoid overgrazing. If you do picket your horse (with a hobble half by one front foot), frequently move the line to avoid grazed circles. The lowest-impact method for containing a horse (where grazing is legal) is a portable electric corral, which is extremely compact and easy to relocate. But you'll still probably need a highline during the night - a deer or moose can destroy an electric fence, releasing your horse. Don't allow your horse to graze in fragile areas, such as alpine meadows.

Watch water purity. Keep your horse at least 200 feet from streams and lakes (or farther, if regulations require). Take him to water in a rocky place twice each day rather than leaving him to water himself. Better, pack water to him with a folding bucket.

Store food/feed wisely. Use bear-resistant storage boxes, or hang food high and out of reach.

Go green. Use biodegradable soap to wash up.

Manage human waste. Bury human waste in single holes one shovel-blade deep; replace the sod to make the area look as it did when you found it. Select sites for this purpose on high ground at least 200 feet from streams or lakes. Use only white, unscented toilet paper, and bury that with the waste. (Large parties in stationary situations should follow whatever waste procedures the jurisdiction requires, such as using a latrine.)

Leave nothing behind. When breaking your camp, police the entire area. Scatter manure so it fertilizes rather than degrades the area. Pay particular attention to the area under the highline, smoothing any damage with your camp shovel.

Pack out all garbage. Pack out anything you pack in and that isn't consumed. Don't bury trash. Where legal, burn truly combustible items (such as paper plates), but keep foil wrappers and other fire-resistant items out of the firepot. Pick up trash left by others as well. End your stay with a thorough on-line "policing" of the area. Treat the outdoors as though it were your living room - pick up and pack out trash left by others, as well.

If we all pitch in, the backcountry is likely to stay both more enjoyable to visit and accessible to our horses and us. Let's all learn to keep it light, to keep it clean, and to try very hard to leave nothing in the backcountry but tracks.

Dan Aadland ( 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.