Stock Use in Wilderness


Many people enjoy animal packing in the backcountry. Pack stock groups must be even more conscientious about Leave No Trace than backpackers, because large animals can have a greater impact on trails, campsites, and holding areas. Leaving no trace depends more on attitude and awareness than on rules and regulations; low impact camping and travel practices must be flexible and tempered by judgment and experience. Minimize your impact on the land and other visitors. Practicing good camp and trail etiquette helps ensure that everyone enjoys the visit. Unnecessary impact in backcountry areas can be avoided by carefully preparing for your trip.


[Photo]: Wilderness Manager Michael Morse on horsebackTrail Courtesy: Stay on trails. Traveling on constructed trails that, in most cases, have been designed to accommodate heavy use can minimize impact on wildlife, soil and vegetation. Ride single file on designated trails, never shortcut trails or switchbacks. When traveling on switchbacks and steep trails with limited visibility, travel slowly and be cautious of approaching riders, backpackers and other users. Muddy stretches and most snow banks should be crossed rather than skirted. When taking rest breaks choose a site well off the trail so that others are not forced to leave the trail to go around you. When possible, pull off on a durable surface such as dry grass or sand (loose herding of pack or saddle stock is prohibited).

Few hikers know that they should pull off to the downhill side of the trail when encountering stock; you may need to ask them to hold up while you pass. If you are the one being overtaken, remember the hiker is packing a load and has a right to be on the trail too. Find a good spot to let them pass. A little conversation while you pass each other may reduce the chances of your horse being spooked.

Considerations: Keep groups small and carry lightweight equipment. Keep stock 200 feet or more from lakeshores. The limit for party size is 15 people and 25 head of stock. Before entering the backcountry you should consider the following points concerning stock:

  • Take only the minimum number of animals necessary.
  • Take only fit, calm, experienced animals.
  • At home, practice the techniques to be used in the backcountry before heading out

Bring pellets, cubes, or grain to areas where feed is limited or grazing is prohibited. Check with local ranger stations for open and closed dates for grazing in the wilderness. A recommendation is two or three quarts of grain morning and night, and 10 pounds of hay pellets daily for each animal. Remove or scatter manure; remove excess pellets or cubes. Use high lines, hobbles and pickets to constrain pack animals. Pack out everything you pack in; this includes all cans, bottles, aluminum foil, fire grates and other trash you cannot burn. Do not bury trash! Practice minimum impact/Leave No Trace camping.


Get out your maps and go over the route. Consider river crossings, alternate campsite locations, mountain passes and different trail opportunities. Familiarize yourself with other trails and routes that you could use in case of emergency. In popular areas you can assume that you can find existing highly impacted campsites to use. With good information you will be better prepared for your trip, having a more enjoyable experience and better prepared to minimize your impacts. Main trail corridors and popular destinations typically have well-established trails and campsites. Make decisions and choose practices that will cause the least amount of damage and leave only short-term impacts. Extensive planning must go into a pack stock trip. Check with the local office of the administering federal agency for trail conditions and areas where stock is allowed. Some areas are closed to pack animals due to overuse or because the environments are fragile.

[Photo]: Wilderness Manager Michael Morse and researcher David Cole en route to Pine Creek PassSetting Up Camp: Selecting an appropriate campsite is an extremely important aspect of backcountry use. A decision about where to camp should be based on type and amount of use in the area, the fragility of the vegetation and soil, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, an assessment of previous impacts and your parties potential to cause or avoid more impact. In most areas camps should be at least 200 feet from water or trails and existing camps should be used. The campsite should be able to accommodate your animals without any damage to the area or enlarging the existing site. Check with local ranger station for current fire restrictions that may apply.

Feed: Feeding pack animals can cause impacts, too. Spreading loose hay on the ground may introduce exotic plant species to an area. Instead, pack in a good supply of processed feed for your animals. This will give them a healthy supply of food and prevent overgrazing around campsites. Use a nose or feed bag when possible and avoid spreading feed on the ground. Grazing is another option for general public wishing to travel with stock in the wilderness. Visitors should carefully choose appropriate areas, avoiding wet meadows, riparian areas, streams, tarns, and close proximity to trails, camps, and other wilderness visitors. Grazing should take place in a supervised area on durable grasses where impacts are less likely to occur. Please contact local agencies for grazing restrictions.

High Lines: This is the preferred low-impact method for restraining horses in camp because it prevents horses from trampling the root systems around trees. Find an area of rock or dry hardened ground or a site where the least ground cover will be disturbed. Stretch a rope a little over horse head high between two live trees at least 8" in diameter. Tie lead ropes at intervals along the high line, away from tree trunks. The ropes should not be able to slide along the high line; this will prevent horses from getting tangled with each other. To ensure that the high line does not girdle trees, use wide nylon "tree save" straps or use several loops of a lash rope to spread the constricting force. Gunnysacks can be used for additional bark padding if necessary.

Watering Horses: Wet marshy areas, stream banks, ponds and lake edges are very susceptible to trampling, bank erosion and pollution. Water horses at an established ford or low rocky spot in the bank where little damage will occur. Many watering places are small or contain sensitive vegetation and fragile soils. Consider watering horses away from the source to prevent damage to these sensitive riparian areas. A water bucket is handy in such cases, as well as in the kitchen. Tip: Hobbling will prevent stock from digging holes, though animals should never be left unattended for periods of time while hobbled.