If you think the West was won on the backs of horses, you’re half right. Mules—the offspring of a jack and mare, and known for their sturdiness and endurance—were a favorite of the scouts, pioneers, and soldiers who settled the frontier. Nowadays, they’re still your best bet for getting into uncharted territory.
“Mule packing lets people get into the wilderness and backcountry, where they wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” says professional mule packer and trail guide Jim Mater. “With pack animals bringing in food and camp gear, hunters and campers can get deep into wild country and sustain themselves there, pretty comfortably too.”
It’s the burro blood that makes mules an ideal pack animal. Unlike horses, burros are fight, not flight, animals. They have small, strong hooves that make them surefooted on the trail, and thick hides that resist saddle sore and wither problems.
“I figure when I’m looking at a mule, I’m pretty much looking at a big burro,” says Mater.
Mater grew up on a dairy operation in California where he learned how to work around large animals—wrangling, roping, and doctoring. He got into mule packing for the same reason he moved to New Mexico in 1984—to explore remote wildernesses.
“I started out on foot, but you can’t really do much if you want to cover country,” he explains. “So I ended up buying three mules and it just grew from there.”
A mule packer’s day starts early. First, the animals have to be fed and cared for, and then the technical work begins.
“All the gear for the packs gets laid out and sorted out by weight,” says Mater. “Then, we put it on the mules that can handle the various weights we assign. Most importantly, we make sure it’s balanced and tie appropriate hitches, depending upon the load we’ve got. Then we tie them together in a string and lead them up into the wilderness to make camp.”
A loose tie or unbalanced load can endanger the whole line, so attention to detail is key. Mater recommends that before you set out on your own, you learn the basics from a qualified instructor.
“The best way to get started is to get some hands-on instruction,” says Mater, who teaches mule packing and horsemanship to hunters, campers, and Army Special Forces. “If you have a good gut feel for large animals, you’re not afraid, and you’re ready for an adventure, anyone can pick this up.”
For Mater, it’s sharing the joys of the wild country with others that makes his due diligence worthwhile.
“The best part of the job is having people appreciate the backcountry. It’s kind of a dying art,” he admits, “but it’s the safest way to get into backcountry.
“And there’s a lot of backcountry in America still.”
>> Sized to fit in a saddle bag, The Packer’s Field Manual (Stoneydale Press Publishing Company, 2005) is the perfect technical reference book to keep on hand on the trail.
>> Visit Outfitters Supply (outfitterssupply.com) for gear, tack, and trail tips to get you safely into the backcountry.
>> Written in a down-home style, The Mule Companion, 4th Edition (CCB Publishing, 2009) is a tell-all handbook on how to breed, train, and troubleshoot longears.
Jim Mater is the owner/operator of U-Trail. A National Geographic guide trained by the U.S. Forest Service Outfitting/Guide School, he’s been conducting pack trips into the Gila Wilderness for more than 25 years.