Horse Camping, Part 2
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
It’s good to see you again. For those of you who did not catch the last article, "Horse Camping," this is the second of three articles on horse camping.
The first article dealt with preparing for the trip, this one is about packing up, and the next article will address trail travel, safety, wrangling, and the campsite.
Before we continue, remember that all horse activities, particularly trail riding and packing horses, are safest if the horse is friendly and completely desensitized. This means that the horse stands calmly when noisy objects like tarps are rubbed along his back, and ropes are placed around his feet, between his back legs, and under his tail. Desensitizing must be done slowly, with caution, and be successfully completed.
Packing up is like following a recipe, and, like cooking up a fine dinner, it can actually be fun. It also gives one a sense of touching history, as you share a common bond with those hardy adventurers who packed supplies while penetrating the Wild West and the guides who still head into wild places each year. There is a genuine satisfaction in throwing a tight, good looking diamond hitch. At our packing clinic, first time packers team up with a partner and after an hour of practice often throw a diamond in less than 40 seconds!
Packing up and taking pack trips are an art and a science that often takes years to perfect, especially with large numbers of horses. This article will not turn you into an instant packer but will provide a sense of what is involved and how to do things.
Pick up a good book and attend a clinic if you want to pursue packing skills. If you are lucky, you may be able to convince an experienced packer to guide you along.
You need a rigged pack saddle, pack pad, pack boxes or bags, a top tarp, and the makings of a top pack which commonly consists of gear bags, bed rolls, or tents.
There are several pack saddle types including the Decker pack saddle, wooden sawbucks, and modern molded plastic saddles. Although we typically use the modern saddles with molded plastic bars and metal cross forks, the type of saddle you choose is not as important as the fact that the saddle needs to fit the horse’s back like a glove. Unlike a live rider, the dead weight of a pack load sways with each step and to avoid rubs it is critical that the saddle fits properly. Wooden sawbucks commonly have to be shaved to fit the horse. To do this, sprinkle some white flour on the horse’s back, set the saddle gently on the horse where it belongs, remove it, rasp down the white spots, and repeat until the bars are all white, meaning complete contact.
Pack boxes or bags are hung on the forks of the pack saddle, though some traditional packers use a manty load. A manty is basically a rectangular shaped package of goods wrapped and slung on a pack saddle, usually a Decker saddle. However, more than 80 percent of packers these days use boxes or pack bags. This is because boxes are more durable, can be used for tables or chairs once you reach camp, and are easy to balance by simply putting objects from one box into the other and re-weighing. They also take less time to pack, are easier to hitch, sway less, and are less likely to bang into trees, which can be a problem in heavily wooded areas. If you do not want to invest in pack boxes for your maiden voyage you can simply use a couple of duffel or hockey bags and learn the basket or barrel hitch to attach them to the pack saddle.
We keep our top loads simple, and use a tough, weather tight, personal gear bag 14 inches in diameter and about 26 inches long, a bed roll, and a tent. Bed rolls are simply sleeping bag covers that have a foam or Therm-A-Rest bottom and are easy to roll up. We often have a small day pack with each rider for extras. It hangs on the saddle horn or can be worn.
The top tarp is a six-by-seven to seven-by-eight foot tough tarp, either canvas or a quiet nylon reinforced vinyl, similar to what truckers use to cover loads. It protects your gear from abuse and weather and helps keep the top load together.
The lash rope is commonly half an inch in diameter and 40 to 45 feet in length. It needs to have some bite so the cheap yellow poly from the hardware store is not acceptable. We also avoid natural materials like manila or hemp as they are terrible to work with if wet or frozen and stretch when wet. Various nylon or polyester ropes work well if they are not too slippery.
The more you prepare at home, the less trouble packing day becomes, and the sooner you can leave. Our gear is prepared at home, the essentials packed and weighed, and it goes from the house, to the truck, to the horse.
Pack boxes should be at 50 pounds or less and your top pack should be about 30 pounds (no more than 40 pounds) for a 1000 pound horse. If your gear bags and bed rolls are placed on the top as pairs, as they usually are, then they should weigh less than 20 pounds each. Opposing pack boxes, gear bags, and bed rolls need to be matched in weight, within two pounds of each other. Obviously, the size and strength of the horse, the experience of the packer, the difficulty of the terrain, and the length of the day’s ride can affect the size of the load; but a load that is 15 percent of the horse’s body weight is a good formula until you gain experience and confidence.
When it’s time to pack up, find a good, roomy area to tie up your horses. Remove pointed branches from trees that can poke you or a horse’s eye. Tie horses close to the tree, post, or rail at eye level. Give yourself lots of space between horses. Put riding and pack horses in separate areas so it is less confusing to place gear and make changes.
Before packing up place all of the gear for each horse behind them, including saddles, pads, boxes, top pack, tarp, and lash rope. Saddle up and get your riding horses completely ready to go first, including your cantle pack, saddle bags, and trail axe, and put on your bridle, securing the reins so they stay put. Tighten the cinch about 80 percent so the saddle does not slip, and tighten to 100 percent before you mount up.
Place pads and saddles on all of the pack horses, again 80 percent tight until you are ready to leave. We always use a one-inch thick wool blend felt pad and a hospital felt pad liner for extra protection. Pad liners are easier to keep clean than the pad and help reduce friction. The pads are placed with more material sticking out the front than the back of the saddle and they are lifted up off of the horse’s spine. This helps keep them from sliding back as you ride and helps air circulate, keeping things cooler.
The saddle needs to be positioned and adjusted so it sits correctly. The front cinch should be one or two inches behind the point of the elbow, the same as with a riding saddle, and the breast collar should have about two to three inches of slack if you pull it forward. If you use a britching (the band around the horse’s rear quarters), it should be adjusted so that it is five inches below the point of the hip and has three to four inches of slack when you pull back.
There are many details that will help your load travel properly through the course of a long day, including the positioning of the top pack and the positioning of the boxes or bags. A good book or DVD will help you understand these important details.
Even as a recreational rider you always need to be thinking light, trim, tight, and evenly balanced.
Hitching Your Load
Now let’s secure your load with a hitch. There are two categories of hitches: those that hang things on the pack saddle and those that wrap the entire load to the horse. The most common hanging hitches, for pack boxes, gear, hockey bags, bales of hay, or firewood, are the basket hitch and the barrel hitch. The category of hitches that wrap the entire load to the barrel of the horse include the diamond hitches, box hitch, square hitch, squaw hitch, ring hitch, and more. There are more than 20 variations of the diamond hitch alone!
Hitches are personalized, and most people prefer the hitches of the packer who taught them. If you learned the hitch from Uncle Joe you will likely defend that hitch as the best choice, when in reality many hitches can do the job. However, there are some differences between hitches. For example, a double diamond is great for tall horses or short people as one does not have to go up high to tie it off. The standard single diamond, our favourite, is the best when two people want to tie a lightning fast hitch for a variety of loads. Even so, the one man single diamond is likely North America’s most widely used hitch.
I remember one cold October day in some remote and rugged piece of northern BC when we were packing out for the season. The days were short and the horses were many. I remember my frustration as I watched a packer pack one horse with a one man diamond hitch while a partner and I packed four during the same time. Being hard headed can be an advantage for us bush guys, but not always. The bottom line is that, no matter which hitch you use, it needs to secure the load tightly for the duration of a tough day and most hitches can be used successfully. The choice of hitch is not as important as knowing how to throw it and when to use it.
If the hitches look difficult in the pictures, don’t worry! It becomes much clearer with the horse standing beside you and a lash rope in your hands. I am already looking forward to the next issue and all the great trail tips we can share.
16 Steps to The One Man Double Diamond Hitch
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Although the hitch I use the most is the standard single diamond because it is lightning fast with two people, versatile for a variety of loads, and is truly poetry in motion, I chose the double diamond for this article because it is easier to throw for one person and it works well on a tall horse or if you are “vertically challenged.”
This version of the double diamond is fairly easy to throw. It works equally well for one or two people. Begin with a nice, flat, even top load — maybe two bed rolls or gear bags placed side by side, or a tent. Be sure that you keep the rope as tight as possible at each step.
1. Take your 45 foot lash rope and drop it, cinch up, on the left side of the horse.
2. Pick up the cinch and poke a loop through it. Pull the loop through until it is about eight feet long, or long enough to throw over and hook under the girth area.
3. Toss the loop over.
4. Reach underneath the horse and hook the loop with the lash cinch. The cinch can be placed on top of the front pack saddle cinch or just behind it.
5. Grab the ropes high on the side and pull them down until the left side cinch ring is just below the bottom of the pack box.
6. Pull down on the tail rope and up on the other until the slack is taken up. The ropes should have a little snap to them if you pull on them.
7. Bring the tail end of the rope up to the forward facing corner, between the notches on the pack box. Because these corner ropes can come off if the rope loosens, it is more secure if you run the rope behind the corner of the box rather than through the notches.
8. High on the side of the load, twist the two ropes twice to form a diamond. Poke through the tail of the rope and pull it all of the way through.
9. Once the rope is all of the way through, toss it to the other side of the horse.
10. Pick up the rope on the right side, run it along the top pack, twist the two ropes twice to form your second diamond, and poke the tail through.
11. Run the rope down behind the corner or between the notches of the forward facing portion of the box.
12. Run the rope across the bottom of the box towards the hind end, and then between the notches or around the back corner of the box.
13. Run the rope through the opposite side of the diamond and walk it over the rump, catching the load, back to the left side of the horse.
14. Slip the rope through the back side of the left side diamond.
15. Pull the rope around the back corner or notches and to the cinch ring.
16. Tie the hitch off to the cinch ring with a simple slip knot. Put a loop and a half hitch around the slip knot to secure it. The excess rope can be brought up and tied off to the diamond so that it does not drag.
Read Horse Camping, Part 3.
All photos courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Main article photo: You can try your hand at horse camping with a couple of hockey bags and a basket hitch on a pack or riding saddle. If you have only one horse, you can pack your riding saddle, walk in leading your horse, make camp, and then have a horse to ride.