We read and write about people on the trail all the time. Bounty hunters, lawmen, cowhands, prospectors -- all of them had to know how to live on the trail. That means choosing the correct gear and using it properly. Most of us know at least a little about camping, but we have supplies that a frontiersman could only dream of, if they conceived of it at all.
One thing we have that they didn't have in the 19th century is YouTube. Lucky for us, we can learn the particulars about packing without leaving the house. Of course, practical experience is nearly always better, but most of us don't have the wherewithal to learn this particular skill set on our own.
Everyone needs to sleep, so first things first--bedrolls. Take a look at the Ezine Article, A Cowboy's Bedroll Was Much More Than a Sleeping Bag. The author talks about the possibles sack (sometimes called a war bag) as incorporated into the bedroll. This sack might contain letters from home, a cleaning kit for his firearms, extra socks, or city clothes -- but if he had to carry it with him rather than sling it on the chuck wagon, then weight and durability were supreme issues.
How to Pack a Bedroll
Now that your character has his bedroll, how's he going to carry it? The nomadic life on horseback presents a few challenges. Here are a few necessities:
- Rifle or at least a pistol, and scabbard
- Hunting knife
- Bedroll/Possibles sack
- Matches (or flint)
- Pot (same pot can be used for boiling food, heating water, or making coffee)
- Frying pan
- Hard tack (can be soaked, stirred up with a little baking soda, and voila! you have pancakes)
- Dried beans
- Makin's (tobacco, papers) or chaw
- Snake bite medicine
Remember, the horse has to carry the rider, the saddle and blanket, and all the gear besides. The heavier the load, the more rest, water, and nutrition the animal requires. Unless your character has a pack animal besides his saddle horse or mule, he won't be bringing items such as flour, sugar, bacon, and all those things they pull out of their possibles sacks on TV westerns.
Mules, horses, and donkeys should always be groomed before they're tacked out and after they're done for the day. Whether they carry a riding saddle or pack saddle, dirt in the hair will cause gall (sores).
How to Pack a Saddle Horse
How do you attach all the stuff on a saddle horse? I found a video that'll give you a good idea. One thing the instructor discusses is the even distribution of weight, but I'd like to emphasize it even more. The load absolutely must be balanced; otherwise, the horse can gall, a lop-sided load can make the horse's muscles sore, and can even do bone damage. Because his body hurts, the animal might favor one side or the other, which would make him walk unevenly, and he could even come up lame. When your character is out in the wilderness, he sure doesn't need to be afoot. This is something you could use either way in your stories.
Horse/Mule Packing with Saddle Panniers
Now your character has groomed his animal, tacked it well, and packed it evenly so the balance is exact as he can get it. The first day's journey is complete, and because of the planning, all went well. Now it's time to make camp.
Your character has ridden all day. He's tired, maybe even a little achy, and so hungry it feels like there's a hole in his stomach. Ah, but remember animal care? That comes first. Always. So here's what all he has to do (and I'm just sure I'm forgetting something!).
- Set up a picket line where there's good grazing
- Unload and water the animals
- Groom, pick the hooves, and inspect the animals
- Fetch water, refill canteen
- Make a fire
- Unpack the supplies
- Check the animals
- Cook the meal (that's a whole 'nother how-to) and eat
- Check the animals -- make sure they either have access to water or water them before turning in for the night
- Set up the bed and sleep tight -- but not too tight.
Always keep an ear out for the animals. They're a barometer of what's going on around. If a bear or other predator comes by, horses, mules, and donkeys know it a whole lot sooner than a human. Also, make sure the animals don't get tangled in the picket line. It's a good idea to get up in the middle of the night and make sure all is well, especially if there are rocks and snags that might catch the picket line (rope) and hang up an animal.
Do you know how to set up a picket line? We did it differently than this video shows, but the idea is there.
How to make a picket line for horses
So there you have it -- packing, Old West style. Oh, and in the morning, his day starts with animal care, and then coffee. After that, he can start re-packing, and get on his way.
Ride safely and watch your back!
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