Horse Sense -- Visiting the Modoc with pack stock and horses

A cowboy on a horse leads a string of 5 mules all loaded up into the wilderness.If you are an experienced packer you are probably tempted to skip this section and just load up and go.  You probably hope you won't find a mess left by careless campers at your favorite spot.  Each two legged mammal has the responsibility for their 4 legged animals to minimize the impact we leave on the land.  Since more people visit the backcountry every year, please take a few moments to review a few simple ways to lower your impact and leave the land better than when you found it.

Minimum Impact Philosophy:  Disguise the sight and sound of your passage, leaving no sign that you were ever there.

Planning Your Pack Trip

Know Before You Go

Pack goats and their owners prepare to hike into the South Warner Wilderness to remove trash.Before you go, contact local land managers for maps, regulations, information and rules concerning permits, campfires, party size, grazing, weed-seed-free feed, trail conditions and closures and more. Make alternate plans in case of bad weather.

Physical Fitness

It's easier to travel outdoors when both you and your animals are in shape for the trip.  Select trips where you can walk out if you need to lead an injured animal.


Know your stock:  Which animal leads best? Which ones are followers? Which is the slowest traveler? The slowest animal determines the speed of the pack string. Are they familiar with trails, packing and with the equipment you plan to use? Get your animals used to highlines, pickets, hobbles, and various temporary corrals at home before you go.  Never "try" new ideas or new equipment in the wilderness miles from the nearest vet or doctor.

Bear Safety

Three bear cubs raid a campground site where campers have failed to store their food properly.There are bears in the South Warner Wilderness and other areas of the Modoc National Forest.  Food odors can attract hungry or curious bears and other animals too, so it is important to store your food properly. In some areas, this means using bear-proof boxes and panniers.

Your cooking and wash-up area should be at least 100 yards from where you sleep.  Never sleep in the clothes you wore for cooking.  Wash all scents of food, fish and/or game from your hands.  Never store food, snacks or toiletries or the packs/boxes in which they traveled in your tent.  For more tips on camping and traveling in bear country visit Be Bear Aware.


Supplemental Feed

Don't get caught unprepared when you find your favorite grassy meadow is dry or overgrazed. Plan to take supplemental feed and get your stock use to it at home. Ask local land managers about available grazing and restrictions, so you know how much supplemental feed to bring and where to camp.

Certified Weed-Seed-Free Feed

Yellow starthistle has small yellow flowers with barbs and is harmful to horses.While planning, find out if hay and uncertified feed are allowed where you're going. It may not be required, but you can help prevent the spread of noxious weeds by using certified weed-seed-free feed.  The process used to make horse pellets destroys the weed seed.  Cubes may or may not be weed free certified.  Check the tag on the feed bag.  Hay can be certified by the county Ag Extension Agent.  Ask your feed dealer for the Agent's documentation of the hay.

Many areas permit only certified weed-seed-free feed because some feed contains seeds of noxious weeds and non-native plants. Once established, noxious weeds such as spotted knap weed and leafy spurge can spread and destroy grazing for your stock and wildlife.  You can help protect the land, native plants and your grazing rights by carrying only certified weed-seed-free feed into the forest and by starting your animals on it several days before the trip.


The Bare Essentials

A rider leads a pack horse on the summit trail.Lightweight, compact camp equipment: sleeping bags, tents, camp stoves, cookware, and utensils help reduce the number of pack animals, allowing you to take what you really need and minimize your impact on the land.

Nosebags and Mangers

Use of nosebags and mangers to feed your stock hay, pellets or grain will help reduce waste, you don't have to feed stock on the ground, and it's easier on the land.  Animals should use this equipment at home and be comfortable with it before traveling.

Safe Drinking Water

For short trips, carry enough water for the duration of your trip and some unexpected emergencies.  Outdoor stores and catalogs carry filtering devices, chemical treatment tablets and tiny stoves that can boil drinking water quickly without the need for a campfire.  A giardia filter is highly recommended for preventing the awful symptoms of giardiasis.


Taking prepackaged meals, dehydrated or freeze-dried food, or repackaged food will save space and reduce weight. Use lightweight, reusable plastic containers and plastic bags instead of glass and cans.  While it may be tradition, leaving the cast iron skillet at home along with the giant wall tent and opting for more modern lightweight gear will also reduce weight.  This means fewer pack animals will be needed, meaning less feed to carry and less grazing on the land around your campsites.

Minor Mishaps

Take insect repellent and a first-aid kit for both yourself and your stock.  Make sure you know how to use first-aid kits.  There are many useful web sites to teach you appropriate ways to deal with snake bites, altitude sickness and other life threatening emergencies.  Be prepared.

On the Trail

A woman rides a brown horse while a man leads  a palomino with pack gear.Use your "horse sense!" It's easy to overlook, but your own or your animals' lives could be at risk in rough country. Let your stock pick their way through boggy places, slide zones, on slick and steep trails, and through deep water and snow. Or get off and lead them through treacherous stretches.

  • Always stay on trails. Cutting across switchbacks tramples plants and creates parallel paths which erode severely.
  • Although it's tricky, keep your stock from skirting shallow puddles, small rocks, and bushes. This helps prevent the creation of wide, deteriorating trails.
  • At rest stops even short ones tie your stock off the trail. This is courteous to other trail users and helps reduce wear and tear on the trail. Before you move on, scatter the manure.
  • NO SMOKING WHILE TRAVELING!  If you are a smoker learn the rules on how and when to enjoy a smoke in the forest safely and correctly.

Trail Courtesy

In the backcountry, say hello! A little simple courtesy makes life more pleasant for everyone.  Observe the basics of trail courtesy:

  • In steep, rough country, down-hill traffic usually yields to uphill traffic. If you have a better place to pull off, do so, and let the other folks pass through.
  • Hikers and mountain bikes should yield to all stock traffic because it is easier for them to move off the trail. People with llamas and goats should yield to horse and mule traffic because it is easier for them to move off the trail. If they don't, smile and yield the way, or ask them to stand below the trail and wait quietly for your stock to pass.
  • In the backcountry, say hello!


Controling Stock in Camp

Your animals are important and valuable.  If they wandered off, you'd have a heavy load on your shoulders! Be sure to familiarize and refamiliarize stock with all containment methods you plan to use before you ride into the backcountry. 

  • Keep pack animals at least 200 feet from streams, lake shores, trails, and camping areas. This helps keep water clean, protects the soil and plants, and keeps trails and campsites clear of loose stock. Rotate stock around the area to reduce trampling and prevent overgrazing.
  • Choose a hard and rocky spot; Never the middle of a meadow or next to a lake or stream.
  • Use tree-savers and place the rope about 7 feet above the ground.  Run the rope between the straps, tie with a quick-release knot, and pull tight.  The highline with a tree saver strap prevents stock from trampling roots and chewing bark. 
  • If you must tie stock to a hitching rail or dead pole, tie a four-to-six inch round pole between two trees. Place padding or wooden shims under the lash ropes to protect the bark. Use rope or twine instead of nails or wire. Always dismantle and take it with you when you leave.
  • If you choose to picket, practice at home and make sure your animal accepts the rope.  Avoid areas with obstacles so the rope doesn't get hung up. If you walk your animal to the end of the rope before turning it loose, it's less likely to injure itself by running past the end of the rope. Move the picket pin frequently, to prevent trampling and reduce overgrazing. When you break camp, be sure to take that picket pin with you.
  • Hobbles work for some animals, but others can move fast while wearing them.  They can be miles away by the time you finish your coffee.  Again, get your stock used to them before going into the backcountry.
  • When you plan to spend several days in one spot, a temporary corral or fence is a good way to keep your stock in camp. Make sure your stock are trained to stay in temporary corrals before leaving home. If you find permanent corrals at trailheads or designated horse camps, use them!
  • Rope corrals are relatively easy to rig and move, but they do require extra rope. One method uses two parallel ropes tied with loops or bowlines and threaded with cross ropes for a more secure enclosure.

Your Camp

Avoid pitching tents on grass.The bare dirt area behind the trees would be more appropriate.Like most people, you enjoy campsite privacy and solitude. Where should you put your stock and gear? You can follow the "200-foot guideline":  keep stock and gear at least 200 feet from the nearest lakes and streams, meadows, trails, and other camps. In the South Warner Wilderness, this is a requirement which helps keep streams and lakes clean, protects the soil and plantlife, and keeps trails and campsites clear of loose stock.  It's helpful to follow it in other areas of the forest too.

  • Picking a Spot: Select an open, well drained, level spot. In Wilderness areas, you must follow the 200-foot guideline. Rotate stock throughout the area to reduce trampling and prevent overgrazing.
  • Soaps and Detergents:  For washing chores, use a basin at least 200 feet from water sources. Water plants and fish are extremely sensitive to soap, even biodegradable soap, and can die from it.
  • Cleaning up: To prevent contaminating water sources with stock or human waste, dump it at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Use biodegradable, unscented, white toilet paper. Bury human waste and toilet paper in a small "cat hole" in the top 6 to 8 inches of soil, or use a latrine for large parties or long stays. Cover your latrine completely.
  • Campfires: Where fires are allowed, we all enjoy the romance of a campfire. However, campfires sterilize the soil, blacken rocks, and leave long-lasting scars on the land. Build them where campfires were previously built. Keep your fires small, attend them while burning, and let them burn down to a fine ash; then stir, scatter or pack out ashes according to local practice for that site.
  • Fire Pans and Cookstoves are good alternatives to traditional campfires. Fires built in fire pans are similar to campfires on the ground, but cause less damage. You can also use a cookstove instead of a fire: it's light, convenient, and reduces impacts to the land.
  • Structures: Rock walls, log benches, lean-tos, and other structures may not be built in the South Warner Wilderness.  These man-made structures detract from and needlessly impact the natural landscape. If you need shelter, bring lightweight equipment with you.

Breaking Camp

When planning your trip, plan for how you will contain and "pack out" all refuse, garbage, campfire debris and trash.

  • You may not burn trash in the South Warner Wilderness.
  • Burying garbage or any trash, is prohibited.  
  • Break up and scatter horse manure and fill in pawed holes.
  • Clean up and remove all signs of campfires.
  • Finally, scatter a covering of needles and cones over the site.

Come back again next year and it should be nearly impossible to find the spot where your and your animals camped.