Four men, 18 Mustangs, six months and 3,000 miles: From Mexico to Canada, the deepest backcountry in the American West. Here are their stories.
The biggest challenge of the trip is planning the route. It’s a logistical nightmare to traverse the country without using highways. I’d prefer the threat of raiding Comanche Indians 200 years ago to the inconveniences of barbed wire and suburbs today. Extended pack trips are almost exclusively limited to public lands. Luckily for us, American citizens have 773 million acres in the United States, much of it undeveloped. Our route goes through national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management land and state owned property.
National forests are the easiest agency to work with to coordinate a pack trip. They don’t have many grazing restrictions and you usually don’t have to obtain permits. National parks are more difficult to coordinate and navigate the red tape, but it’s worth it because they’re usually on really awesome land. National parks require a backcountry permit to stay at a designated campsite and many of them require you to pack your own feed (always use certified weed free).
Land administered by the BLM is user friendly to pack trips and is typically at lower elevations than national forests. BLM land is often in the foothills and plains and typically carries livestock, which means it can better accommodate grazing or setting up camp. Usually you don’t need a permit to stay on BLM land and there aren’t grazing restrictions. Almost all Mustangs living in the United States are found on BLM land. State land is usually smaller in acreage than national forests, BLM or a national park, but is usually situated in unique geographical areas.
We planned our six-month, more than 3,000-mile route by connecting a patchwork of public lands together using a large public lands state map. We then bought individual maps of those public lands and pieced them together where backcountry trails connected. Roughly 80 percent of our route is on a trail, 15 percent on an ATV 4-WD road, and five percent on logging or main roads connecting different public lands. Less than one percent of the route is on pavement.
There are many things to take into consider when planning a route. Many mountain passes don’t open up until mid-summer, and this is due to winter snowpack and springtime temperatures. A calm stream in October can be a torrential river in April because of melting snowfall. It is imperative to talk to park rangers about current trail conditions, and also to double check with outfitters and locals. Not all park rangers travel the park routinely, but local packers may, and their insight shouldn’t be over looked.
A fit horse can cover around 25 miles a day over moderate terrain for six days a week without losing weight. For our route, I found good campsites every five miles to potentially stop for rest. A good campsite is easily found using a program like Google Earth. Know what to look for and it can be found. Look for a topographically flat area without trees next to a stream or pond. No trees indicate grass to graze and the water is of quality for livestock, people and cooking.
If you’re planning a pack trip that will be out no longer than two weeks, we found it best to high line your horses at nighttime. This way you don’t have to worry about waking up without your stock. If you are planning a pack trip for longer than a couple of weeks then you will need to let them graze at night so the horses don’t lose weight. Keeping them close to camp can be tricky, and training prior to heading out on the trail is necessary to prepare for overnight camping.
Our trip planning began a year before we adopted the horses, but we are heading out on a cross-country excursion. There are a number of books and articles that can help plan a pack trip, and we wanted to share how we came to many of our conclusions with you all.