Category Archives: Tack and Gear

Posts regarding saddles, tack, and gear for horse and mule packing, riding, and training

Test Report on our Nose Bags

Way back when, quite a while ago, I bought a couple nose bags to test them out before my dad and I set off to begin our big Mexico-to-Canada pack trip. I wrote a blog post on them. I ended up buying another feed bag, this one from Outfitter’s Supply, just before the trip. Here’s my evaluation of all three feed bags.

Before I start, I should let folks know that Kevin, at Outfitter’s Supply gave me a nice discount on a fairly large order I placed with him, including this nose bag. However, the facts of the matter will speak for themselves. My evaluation was not influenced by the discount.

I guess the first question to answer is this: Why use nose bags? I have used a number of ways to feed horses while on pack trips or overnighters. Dad and I, over the years have settled on feeding some form of pelletized alfalfa feed to our stock while on outings. We particularly like Equidine. Pelletized feed is easy to load and haul in a truck or trailer and far less messy than hay. It is easy to pack on a pack animal, whether packed as bags in manties or simply poured into the bottom of paniers. It can even be used as protection for other items that can be placed down into the pellets inside the paniers. We have fed alfalfa pellets by pouring a pile on top of a saddle pad or simply right on the ground. However, our experience tells us that the best way to feed pelletized feed on a pack trip or campout is to use nose bags.

When we head out for a pack trip or overnighter, we seldom know what sort of accommodations we will have for our horses at night. On our pack trip we normally tied one horse to a nearby tree or shrub and let the rest roam. We had no problem with horses trying to leave the group.  On other trips we have had horses tied separately to trees, on a highline, staked, or even tied to a trailer. We have found that no matter how the horses are secured, when fed on the ground or on a saddle pad, there is waste. They seem to be able to scatter the feed until they cannot reach it all, then they trample it into the ground. When they are allowed to roam, the alpha horse will move from place to place, sampling each of the feed piles and causing the rest of the horses to move from place to place as well, resulting in the horses fighting and the one on the bottom of the totem pole getting less feed. With nose bags, waste is almost totally eliminated. Horses tend to feed more calmly and take their time feeding. They cease to move around as much and they do not fight over feed. So, for our pack trips and other outings with horses, unless we are feeding hay, we always use nose bags.

Nose bags from Trailhead Supply

Nose bags from Trailhead Supply

The first nose bag is a nylon mesh bag with nylon straps and plastic buckles, which I knew as soon as I received it that it would not be sufficiently durable for our pack trip. It is, however, perfectly fine for a weekend outing or for short pack trips where a failed nose bag would pose no problem. The price I paid for it, $14.95, from Trailhead Supply reflects that as well, so I was not disappointed in it, just realistic in understanding that it was not made for what I was intending to use it for. You can read my writeup on it in the blog post I linked above. For my purposes here, just know that particular nose bag did not go on the pack trip with us.

Breathing panel a little low on the bag

Breathing panel a little low on the bag

Steel adjustment buckle

Steel adjustment buckle


The other nose bag I bought from Trailhead Supply, however, was much more substantial. You can read my initial impressions in the same blog post linked above. This nose bag was priced at $21.95 when I bought it in February 2013, however it no longer seems to appear on their website. This feedbag has a leather bottom and a leather vent for breathing. It has a heavy leather hanger that is adjustable via a nickel plated steel buckle. At the time I bought it I questioned the wisdom of having the breathing vent so low on the bag, as I figured it would get covered by feed. I was told by an experienced packer that the vent was located low on the bag to prevent the horse from drowning, should it try to drink with the feed bag on its head. While that explanation made sense to me, I still wished the vent were a little higher. I have seen horses stop eating because they had a hard time breathing with feed in the bag.

This nose bag just barely fit the horse with the smallest head

This nose bag just barely fit the horse with the smallest head


This bag did, in fact, go with us on the trip. However, shortly before I left on the trip, I found it was way too small for the head of my 16-hand Missouri Fox Trotter gelding. In fact, it barely fit on the head of my smaller Fox Trotter mare. This nose bag fit my mare on the last hole on the hanger strap. Even on her, the bag fit so tightly around her nose that I was concerned that she would not feed with it on. Those fears were unfounded, however, as she did fine with this bag and it made the entire trip without problem. This nose bag simply would not fit a mule. It would be adequate for a small horse.


Outfitter's Supply's canvas/leather feedbag

Outfitter’s Supply’s canvas/leather feedbag


The fact that this nose bag would not fit my gelding, necessitated that I look for another brand of nose bag for my gelding. Eventually, I settled on the top-of-the-line nose bag from Outfitter’s Supply. This nose bag carries a premium price, at $64.95, but Kevin was gracious enough to give me a substantial discount to help us get outfitted for the trip.

This nose bag is everything I think a nose bag should be. It is made of heavy canvas, large enough for even a mule, with plenty of adjustment in the heavy leather hanger. The hanger straps are stitched the full length of the bag, tying into the heavy leather bottom. Large copper rivets reinforce all critical points. The breathing vent is situated well above the bottom, providing plenty of room for a good scoop of alfalfa pellets and room for the horse to breathe.

This one fit the largest horse we had

This one fit the largest horse we had

I can also attest that the vent is low enough on the bag to allow for drainage of water. Our horses all drank from the troughs, streams, ponds, etc, almost every time they were fed, with the bags in place. My big Fox Trotter was no exception. The water drained off with no problems and no anxious moments for the horse.

The one complaint, if you can call it that, was that the hanger on this nose bag would occasionally unbuckle itself while I was putting it on the horse. I think that is due to the roller buckle. While roller buckles are normally seen as an upgrade from regular buckles, in this case I think a regular buckle might work better, because they aren’t so easy to unbuckle. The fact is, you don’t often need to re-size a nose bag. Still, that is a very minor criticism, and I bow to the fact that Outfitter’s Supply makes these bags to suit the U.S. Forest Service specifications, after having handled repairs on their nose bags for a number of years. I expect this nose bag to be part of my horse packing inventory for many years to come.

Dad's homemade nose bags aren't pretty, but they work like a charm

Dad’s homemade nose bags aren’t pretty, but they work like a charm


Incidentally, my dad happens to have a heavy-duty industrial sewing machine and a large supply of heavy canvas. Dad sewed up his own nose bags for the rest of our remuda.

They weren’t very pretty, but they did the job and lasted the entire trip….and they were priceless…er…I mean “free”.




Paniers vs Manties for Horse and Mule Packing in the Southwestern U.S.

This is essentially the second part of my gear review of the pack saddles Dad and I used on the first leg of our Mexico-to-Canada pack trip we started in April. This post, however, is specifically about paniers vs manties.

Decker-style pack saddle with mantied cargo

Decker-style pack saddle with mantied cargo

For the neophyte, a manty is a heavy canvas tarp, normally about 15 oz. canvas, about seven feet wide by eight feet long into which a cargo load is wrapped up like a package and tied with a manty rope, which is a half-inch diameter rope about 25 feet long. One mantied load is tied to each side of a Decker-style pack saddle. A panier is a large canvas or nylon bag or hard-sided box into which items are packed. One panier is then hung on each side of either a Decker or crossbuck pack saddle by straps or Decker hooks. Crossbuck pack saddles are specifically made to handle paniers, while a Decker-style pack saddle can handle either.

Utah-style paniers on a Decker-style pack saddle

Utah-style paniers on a Decker-style pack saddle

To summarize what I said in my last post about this topic, Dad and I made 355 miles in 28 days with five horses and a mule. We rode one horse each day and packed the other four animals, two under crossbuck pack saddles with paniers and two under Decker-style pack saddles with mantied loads. By the end of this first leg of our trip, we both came to the conclusion that for our purposes, mantying our loads was simply an extra chore every morning and was far more difficult and time consuming than packing paniers. By the end of the trip we had sent two pack horses home, along with our manties, and continued with two pack horses, each carrying Utah-style paniers.

Crossbuck pack saddle on our mule, Honey

Crossbuck pack saddle on our mule, Honey

Decker-style packing and tying up cargo in canvas manties came into vogue in the northwestern U.S. during the first twenty or so years of the 20th century and has continued to reign supreme for all kinds of packing and outfitting there. However, in the southwestern U.S., crossbuck pack saddles with paniers has remained the standard, carrying on the traditional style of packing that far predates Decker-style pack saddles. When I made the decision to use Decker-style pack saddles and manties on our pack trip, it was partially from a desire to broaden my packing experience, but also with a question in mind as to why Decker-style packing has never taken hold in the southwestern United States. By the end of our trip, I had gained the experience I wanted, and I think I answered the question – at least to my satisfaction. Keep reading.

After packing about 200 miles through the low deserts of southeastern Arizona, through the Chiricahua Mountains, and on up through the volcanic mountains between Safford and Clifton, I came to the realization that each time I laid out a manty on the ground to start packing, I ended having to brush all manner of “ouchies” from the manties as I wrapped them around my load. Now, for those unfamiliar with the desert southwest, in the immortal words of Rooster J. Cogburn, “Everything out here will either bite you, stick you, or stab you!” Unless you have actually experienced horse or other kinds of packing and camping in the desert southwest, you really cannot comprehend the full truth of that statement.

IMG_1173There is no square foot of ground, at least not that I have seen, in the desert southwest that is not covered with all manner of seeds, thorns, insects, cactus, and other pricklies, each with its own means of causing pain and discomfort to the human hand. Unless, that is, you are in pure sand…which then presents its own set of problems. In other words, every morning I found myself picking stickers and cactus spines out of the manties, out of our gear, out of the ropes, and out of my hands, as I tied up the manty packs. I have never encountered that kind of nuisance in the mountains of the northwest, or even in the higher mountains of Arizona. I am convinced that this is the primary reason that Decker packing and manties never took hold in the southwestern United States. A secondary reason might possibly be, though I have not researched it, that in the northwestern areas there are more national forests, national and state parks, and other forested areas managed by the US government, wherein materials such as building materials, gravel, lumber, etc, have had to be hauled into remote areas by mule trains for the construction of ranger stations, bridges, trails, etc. Decker-style packing lends itself much better to cargoing odd-shaped loads than paniers.

Take a look at this short youtube video I made, in the mountains near the Double C Ranch, just south of the Gila Box State Park, southwest of Clifton, Arizona, about 200 miles into our trip. You’ll have to turn the volume up, as I didn’t have an extension microphone for the GoPro camera. In this video I demonstrate how I tie up a manty to prepare a sack of feed to be loaded onto a Decker-style pack saddle.

IMG_0986 In preparation for our trip, I purchased two manties from Outfitter’s Pack Station, at $54 apiece. They are the 7’X8′ size, with hemmed borders. I also purchased from them a pair of Utah Paniers, which they call Utah Meat Bags, priced at $250. Wade and Simon gave me a substantial discount on these items, for which I am grateful. I already had a pair of 18 oz canvas tarps measuring 6’X8′, which I used for the second set of manties. Dad had an old pair of canvas panier bags for our second set of paniers.

Every morning, for the first 25 days of the pack trip, I tied up four manties and Dad and I loaded them onto two pack horses with Decker pack saddles. We then loaded four paniers, including my Utah bags, and lifted them into place on the crossbuck pack saddles. We agree that loading and unloading the paniers is much easier than manty packs. I found that tying up manties was terribly hard on my bare hands. The rubbing and chafing of the ropes and canvas while tying up the manties left my hands swollen and painful until they finally toughened up about two weeks into the trip. That was not because my hands are soft. I am a wood worker, a leather worker, a horseman, I do general construction, electrical, plumbing, and about anything else a “Jack-of-all-Trades” does, and I purposely do these things bare-handed, specifically to keep my hands tough. I am here to tell you that tying up manties every morning is TOUGH on the hands!

There is one thing in which manties have an important safety factor over paniers. That is in crossing water. There is a danger with paniers, particularly when they are not covered with a tarp and diamond hitch, in crossing water. If the horse loses its feet, or if the water is sufficiently deep to rise above the top of the paniers, the paniers will fill with water, effectively becoming a “sea anchor”. Pack animals have been swept downstream and drowned due to this. A manty, on the other hand, is quite water resistant when tied properly, and will resist filling with water while a pack animal regains its feet or crosses a deep spot. Not that items within will not get wet, but the pack will not fill with water. We had one instance in which a pack horse laid down in the Gila River, in water about 18″ deep, and tried to roll his pack off. One manty pack was completely submerged for a second or two. The pack remained in place as we got the horse up and the contents were dry when we unpacked them that evening.

IMG_0987 IMG_0988 IMG_0990The Utah Meat Bags are huge bags, measuring about 32″ tall, 23″ wide, and about 10″ deep at the bottom (deeper at the top). These bags are made of a very heavy woven nylon fabric, commonly known as “iron cloth.” They have very heavy leather adjustable straps, with steel roller buckles, as well as  heavy leather corner reinforcements. These are perfect for hauling game meat, ergo the name, as they are easily washed with soap and water. Blood and other contaminants wash right out without leaving a stain. For our purposes I was impressed with the size of the bags, which easily contained the gear we had to fill them. Once the top strap was tightened, the bags closed over our gear, thus eliminating the need for a cover tarp and diamond hitch…at least when the weather was clear.  The adjustable hanger straps allowed us to adjust the height at which the bags hung from the pack saddle, which was important when we switched the bags from our crossbuck saddles to the Decker saddles. This made it possible to hang the bags at the most comfortable height for the pack animal.

I was very pleased with the quality of construction of the Utah bags. We really put them through their paces. They were rubbed on rocks, poked by tree branches of burned trees, rubbed on blackened, rough tree bark, brushed against cholla cactus, run into gate posts, and rolled on. The handled all this with no problem, no tears, no fraying. The only hole in them came from a metal grill that poked a small hole in one bag. There was no fraying or propensity to unravel. The hole remained a simple small hole throughout the trip. Eventually…if I ever remember to do it…I will take a heated nail and melt the edges of the hole to ensure it will never get worse. Dad’s canvas paniers have lasted almost 40 years, but they are nearing the end of their useful life. He has patched and stitched them so many times that they resemble a patchwork quilt in some places. They are a true testament to the durability of canvas paniers, however, I believe my iron cloth paniers will outlast them.

My manties, on the other hand, sustained several small rips and tears from rocks and branches. They also became quite soiled from dirt and rubbing against burned trees in the Chiricahuas. These rips and tears will continue to fray throughout the life of the manty, as they cannot be sealed with heat. I have a rip-stop fabric glue for them, but in my experience, that will only work for a limited time and will need reapplication occasionally.

My Utah Meat Bag paniers hung from a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle

My Utah Meat Bag paniers hung from a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle

As I mentioned before, by the end of the trip, we let the manties go home early with a couple horses, and we put a Decker-style Phillips Formfitter pack saddle on my mustang, Jimbo, and hung the Utah Meat Bags on it. For our style of packing, we found this much easier than tying up manties every morning.

For my kind of horse packing, I expect I will be putting a lot of miles on my Utah bags over the coming years.


Pack Saddles Review, based on our experience…

Those of you who have been following my blog awhile know that I did quite a bit of research on various configurations of pack saddles before finally settling on the Decker-style Phillips Formfitter pack saddles, from Outfitters Pack Station, for our Mexico-to-Canada horse pack trip. As Dad already had two crossbuck pack saddles, we ended up using my two Deckers with manties and Dad’s two crossbucks with Utah-style paniers. It’s time for my comparison and evaluation.

Crossbuck pack saddle tree

Crossbuck pack saddle tree

To provide a little background, crossbuck pack saddles, sometimes called sawbuck pack saddles, have been used in North America for at least a couple hundred years. They consist of two crossed wooden “crutches”, similar to the way a sawbuck is built, which is where the name comes from (a sawbuck is two crossed beams over which a log is laid to be cut with a saw). Paniers, which are large bags or hard-sided boxes, are hung by straps from the crossbucks. Traditionally, soft paniers, often called “Utah Paniers” were used. These paniers are often covered with a tarp, which is tied in place with a diamond hitch, which improves the water-resistance of the pack and holds items tied on top of the packs.

IMG_1184While hard-sided paniers are available and quite utilitarian, we decided to go the traditional route. That’s what Dad and I have always used and we saw no reason to change. However, during our passage through the Chiricahua mountains, one of the riders who joined us for a few days packed hard paniers on his mule and I was much impressed. In camp, these hard paniers could be converted into seats or tables. I expect I’ll eventually get a set of these and give up on my traditional bent. Also, there are bear-resistant hard paniers available from a number of suppliers, for those areas where they may be required.

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, a new-style of pack saddle was invented, which is now commonly called the Decker-style pack saddle. The Decker pack saddle, characterized by metal bows, or arches, to which loads are strapped, has proven its usefulness over the past century, due to its versatility. hqdefault One can hang about any kind of load imaginable from a Decker-style pack saddle with a little ingenuity. This style of pack saddle eventually became the standard in the northwestern United States, while the crossbuck has remained king in the southwestern U.S.. Why this is so, I think I discovered during our pack trip and I will discuss that in another post.

2015-04-28 15.35.38

Our mustang, Jimbo, with the mantied load on a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle

For the kind of loads we carried on our pack trip, manties are used to contain the cargo, which are then tied to the Decker pack saddle. Manties are heavy canvas tarps, normally measuring about 7 X 8 feet, in which the cargo is wrapped and tied into a pack. One manty pack is tied to each side of the pack saddle to balance the load. Manties of uneven size and/or weight may be balanced by adjusting the way they are tied to the saddle. While top packs may be tied to these pack saddles, it is not commonly done, however the manties may be tied as large or small as required.  The pack saddles I finally settled on have arches that are made to handle not only manties, but also Utah Paniers.

Phillips Formfitter

Phillips Formfitter

The Phillips Formfitter pack saddle also has other features that attracted me, such as the adjustable-angle saddle bars and the fleece pads attached to the bars. My reasoning for this selection was that the adjustable bars would answer the problem of the different conformations of the several horses on which we intended to use them. Our remuda consisted of two Missouri Fox Trotters, two Quarter Horses, one mustang, and one mule, ranging from 16 hands to 13, all with very different backs among them.

My concerns with regard to this pack saddle were limited to two things: Would the adjustable saddle bars be able to hold the pack loads in place like a solid pack saddle would? And, would the narrow saddle bars, configured similar to a riding saddle’s bars, sufficiently distribute the loads on the horses’ backs, so as to avoid pressure points and saddle sores?

Before the trip, I discussed these and other concerns about the pack saddles with Wade, at Outfitters Pack Station. We also discussed whether double cinchas, such as are commonly used on crossbuck pack saddles, might be better for our trip. I decided to go with the single cincha, since that is the configuration I have seen on most Decker-style pack saddles. I figured that if they proved insufficient, I could order the double cincha rigs at the end of the first leg of our trip. On the Phillips Formfitter, the cincha rigging is changeable by simply unbuckling one and replacing it with the other. Wade also gave me some advice on setting up the rigging to ride properly on the pack animal.

During the first 200 miles or so of our trip, we knew we would be packing feed for the horses, since there is little feed available for grazing along our route in the lower desert areas of Arizona. We decided on Equidine pellets in 50 pound sacks, as it would be easy to pack in manties and to balance as a load. We started our trip with 400 pounds of feed, split among two pack horses, packed in manties on my Phillips Formfitter pack saddles. With the help of friends, we were able to re-supply with feed as needed. The rest of our gear was packed in paniers on Dad’s crossbucks. Our plan was to have two animals under riding saddle, two packed heavy, and two packed light, then rotate every day or so to keep all the horses adequately rested. We also planned for two rest days per week. On the first day, all the animals were packed pretty heavy, but the feed went down at a rate of nearly 120 pounds per day, so the packs lightened up quickly.

I set my pack saddles up according to Wade’s advice, however, both Dad and I felt the 3/4″ wool felt pack saddle pads we had were insufficient for the loads we were packing on the horses. We decided to place a regular saddle pad over top of the pack saddle pad for extra protection for the pack animals’ backs.  As it turned out, that was a mistake with the Phillips Formfitter.

The first day we made approximately 10 miles. In that distance we had to re-settle the decker pack saddles several times. I was beginning to believe I had made a serious mistake in not ordering the double cinchas. By the end of the second day, in which we made over 16 miles, we had stopped and re-settled the Decker pack saddles a number of times. It seemed they would start to turn every several miles, regardless of how well balanced and tied the load was, or how tight the cinch was. We had no such problems with the crossbuck pack saddles, which were padded in the same way.

Saddle sore on the QH Daisy

Saddle sore on the QH Daisy

By the end of the second day, our large, heavy-built Quarter Horse mare had developed a saddle sore high on her withers. After looking at the location of the saddle sore and considering how often we had to re-settle her Decker pack saddle, we determined that we had over-padded the pack saddles, causing them to “woggle” on the horses’ backs. After that, we packed the Phillips Formfitter saddles without the additional saddle pads and had no further problems with the saddles turning or with saddle sores on any of the other horses. After that point, the Formfitter pack saddles stayed in place with the single cincha and performed very satisfactorily. Lesson learned: Do not over-pad with these pack saddles.

Incidentally, we continued to double-pad the crossbuck pack saddles on the mule and one Quarter Horse and had no trouble with the saddles turning or saddle sores.

I was very pleased with the quality and adjustability of the rigging on the Phillips Formfitter pack saddles. I was able to make the saddles fit properly on my 16-hand, tall-withered, short-backed, tall-spined, deep-chested, bony-hind quartered, Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, as well as the 15-hand, long-torso, flat-backed, broad-chested, wide-rumped, Quarter Horse. As for the mustang, he was fairly in-between the other two and we had no trouble at all with fitting the pack saddles to his conformation.

The one horse that had problems with the Phillips Form Fitter rigging was my 4 year-old Missouri Fox Trotter mare. This mare, Lizzy, has a walk to die for under saddle, but it is that same walk that makes her unsuitable as a pack horse. Her long-strided, swinging walking motion caused her to get rub sores from both the breast strap and the breeching, despite the fact that Wade makes those straps with the edges rolled with a light, soft leather. I found Lizzy also got rub sores from my riding saddle breast strap, so it wasn’t the pack saddle rigging at fault, but simply that my mare has such movement in her strides that she simply gets rub sores. Consequently, Lizzy spent more time than anticipated under my riding saddle with the breast strap stowed in the packs. My other Fox Trotter, Ranger, had no such problems and ended up under the pack saddle more than planned.


On the Fox Trotters, we had to set the spider way up on the croop to avoid rub sores

The one piece of rigging on the Phillips Formfitter saddles that caused problems on both Fox Trotters, was the spider, which is the piece that holds the breeching in place on the croop of the horse. It should ride about half-way between the point of the croop and the horse’s tail. This piece had rubbed deep sores on both my Fox Trotters’ rumps before I noticed it. I had to adjust the spiders so that they rode right on top of the horses’ croop to alleviate the problem.  When adjusted as it is supposed to ride, the motion and conformation of the Fox Trotters caused the front edge of the spider to dig into the hair and subsequently the flesh of the horses. I think this problem could be remedied with a slight re-design of the spider. The spider is made with two layers of heavy leather with fairly sharp edges. I think a fleece pad under the spider, a different shape, or possibly rolled edges like the breast strap and breeching have, would fix the problem. I must say, however, that the only horses that experienced this problem were the Fox Trotters. The Quarter Horse and the mustang had no problem with the spider, or any other part of the rigging, as-is. I intend to design a removable fleece pad for my saddles, for use with my Fox Trotters.

The Packer's Field Manual, by Bob Hoverson

The Packer’s Field Manual, by Bob Hoverson

I used the book “Packer’s Field Manual,” by Bob Hoverson, as a guide for setting up and using my Decker pack saddles. I found his book to be quite complete and useful. I learned to tie up manties quickly and well, using the knots and hitches he shows in the book. I set up each pack saddle with two “sling ropes” of about 28 feet length attached to the front saddle arch with a loop. Each rope runs through the rear hoops and is looped around each pack in a way that suspends it solidly from the saddle arches. The packs are weighed and balanced using a pack scale before loading, however, if one pack ends up slightly larger or heavier, balance can be achieved by setting the heavy pack a little higher on the saddle, thus changing its center of balance and making the load to ride balanced.

2015-03-23 10.04.05Decker-style pack saddles differ from traditional crossbucks not only in the way they are made, but also in the way they are equipped. While our crossbucks were pretty bare and light on rigging, the Phillips Formfitters were heavy on rigging. They also, as do all Decker-style saddles, use a protective canvas and wood shield, known as a “halfbreed” or “Arapajo”, apparently named for one of the men who originally designed and used this type of pack saddle. The halfbreed is a canvas layer that fits over top of the Decker pack saddle and has sideboards of 1 X 4 pine that protect the horse’s sides from the packs and spread the load. This is particularly important when packing items such as lumber, fence posts, or gravel. By the time we finished the first leg of the trip (355 miles), both Fox Trotters and one Quarter Horse were starting to show the beginnings of saddle sores where the side boards rode against their sides from the heavy loads of the feed sacks. The mustang, on the other hand, showed not a single mark…anywhere.

The Phillips Formfitter pack saddle is made with a leather skirt covering the saddle bars, with wool fleece on the underside. This fleece is intended to increase the padding and keep the saddle in place better. In comparison, our crossbuck pack saddles are simply made of wood. For the most part we had no trouble with the Phillips Formfitter staying in place…at least once we learned not to over-pad them, however, on our mustang we had a problem with the saddle pad crawling out from under the pack saddle. We had to stop and reset his saddle at least twice during the trip to move the saddle pad forward. We did not experience this on any other horse.

One of our crossbucks on Honey

One of our crossbucks on Honey

IMG_1357Again, our crossbuck pack saddles were very sparse on rigging. Just a strap for the breast strap and a couple more for the breeching. They were simple to place, rig, load, and remove. They caused no saddle sores on any of the animals, and never threatened to turn and dump a load, despite our mule’s propensity to roll every time we stopped for a rest. We used the crossbucks on both of the two Quarter Horses and the mustang with similar results. Having said that, I must also add that the heaviest load we ever put on the crossbuck pack saddles was about 170 pounds and they often carried under 150, whereas our Phillips Formfitters were often loaded with up to 200 pounds of feed.

One problem we had with Dad’s old pack saddles was the fact that they are both in dire need of having all the leather replaced. Still, they made it through our trip with only one broken strap – a breast strap, which we repaired with a piece of nylon webbing we found along the trail.

Over the 28 days, Dad and I tried to streamline our morning camp-breaking ritual a number of ways, but we found that with four pack animals, and having to pack our camp and make up four manty packs and four paniers, we simply could not do it in less than about four hours. We discovered that packing the paniers was a simple matter of placing things in the bags in a fairly even manner, then weighing each panier with the pack scale and adjusting as necessary, normally a matter of removing an item from the heavy panier and placing it in the light one. Making up manties, on the other hand, was a matter of building two manties at one time, so that we could estimate that each would be fairly equal in size and weight, then wrapping each one and tying it up. Then, after they were completely done, weighing them to make sure the two packs were within one pound or so of each other. If they were significantly different in weight, they were unpacked, adjusted, and repacked. It was easy to balance them when a pack consisted of one or two bags of feed, but when they contained items of camp gear, after the feed was used, then it was a pain. Additionally, tying up the manties is very hard on the hands. The canvas and rope chafed and rubbed my hands to the degree that it became quite painful for about the first two weeks of the trip, until my hands toughened up.

The one thing we found handy about the manties was that we used the canvas tarps as a ground sheet and bed cover (we prefer sleeping out in the open and did not take a tent). By the end of the trip we had decided that for our kind of pack trips, mantying was simply an unnecessary chore. I can see how they would be the way to go for an outfitter with odd-sized items to pack, but for us, it just isn’t practical.

Utah-style paniers on a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle

Utah-style paniers on a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle

For the last three days of the trip we decided that we would go with two pack animals and send one crossbuck pack saddle and one Phillips Formfitter home with our two mares. We also decided that mantying packs was a tedious task we could do without. We finished our trip using four paniers, two of which hung on either side of a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle.

In the final analysis, after 355 miles and 28 days on the trail, we learned that while Decker-style packing is very versatile, making up four manties every morning was terribly time-consuming, tedious, and very hard on the hands. Yes, Decker-style packing is versatile, but panier-style packing is much easier and takes less time and effort to pack, unpack, and load on the pack animal. Even with a cover and diamond hitch, the paniers were easier to pack than the manties. Hard paniers would be an even simpler option.

As for my Phillips Formfitter pack saddles, I am pleased with them and they performed well – once we learned the lesson about over-padding them. They are very well made, both with regard to materials and workmanship.  However, I cannot say they out-performed the old traditional crossbuck pack saddles. Though, had we loaded up the crossbucks with the weights with which we loaded the Formfitters at times, things might have been different.

I will continue to use the Phillips Formfitter pack saddles due to their adjustability and versatility, but I will use them with paniers unless it is absolutely necessary to use manties. They will go with us when we start again next spring.  While we had two horses that experienced saddle sores and rub sores, I cannot blame that on the pack saddles and do not believe they are at fault. These saddles allow me to choose between panier packing, with both soft and hard paniers, or to go with manties for odd-shaped loads.

For the type of horse packing Dad and I do, panier packing will remain our standard. Consequently, as far as utility is concerned, it is a wash between the Decker and Crossbuck pack saddles. While the Deckers are definitely more versatile in the ways they can be packed, we will be using them for handling paniers, which the crossbucks are specifically made for and do very well. Knowing what I know now, I would choose a standard crossbuck pack saddle over a standard Decker pack saddle for the kind of packing I do.

As far as the Phillips Formfitters are concerned, the quality of workmanship and materials, and the adjustability of the rigging and saddle bars are important to me and I remain pleased with them. I will use them pretty much as I would use a crossbuck pack saddle in the future, but will still have the added versatility when needed. In my opinion, the price tag of $699 for a fully outfitted Phillips Formfitter pack saddle is an excellent value when compared with prices for other brands and styles of pack saddles similarly outfitted. I expect mine will cover many miles on my pack animals before I hang up my spurs.









My solar panels set out to charge my iphone

Gear Report: Goal Zero Solar Chargers

Goal Zero Nomad 13 and Guide 10

Goal Zero Nomad 13 and Guide 10

Thought I’d take a few minutes this morning to type up a gear report on one of the pieces of gear we took that truly proved its worth and durability on our 355 mile horse pack trip through the rough country of southeastern Arizona:  Our Goal Zero solar chargers.

As you might recall from a previous post, I bought two solar chargers made by Goal Zero – a Guide 10 and a Nomad 13. The Nomad is the larger of the two panels, producing up to 13 watts of electricity, while the Guide 10 produces up to 10.

Goal Zero Guide 10

Goal Zero Guide 10

The reason I bought the Guide 10 to supplement the Nomad was that it comes with a rechargeable battery pack of four AA batteries that can be used as an emergency power source to recharge our other electronic devices when no sunshine is available.

Tough covers and clear plastic protecting the solar cells

Tough covers and clear plastic protecting the solar cells

When I first purchased the chargers I was quite concerned about their durability. They are flat-panel solar panels covered by a tough nylon-canvas material with a clear plastic cover over the solar cells. They both have a zippered pocket on the back, where cords and adapters may be stored. I am pleased to report that these panels have survived the first leg of our trip. 355 miles of the toughest terrain I have ever ridden over.

As I felt I needed to keep these panels accessible at all times, as well as the need to protect them from damage, I kept them in my saddle bags for the entire ride. My original intent was to strap them to the top of our pack saddles, so we could charge batteries and devices as we traveled. However, after our first day out, I let that idea die. We passed under so many low branches of mesquite, ironwood, juniper, ocotillo, and cactus, that I’m pretty sure they would have sustained damage had I tied them to our pack saddles.

My solar panels set out to charge my iphone

My solar panels set out to charge my iphone

What I ended up doing for most of the trip was to set the panels out each morning and evening to catch as much sunshine as possible. Often, we made camp after the sun was low on the horizon, so I didn’t get a lot of charging done in the evenings, but I generally got several hours of good charging time each morning as we broke camp. My solar panels were the last thing to be packed before mounting up.

About the second week, we had a spell when there just wasn’t enough sunshine to keep our batteries charged, partly due to our traveling through trees in the Chiricahuas. I ended up one day with all my GoPro camera batteries discharged, my iphone dead, and my DeLorme Explorer GPS almost dead. Out of necessity I tied the Nomad 13 to the back of my saddle as we traveled in open country from the Chiricahuas to San Simon, AZ. 20150429_114019The canvas cases for both units have small loops along outer borders which serve very well for tying them by saddle strings over my coat behind my saddle. While it did not charge very efficiently, due to not being able to always have it directly facing the sun, it was enough to get my iphone up to about a 30% charge after several hours. After that, whenever we traveled in open country I tied the Nomad to the back of my saddle and connected something to it, be it my iphone or the Guide 10 battery pack. In that way we were able to keep the most critical devices with at least a minimum charge the whole trip.

Another benefit of having both the Nomad and the Guide 10 was that the two can be connected together, or “daisy-chained”, by connecting the built-in cables, to increase their charging capacity. This greatly decreased the amount of time needed to completely recharge a device or top one off. When I set the panels out each morning or evening, they were daisy chained and I took pains to make sure the panels were situated to take maximum advantage of what sunshine was available. I found that even on cloudy days, there was sufficient sunshine to produce a trickle of electricity to get some charging done.

Guide 10 battery pack

Guide 10 battery pack

The item I always gave priority to keep at full charge was the battery pack. The battery pack contained four rechargeable AA batteries and had sufficient depth to bring my iphone 6 from dead to about 95% charge in a matter of about 3 hours. At that point the battery pack would be completely dead. I would make sure it was brought to full charge the following morning. My reasoning for this was that my iphone was the second most important electronic device in our inventory. It communicated with my DeLorme Explorer and provided viewable topographical maps by which we guided ourselves much of the time. Since we didn’t get all the paper maps we should have, we were very reliant on the iphone to keep us going the right direction, particularly at forks in the trails. It also served as a camera for still shots and the occasional short video when I didn’t have the GoPro out and ready. The battery pack gave us some insurance against days without sun and was used a number of times to keep the iphone alive until it could be charged by the solar panels.

Indicator light, USB output, two power inputs, LED flashlight function on the battery pack

Indicator light, USB output, two power inputs, LED flashlight function on the battery pack

One end of the battery pack has a well organized set of power inputs and outputs, as well as an indicator light and LED flashlight function. The USB power output allowed us to use the regular USB charging cords for charging all our devices. The inputs allow charging from the solar panels via a built-in cord or from a 110V wall outlet via a USB charger. When the battery pack is discharged, the indicator light shows solid red. As it charges it shows a blinking red light, which changes to a slow-blinking green, then a faster-blinking green, then finally a solid green when fully charged. The same indicators show as it discharges while charging a device. There is an on/off switch on the left side which also turns the LED flashlight on and off. While I never needed the LED flashlight, I can see where it might come in handy on occasion. The pack also comes with an adapter to recharge AAA batteries. The reserve power of the battery pack was a very important asset for us on the pack trip. In fact, I am considering purchasing a second battery pack.

The most important device we had was, of course, the DeLorme InReach Explorer, however the settings I had in place on it kept it going for up to five days before hitting the critical 20% charge level. Not only that, but it would come back to full charge within about two hours, when connected to both panels in direct sunlight. So, one good morning would have the GPS set to go for nearly a week.

I made sure all our devices were turned off each night and not turned back on until needed the following day. By doing so, and by ensuring that I set the two chargers out each morning, along with the additional charging time on the back of my saddle, the two solar chargers kept all our devices with at least a minimum charge the entire trip, except that one day when I let things get discharged. That one day taught me to become more diligent and organized in keeping things charged and utilizing the sun when it was shining. Additionally, as we took a rest day every Sunday, the solar panels were set out all day and adjusted periodically to maximize their effectiveness in the sunshine, while charging all our devices to maximum capacity (that is, when the sun was actually shining).

As for durability, while stored in my saddlebags, along with a number of other items – flashlights, binoculars, odds and ends, etc – these two solar charges survived multiple instances of my saddle horse laying down and attempting to roll over. I can’t think of many more effective ways to prove the durability of these little panels. After the trial they have been through, I am satisfied that I will have them for many, many more miles into the future.

wear spots on the plastic solar cell protectors

wear spots on the plastic solar cell protectors

The only thing I have found that would improve the durability and effectiveness of the Goal Zero solar chargers, in my opinion, would be to have a piece of flanel cloth, or similar material, cut to the size of the panels to keep between the clear plastic panels when the units are closed. I found that the clear plastic face of my units became scratched and had a somewhat fogged appearance in places, from the dust that got between them and scratched the surfaces while closed. I’m sure that decreases their efficiency, although I don’t know how much. This little improvement is something I will do for future use. I intend to recommend this as an improvement to the manufacturer.

My overall evaluation of the Nomad 13 and the Guide 10, used both individually and together, and I think I can honestly say they received a baptism by fire, so to speak, is that I consider them to be one of the most critical items of gear we had on the trip. That is not to say they were necessary for our survival, but they were absolutely necessary for the successful outcome of our trip. They proved themselves to be very durable under the most harsh conditions, surviving some pretty rough treatment and kept our critical electronic devices with at least a minimal charge throughout our month-long trip, thus ensuring we had the ability to contact the outside world at any time and that we were able to photographically document much of our trek for our followers.

Overall grade:  A+


truck and trailer with Ranger

Getting Loaded…..


Loading the trailer, that is.

Yesterday I brought my 1991 Logan Competitor Plus four-horse trailer to the house to start the work of getting it ready for the big haul to Eagar, Arizona, then on to the US/Mexico border at Douglas, AZ. I have already had the brakes checked and adjusted and the bearings re-packed, and repaired the electrical system as far as the tail and running lamps go. There is little left to do except the packing and loading.

Trailer-Aid chock/jack

Trailer-Aid chock/jack

A week ago, I hauled four horses down to Holden, Utah, about an hour’s haul, for a 1/2-day’s ride. On the way back we had a blowout on the right-rear trailer tire. It was good that happened, because I discovered that I hadn’t yet put a lug wrench in the trailer! Nor could I find my hydraulic jack, which I thought I had put in there somewhere. I was, however, able to test out the new Trailer-Aid chock/jack I recently purchased through Outfitter’s Supply.




The Trailer-Aid is simply placed in front of the tire adjacent to the flat and the trailer is pulled forward until the tire rests on top of it. This is supposed to provide sufficient lift to get the other tire off the ground for changing. The above photo shows my right front trailer tire on top of the Trailer-Aid with four large horses in the trailer! I learned, however, that with the trailer loaded, there isn’t sufficient lift to get the flat completely off the ground. We weren’t very keen on unloading the horses on the side of a freeway with a speed limit of 80mph. We were lucky enough to be able to contact a relative of one of my passengers, who came to our rescue with a lug wrench and a hydraulic jack. Luckily, my spare tire is a good one and we were back on the road in just a few minutes.

After getting the trailer home, I unloaded the horses and tried the Trailer-Aid again. Happily, it will, in fact, lift the adjacent tire completely off the ground, allowing a tire change, with the trailer empty of horses. Just for information, my Logan trailer has independent tortion bar suspension, rather than leaf springs. I don’t know whether that would make a difference. At $48.95, I believe this is a good, heavy-duty piece of gear that will become standard equipment for all my trailers in the future.

The learning experience from this blowout has prompted me to find my heavy-duty 2-ton hydraulic bottle jack (which was in the trailer the whole time, hidden away in a cubby hole) and strap its handle to it with a plastic wire-tie, purchase a good T-bar lug wrench and some spare lug nuts from the local Napa store, and place them all in a storage bin where they are easy to find and won’t get buried by other gear. As for the blowout, of course I bought a new Goodyear Marathon 8-ply trailer tire to replace it. All my tires are now up to full pressure at 65psi (cold). The left-rear tire appears to be losing pressure slowly, so I will go down tomorrow to get it repaired or replaced.

Removed left window in over-bed area

Removed left window in over-bed area

Last Thursday I removed the left-side window in the gooseneck area to have the slider replaced. It was broken before I owned it. I took the window to Carter’s Glass in Spanish Fork, UT. I was disappointed to learn that they can no longer get tempered glass for repairs in campers and trailers, so the replacement slider will be plexiglass. When I get back from my pack trip I plan to start the cosmetic repairs to the trailer, so I’ll check with Hehr, the manufacturer of the window, to see if they have glass replacement sliders available.

Removing the window was a simple matter of drilling out the 12 aluminum rivets with a 1/8″ drill and cutting the caulking around the edge of the window. It came right out with little resistance. No big deal. It will go back in the same way, using aluminum 1/8″ X 5/8″ rivets and my trusty rivet gun.

2015-03-29 13.56.17I had previously repaired all the trailer lighting…at least all that are required to be legal on the road. Some of the wiring needed minor repair and a couple bulbs replaced. I also purchased orange and red reflectors for the sides of the trailer, which is also required by Utah law. The originals had long ago fallen off. I scraped the old remnants of the previous reflectors off with a wood chisel (a window scraper might have been better), then cleaned it well with mineral spirits. The new reflectors came with a peel-and-stick adhesive already applied, so I simply peeled and stuck them to the sides of the trailer. These reflectors can also be attached with rivets or screws, if desired.

My trailer came equipped with interior lighting, as well as exterior lighting, however they are not working and are in need of extensive repair to the wiring. I’ll let that go until after my big pack trip, since I will not be hauling at night on this trip.

2015-03-29 14.02.51

Circle J Trailers water tank, made to fit in the rear tack compartment

When I bought my trailer, it came with a triangular shaped water tank that has been used, but was not installed. It bears the Circle J Trailers brand, so it was not made for this trailer. It is of the type normally installed in the rear tack compartment, however, the way my saddle rack is made will not allow this. I removed a metal shelf unit that was installed in the acute-angle corner of the dressing room in my trailer, which is the same angle as that in the rear tack compartment. The tank will fit in this corner, but will require me to build a stand, to get the spigot up off the floor, as well as make some metal bands to secure the tank in place. Apparently the angle of the Circle J trailers is a little more acute than those in the Logan trailer, because I’m going to need to apply shims on one side to keep the tank snugly in place. Still, it will give me around 36 or so gallons of water for the horses while I’m hauling.

So, on with “getting loaded.”  Yesterday afternoon I pulled everything out of the trailer that was not stuck down in some way, and swept and cleaned a little. It could use a thorough cleaning, but that will have to wait until I’m done with my trip.

I then separated all my horse tack and gear into two areas: That which will go on the trip and that which will not. I have acquired, over the years, a bunch of old horse tack, much of which I will never use again or is beyond its useful years. These items, including old saddle pads and blankets, old halters, and other odds and ends, I packed into a duffle bag which will stay here at home until I decide how to get rid of it.

As for the stuff in the “go with” piles, I pulled out my gear lists for the pack trip and started my inventory. As I located each item on the list, I stowed it in the trailer then checked it off the list. As I did so, I was amazed at how much tack and gear this trailer will hold without seeming jam-packed. Everything has a place and when packed it all fits very well. This trailer is just what I need for trips like this.

Rear tack compartment

Rear tack compartment

The rear tack has a four-tier saddle rack. It now carries two Phillips Formfitter pack saddles in full rig and two western riding saddles. Inside the horse compartment are saddle pad racks for up to eight saddle pads. They now hold four pack saddle pads and two riding saddle pads, as well as two sets of saddle bags. On the door of the rear tack compartment, the previous owners installed a set of horse shoe hangers which now hold two hackamores, two bridles with snaffle bits, and two halters and lead ropes. On the walls inside the tack compartment are additional hooks that hold an assortment of cinchas, a couple rain slickers, and some miscellaneous items. In the floor is room for several shallow feed buckets and my trusty Trailer-Aid chock.

2015-03-29 12.40.54 2015-03-29 12.40.18

Side storage compartment

Side storage compartment

The side compartment is extra storage space created by the feed mangers in the horse compartment. While the manger makes loading horses somewhat tricky in a slant-load (you have to get between the horse and the manger to tie them in or go around and tie them through the windows), the extra storage space is more than worth the inconvenience. The storage space, which measures about 40 inches high X 18 inches deep X 14 feet long, has two access doors on the driver’s side of the trailer. Along the inside wall, near the top, are hooks which are perfect for hanging halters, lead ropes, pack ropes, hobbles, and miscellaneous gear. This is where I store my bagged feed, feed buckets, pack paniers, manties, farrier kit, hydraulic jack and tire tools, and anything else that doesn’t have a specific designated place elsewhere. Both access doors have a large, deep, box shelf for holding things such as brushes, fly spray, and other small items.

The “dressing room” portion of the trailer is not sufficient to call a “living quarters”, however it is large enough that I plan to convert it to a rudimentary camper in the future. Some previous owner started the conversion, having installed insulation and wood paneling in the front portion of the room. I will probably remove all the paneling, so I can reconfigure the electrical system and install some plumbing, before re-covering the walls with paneling. My plan is to install a sink with a manual pump, a two-burner propane stove top, a fold-down table, and a port-o-potty. I’ll likely make an outdoor “cowboy shower,” as well.

Dressing room area

Dressing room area

This area currently holds a couple built-in box seats, which are also storage containers, a small closet, and a couple small cabinets in the nose of the gooseneck area. I have a large black plastic box that will hold all my personal items and small gear, such as the solar panels, camera, binoculars, cooking gear, etc., for the trip to the trailhead. My hand tools, for mechanical emergencies, are also stowed here in a toolbox. There are a couple coat hangers on the back wall, one of which now sports the new Mud River rain slicker I purchased from Outfitter’s Supply. All this stuff, except the hand tools, will go on the pack horses and in my saddle bags for the trip.

The photos you see in this post are with all the horse tack and pack gear I purchased for this two-and-a-half month pack trip stowed in the trailer. We still lack my personal things, our food supply, Dad’s personal things, and the tack and gear for his three horses, but this trailer has plenty of room for us and all our gear. We will, however, have much of his gear stowed in a second trailer, since we will need it for two more horses (we will have two saddle horses and four pack horses for the trip).

For my average pack trip (which is a much smaller enterprise than this current undertaking), in which I will normally have one or two saddle horses and one or two pack horses, this trailer is perfect…or will be once I get the camper portion built.

I’m quite pleased with this Logan trailer.

truck and trailer with Ranger

More Gear for the Trail…



I posted a couple weeks ago about the Goal Zero Nomad 13 portable solar charger I bought for the big pack trip. I haven’t yet had time to test it.

However, one evening last week, as I lay awake in the middle of the night contemplating the upcoming adventure (the closer it gets, the harder it is to sleep at night), I started running through, in my mind, what a day on the trail might be like. As I did so, it occurred to me that we would be using our electrical devices during the daytime, but would be unable to charge anything at night. Funny how I hadn’t thought of that before, as I plug my iphone in to charge before I lay down to sleep.

Furthermore, I realized that if our one solar charger were to be damaged, we would lose the use of all our electronic equipment within about a day, including the ability to call for help via satellite texting in case of emergency. I made the decision then that we needed a second solar charger, not only to increase our ability to recharge items during daylight hours, but as a backup in case one unit were to be put out of commission. I considered, for just a moment, the thought of buying a Sherpa recharger, however, with a price tag of over $250 for a basic model, it seemed impractical for us.

Goal Zero Guide 10

Goal Zero Guide 10

I headed back up to Cabela’s with the intention of buying another Nomad 13, but upon looking over the various models and options offered by Goal Zero, I came across the Guide 10 unit. This model is also a solar charger, with two solar panels measuring about 6 by 9 inches, putting out about 7 volts, 7 watts. It is able to charge at 5V at up to 1A (5W)  regulated – via USB port or 6.5V up to 1.1A (7W) unregulated – via mini-solar port.

2015-03-24 21.55.29Also included is a charger pack for four AA batteries that is charged from the solar charger. This battery unit may then be used as a charger for items such as my iphone 6, the DeLorme InReach Explorer GPS/satellite unit, and our recently purchased GoPro Hero 4 camera. From the literature, it appears this 4-cell unit is capable of recharging two cellular telephones on one charge. This will help for charging at night or when the sun isn’t shining brightly during the daytime. The batteries may also be removed from the unit and used as regular AA batteries. Also included is an adapter for charging four AAA batteries.

Just as the Nomad 13, the Guide 10 comes with integral cables for charging at either 5V or 6.5V, as well as an integral USB port and a separate USB/mini-USB cable for charging Android-type cell phones and other accessories. I will have to remember to bring the proprietary Apple cable to charge my iphone from the USB port. Also included is an adapter for 12V connections that use cigarette lighter-type connectors.

The Nomad 13 and the Guide 10 solar panels may also be “daisy-chained” to increase electrical charging capacity and decrease the time involved in recharging devices.

2015-03-24 22.02.25You can see the size relationship between the larger Nomad 13 and the Guide 10 units. the solar panel size of the Nomad 13 is roughly 1/3 again the size of the Guide 10, however the battery pack certainly increases the utility of the Guide 10 package and offers us one more option and backup plan for charging our very important electronic gear.

The Nomad 13’s price tag of $159.99 also made the Guide 10 a bit more appealing. Along with the benefit of the battery pack and charger came a price tag of $119.99. The combination of the two solar chargers, I believe, will serve our needs very well.

I feel much more comfortable now, having two solar charging units with us on this trip. The trick will be determining, while on the trail, the battery life of each of our several electronic devices, and developing a routine for recharging each of them in turn,  to keep them all alive and functioning optimally for two-and-a half months on the trail.

wish us luck!

2015-03-23 10.03.47

Phillips Form Fitter Pack Saddles, from Outfitters Pack Station

My pack saddles arrived last Friday, as promised by Wade and Simone Mauhl, of Outfitters Pack Station. They are every bit what I hoped.

My followers will recall the post I did a couple years ago about pack saddles, when I was trying to decide whether to go with the traditional crossbuck pack saddles or the newer, more versatile Decker pack saddles for my big pack trip…and on into the future. At length, I decided to go with the Deckers style.

So, as I was preparing to place an order for a couple pack saddles, my dad called and said I should talk to a friend of ours in Arizona, who is an experienced packer and has some definite opinions on pack saddles. I gave the fellow a call (name withheld because I don’t have his permission…yet) and talked to him for a while. He referred me to a man named Phillips, who builds a pack saddle he calls the “Phillips Form Fitter.”  My friend said he is certain Phillips makes the best pack saddle in existence.

Well, my friend didn’t know the website or how to get in touch with Mr. Phillips, so I did what any good, red-blooded American…or anybody else with a computer, would do. I googled “Phillips Form Fitter” and came up with Outfitter’s Pack Station. On their home page they have a great video presentation in which they describe in detail the pack saddle, how it is made, and how it functions. I was sold.

In speaking with Wade, I learned that Mr. Phillips has retired and Wade and Simone purchased his pack saddle business and continue to market them under the Phillips Form Fitter name through their storefront, Outfitters Pack Station.

After several conversations with Simone and Wade, I placed an order for two fully outfitted pack saddles. I also ordered a number of other items, which I will discuss in another post. Things got a little dicey, however, when I learned from Simone that they don’t keep these pack saddles in inventory. Wade makes each saddle as it is ordered, which is why they can make each one to suit the customer’s needs with a number of options. Here I was only a few weeks away from D-Day, so to speak, and I still didn’t have pack saddles! This was something I hadn’t contemplated. Wade and Simone assured me they would work overtime to make sure my saddles arrived in time for my planned departure to Arizona.

What a relief it was to receive a call from Simone last week, announcing they had shipped my pack saddles.

Phillips Form Fitter pack saddle, fully outfitted

Phillips Form Fitter pack saddle, fully outfitted

After ripping open the box like it was a Christmas present, I took a very good look at my new pack saddles.

I was immediately impressed with the heavy latigo straps and heavy nickel-plated steel hardware. All the straps are approximately 13 ounce latigo (just my guess), one-inch or 1-1/4 inch in width, depending on the particular strap. All buckles are heavy-duty roller buckles.

The upper buckle on the spider strap, where it attaches to the breeching, has a nickel-plated 2015-03-20 23.20.23shroud over the buckle. As explained in the video, this was designed to keep the pack animal’s tail hairs from catching in this buckle.

For an extra $50, one can request brass or stainless steel hardware on the saddle.

The pack saddle outfit includes all straps, double straps for the breeching, as well as double straps for the breast strap, to keep them both riding in their proper places on the pack animal. The “halfbreed” is included, made of heavy 18 ounce canvas, reinforced with leather trim on the edges and filled with a two 1/2″ layers of felt padding inside. Leather pockets on each side hold a pine board that protects the pack animal’s sides from the load.

2015-03-20 23.22.42Underneath, one finds the pack saddle is made with bars contoured somewhat like a riding saddle’s bars, but a bit thicker. They are made of a polymer plastic, and while stiff, are somewhat flexible under load. The bars are attached to the “arches” by bolts, which allow the saddle bars to float and adjust to the back of the pack animal and move a bit as it moves. That makes them perfect for my pack trip, as we will have three horses each and rotating them as pack and saddle animals. No two of them will have the same back, being a mix of Fox Trotters, mustang, Quarter Horses, and a mule, so we will not have the luxury of being able to custom configure a pack saddle for each animal.

2015-03-20 23.24.02Each saddle bar is also enclosed in leather, with high quality sheep fleece underneath, just like a riding saddle. The theory is that the fleece helps the pack saddle stay in place without riding off the pad. Heavy-duty stitching keeps it all together, with screws attaching the leather to the bars.

I was impressed.

So, this morning I made an early start to my day and went out to trim hooves. I took along one of the pack saddles to try it on Ranger.

2015-03-23 10.04.05I am somewhat experienced in horse packing with a crossbuck pack saddle, but I was amazed at all the adjustability of this Decker pack saddle! While they are offered with a double cinch, like those usually used on a crossbuck saddle, Decker’s are usually outfitted with a single cinch. That’s what I requested on mine. The position of the cinch is adjustable fore and aft by adjusting the lengths of the fore and aft rigging straps, which, coupled with the floating saddle bars, makes this saddle adjustable to fit the back of pretty much any horse or mule one is likely to come across as a pack animal.

2015-03-20 23.23.08The Decker cinches are made with two rings on each end, a smaller one inside the larger one. The larger one is for the billet and latigo, while the smaller one is used in securing the load with the sling ropes. I outfitted my pack saddles with sling ropes and other rope accoutrements, per the recommendations of Bob Hoverson, in his book entitled, The Packer’s Field Manual, a book I recommend for Decker-style packing.

2015-03-23 10.05.22The breast strap and breeching are both made of heavy latigo leather, lined with oil-tanned leather, rolled on the edges to protect the pack animal from chafing. Both are fully adjustable for length and ride height via four straps on the breast strap and eight on the breeching. The spider pad holds four straps to keep the breeching in place and has an additional ring, which I suppose is for attaching the lead of a trailing pack animal. All these parts are stitched with heavy thread and all the straps and rings are secured with steel tube rivets. The breast strap and breeching are very nicely made and should be comfortable on the pack animal and easy to clean. Every part of this pack saddle rigging is made to be adjustable, so as to fit just about any pack animal of average size and conformation one might encounter.

2015-03-23 10.09.51The arches of the Decker pack saddle are the primary distinguishing factor between a crossbuck pack saddle and a Decker pack saddle. The Phillips Form Fitter arches are made of 3/4″ steel rods, bent to an arch, which connects the two saddle bars.  These arches, however, have small appendages, of the same diameter steel rod, welded to each side of the arch, creating a Decker arch which will also act as a crossbuck to hold Utah-style paniers intended for crossbuck pack saddles. Now I’m starting to feel right at home! I love these saddles!

One reason I decided to go with Decker pack saddles over the traditional crossbuck saddles, is the survivability of the saddle in the case of a rollover wreck. I am confident that the way this saddle is made, and the materials of which it is made, make this saddle much more likely to survive such a wreck with little or no damage, than a crossbuck or most of the other Decker pack saddles I have seen.

2015-03-20 23.20.52Lest I get too wrapped up in my enthusiasm for these pack saddles, I should mention a couple minor things I noticed on the other side of the coin with regard to these saddles. While the strap leather is, indeed, heavy latigo leather, it is not top-quality latigo, nor does it meet the standard of the harness leather I have seen on some high-dollar pack saddles. Also, rather than the steel tube rivets that secure these straps and assemblies, I would rather see copper hammered rivets. Having said these 2015-03-20 23.21.13things, I am confident the use of these materials does not in any way compromise the utility and durability of these pack saddles. With a little care and oiling, I am certain they will outlast me and likely another generation of packers as well. The use of these less-than-top-flight materials is easily forgiven when one looks at the price of the fully outfitted Phillips Form Fitter pack saddle.

At $699, the price of the fully outfitted Phillips Form Fitter pack saddle, including breeching, breast strap, and halfbreed, compares favorably with other name brand pack saddle outfits that I consider to be lesser quality pack saddles.  The saddle tree alone, with no breeching or breast strap, but with the leather skirts and fleece, runs $325, which, again compares favorably with other Decker-style pack saddles with adjustable bars. Again, I am very pleased, both with the quality and the price of these pack saddles and their rigging.

I am thinking this was the first pack saddle ever set upon the back of Ranger. He handled it very well. I’m looking forward to how he handles it with a load on the saddle, our first day out on the trail.2015-03-23 10.03.47



Going through some of my new gear…

I recently received a large gear order from Outfitter’s Supply, out of Columbia Falls, Montana. Kevin was nice enough to sponsor Dad and me on our upcoming pack trip with substantial discounts on much of the gear we ordered. When I first started acquiring gear for this trip a couple years ago, I began by perusing the various websites and online catalogs available for packing gear and ordering one or two items to see what I liked and what I didn’t think would hold up, before making a larger order. As I was doing that kind of research, I came across Trailhead Supply, and I placed an order for a couple feed bags from them. I wrote a blog post on the feed bags, which you can find here.

Outfitter's Supply's canvas/leather feedbag

Outfitter’s Supply’s canvas/leather feedbag

I bought another feed bag in this recent order from Outfitter’s Supply, having decided from the previous purchases to go with the tougher, more durable, canvas/leather bag. I am very pleased with what I received. This feed bag, bearing their Trail Max marketing name, is made with a leather bottom that is formed, so that the edges come up about an inch from the bottom.  This should protect the canvas and seams from the chafing and scraping that will occur when the horse pushes the feed bag against the ground. The canvas appears to be of 24 ounce canvas. It is made with heavy-duty leather straps, approximately 9/10 ounce weight, that are riveted to the canvas at the top of the bag and extend all the way to the bottom, where it is again riveted to the leather bottom. The straps are stitched to the canvas bag with heavy thread down both edges of the strap. The leather is well-oiled and appears to be of good quality. The length of the hanger is adjusted by a heavy-duty chrome-plated steel roller buckle.

If you read the post on the previously purchased feed bags, you will remember that I was concerned that the air vent was positioned very low on the bag. I have had instances in which horses would not eat, because they could not breathe well with a couple scoops of feed in the bag.

New bag on the left

New bag on the left

I felt the vent was low enough on the bag that it would be covered by the feed and would be of little use to the horse. Since that time I have spoken to another experienced packer who once had a horse nearly drown when it tried to drink from a stream with a feed bag on. The feed bag held the water and the horse could not breathe. He felt the vent was more of a safety feature for water drainage than for breathing. I value his opinion and experience and learned that there is good reason for placing the vent low on the bag.

The vent on this new bag is placed a bit higher on the bag than the Trailhead Supply one. In my opinion the location of the vent on the Outfitter’s Supply bag is a good compromise between the safety issue of draining off water and allowing airflow to allow the horse to breathe easier with the bag full of feed.  Outfitter’s Supply has also found an excellent place to stamp their maker’s mark – right on the vent.

The Trailhead Supply bag was priced at $21.95, but I no longer find it listed in their online store. They now offer only the nylon mesh bag with a canvas bottom.

The Outfitter’s Supply bag is a hefty $64.95, but it is a heavier-duty bag and made using heavier and better materials. Is putting this kind of heavy-duty work and materials into a feed bag overkill? Outfitter’s Supply’s experience in making their feed bags comes from doing repair work on feed bags used by the U.S. Forest Service. They seem to know their stuff.

I’ll have one of each on the trip and will report how each performed when we get home.


Way back when Dad and I first started talking about taking a horse pack trip from Tucson, Arizona to Panguitch, Utah, I think it was in about 1975, there was no such thing as a cellular telephone, much less a Global Positioning Satellite system. In fact, the closest thing we had available to a cellular telephone was a “walkie-talkie”, that might have a useful range of about 5 miles, at best. Battery life on those was indefinite….as long as you brought along an inexhaustible supply of spare batteries! I don’t recall that we had re-chargeable batteries available at that time. And do you remember Kodak Instamatic Cameras?

Back then, when we talked about the trip, our main consideration was simply to get “from here to there”, so to speak. We thought about things like food supplies, horses, and gear. The gear consisted of Dad’s old pack saddle outfits, our own well-used saddles, and a bit of camping gear. When we thought of the trip, it was like going back in time to the late 1800s, or maybe the early 1900s. Planning was simple, complications were few.  We just couldn’t get our act together to actually do the trip.

Now that we’re finally ready to give our big pack trip a real try, things are a bit different in the modern world. In particular, we’re both much older now. That brings in a whole new set of concerns and complications in itself, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We now have technology to deal with that didn’t even exist way back when.

Now, we have these great gadgets that can not only tell us exactly where we are in the world, both in time and space, but can also take pictures to prove it!  Not only that, but these same gadgets can also tell the rest of the world where we are at the same time! And, if that’s not enough, I can actually communicate with anyone I choose, anywhere in the world, via satellites in outer space! Dick Tracy, eat your heart out!

My, how times have changed!

Still, all these gadgets use electricity. All of them have internal rechargeable batteries. All of them require special cables and chargers to keep them useful for anything other than paper weights. Now, horses generate a lot of “gas”, but no electricity, as far as I know.

So, now, the big question is, how long will these gadgets stay alive without a recharge? Most of them will handle one full day, as long as I don’t play with them too much. My iphone 6 will last about half a day if I take a lot of pictures and start texting them to my wife and mother. I took the Delorme InReach Explorer out for a test ride yesterday. We were out for about 4 hours, tracking the whole ride, and it ended up with over 85% battery remaining. I plan to take along a GoPro3 camera, but haven’t purchased it yet, so I have no idea about it’s capabilities, battery-life-wise, but I imagine it is a matter of hours, not days.


Since our pack trip will take somewhere between five and seven weeks….we think…. and since most of the time we will be far away from the nearest electrical outlet, our only option is to take an electrical source with us. Hauling a generator and the fuel to run it is out of the question.

Enter the GOAL ZERO Nomad 13 Solar Panel.

The Nomad 13 is a pair of solar panels, measuring approximately 10.5 X 7 X 1 inches,  about 23 inches wide when open, and comes in its own zippered protective case with the solar panels built-in. You simply unzip, then open it like a notebook. According to the specifications on the box, the unit will produce up to 13 watts of electricity. That is sufficient to put out 5V, 0-1A (5W) regulated for USB charging, or 13-15 VDC, 0-1A (13W) unregulated for 12V charging.

Charging cables built-in

Charging cables built-in

It has several cables built into the unit, on the back side, including a USB cable, a Guide 10 cable, and two cables for chaining units together and for charging other GOAL ZERO rechargers, such as the venerable Sherpa. Also included is an adapter cable with a cigarette lighter-type connector for 12V accessories. The literature inidcates this unit, placed in full sun, will recharge a “smart phone” in one to three hours. Not that it will matter to us, but just for information, the unit will charge a Sherpa 50 in six hours, which will then charge a laptop computer in two hours.

I’m going to have to consider buying a Sherpa 50 for the trip, due to all the gadgets we’ll have along. Having the portable recharger along would certainly help if we should have a couple days of cloudy weather. Our plan is to strap it to the top pack on a pack horse and let it charge all day long. We’ll see how durable it is as we go.

At $159.99, it was an expensive accessory for us, but if it will do what it says it can do on the box and in the manual, it will certainly be worth the expense to us, as well as our loved ones left at home and our friends following us via the Internet. The GOAL ZERO Sherpa 50 Portable Recharger runs $249.99.

2015-03-01 12.43.54

I haven’t yet had a chance to test this unit, but I expect to do so in the next week or so. That test will probably determine whether I go the extra expense for the Sherpa 50.

Stay tuned!

A good night’s sleep is all I need…..

Last week I went on buying spree at Cabela’s. One of the items I came home with…two actually, were air mattresses for the trail. When I was a kid I used to sleep on the ground, and quite well, I might add. In high school, these new-fangled foam sleeping pads came out. They were 1/2″ of luxurious medium-density foam rubber that rolled up onto a 20″ X 4″ roll that weighed hardly anything and you could tie it to your pack right above your sleeping bag. Then, as an adult, I found the self-inflating 3″ foam pads that truly improved my sleep rest during camping and pack trips. However, these pads roll up into a bulky roll about 22″X8″…that is if you get it real tight. It weighed a bit more as well, at about 3 pounds or so. I stuck with those a long time. Recently, however, I’m finding I don’t sleep so well on those self-inflating pads anymore.

Now, Dad has always preferred air mattresses. Of course he was 24 years ahead of me in experience. Seems like my air mattresses always ended up flat about the time I was gliding off to sleep, and it was back to my childhood days of sleeping on the hard ground…or not. Anyway, Dad seems always to have done pretty well with his air mattresses, so for this trip I let him talk me into buying a couple of backpacking air mattresses for our trip. Mostly the decision was made to save space on the pack horses, but truthfully, I was willing to try an air mattress again to see whether I could get a good night’s sleep on one while out on the trail.

Cabela's XPG Ultralight air mattress

Cabela’s XPG Ultralight air mattress

After talking on the phone to Dad while I was looking at the mattresses, we settled upon two of Cabela’s XPG Ultralight Extreme Performance Gear air mattresses. They came rolled into a 3″ X 9″ roll, stuffed into a nice little nylon bag. I have to tell you, I was pretty skeptical that this little thing could provide a nice resting place for my tired bones after a long day on the trail. I found Cabela’s display, where they had samples of each of their mattress offerings already aired up, so I pulled each one down in turn and laid on it, right there in the store, for a first-impression test. Surprisingly, I found this little XPG mattress to be the most comfortable of the bunch.

The XPG Ultralight measures 72" X 23.5" X 2.5" inflated

The XPG Ultralight measures 72″ X 23.5″ X 2.5″ inflated

The XPG Ultralight mattress measures a nice 72″ L X 23.5″ W X 2.5″ H, inflated, which was among the widest mattresses offered. I found the goofy-looking way the mattress is designed to be very comfortable. It has round air pockets in the center for comfort and larger air pockets on the sides to keep you on the mattress during the night. This mattress didn’t make me feel high in the middle while lying on my back, which tends to give me a backache, nor did my hips touch the ground when I rolled onto my side. I was quite surprised and impressed. This is a well-designed mattress, and very comfortable to lay on.

I took a good look at the seams and materials, trying to imagine it lasting the whole trip. The mattress is made of a reinforced rubberized nylon material (no trade name for the material is given on the packaging), which appears to be fairly durable, however I wouldn’t try laying it directly on the ground. We’ll have canvas ground cloths under us on the trip, so wear from the ground should be minimal. Just in case, though, the mattress comes with a patch kit slipped inside a pocket inside the stuff sack, consisting of about 30 square inches of material (two 3 X 5 pieces) and a small tube of cement.

The seams are either glued or heat-sealed

The seams are either glued or heat-sealed

The seams appear to be sealed with cement, or possibly heat-sealed. They appear to be solidly joined. With the new “space-age” cements available, I feel confident that if I can keep Dad from jumping on the bed, they’ll last the trip.

A couple nights ago, I blew up one of the mattresses to see how much effort goes into it, wondering whether I would pass out before getting it filled at elevations exceeding 9,000 feet in some places. Again, I was surprised that I was able to fill the mattress to capacity in 17 breaths. While that will make your head swim if you do it too fast, it’s not anything that would make the average person uncomfortable if they take their time.

Pull to open, push to close, twist to lock

Pull to open, push to close, twist to lock

The air valve is a little larger and somewhat differently designed than other mattresses I’ve used before. It has a push-pull system, to keep the air in while you take a breath as you blow it up, then a twist-lock to keep it from being inadvertently opened. It took me a minute to figure it out, even with the instructions plainly spelled out on the top of the valve. Sometimes I have a hard time pouring water out of a boot with the instructions on the heel. Twist the valve to unlock, then pull. Blow into it, then push to hold while you take a breath, pull again to blow air in. When done, push in and twist to lock. Simple! Much easier than the old ones you had to hold and squeeze with your teeth while you blew.

I laid the mattress in front of the television and lay down on it to see if I could lay on it comfortably for an extended period. I was quite pleased with the results. I nearly fell asleep.

After the limited testing I have done on this mattress, I am quite pleased and convinced this XPG Ultralight mattress, marketed by Cabela’s, will do the trick for us. With a price tag of $99, I feel it is a good buy for us.

Now, a good night’s sleep is all I need.

Stay tuned for more gear reports.