Leave-No-Trace Principles

Enjoy the outdoors horseback without damaging the environment with these guidelines.

Article and Photography by A.J. Mangum

This article originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of Western Horseman.

LeaveNoTrace image1Jim and Sherry Basham of Creede, Colorado, enjoy a ride in the Rio Grande National Forest.

For horsemen in love with the outdoors, signs of carelessness by fellow wilderness enthusiasts can quickly spoil a trip into the backcountry. Heavy traffic on our public lands has polluted water sources, left blackened earth where campfires burned, trampled meadows, and littered the forests and open ranges with trash.

To combat the deterioration of outdoor destinations, the National Outdoor Leadership School developed leave-no-trace guidelines for public land users. Designed to reduce the negative impact of camping, hiking, horseback riding, rafting, rock climbing, and other activities, these principles are designed to help outdoorsmen keep the wilderness the way they find it.

Because of the signs they leave and their feed and restraint requirements, horses, mules, and other stock animals pose special challenges. With attentive preparation though, riders can minimize their effect on the environment, and protect the outdoors for use by others.


LeaveNoTrace image2Use planning to lighten loads you and your pack animals will carry. A group should need just one pack horse for three riders’ gear.

First, contact Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service land managers for details on use regulations and trail conditions, and to obtain maps for the area where you want to ride. Be aware that the label "wilderness" has proven to be a strong lure. A better outdoor experience might be found in an area not popularized by a wilderness designation.

Look for sections of forest or public land where motorized use is prohibited. In many cases, hunting and livestock grazing are the only activities in these areas. Select horses and mules suitable for backcountry riding. If a horse won't lead, doesn't travel well in groups, is unfamiliar with necessary equipment, or unaccustomed to restraint methods that will be used in camp, put in some training time at home to prevent problems on the trail. And, remember that your slowest horse will determine your group's rate of travel.

A key point: Make sure your horse is physically capable of handling a ride in the great outdoors. Don't make a long weekend expedition his first ride of the year. Before a trip, condition your horse with regular exercise.


Reduce the loads you, your horse, and the pack animals carry by eliminating unneeded materials. Look for dual purposes in the gear you take. Ropes used to lash down a pack horse's load might double as highlines. Solid panniers can serve as tabletops. Be innovative as you review your list of must-have items. A pack horse 's load should be limited to 20 percent of his body weight (200 pounds for a 1,000-pound horse), and a group should need no more than one pack horse for every three riders.

Bringing precooked food, packaged in reusable, sealing plastic bags reduces camp trash and the need for cooking fuel. Measure out correct portions before your trip, and get rid of excess packaging. It's a good idea to repackage store-bought foodstuffs so you can alter the serving sizes and use proper containers. Gas cook stoves, small enough to fit in a saddlebag, are available from camping suppliers.

Don't forget a water filter; USPS personnel recommend filtering water from all outdoor water sources.

Tags: backcountryTrail RidingBLM