Book Excerpt: Planning and Preparing for the Big Adventure

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Happy Trails by Les Sellnow. This book is available from

Once you have committed to a pack trip, the preparation begins, even though it might be a year away. First of all, you must decide where you are going and obtain all possible information about the area.

A letter or phone call to the regional forestry headquarters where you plan to ride will either result in information about the trails and any available maps, or in your being directed to a district office. I have found that dealing directly with a district office is much better. I also like to talk to a forester or trail supervisor by phone because they often are the ones who are out on the trails.

I tell the park official how many will be in our group, discuss the experience level of horses and riders, and ask about a route that will bring us back to the trailhead without retracing our steps, if possible. With that as a base, I then ask the person what trails he or she would recommend for our group. I also inquire about potential campsites at various intervals along the trail.

Once you've expressed your goals and experience level, your contact person can better offer suggestions on where to go and can estimate how long it will normally take to get from one campsite to another.

Reading Maps

When you have established the basics, ask about the availability of maps. Normally, the maps are easy to read, though there are exceptions. Your best option is a topographical map, despite its larger size. These maps are marked with elevations and are color-coded. Brown areas indicate areas above the timberline with no grass; green areas mean grass is available.

Normally, dotted lines represent the riding trails. Tight zigzags of dotted lines in a brown area indicate you will be traveling above the tree line over switchbacks that take you through a mountain pass. These routes can vary from very safe to downright scary with a potential for danger. Sometimes the switchbacks are literally carved into the rock wall of a cliff, and if you are afraid of heights, they can be scary to negotiate.

The problem is that the maps don’t show you just how scary a set of switchbacks might be. Just recently I was discussing a trip through a nearby mountain range with an acquaintance who knows the area well. Two trails go over different mountain passes but wind up at the same destination. When you look at them on the map, the passes seem to have the same degree of difficulty.

However, my acquaintance described one as a "wet your pants" pass and the other as an "easy" one. We opted for the "easy" one for that particular ride.

Once you have received the maps and studied them, it is time for another call to the district forestry office. First, make sure that you are reading and interpreting the maps correctly. Secondly, discuss a proposed route and ask about its feasibility. How wide is the switch-backing trail through the mountain pass? Does that narrow blue line on the map indicate a little creek that can be forded easily or is it a deep stream? Does that broad green spot along the river truly indicate a meadow of grass that will provide feed for your group of horses? What month of the year and what week or weeks during that month are the trails likely to be free of ice and snow?

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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