One of the things that I really appreciate about the Long Riders’ Guild is the tradition of passing down the hard won wisdom of the trail. This is balanced against the reality that each of us rides our own ride, in our own way. My ride (and what I’ve packed) has been different when I’ve been solo versus when I’ve been accompanied by Gryph or Katie – when I’ve been in Wilderness versus more populated areas – seasons and terrains – and I’m very aware that, as a woman travelling solo across the USA in this day and age, in many ways I’ve got it easy! I was recently contacted on facebook by a woman who is planning a ride with her two horses from Lebanon, TN to Kingsville, TX starting this coming August. She’s asked me for advice, specifically about what to bring, and I’ve decided to go ahead and make a blog post or two out of it. The answer varies by time of year and terrain so I’m going to try and fill in a bit of the thought process as well as the specific items currently in my packs.
My least favorite part of the day is loading and balancing the packs. It’s an exact science – a few ounces difference from one side to the other really doesn’t sound like that much but over the course of a day, subjected to the constant movement of a pack pony, those few ounces will cause your packs to shift in the direction of the extra weight. This creates difficulty for your faithful pack animal and will lead to soreness and eventual saddle sores, not to mention attitude problems. The first month out Gryph and I repacked Finehorn EVERY SINGLE DAY (at Least once!) This was a royal pain in the neck and didn’t do good things for Our attitudes, but the alternative was worse. Since then I’ve gotten pretty good at balancing the packs by hand (at first we couldn’t find a suitable light weight scale and by the time we did we didn’t need it.) Finehorn has also gotten a lot smarter about things – if I don’t have them balanced correctly she’ll let me know. One recent morning I’d been distracted and didn’t get it right. As we got started she came up alongside mr.James and gave me “the look”. Since we’d just had a couple of days off and been slack-packed a few days before that I wrote it off as Monday morning grumpies and ignored her. She then proceeded to buck them off. Smart pony protecting herself. I didn’t chastise her, just did a better job repacking and she carried them happily for the rest of the day.
What I’ve learned about hand weighing packs: Pick each of the two bags up separately in Exactly the same way. If they’re small enough to pick up with one hand, use the same hand. My big bags I set side-by-side, pick one up with both hands, stand up straight and count to three, put it down, step over to the second bag and repeat the process. Exactly. Most everybody on the planet has one arm stronger than the other and your muscles will lie to you. My food bags I use one hand, but the same basic process. Everything has to be paired, and the balancing isn’t only side to side but also front to back. The heavier things should be closer to the ground; a top heavy pack is more prone to shift and cause problems. Don’t put hard edges or pokey things in proximity to your pack animal – even through saddle pads. Also – this is a bad time to have people talking to you! In my world that generally leads to me needing to re-do the packs at some point during the day (see above). It’s important to be centered and focussed and 100% present.
Less is more. Every thing you bring has to be packed up Every Day. A Long Ride pack pony should be carrying 100 pounds or less. You will meet “experienced packers” who will tell you how much more weight a pack horse can carry. If they haven’t done at least 500 miles in a stretch – ignore them. (That’s Excellent advice from the LRG!) Aim for less than 100#, you’ll pick up things along the way. The more you know the less you need and things that serve multiple functions are your friends. Between Lebanon, TN and the King Ranch you’re not going to be in any Wilderness – there will be places to pick up things that you need along the way. This is especially true in terms of first aid, tack repair and “just-in-case” extras. Katie Cooper is riding from Mississippi to Arizona on her wonderful mule Sir Walter – and he’s carrying her packs as well as her self. (Talk about downsizing – she puts me to shame! She also weighs about 100# less than I do, so she had a head start ;-).) www.muletriptalk.blogspot.com Katie started her blog several months before she started her ride and it might be useful to you to see what she went through in terms of planning…
I think it’s easiest to break this down into categories. So – what’s important? Personally, I place a high premium on a good night’s sleep. I tried sleeping on the saddle pads and wadding up a sweater as a pillow. I woke up stiff and sore every morning and it got old fast! At this time of year my bedroll consists of a Thermarest self-inflating mattress, a twin sized sheet, a small fleece blanket and a full sized pillow. The pillow takes up space in the pack without adding much weight which is an asset in terms of the way I’m packing. In the cold months I was carrying a twin sized down comforter in a duvet cover made by my niece, Tasha. My original sleeping bag was about 25 years old and when the zipper went last fall I decided to replace it. The comforter was $70 – a comparable warmth sleeping bag starts at $200 – no brainer. I still use the saddle pads under me (putting them under the thermarest, which also helps protect it) – and on cooler nights I use my wool saddle blankets over me (they’re not big, it takes both to cover me!) If you’re heading out in August it’ll be HOT for several months – only carry what you need for those months during those months – add warmer layers later, as you actually need them!
Also on the subject of sleep – I’m carrying a MSR Mutha Hubba tent. It’s technically a 3 person tent, but is the perfect size for me and my gear. My tent weighs 8# and even buying it “gently used” it was a significant decision in terms of price and weight. The purpose of a tent is to protect you from weather, mostly the wet and windy sorts. It also works pretty well against bugs and snakes. Using the tent adds an hour to my day – and I’ve slept in it less than 1/3 of the nights thus far. In the desert, when it was too cool for rattlers to be out, I slept under the stars and loved it. Many nights I’ve been invited into homes or been offered the use of a hay barn or a camper or some other place to get out of the weather. I have the option of a sweet hammock with a mosquito net that weighs just over a pound and will keep me dry if i rig a tarp over it and part of me thinks I really should send the tent back for the summer. But! Last month when I spent two nights and a day waiting out a serious storm with thunder and lightning and wind and heavy rain – I really appreciated my serious tent that kept me dry and cozy! A tent that won’t do that isn’t worth its weight.
Still on the subject of sleeping comfortably (and staying warm enough) let’s talk about tarps. I carry a 9′ square of Tyvek. Tyvek is a super strong and totally waterproof material that is used mostly in construction as a vapor barrier. It’s like thick slick paper that doesn’t tear. It’s lighter than anything else I can afford, works better and lasts longer than those blue tarps from Walmart. I don’t use a ground cloth under my tent. I’m careful where I set my tent up (to avoid abrasion, tears or a bumpy bed) and I’ve learned that if an edge of the ground cloth is peeking out from under my tent it’ll catch and funnel the rain. Pick a spot that’s higher than the surrounding ground. The soft smooth spot that looks like the obvious first choice is often where rain makes puddles! I usually wrap the Tyvek around my tack at night to keep it dry – but on cold nights when my bed roll isn’t quite up to the task I’ll wrap myself up in the Tyvek like a burrito and it’ll hold in my body heat and keep me at least 15*F warmer. The downside is condensation. If you get too warm and start to sweat you’ll wake up in a wet bed! The trick to keeping warm is trapping your own body heat. Wool socks, gloves, hat and scarf don’t weigh much but make a huge difference on a cold night. Wearing whatever dry layers you have makes more sense on the occasional cold night than packing a heavier bedroll than you generally need. Wool and silk will help keep you warm even when it’s wet; cotton and down won’t. Packing one or two pairs of those little “foot warmers” that you tear out of their cellophane wrappers and shake to activate is smart. Put one in each sock right under the ball of your foot and it’ll keep your whole body warmer. Be sure to buy the ones that last 8 hours or longer.