Get Outdoors · Horses

How to Get Started Horse Camping

I remember reading a sale ad for a horse one time that said the horse had been on multiple camping trips. That was the first time I’d ever heard of horse camping. I knew cowboys used to sleep out on the range with their horses back in the Old West, but I didn’t know that camping out with your horse was still a thing. At the time, I was riding at a hunter show barn and I thought showing was the only thing you could do with your horse. Little did I know! Turns out there are tons and tons of people who travel to beautiful places just to ride and camp, and there are plenty of campgrounds and wilderness areas to accomodate them. If this interests you but you’re not sure where to start, read on!

Horse camping trips range from staying in a giant trailer with living quarters (kind of like an RV that doubles as a horse trailer) to riding out into the wilderness on your horse and carrying everything you need on his back. But all you need to get started horse camping is a horse and a trailer. You don’t even need a tent. Seriously. In this post, I’ll run through the most common set-ups for horse camping and you can choose which one is right for you.

Where does my horse sleep?

The most obvious question in horse camping is, “Where does the horse sleep?” Some campgrounds provide stalls for the horses. A stall is a good option if your horse is used to living in one. My horses live outside 24/7 and hate stalls, but if you’re in a typical boarding situation where they’re stalled at night, then a stall is a good idea. It’s a great system of containment, but the downside is you’ll likely not be near your horse. Most campgrounds have the stables in one area and the campsites in another. For that reason, a stall is my least favorite option. I like to wake up and peek out at my horse through my tent door. Being so close to my horse is half the fun for me.

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The most common containment system for horse camping is the high line. A high line is a rope tied tight between two poles, and the horses are tied to the rope. The horse will be able to turn in a circle and even lie down if you leave enough slack in the rope. (Be careful with that, but more on that later.) Most equestrian campgrounds are equipped with high line poles. All you need to bring is the rope to tie between them. You can also use two trees to put up a high line, or set one up between two horse trailers. Basically you need two stationary objects that the horse can’t pull down if he spooks. There are plenty of YouTube videos about how to set up a high line. Here’s one. It’s a little goofy, but informative.

The high line system is my favorite because it’s simple and it allows me to camp close to my horse. I bought a high line kit that’s a no knot system. It costs about $100 for a 2 horse kit. I didn’t want to fool with tying knots and worrying about whether my high line is secure. With the kit, I’m able to set it up fairly quickly and be confident that it’s not going to come crashing down because I didn’t tie it right. I’m not paid in any way to promote it. It’s just what worked for me as a first time horse camper.

One note about the high line: practice at home first! You don’t have to do a whole night on it, but tying your horse to it with some hay to munch on for an hour or so is a good idea. On my very first horse camping trip, one of the horses tried to lie down and got the lead rope under his leg. When he got back up, he got tangled and ended up with a nasty rope burn. That was my mistake. I left too much lead rope hanging and he got a leg over. At night you want to tie the rope short so the horse can’t lay down. That way he can’t get himself tangled. If mine have had a long day and they’re hot and sweaty, I try to hand graze them and give them a chance to roll before putting them on the high line. Most horses like to roll when they’re sweaty, and I’d rather them not try on the high line. That one time on my first trip is the only time I’ve had an issue with it though. Most horses get accustomed to it pretty quickly and they learn how much freedom of movement they have.

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Having a roll before going on the high line.

A third option is simply tying your horse to the trailer overnight. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Plenty of people who ride endurance, especially out west in desert areas where there aren’t any trees, use this system with no issue. You simply tie your horse to the trailer with hay and water accessible and that’s where he sleeps. You can even buy a horse collar that will let you take the horse’s halter off and give him a break from wearing it. (Again, I’m not being paid to tell you that.)

Where do I sleep?

If you’re just starting out in horse camping, I’m assuming you don’t have a horse trailer with living quarters. If you do, lucky you! Sleep there. If you’re like me and you have a bumper pull, you’ll have a few options on where to set up your own camp, and it will depend on where you go camping.

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If you’re at a campground you’ll set up a tent. Campgrounds range from primitive (no water, pit toilet, no showers) to luxe (hot showers, camp store, water and electric right at your campsite). I prefer the solitude of primitive camping and I’ll gladly exchange a few comforts so I can be away from other people. When I go to a primitive campsite in a wilderness area or national forest, I sleep in a tent.

Another option if you don’t have a ton of camping gear, is to set up a little house in your horse trailer. You can sweep it out, lay down a tarp and set up an air mattress or cot, as well as a tiny kitchen or living space with a couple camp chairs. Your trailer becomes home base for you and your horse. If you’re willing to rough it a little, it opens up a whole world of trails you can ride that many equestrians will never get the chance to see.

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Image from Pinterest. Please contact me if it’s yours.

You can even make a little DIY toilet with a 5 gallon bucket and a lid that costs $4.99 at Academy Sports. First, put a heavy duty trash bag in the bucket. Then pour in kitty litter. Pop the lid on and voila! You’ve got a toilet you can use in the privacy of your trailer without having to walk anywhere or go in the woods. When it gets full or starts to smell, you simply lift the bag out and toss it in the trash. Every campsite I’ve ever been to had a trash bin or dumpster of some sort, so you don’t have to haul it back home with you to throw it away. I use this set-up when camping in primitive sites, and I have to say it’s probably my favorite camping hack ever.

toilet

The other big issue- water!

Your camping trip will center around how you get water for your horses. Horses drink a lot and it would be difficult and heavy to haul enough water for them, especially if they’re working hard and drinking a lot. The vast majority of horse camping areas have either a natural water source, like a creek or river, or a pump with water the horses can safely drink. I would definitely choose a site where you don’t have to haul horse water in with you. It’s just too much hassle for me, although I realize for some of you out west or in desert areas, you may not be able to avoid it.

Usually the water at primitive sites is not safe for humans to drink, so you’ll have to bring plenty of drinking water for yourself or a filtration system that will render it safe for people. It’s easy to bring a few gallons of drinking water. Just make sure you bring enough to cook with as well, not just to drink.

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On my last camping trip, we hauled buckets of water for the horses from this creek and brought gallons of drinking water for ourselves.

Besides water, what should I bring?

I am a very minimalist camper. I don’t like hauling every single comfort from home. I’m intentionally getting away from it all and I don’t need it to be glamorous. I bring the bare minimum comfort for me, but I do try and make my horses as comfortable as possible. I won’t go into what to bring for the people, because there are a million websites about that, but I’ll tell you what you need for your horse. I’ll list it out for you, but first, a couple side notes.

Bring lots and lots and lots of hay! They go through hay quickly when they’re tied in one spot or in a stall, and you don’t want to run out. Depending on where you’re going, there may be grass for hand grazing, but don’t count on it. Bring lots of hay.

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My thoroughbred, sweaty after a ride, tucking into some hay.

You want to keep a close eye on your horse’s health. There’s something in endurance that they call EDPP- Eating, Drinking, Peeing, Pooping. This is what you want your horse doing the whole time you’re camping. When a horse doesn’t get enough water, all sorts of awful things can happen, especially when you add stress to the mix. The very worst thing is the dreaded C word- colic. Dehydration colic happens quicker than you might think, especially in heat, so you want to make sure that your horse is drinking, eating hay, and eating salt. These 3 things will ensure that your horse’s gut is moving food through his system. Pooping will be the evidence of that.

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Bring a salt block and put it near the hay and water so your horse can lick it at his leisure. Another trick I use is putting powdered Gatorade in my horse’s water. Gatorade has electrolytes (basically salt and potassium) and when you drink it, the salt makes you thirsty and then you drink more and you’re hydrated. That’s how Gatorade works; it’s really not performance enhancing other than keeping you from getting dehydrated. My horses like the lemon lime flavor. You can buy electrolytes especially for horses, but Gatorade is at the grocery store and that makes it easy.

One last note- clean up after yourself and be respectful of wild places. A lot of other wilderness enthusiasts like bikers and hikers aren’t crazy about sharing their trails and campsites with horses. Horses are big and they drop giant turds and their hooves can tear up a trail or a campsite pretty quickly. Plus, a lot of people are intimidated by them or annoyed that they have to move off the trail to let them pass. Keep in mind that everyone doesn’t love horses as much as you do.

Always clean up your campsite before you go home. Follow Leave No Trace principles. If you’re not familiar with Leave No Trace, take a minute and check out the website. It’s how we keep wild places wild. Remove the soiled hay and the poop nuggets. Make it look just as good, if not better, than when you arrived. Be friendly to other people you meet in the outdoors. You may be the only chance they have to get up close to a horse. A positive interaction with you may change their mind about sharing wilderness areas with horses. There aren’t a ton of wild places left, and we don’t want to lose access to the trails we love to ride.

Packing List

  • Halter
  • Extra halter in case the first one breaks
  • Lead rope
  • Extra lead rope just in case
  • Whatever tack you ride in – bridle, reins, saddle, girth, pad, boots, etc…
  • Helmet
  • Grooming tools
  • Fly spray
  • Horse’s food- whatever grain he normally eats, if any, and LOTS OF HAY
  • Water bucket
  • Powdered Gatorade to encourage drinking
  • Hay holder of some kind. I use a slow feeder hay net. If you put it on the ground, they just make a mess of it.
  • Rake- you’re going to need this to clean up the poop around the campsite and clean out the interior of your trailer.
  • First Aid Kit for your horse. Mine contains vet wrap, gauze, wound ointment, and saline in case he gets something in his eye.
  • Rope to make a high line or a high line kit
  • Your horse’s blanket if it’s cold at night
  • A rain sheet if it’s supposed to rain

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That’s all I bring. I like to keep it really simple. The less time I have to spend packing and unpacking, the more likely I am to go camping. If it’s a ton of work and a big hassle, I’m less likely to want to deal with it. If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating because, let’s face it, with horses there are a multitude of things that can go wrong. But if you get out there and give it a try, you’ll learn what works for you. I encourage you to get out there and go for it!

Here are a couple more helpful links from the folks over at the American Endurance Ride Conference…

AERC video on horse camping – Part 1

AERC video on horse camping – Part 2

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