Does packing into the backcountry with a pack horse or mule seem too complicated to tackle? Have you been discouraged by the mystery of the diamond hitch, tales of spectacular wrecks suffered by even experienced packers, and admonitions that packing is an art that takes a lifetime to master?
The good news is that basic packing skills are relatively easy to learn, and the necessary knots may be ones you already know. Mastery of the art, though a laudable goal, isn’t necessary for safe, enjoyable travel up the trail to your backcountry camp.
First, here’s a look at the two basic types of pack saddles. The sawbuck (also crossbuck) is distinguishable by two wooden “Xs” protruding upwards. It’s common throughout the world. Normally double-rigged (held onto the pack animal with two cinches), sawbucks work well with the pannier method of packing, but not with the manty method. (More on these later.)
The Decker originated a century ago in the mining areas of Montana and Idaho for carrying bags of ore and other odd-shaped, heavy objects. Like the sawbuck, the Decker consists of two wooden bars which distribute weight along each side of the pack animal’s spine. Two steel D-rings (rather than wooden Xs) connect the bars.
The Decker features a fabric cover called a “half-breed” that overlays the saddle and contains padding and two horizontal boards which lie along the pack animal’s rib cage on each side. Deckers are normally single-rigged (one cinch) and have adjustments to move the cinch forward or back.
Both types of pack saddle are placed over a pad like that of a riding saddle but are more generously sized. But the Decker does a better job of protecting the pack animal because of the half breed and horizontal boards. The slightly more expensive Decker is stronger than the sawbuck and more versatile, since it can be used with both the pannier and manty methods.
Packing with Panniers
The simplest approach to packing consists of a pack saddle and a pair of panniers (bags, boxes, or baskets that contain cargo). This French word, often corrupted to “panyard” in the West, has been around since Shakespeare, who used it in one of his plays.
Soft panniers don’t protect the cargo as well as hard panniers made from plastic, wood, or metal, but they’re less likely to injure a pack animal should he fall. Panniers have rope or strap loops to secure them to the saddle. With the sawbuck, simply place the loops around the wooden Xs. With a Decker, thread the loops through the D-rings on top of the saddle or purchase four Decker hooks and fasten these to the straps. Then you can simply hook the panniers to the D-rings, a time saver.
When packing with panniers keep in mind:
1. Keep them balanced. The two panniers must be very close in weight, within a pound or two.
2. Fasten the strap provided on most panniers under the animal’s belly to keep the loads from flopping. Otherwise a spook could turn into a buck, and the movement of the panniers will likely accelerate the animal’s panic. A basket or box hitch (both easy to learn) can secure the panniers for the same purpose.
3. Soft panniers must be loaded with softer items inside toward the animal’s side, while angular, harder items should be packed toward the outside. Intersperse noisy items with soft ones such as articles of clothing to cut rattles that might spook your animal. (Seasoned pack animals soon become quite tolerant of strange noises emanating from their packs.)
Adjust panniers to ride fairly high, their tops approximately level with the animal’s back so that his breathing isn’t impaired. You can add a top pack for extra capacity. Learning to secure it with the diamond hitch (in one of its many variations) will strike envy into the hearts of amateur packers you meet on the trail. But if you don’t have time or a competent teacher on hand, there are easier methods. The “Not a Knot” system, available from packing supply outlets, consists of top packs which buckle directly to soft panniers, thus eliminating hitch ropes entirely.
The pannier method is easily learned. Because contents are readily accessible I often pack one animal with panniers so that lunches, hobbles, and other items are quickly available as soon as I arrive at camp. But I’m convinced there’s a better method.
Packing with Manties
“Manty” comes from the Spanish word for blanket and refers to both the canvas tarp (about 7’x 8’) and to the bundle that results from packing items within it. Mantying consists of placing gear on the tarp diagonally, folding up the bottom, then the sides, and finally the top. It’s then secured with a 3/8” rope about 35’ long with an eye splice in one end.
In a process more easily demonstrated than described, a loop like a lasso is formed around the bundle lengthwise, pulled tight, and is then followed by two or three half hitches around the bundle. Each is pulled tight, and the bundle is tied off. The manty rope just secures the bundle—it’s not used for slinging the manty to the pack saddle.
For that I use a simple knot called the basket hitch. One end of the sling rope is permanently secured to one of the Decker’s D-rings. The other end threads through the second D-ring from outside to inside, then is allowed to drape toward the ground. The portion between the D-rings is pulled out into a large loop.
Lift the manty, lean it against the pack animal, and move the loop to a position about one-third of the way down from the top of the manty. Reach down and grab the loose end of the rope and pull hard, tightening the loop around the manty. Then bring the loose end up around the bottom of the manty and tie it off to the middle of the sling rope where it crosses the manty horizontally in front. I simply use a half hitch with quick-release loop, then another half hitch, but many knots will work. (Both mantying and slinging with the basket hitch are illustrated with photo sequences on pages 253-258 of my book The Complete Trail Horse.)
Advantages of the manty/Decker system include economy (tarps are cheaper than panniers); versatility (odd-shaped items can be packed); balance (a slightly heavier load can be equalized by raising it higher than the one on the opposite side); safety (manties can usually be removed more easily than panniers and a top pack in case of a wreck); and, comfort (the horizontal boards distribute the load along the horse’s sides).
To learn packing skills, look for clinics in your area. One good resource is Back Country Horsemen of America www.backcountryhorse.com.
Packing is the logical extension of trail riding. There’s no freer feeling than mounting a good horse, grabbing the lead rope of the front pack horse, and heading up the trail into a pine-scented breeze, self-sufficient, ready for adventure. Learning the necessary skills is part of the fun.