Having grown up in the canyons of Southern California, Gillian Larson developed a passion for exploring the outdoors from the back of a horse. Over the years, she has pursued this passion with relentless vigor and built up her stamina to ride over 10,000 miles in the backcountry on her own with just her horses.
This passion and dedication to getting out and creating a life that was uniquely Gillian drew us to her. Watch here as she takes us out into the backcountry with her and her team of four-legged friends.
— Gillian Larson
I knew horse packing existed, but it always looked like so much. It was just overwhelming to think of how do I get from “I don’t even own a saddle” to leading a five-horse train and they are all decked out.
Given her experience we asked Gillian if she had any advice for thru riding and hiking newbies; here are her top tips and favorite trails.
Research: Spend time gathering information about the location you plan to visit. Where will you be able to camp with access to water? Are there grazing restrictions? What is the terrain like—steep, rocky, forested, high elevation? What is the best time of year to ride in this location? Be sure you have all the information you need to plan your trip appropriately.
Navigation: Map out your proposed route in advance using a variety of sources. Topographical charts can help you locate potential campsites, GPS apps are great for staying on course, and a back-up paper map is always smart in case your device fails.
Communication: Share your plans so someone knows where you will be. Many locations require permits that ask you to specify your entry and exit points, days on the trail, and campsites in advance. Consider bringing a device such as a satellite communicator or SPOT so you can make contact in case of an emergency for you or your horse.
Feed: Know what your horse is going to eat. If you’re only going for a day or two or for short distances, you can get by with less, but for more rigorous journeys your horse needs proper nutrition in order to perform well and remain healthy.
Containment: Some areas have restrictions on where and how you can keep stock overnight, so be sure you researched this in the planning process. Practice highlining or hobbling or setting up your portable electric fence so you are confident about being able to secure your horse or mule.
Gear: Bring the right equipment for your trip. Think about the clothing, tent, sleeping bag and pad, food preparation, and other things you will need. Consider investing in lightweight backpacking gear, especially if you are single horse packing. Make sure everything will fit comfortably on your horse when you are fully loaded and ready to start your ride.
Tack: Make sure your tack fits well and is clean and in good repair, so you won’t cause rubs or sores during long days in the saddle. Avoid using brand-new purchases that you haven’t had a chance to trail-test in advance.
First Aid: Assemble a basic first aid kit with some necessary supplies. Good things to include are antibiotic ointment, some bandages or wraps, tweezers if riding in cactus country, some doses of bute and Banamine. You can expand your kit if you will be traveling for more than a couple of days or if you have a pack animal to help carry more supplies.
Bear Aware: Prepare to protect your food supplies—human and equine—from bears. If you are planning to camp overnight in bear country, you will need a bear canister or bear-resistant panniers for a pack animal. It’s always best to store food outside your campsite, hung well out of reach in a tree, and of course, never cook or eat in your tent.
Leave No Trace: Practice responsible wilderness stewardship. Camp in established sites and highline horses on stable ground, always an appropriate distance from water sources. Use certified weed-free feed to avoid introducing non-native species. And of course, leave your campsite clean—bury human waste, disperse manure, and pack out what you pack in.
— Gillian Larson
I love the scenic vistas that you only really experience by getting into the backcountry, and California has some of the most stunning natural wilderness areas anywhere in the world.
Whether you’re hiking or horseback riding, here are a few places that can serve as a starting point for your own trail adventures.
Horseshoe Meadows: Located off Hwy 395 south of Lone Pine, this is a great way to access the Golden Trout Wilderness. The road takes you to the campground situated at 10,000 feet, where there is a separate, exceptionally large area devoted to equine camping. It tends to be less crowded than many other Sierra trailheads and thus easier to get a backcountry permit for overnight travel than from some of the more popular places. There are a variety of destinations to head to, including easy access to the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’re up for a real adventure you can choose one of the multiple ways to the Kern River, where the High Sierra Trail follows the water, and even spend some time soaking in a natural hot springs pool there.
Edison Lake: Deep in the Sierra east of Fresno is a beautiful jewel that offers a unique backcountry experience, joining remote scenery with some of the conveniences of civilization, for those who aren’t entirely sure they want to “rough it.” You can camp at Vermillion campground, or stay in motel or tent cabin accommodations at Vermilion Valley Resort, and there are horse corrals and dispersed camping options at the trailhead area, as well as the High Sierra Pack Station, which provides guided rides and pack trips. There are endless miles of trails for day trips or longer journeys, including access to the John Muir Trail by ferry across the lake or via a six-mile lakeside path.
Agnew Meadow: In the mountains above Mammoth Lakes, Agnew Meadow features trailhead access and an equestrian campground. Take the PCT northbound out of Agnew to Thousand Island Lake, for an overnight trip, or choose among multiple access trails out of Agnew that go to the John Muir Trail and Devil’s Postpile national monument, among other locations.
Little Laiser Meadow: An hour northwest of Truckee off Hwy 89, Little Laiser Meadow can be found near Jackson Meadow reservoir. There is a horse campground and easy access to the PCT and other trails within the Tahoe National Forest, making it good for day trips or longer explorations.
Hidden Horse Campground: Situated in the Klamath National Forest, Hidden Horse lies about 90 minutes from Mt. Shasta off of Hwy 3. From here you can access the Russian Wilderness and Trinity Alps Wilderness, and the equestrian campground is one of Gillian’s top choices, as it is one of the least occupied in her experience. Plus there are several charming small towns in close proximity, including her personal favorite, Etna.