Horse Packing in the Rocky Mountains

I know I’m not the only kid who dreamed of living in a by-gone era and leading a carefree life on the range with my trusty steed. So it was a real thrill to get a taste of that dream by setting off on a five-day horse packing trip to the Sangre de Christo Mountains in Colorado. In this post, I’ll talk about horse packing in general as well as some specifics of that particular trip.

How much experience do you need for a horse packing trip?

A trip like this doesn’t require truly advanced riding skills, but you need to be comfortable on and around horses, as well as on a variety of terrain. You should be able to saddle a horse, provide basic care for your horse (brushing, picking hooves clean, etc), and you should know how to react if your horse gets spooked.

I have a fair amount of riding experience, and I worked at a stable at one point, so I am comfortable around horses but rusty after a twenty-year break. My main concern was feeling sore from long days in the saddle, so I found a local riding school and rode twice a week for five weeks before the trip to prepare. That and a pair of jodhpurs did the trick — no saddle sores, no sore adductor muscles on the trail!

Even though the riding itself is actually pretty easy, the unexpected can happen, so a solid foundation of experience is a must. Our trip took us over several high passes with loose footing where the horses occasionally stumbled or slipped, so you need to be able to deal with that too, as well as river crossings depending where you go.

If you’re more of a beginner, you could consider a wilderness riding experience operating from a home base rather than setting off on a multi-day, point-to-point trip in a more remote area where there’s no turning back once you set off. In any case, check with the outfitter to see what level of experience they recommend.

What are days in the saddle like?

Each day, we spent 5-8 hours in the saddle. Most of that time was spent at a walk, with a few little trots but nothing faster. If you want adrenaline highs on horseback, this type of trip is not it! Horse packing is more of a slowly unfolding adventure with plenty of time to appreciate grandiose scenery and contemplate deep thoughts (or just dream about your next meal).

Your experience will depend a lot on the weather and the terrain. Summer in the mountains can be gorgeous, but it can also bring hail, wind, and rain, so good clothes and a positive attitude are musts.

Other than extreme weather, the biggest potential challenge for horses and riders will be the terrain. Of course, the horse does most of the work, but the rider will have to adjust their weight accordingly, and there can be a lot of lurching at times. In the Rockies, our horses had to pick their way over boulder fields and through forests with downed trees — sometimes two or three in a tight row. That’s easy for the rider but tricky for a horse, who has to coordinate steps between left, right, front, and back legs.

The most challenging terrain we experienced were steep, exposed mountain passes, where the horses sometimes stumbled or slipped. At those times, we really had to be tuned in and ready to react as needed.

We were delighted to be the only two guests on the trip we booked, which was staffed by a guide and an assistant. We were each assigned our own horse for the duration of the trip, with another three horses carrying our gear. Everyone helped pitch/break camp and care for the horses, so the main area we were spoiled in was the excellent cooking of our guide!

What is the camping like?

Our trip took us through real wilderness where we pitched tents, dug toilet pits, and washed in chilly streams (if at all). Unlike hiking, however, you don’t carry your gear — the pack horses do. That meant lots of extras that seemed like pure luxury to the hiker in me, including a large tarp to cook under, propane stoves, folding tables/chairs, coolers, and lots of food — even steak and brownies! So we felt quite spoiled. All in all, we loved every aspect of the trip, from days in the saddle to starry evenings and solid nights of sleep in our tent.

Of course, this will depend a lot on the trip you book. Although we never felt like we were roughing it, our trip was at the more “basic” end of the scale (and not as expensive as many others as a result). Some outfitters offer luxury glamping or huts/hotels, while others operate from a home base (like a dude ranch). See below for some links to outfitters you might want to check out.

What do you do other than riding?

Out in the wilderness, simple tasks take more time than they do at home, and entertainment is easily found in views, sunsets, and starry nights. When you’re not riding, setting up camp, or eating, you’ll probably occupy yourself with reading, photography, or card games. It truly is a laid-back life!

Our five-day trip had a rest day built in — for the horses, that is! We were free to be as ambitious or lazy as we pleased. For us, that meant hiking to and swimming in a lake, then fishing and some afternoon reading. Again, it depends on the trip.

Sangre de Christo Mountains

After researching a lot of trips, I booked a five day horse packing trip to the Sangre de Christo Mountains with Bear Basin Packtrips who I can highly recommend. The Sangre de Christo Mountains are a subrange of the Rocky Mountains, stretching between southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. We loved the area for the variety of scenery: thick stands of aspen and fir trees, grassy mountain meadows, high, exposed passes, and lakes that reflect the mountains and sky.

I loved everything about the trip, so I only have one caveat: if I were to do it all over again, I would look for a trip to a more remote area. Don’t get me wrong — for most of the trip, I felt like I was truly in a deep wilderness, with eagles, bear sightings, and not another person in sight. But at a few high, open points, I realized that we were essentially in a huge island of wilderness surrounded by farm country, and that took away a little from the “wow, we’re so far away from everything” feeling I was hoping for. (I feel very picky just saying that, but that literally is the only thing I would change!)

Finding a horse packing trip

I highly recommend the five-day Sangre de Christo trip by Bear Basin Packtrips. They are clearly a good outfit and offer a few other trips. Otherwise, you can consult Equitours, which offers their own tours and brokers rides all around the world. It’s fun just to see what trips are possible, from the American Southwest to Africa, Mongolia, and more!

Packing list

I won’t get into details of clothes because that will depend a lot on your destination and the season. But a few items you should bring on any horse packing trip are…

Well, those are the most important points. I hope this has been helpful and interesting, either as a planning tool or armchair adventure. For other exciting trips and ideas, click on “HOME” at the top of the page. Thank you for visiting and happy travels!