Safe and Smart Horse Camping

Top tips to prepare for a horse camping trip

Camping with horses can both relax and exhilarate. It could be the fresh air, the expansive vistas, the solitude separating you from crowds and traffic that soothe the soul. Or it might be the unique wildlife seen along the trail or the bird calls high overhead as you watch the sunrise and sip a hot cup of coffee … all in the company of your best equine buddy.

Whatever it is that makes it so rewarding, camping does take serious planning and contemplation—even practice. Then there are the details of caring for your horses. How do you keep them secured at night? What if a horse gets sick in the backcountry? And how do you plan for enough food and water?

Camping is all about simplicity and going back to nature. But adding horses to the picture means you must make many more considerations.

“Once you leave the arena and head up a trail, it’s a big, wide-open world out there, and all sorts of things can happen,” says Robert Eversole, founder of TrailMeister, an online resource for all things trail riding and horse camping, who’s based in Spokane, Washington.

Here are our sources’ top tips for getting ready to go horse camping.

Pre-Trip Planning

“Any trip begins long before we load the trailer,” says Eversole. “With people’s busy schedules these days, most have a set time frame when they can go. Destinations are based on where you can drive to and what you want to see. Do you want to go to a guest ranch and just ride part of the day? Or do a backcountry adventure?”

Time of the year also affects your choices. For example, says Eversole, “summertime rules out places like deserts.”

Weather is another factor. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate equipment,” he says. “I learned about how to have a good time riding in the rain from (living in) the Seattle area.”

Snow can make things much “‘sportier,”’ as Eversole likes to call it.

Wherever you go, you need to prepare for all the weather possibilities. Decide what you can tolerate, temperature- and precipitation-wise, and find areas that fit that parameter.

Also consider trail conditions and how far you want to ride in a day. Find out who else might be using the trail and whether you mind—trail traffic could include anything from other riders to pack animals to motorized vehicles. Are you prepared for mountain bikers or hikers with backpacks to approach from behind?

Eversole suggests preparing for these scenarios by riding a bike around your paddocks or wearing a backpack while doing barn chores. Desensitize your horse as much as possible before heading out.

Is Your Horse Ready?

Make sure your horse is conditioned for what you’ll be asking of him. “Most any horse can do anything, but is your horse properly trained for this task (of trail riding), and do they like their job?” says Eversole, who firmly believes in choosing a horse that enjoys trail riding and is ready to do it. “Our horses don’t get to pick what they do each day. To me, making sure my animals are having a good time … is important.”

As far as conditioning, “we spend a lot of time keeping horses legged up over the winter so that our first (trail) rides are not onerous for them.”

He likens taking an out-of-shape horse camping to asking a human to run a marathon without training for it.

Then there are the paperwork logistics. If your trip will be out of state, getting the required veterinary checks, Coggins tests, brand inspections, and associated health certificates and other required paperwork can take a couple of weeks. “I keep them all in a big manila folder in my vehicle,” says Eversole.

First Aid for All

Camping without cell phone service demands a level of heath responsibility beyond what’s needed at home. For horses, says Eversole, this might require learning basic skills from your veterinarian or taking an equine first-aid class. Do you know how to clean and bandage a wound? What would you do if your horse colicked?

“I ride with Bute and Banamine (the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories phenylbutazone and flunixin meglumine) in my first-aid kit, but it took a long time for my vet to feel confident in my abilities (before prescribing) them for me to carry with me,” says Eversole. “Far too few people talk with their vets about these things.”

Basic first aid for people is equally important. “In every class I teach, I ask who has a valid first-aid and CPR card, and very few raise their hand,” he says. “What we are doing recreationally … fits the definition of extreme sports.”

Thus, riders must be prepared to take care of themselves, their horses, and others on the trip. This includes wearing a helmet on every ride.

If you already have a first-aid kit, Eversole suggests checking dates and replacing items that are old (even things like self-adhesive bandages, for instance, can wear out over time) or expired.

Equine Restraint Options

Once at the campsite, confinement becomes your next obstacle. “There are many ways to contain your horses, and anything can be cruel or dangerous if your horses aren’t trained to it,” says Eversole.

“Practice at home first, and teach your horse to safely stand tied and to have patience,” says Mary Kane, a Maple Valley, Washington, rider who has held various officer positions with Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA), a nonprofit that works to keep public lands open for equestrian use.

Common confinement and restraint options include:

Portable corrals

You can affix one of several types of lightweight portable metal corrals to the side of your horse trailer for traveling and set them up at your destination.

Electric portable fencing

This effective system includes temporary step-in fence posts and a battery charger. Consider what wildlife you might encounter before using this method; some animals might not be savvy to hot tape and could run right through it, allowing your horses to escape, says Kane.

Trailer high-ties

These systems include a 4-foot pole that attaches to the trailer and extends out. While tethered to it your horse can move about and graze. Tie horses shorter at night or when unsupervised so they don’t get a leg over a long lead, says Kane.

Highlining

This method involves stretching a strong rope between two sturdy trees or poles at a prescribed height and attaching horses and feed bags to it. Attach the highline carefully to living trees, so as not to damage them in the process. This restraint method “is the gold standard in horse camping,” says Eversole. However, “unless you have practiced it you can run into big problems” if a knot fails, if horses get hung up, etc.

“Never tie a saddled horse to a highline,” Kane adds, “as the lead can get caught on the saddle horn and create a big wreck.”

Hobbles

This mechanical restraint involves tethering one leg to the other to prevent horses from moving quickly. You must train your horses to accept them first. “They are great but often only slow a horse down until they decide they want to go fast,” says Eversole, who uses hobbles in the backcountry to let his horses graze while supervised.

Permanent corrals

Private as well as public parks often offer horse corrals. “Maybe for your first horse camping trip, go someplace (such as a state park with horse campgrounds) where there are existing safe corrals,” Kane says.

Many facilities (public or private) do not allow campers to set up temporary or portable corrals because confined horses can damage the land by overgrazing and trampling vegetation. Some guest ranches won’t allow highlining out of concern that it will destroy trees. At other locations permanent corrals might not be safe because they are “overused and unloved,” Eversole says. Before departing on your trip, know the area’s confinement rules and regulations, and review your options.

Feeding Horses

Feeding options also depend on where you’re camping. In most federal areas and on public lands, hay must be certified weed-free. “If you are in an area which requires this and your hay isn’t certified and tagged, it’s a huge fine if you end up being caught by officials,” Eversole says.

“I like to keep (my feed) as consistent as possible,” he says, since making dramatic feed changes can lead to digestive upset. “If I can’t take my hay from home, I find certified hay where we’re going, and I start working it into their diet at least a few days before (we leave) so it’s not such a change for my horses.”

Other forage options include weed-free certified hay cubes, compressed hay, or pellets. Any other feeds (such as concentrates or supplements) depend on what you provide at home, again keeping things as consistent as possible. Eversole often carries a few pounds of sweet feed for top-dressing medications or encouraging his horses to eat well.

For more on feeding horses while camping, see TheHorse.com/17771.

Watering Them

Horses trail riding need 10-15 gallons of water a day, says Eversole, so part of your pre-camping plan should include calling ahead to the park or facility to check on water availability.

“Find out if it’s potable for animals and people—and plentiful,” he says. “You don’t want to end a trip early because the springs at your campsite aren’t running enough water for three head of stock. I carry 90 gallons of water (in my trailer) with me in case of emergencies on the road. That way I can also mix water from home with water from the campsite (so it tastes the same).”

Leave No Trace

In addition to confinement and feeding, you must consider manure management. Back Country Horsemen follows the ethics of Leave No Trace, requiring campers to critically evaluate how to reduce their impact on the backcountry. Manure management is a key component of this, “particularly for horse camps where new people are coming in regularly,” Kane says.

Some campsites have manure bunkers in which you can dump manure (don’t forget to pack a wheelbarrow and fork in the trailer). “Otherwise, you need to take all that manure home with you,” says Kane. “The manure has got to go someplace. If 10 people and their horses are there camping each day, the accumulations of manure and (spent) hay are going to make a mess.”

Kane says some horse campers save used feed bags and use them to clean up after their horses. This way, you can take the waste home to your compost system instead of leaving an unsightly and environmentally challenging situation behind. “This also applies at local day ride trailheads and parking areas,” she says.

If you are packing in to camp in the backcountry (rather than at your trailer), you can manage manure by dispersing it at campsites. “This means scattering the manure so that it is not building up,” says Kane. “Don’t be a problem for campers coming in after you.”

Trailer Safety

Lastly, don’t forget to check that your horse trailer is safe for hauling. Is the floor sturdy? Do all the taillights work? Do you know how change a tire—and how old are the tires? Are your spares (for truck and trailer) in good shape? Have your truck and trailer inspected and serviced at the start of camping season.

Take-Home Message

Kane’s best advice for horse camping newbies is to do a dry run. “Some people like to drive to where they plan to camp first to have a look around and get a feel for things,” she says. “Or you can also go on an organized camping trip or trail ride with others more experienced than you for your first time out.”

Back Country Horsemen chapters (BCHA.org) hold trail rides and overnight camping trips regularly, for instance.

Camping with a horse requires that you think through everything you and your horse might need to stay safe and have fun. Done well, horse camping is an exhilarating, relaxing time away from the daily grind, in the company of nature and your equine companion.