If you're heading out into the back country, where mechanized vehicles aren't permitted, a pack mule can carry most of the equipment you'll require. The average 1,200 pound pack mule can easily tote between 150 and 200 pounds of materials. Before going out on the trail, practice packing your provisions so that you're not making last-minute adjustments in terms of weight and accessibility.
Mules are sterile, hybrid animals, crosses between horse mares and donkey jacks. A similar but less common animal, the hinny, is a cross between a horse stallion and a donkey jenny. Renowned for their sure-footedness, mules have other advantages over horses for packing. They eat less, often don't require shoes, aren't as likely to spook and generally have more stamina. If a mule gets himself or his pack saddle caught on something while out in the wilderness, he'll probably just wait until his human extricates him. Horses in the same situation might go into panic mode.
You have a choice of two types of pack saddles, but the one you use depends on your method of packing. The sawbuck, also called the crossbuck, sports two Xs made of wood, protruding up from the saddle. The sawbuck requires two cinches to keep it securely attached on the mule. While the Decker saddle, used by the US Forest Service, also contains two wood bars, these bars aren't connected by wooden Xs but by D rings. Deckers are generally single-rigged, using just one cinch. The Decker is covered by a padded fabric known as a "half-breed." It contains two boards that lie horizontally along each side of the mule's rib cage. Because of these features, the Decker affords the mule superior back protection.
The word derives from the French, but "pannier" refers to any bags or boxes used to cart supplies or equipment on a back country trip. Fabric panniers are easier on the mule, while those made of metal or plastic are better for protecting your belongings. Panniers sport loops, which you can place on the crossbucks saddle or hook or thread through D-rings on the Decker saddle. Make sure the panniers are both sides of the saddle are well-balanced, so that one does not significantly outweigh the other.
In addition to your panniers, you can carry equipment or provisions on the top of the pack saddle. Sleeping bags carefully rolled or placed in a pack can be fastened to the top of the saddle with rope hitching or even bungee cords. If you've got more materials than one mule can handle, arrange for an additional pack mule. These mules are trained to follow other mules or a lead horse. Leading a string of mules isn't much more work than leading one.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.