Light and Alone in the Backcountry

Spending time alone in the backcountry with your horse can be a transcendent experience. Here's how to go light and stay safe on solo treks.
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Spending time alone in the backcountry with your horse can be a transcendent experience. Here's how to go light and stay safe on solo treks.
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It was a night I remember mostly because of the stars, a Milky Way so bright that even before the rising of the moon there were shadows of the nearby pines on the grassy floor of the mountain clearing. I could see my horse, Rockytop, tethered nearby, hear him munching the meadow grass, and watch shooting stars that seemed as close as fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Drowsy eventually, I scooted my sleeping bag under the nylon fly I'd rigged as a minimal shelter, knowing the thin layer of cloth between the night sky and me would prevent heavy dew from layering my bedding by morning. Then I slept, waking only occasionally for a reassuring glance in Rockytop's direction.

The indelible memories left by that particular experience are evidence enough that traveling on horseback completely alone, spending solo nights in camp, can be particularly gratifying. Much as I love the company of family and friends, there's something very special about tackling the backcountry with my favorite horse as my only companion.

I'd ridden the previous day through mountain landscapes that reminded me of scenes from The Sound of Music. Without the invariable distraction of even pleasant company, my senses were free to drink in sounds and sights and smells I might've missed otherwise.

But such an adventure has risks, as well, and we discussed them at length in the last issue. (See "Riding Solo," Sketches from the Trail, July/August '08.) All lone riding requires a heightened sense of safety. Reliability of your horse, restraint in riding, tack that excludes potential pitfalls, and emergency equipment to help bail you out of a sticky situation are concerns for any solo rider.

Here, we'll turn to additional issues related to traveling by horseback with comfortable (if minimal) gear for overnights in the backcountry.

Single-Horse Trekking
I know a dedicated backpacker who goes to seemingly ridiculous lengths to lighten his load, selecting and weighing each item of equipment, intent on saving not just pounds but ounces.

The food is freeze-dried, the clothing kept to an absolute minimum, the sleeping bag selected for maximum warmth consistent with the least possible bulk. Backpackers like my friend hope to reduce their total load to less than 50 pounds, yet be equipped for several nights away from civilization's supply lines.

At first glance, your 1,100 pound horse, with his massive strength and four strong legs, might seem so capable that you can be less concerned about weight and bulk than my backpacking friend. Unfortunately, it's the other way around. You have to be even more concerned.

You have all the same physical needs as the backpacker - food, shelter, water - but in addition, your horse needs some minimal equipment, even if feed and water are available for him along the way.

A hoof pick, a curry comb, a picket stake and rope (which can double as a highline), a pair of hobbles, an Easyboot (or other horse boot), and a basic equine first-aid kit are all relatively light items, but they add up.

Further, there are serious challenges in distributing 50 pounds of gear on your horse in a way that doesn't dangerously impede his ability to negotiate the trail while dampening your ability to ride him well and safely.

Weighty Matters
Since I've previously written about weight-carrying ability (see "How to Ease the Burden," On-Trail Training, July/August '05), I'll summarize here. First, don't take seriously maximum payloads phrased in terms of a percentage of the horse's weight. Some say 20 percent is maximum, while the United States Cavalry used 25 percent.

However, these generalizations are so fraught with "it depends" as to be virtually useless. Assuming good health and physical conditioning, a horse's conformation has far more to do with his weight-carrying ability than his own weight. Indeed, calculating weight-carrying ability as a percentage of horse weight tends to favor the fat, out-of-shape horse as being more capable than the slim, fit one!

Some guidelines: Small horses tend to be able to carry higher percentages of their own weight (but probably not as much total weight) as large horses. A 700-pound Welsh pony might happily carry 30 percent, while a 1,300 pound racing Thoroughbred might be stressed at 20 percent.

More important, weight-carrying ability tends to go with a short back and a broad loin. The loin muscle just behind the rib cage should extend well down the horse's flanks on each side of his barrel.

Lastly, don't be fooled by muscle. A heavily built "bulldog" style arena performer exhibits quick-twitch muscle that aids sprinting and lateral movement. But muscle is heavy, so he must carry it, fuel it, and keep it supplied with oxygen. Some types of muscling are irrelevant to weight-carrying ability.

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Weight Distribution

It may not be true that weight behind the saddle is hard on a horse's kidneys, but it certainly isn't easy on his back. A horse's center of gravity - where weight is best located - is usually just behind the foreleg and about a third of the way up his barrel. Weight behind the saddle is far from the center of gravity, which, among other things, makes it difficult for him to get his hind legs up under him for propulsion and balance. (This is the reason you should not lean back while progressing downhill.)

So, if you're going to add overnight-camping gear, even the feather-light kind, to your 35-pound saddle and your whatever-pound body and ask your horse to carry it all, get the heavier stuff up front in horn bags.

Yes, tack catalogs are full of oversized saddle packs that fit behind the saddle, but fill them with anything but Styrofoam and you've overloaded your horse in the worst possible location. You've also created a serious hazard for mounting and dismounting.

Doctors tell me I'm relatively flexible for my age, but I'd have considerable trouble swinging my leg over the top of some packs I've seen pictured. Dismounting rapidly, forgetting to swing high enough to clear the pack, could have embarrassing and dangerous results. Use behind-saddle packs for soft, light items, and don't stack the load high above the cantle.

Your riding rapport isn't helped by cargo fore and aft, pressure points your horse isn't used to, bulk that may inhibit the subtle signals you've taught him in the arena. A well-trained horse will get used to these things, but you might feel as though you're driving a truck, not a sports car.

Lightening the Load
If you've backpacked, you're familiar with ultralight gear, but if years have passed, check out the latest innovations. For instance, backpacking stoves continue to evolve; the latest alcohol-fueled models weigh just a couple of pounds. A stove that uses pine cones and twigs for fuel weighs less than a pound.

Consider your environment. If insects are a problem, you probably won't be happy sleeping under only tarp shelter. Bivy sacks, single person, cocoon-like mini-tents weighing around three pounds can protect from both insects and showers.

Clothing can be minimized, but must be adequate, particularly in the West where high altitude prevails, and summer temperatures can plummet. Last June, two major Montana cities were buried in blankets of wet snow!

The Scout motto, "Be prepared," is always relevant and particularly so when traveling alone. Don't compromise on the essentials: a first-aid kit; navigation aids (map, compass, and global positioning system); water; and an extra day's food supply (at least).

Be careful, though, about trading the saddle that fits your horse for a lighter one. Some extremely light saddles shed weight at the expense of support. Western saddles may be heavy, but if they fit properly, they spread the weight over a large area, a plus for a horse lugging a heavy load.

Rider and Horse
Before launching a solo backcountry trip, some soul-searching is in order. I used to sleep soundly on a half-inch ensolite pad laid directly on the ground. Now I require both a self-inflating air mattress and an eggshell foam pad, or I spend the day stiff and sore.

Romantic expectations can be shattered by unremitting rain or a host of other realities. On a one-person, one-horse backcountry camping trip, the object must be adventure, not comfort.

Your horse should be as unflappable as you can make him, and he should be in shape. Break in new tack and gear at home. Don't wait until you're at the trailhead to introduce him to the smell of new nylon packs or the feel of strange objects against his skin. To prepare, load your packs fully, ride him extensively in the arena, and then over hill and dale.

Any deficiencies in restraint training must be erased. Hobbles, highlines, and picketing (from a front foot) are essential skills for him, though you're not likely to trust the hobbles except for brief grazing stints when you're between your horse and the trailhead.

Your horse is your lifeline, and preventing his dashing for home is all-important. Tie him securely during brief rest stops, when all your gear resides on his back, and his straying could leave you devoid of food, shelter, and all other necessities.

Security and Protection

Much as I hate to mention it, we're all more vulnerable when we're alone. This isn't an entirely safe world, and trails aren't off limits to humans or animals who may wish to do you harm. Chances of problems with either are very slight, but they do exist.

I traveled alone past a particular lake at high elevation just after the snow went out one year. I was the first one to use the trails over two high mountain passes that summer. The chance for nearby help in case of trouble was nonexistent, and the knowledge that I was in grizzly country was very much on my mind.

The following fall, a young man on this same trail was attacked from behind by a sow grizzly he never saw coming and was saved only because a surgeon was camped nearby. Even if you're not in bear country, consider at least a large can of bear spray (a much stronger version of the pepper spray intended for muggers).

Firearms are a personal choice and shouldn't be considered unless your competency is thorough. But most Montanans I know travel through grizzly country armed with both types of protection.

The Pack-Horse Threshold
At what point are you asking too much of your horse? When traveling in the backcountry for more than a night, your saddle horse will likely need help carrying all your necessary equipment. Handling a pack horse requires knowledge, but that can be acquired. Here are some situations that are likely to beg for the addition of a pack animal:

• Traveling where feed is unavailable. Some wilderness areas prohibit grazing. If that's the case, hobbling or picketing is illegal; you must highline your horse and feed him only whatever you've brought along. Similarly, some desert terrain is devoid of substantial feed for your horse, and in fall or spring the feed in the mountains may be covered with snow. You may be able to pack along enough weed-free pellets to get your horse by for a single evening, but if any quantity is required, it's time to take a pack horse.

Divide a 50-pound sack of pellets into two panniers, and your pack horse can still take all the extra-light gear you'd normally pack on your saddle horse. Everyone will be lighter and happier, and you can stay out longer.

• Traveling in cold weather. Cold requires extra clothing, a more substantial tent, more extensive survival gear, and heavier food to fuel both your body and that of your horse. If you're planning your trip for winter or at high elevation in fall or spring, you've probably passed the threshold for single-horse travel.

• Carrying comfort items. How much do you need that more comfortable sleeping pad, that campstool (or folding chair with a backrest), that satisfying food? Just how much roughing it do you really want? A pack animal can make for an infinitely more comfortable camp.

• Engaging in other pursuits. If your expedition has another mission, such as photography, fishing, hunting, prospecting, or scientific inquiry, the extra gear may nudge you past the pack-horse threshold.

It's been some years since I tackled a solo trip. But I find myself eyeballing Partner, my 5-year-old gelding, the smooth hard muscles under his black hide, and I find myself looking at bivy sacks in backpacking catalogs. I suspect I'll be out there again sometime, staring up at the Milky Way that lights the meadow.