Living Out of Saddlebags
by Will Ghormley
I love being out-of-doors in all seasons, but anyone who has spent time outdoors knows things can go wrong in a hurry. An injury, inclement weather, disorientation; all can turn a casual outing serious.
This can be compounded by being on horseback. With a horse, a person has the potential for getting to remote areas where there isn’t help, much quicker than they might on foot. That’s why it pays to plan for the unexpected. I have a saying that my kids are sick of hearing, which means it must be a pretty good saying. It goes like this, “Nobody plans on having accidents, that’s why they’re called ACCIDENTS! But you can plan on NOT having accidents.” To put it the way your granny used to say it, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Situations can change rapidly riding in the backcountry, more so in the fall & spring. Especially in the mountains, the weather can close in awfully fast. The sun can be shining in a clear blue sky and by the time you crest the next ridge it can be spitting sleet in your face. Most inexperienced woodsmen who die in the wilderness die from hypothermia. Hypothermia can kill you when it’s a balmy fifty degrees out! Most experienced woodsmen who die in the wilderness die from embarrassment. They’re embarrassed they didn’t pack enough warm clothes and put on their red long johns! There are some very simple things you can equip yourself with to increase your survivability in case your day long horse ride heads south.
I’ll start with horse equipment. Most important is a saddle that fits. One that fits the rider, but more importantly, fits the horse. Studies by the military have found that discomfort compounds fatigue and fatigue reduces endurance. Endurance is important if your horse has to plow through two feet of snow to get back to the barn. With an ill-fitting saddle, discomfort increases the natural fatigue the horse experiences lugging your chaps around. This reduces endurance – and survivability. With a good fitting saddle, you increase the horses endurance, decreasing the chance you’ll have to use your boots for walkin’. With a saddle that fits the horse well, a high-tech saddle pad isn’t necessary. Get an old-time wool horse blanket 34” x 68”. You fold it
double while it’s under your saddle, but if you
get stuck in the woods overnight, it’ll come
closer to covering your shivering tail than
some space age orthopedic foam pad! It will
also keep you warm even when it’s wet.
Tapadaros for your stirrups are a must. They
keep rain and snow from soaking through
the toes of your boots and turning your feet
into ice cubes. You’ll also need a lariat and
hobbles so your horse can forage when you’re
not traveling. Sling a sturdy metal canteen
around the saddle horn. A metal canteen is my preference, because if you have to melt snow in it, it won’t melt too. Saddlebags close out my list of saddle equipage. Even small saddlebags will hold enough provisions for you and your horse for two or three days. These articles add practically nothin’ to the overall weight of your outfit, yet can add days to your ability to survive in the wilderness.
What about the clothes you will wear and carry along? If you head out in the fall or spring without your long red underwear, we’ll just call it natural selection if you never make it back. Leather work gloves should be on your person somewhere. A sturdy, beaver felt, wide brimmed hat from Great Plains Hat Company, out of Belleview, Nebraska, will keep the sun, snow and rain out
of your face and off the back of your neck. Ninety percent of your body’s
heat is lost out of your head. Add a long scarf in the bottom of your
saddlebags and you’re well on your way. Stick that ugly wool sweater that
nobody likes in the bottom too. It’ll be worth its weight in gold when the
mercury drops. Wool socks should be in your boots. They keep in body heat
even when they’re wet. Tied behind your cantle should be an old-fashioned
fish-skin. You know the kind I mean; one of those long yellow slickers that
covers you from your collar to your spurs and is roomy enough to cover your
saddle. It’s important you get the old fashioned kind that covers your
saddle from horn to cantle. Otherwise you’ll find yourself sitting in a cold
puddle when that gully-washer opens up. It’ll keep you dry, break a stiff
breeze and make you easier to spot from the rescue helicopter. With that
ugly wool sweater underneath it, it’s almost as good as a winter coat.
Old-time fish-skins are hard to come by, but River Junction Trade
Company, of McGregor, Iowa should have one in your size. At night, you
can roll up in your horse blanket and slicker and be about as comfortable
as you are going to get. Also, if your horse likes to buck, the slicker can be tied across the pommel doubled and work like a bucking roll. At the end of this list would be chaps. They’re heavy, but in the cold and wet you’ll be glad you lugged them along.
Provisions are my next concern. Pack extra horseshoes, nails, farrier’s hammer and a hoof pick. Pack some oats in canvas sacks in both sides of your saddlebags. Your horse may need the extra boost from the oats to make it home. You may get hungry too. Tortillas are easy to pack and don’t take up much room. They are better than bread ‘cause they’re harder to smash. A few cans of chili con carne go good with tortillas. Pack a few tins of sardines. I like the ones in hot mustard or jalapeno sauce. A couple air-tights of peaches in heavy syrup make a fine dessert. Pack food in cans so it can be thawed out or warmed in the tin. Leave the lid attached and turned away from the fire so you can use it for a handle, but make sure you have your leather work gloves on. Pack matches in a zip-lock baggie. Pack toilet paper in another zip-lock baggie and pack IT on top. This is what you will need most often in an emergency. Take along a couple of empty one-gallon zip-lock freezer bags. Water can be sterilized by filling up a freezer bag and leaving it in the sun for an hour. If you’re addicted to coffee, pack along some Excedrin. It’s hard to think straight when your caffeine deprived brain starts to throb.
Equipment is my last category. If you don’t carry a
knife, pack one in the saddlebags. At the very
least you can whittle kindling out of a pine knot to
get your fire started. You can also make eating
utensils with it. If you have a P-38 left over from
your days in the armed forces, it’s the best can
opener you can pack. Any other can opener will
do. If you’re packing an electric can opener you
probably aren’t wearing your long red underwear.
A sheath knife will work to open cans, but then
you’ll probably need to pack a first-aid kit to stop
the bleeding and a whetstone to re-sharpen the
knife. A compass is small and light. It’s useful if
you have a good idea of the direction you came
from, the way you were heading, and what way you
need to go to get back. Packing a large caliber
revolver can be handy, but you have to know what
the state’s laws are on carrying loaded pistols. It’s
the easiest and most humane way to dispatch a
critically injured saddle mount in the field. Also,
when the rescue party is within earshot, you can
fire three shots in rapid succession to let them
know where you are. That’s four shots. Most good
revolvers safely carry five rounds. This leaves you
with one bullet left over. If you feel you need to
carry extra ammunition you probably forgot to put
on your red long johns.
These few things allow you to travel light, yet be
prepared for a survival emergency. I’ll follow up
the list with a couple of suggestions for emergency situations. Most unexpected extended stays in the wilderness are a result of disorientation. It can happen to anyone, especially when it becomes overcast or weather closes in rapidly. A blanket of snow makes everything look different.
The first thing to do when you realize you are lost is stop. Stop right where you are, or backtrack a short distance till you come to a place where you can tie up your horse and build a fire. Bust some pine knots out of a rotten tree and gather some dead branches off standing trees. Build a little fire. Sit down and enjoy the scenery. Warm up some chili and have a tortilla. A fire and some food will set the whole world right. It will give you the confidence you can handle the situation. Think of landmarks you might have noticed on your way. Look around to see if you can see any of them. Trust your horse. Your horse may know how to get back to the barn, or at least, how to get back to that green meadow you didn’t let him stop and graze in. Head out slowly. If your horse knows the way home he’ll pick up speed. Look behind you to see if you recognize the scenery from when you came up this way. If none of this helps, there is one general rule to follow, always travel downhill. Head downhill, follow streams downriver, where there is water, there will be people - eventually. If you rode to where you are in a day, you can easily ride out before the few tins of provisions give out. You may not end up where you started, but you will end up found.
If you know where you are, but bad weather sets in, don’t wait until your fingers are numb and you are wet and shaking. Break out the ugly wool sweater, wrap the scarf around your neck, put on your yellow slicker and pull on your gloves. Start home now. Travel as long as you know where you are going and your horse can walk. If you have to stop and take shelter, make sure your horse is tied up tight where he will be as protected from the storm as you are. Make some type of mark showing the direction you were heading: an arrow scratched in tree bark, a limb stuck in the ground pointing in the direction you were heading, or a pile of rocks pointing the way. You may not think you will become disoriented after a short stop, or an overnight camp, but it happens to the best of outdoorsmen. Livestock may wander and terrain may look different when the light of morning is shining from the opposite direction. Any number of things, including a restless night, may add to the confusion. Don’t take the chance - mark your course when you stop.
I heard of a young man who got caught on the plains in a blizzard. His mule wouldn’t take another step, so he tied him off to a bush. He pulled off the saddle and tried to set it up where it would block the most wind and blowing snow. The mule just stood there with his head down. The fellow crawled between the mules legs and squatted under him with the saddle blanket wrapped around up over his head. He sat there and shook all night long as it snowed. In the morning it didn’t get any brighter. He pushed against the snow that was packed around the saddle blanket until he could see out, but alls he could see was snow. He pushed some more and then began digging in the snow. He dug himself out from under the mule to find the snow had nearly drifted over them both. After digging out the saddle and getting the mule saddled up, he held onto the mule’s tail and let him bust a trail through the snow. The mule took him to a grove of cottonwoods by a creek. He built a fire and thawed out while the mule munched on young willow trees.
When you head out into the backcountry there’s nothing you can do about the weather, except prepare for it. Keep your wits about you, pack these few items and put on your red long-handles before you leave the barn. You’ll be fine.