Research your Backcountry Horse Camping Trip like a Mad Scientist

Research Your Backcountry Horse Camping Trip like a Scientist

{Or, how to plan the pants off of your horse trip}

I KNOW,  you’re dreaming of roaming the wilderness with your pony, riding through majestic mountains and camping in lush pastures miles away from email, text messages, and people you get paid to be around.

You’re conditioning your horse and looking up gear lists, tips for packing on a horse, and how to high-line without leaving a trace. But, before one hoof gets stepped on the backcountry trail  you need to do some serious research about the route you’re planning on riding. You need to know about terrain, footing, current conditions, and what I call, "no way in hell" spots to name a few.

And, for better or for worse, my scientist heart compels me to research the pants off of everything, so I’ve compiled the essential trail information you need AND where to find it to plan a safe, amazing riding trip with your horses.

The point of this article is to help you route-find/research your backcountry horse camping trip ahead of time so it’s epic for the right reasons (ahem, not because you didn’t do your homework and ran into a catastophe).

That said, you can’t plan or know everything ahead of time, as, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” but this trail resource guide will definitely help you keep the “awry-ness” to a minimum.

Promise, the trail ride planning/research isn’t painful, I actually LOVE it. Dreaming/scheming/researching my backcountry horse trips is how I pass the long Alaskan winters without getting even weirder (my husband probably wouldn’t agree).

The main point of your research is to make sure that you know as much as you can about the trail/route before you actually take your beloved equine.


So, what trail information are you searching for?

The overarching question is whether the trail can be done safely with your horse. Below is a list of topics I’m gathering information on as I’m digging through the resources listed further in the article.

-“No way in hell” spots. No other way to put it. I’ll hear of a great trail, and the first thing I do is try and figure out if there are any impassable/dangerous spots. Crow Pass Trail is a gorgeous 21 mile trail through the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, AND it used to be an old packer trail. It seemed like a great candidate.

A couple of Youtube videos into my research, I came across a huge gorge crossing with a log straddling it, and an overhead rope to hold onto while you’re crossing the log Dirty Dancing style. That would be a classic “no way in hell” am I going through that with a horse spot.

-Footing:is it super rocky, slick, rutted out etc? Alaska has a huge ATV user base, and sometimes I’ll come across descriptions, like, “looks like a bomb went off for the first three miles, mud holes big enough to swallow a truck.” Mmmmmmm, I don’t care if Shangri-la is waiting at the end of that three miles. That’s a no-go. Footing descriptions or pictures can advise you about the need for boots/shoes for your horse, too.

-Terrain: Altitude changes. Huge hills. Gorges. Swamps. Water Crossings, Etc. Topographic maps will have lots of terrain detail, and online forums/blog posts will expound further. One trail we were considering had a steep mile long uphill stretch the local trail forums called, “Hell Hill.” We knew we wouldn't ride this trail after rain or with an unfit horse.

-Water:The elixir of life. Needed info for so many reasons. Watering the horses (and yourself), understanding where water crossings occur (and how deep/swift they are), and planning camping spots that will make your life easier.

-Grazing areas for the horses. Er Mah Gawd. Figuring out feed on longer trips can be a main logistics bottleneck. If it’s available, grazing areas makes everything easier, and you can plan your camping spots around them. Without grazing areas, you’ll need to carry feed. The more horses you have = more feed needed = more horses to carry the feed = more feed needed. It’s a bad logic loop. I love coming across trail descriptions that describe large meadows. Hallelujah.


-Current trail conditions:Even the perfect horse trail can be unsafe if current conditions aren’t right. High altitude areas may still have snow into July in Alaska. Downed trees and swollen rivers can also ruin a trip. Facebook trail groups, and Park rangers/forest service and other agency folks often have up to date information.

-Who owns the land you’re riding on?State/federal agencies, non-profits, state/municipality and private land owners may have different rules/restrictions (like, no stock April-June). They may also have up to date trail/route conditions.

-Distances/projected hours between sections of trail.I am a bit obsessed with knowing distances. Besides total length, knowing the mileage of different lengths of trail can help you make realistic day-by-day plans. My favorite Google Earth tool is the “Ruler” which measures distances.

-Camping spots/cabins etc.Where are you and the horses going to sleep? Man, if I can find a spot near a meadow and a stream about 10-15 miles in, I’m in heaven. Some National Forests/Parks have cabins you can rent so plan early if you want to snag one of those (check for cabins), some even have areas for horses!

We were lucky enough to reserve two cabins on an upcoming 65 mile through ride across the Resurrection Pass/Russian River Trail system in Alaska {so I know we’ll have at least two dry nights!}.

-Fishing/hunting spots(this is really just for my husband to sweeten the horse trip deal for him). I peruse the hunting forums of the area I’m researching to see if there’s anything my darling might like to do. We’re headed up to the Clearwater Mountains of Alaska and the Grayling fishing is great there (make sure to show him the pictures of someone catching the fish, that really helps {smile}).

-Containment options: Trail research can really help you decide which stock containment options will work. In the Alaskan Alpine, there are no trees, so there’s nothing to high-line to. Scrubby brushy areas are hard for portable fencing, and you can’t really picket in a hummock-y area. All good to know ahead of time.

-Trail opening/closures. Yep, that wonderful amazing trail you were planning could be closed for a multitude of reasons. Check with the land agency and on local trail condition pages to see any updates.


Where can you find this trail information?

-Google Earth. Google Earth, my sweet Google Earth. I love thee. You can actually fly over the route you’re thinking of going and see imagery, Google Earth also contains other peoples photos, you can drop a pin on a spot and get the GPS coordinates, AND you can measure the distance of the the route. There’s so much more to it, but those are my faves!

-Local hiking books. Hiking books often contain TONS of great info you’ll use for planning, like descriptions of terrain, footing, scary spots, descriptions of meadows and camping spots.  

-Online outdoor forums/other people’s blogs.Check what the hunters, mountain bikers, and ATV crowd has to say by googling your trail name or area you want to ride (if you can find an equestrian thread, even better)!

These online sources will often have up to date trail descriptions/conditions (e.g. “the first three miles look like a war zone”), PICTURES (my favorite is to save their pictures for your own info on meadows, water, or man that road looks rocky, better bring my horse’s boots), fishing/hunting info, and even event announcements (e.g. the “Alaska Dirtbike Rally meeting 4th of July weekend at trail head,”- errrr, no thanks).

-Call the Land Agency Forest Service/National Park/BLM etc and ask is anyone is familiar with that area/trail/route and talk about your plans to get good feedback. I’m planning a through ride from Hope, Alaska to Seward, Alaska, and there’s a 16 mile stretch of trail with little info (this would be the last leg of a ~70 mile trip). The local Forest Service agent told me there were tons of downed trees, the bridge had collapsed, river was high and they wouldn’t recommend it for horses this time of year. Critical information to know before I get 50+ miles into a trip.

-Topographic maps/ Road Atlas I LOVE MAPS. I love ‘em. They sparkle with possibilities, delineate trails, show water, terrain, and major features. The red state Road Atlas you buy in the gas station is AMAZING for a grand overview of the area; I’ve connected up trails together I’d never noticed were in proximity to each other. Finer scale topographic maps are definitely necessary as well, you can usually download these online through the US Geological Survey (USGS), or your local REI can print them for you, too. If you don’t know how to read a topo map, look into it, they’re truly critical to have on hand.


-Talk to the locals. Local horse groups, people who live in the area, there may be a recreational touring companies, or Native people.

We have an active Local Backcountry Horsemen chapter that ride a ton. In the midst of a planning a 50 mile loop through the Chugach Mountains, I couldn’t tell if one of the areas- {Chitna Pass}- was safe to bring a horse through.

I called up a local Backcountry Horsewoman, Susan, who had ridden this area a bunch and she said she’d never bring a horse through that pass, it was way too steep and narrow. That pass was half-way through the planned trip, without that info we would have had to turn around (at best) or gotten into major trouble. She also gave coordinates for a great grazing meadow to camp at, so that was also well worth the phone call!

-Facebook You can actually search Facebook in general for the trail name (there’s a search bar at the top), and sometimes you’ll come up with local recreational trail pages where people are posting about trail conditions. You can also ask a horse trail/camping dedicated Facebook page like Horse Trails and Camping Across America (HCTAA) or a local equestrian Facebook group (we have “Alaska Equestrians”).

-Youtube Youtube videos can let you travel the trail remotely from your computer. Mountain bikers, ATV/dirt bikers, hikers, and horseback riders will often post videos of the trail so you can “ride it” before you get there. A-Mazing.

Last but not least, ground truth as much as possible  Scope out the trail head, and scout shorter legs of the trip by foot or horse if you can. My husband and I will often hike sections of the trail before we’ll bring the horses- especially if I can’t dig up enough information online to reasonably know it’s safe/doable on our horses.

I hope this guide will help you find the information you need to make that dream horse trip a {safe} reality. Happy horsing! -Jen

Jen Dushane

Jen Dushane is the Founder of Arctic Horse, a life-long horse woman, and wildlife biologist. She lives in Alaska with her husband, two step daughters, 3 horses, 1 mule, and 30,000 bees.