So you are ready to start packing. You’ve got your pack horse or pack mule. You have chosen a Decker Pack Saddle or a Sawbuck Pack Saddle. You have chosen your pack pad. Now it is time to choose the panniers. But which ones? Below I have outlined some options and have also let you know what I like to use when I go on a horse pack trip.
Types of Pack Panniers
There are several styles of pack saddle panniers (or saddle packs, as I have sometimes heard them called) which can be quickly grouped as either hard panniers or soft panniers. Hard panniers, as the name suggested, are a box type carrier made from a solid material like wood, aluminum or molded plastic. Soft panniers are more of a bag style made from materials such as canvas, leather, vinyl, etc.
Each material used in hard panniers has its pros and cons.
- Wood is solid and strong, but heavy. Wooden pack boxes are usually mantied. Also wood is porous and can take on water and may shatter more easily in a wreck than other types of hard panniers.
- Aluminum panniers are lighter weight, but are also noisy and dent easily when banged against trees and rocks. Once dented, it can be difficult to reshape them back to their original form, which can prohibit your lid from fitting correctly again.
- Molded plastics are lightweight, but tough and can be shaped to fit the animal’s body. They seem to survive wrecks as well, if not better, than the other types of materials. These panniers are strong enough to be used as a step stool or seat in camp and some models are designed to convert to a table or flat work surface. I personally prefer hard panniers made from molded plastic.
Molded plastic hard panniers
There are three types of molded plastic hard panniers: horse shaped, box shaped and bear resistant.
- Horse-shaped pack boxes, like Ralide-West HorsePacs, are curved in the back to follow the shape of your pack animal’s ribs. These panniers hang straighter on the animal and, therefore, provide you with a slightly narrower load and a flatter shelf for your top pack. However, the curved shape of these boxes affects the amount and shape of the packing space available inside the pannier. You have to work around the curve and large, square items may not fit as well in these pack boxes.
- Box-shaped panniers, on the other hand, like Ralide-West ProPacs, are rectangular in shape, which can simplify packing your gear on a horse pack trip. These panniers are large enough for a smaller wall tent stove like the Riley Side Kick. However, the rectangular shape does not lay flat against the animal, so your pack load is a little wider going down the trail and the pack boxes ride at more of an angle. This means the tops of the boxes will not be as flat, but your top pack will still ride just fine.
- Bear Resistant Panniers (sometimes known as Bear “Proof” Panniers, although this is misleading) are designed with lids that are inset and screwed down to keep bears from being able to pry the lid off. These panniers are often required by the Forest Service in areas with high bear populations to prevent bears from getting into human food and becoming habituated and a nuisance or danger to humans. If you travel through or camp in these areas without bear resistant panniers, you will need to hang your food to prevent bears from getting into it (100 feet from the tent, about 15 high between two trees). These panniers are often horse-shaped and, therefore, ride well.
Soft panniers are lighter weight and flexible and can, therefore, be useful for the odd shaped loads you might have on your horse pack trip. To protect fragile items from bumps, you can add a pannier insert, like the Ralide-West PolyPac Insert, to many types of soft panniers. Pannier inserts also provide a stable platform for using a top pack.
Soft panniers are available in several styles and materials:
- Probably the most classic soft pannier is one made from canvas and leather. These panniers look great going down the trail, but the leather on them requires more care and makes them non-machine washable. If the pack bag has leather ends, it may have more stability and offer more protection than one without, but once again, a pannier insert is the best way to get structure and protection for your contents.
- Canvas Panniers also offer you a traditional look for an economical price. They also have the added benefit of being machine washable. These soft saddle packs are also generally sized for use with the PolyPro Pannier Inserts to give them stability and protect your contents.
- Oversized panniers. We had many requests for a pannier that could carry a big cooler, so we designed the TrailMax Oversized Canvas and Vinyl Panniers. These soft pack panniers are canvas on the outside and vinyl on the inside. These panniers are perfect for coolers up to about 70-quarts or your large duffel loads like camp furniture, tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Because of the vinyl lining and soft shape, they also make terrific meat bags and are completely machine washable. These panniers offer a lot of room, so be careful not to overload them. And realize that you will be wider than normal going down the trail.
- Soft panniers may also be available in Cordura-type nylon, like in our Pack-A-Saddle Saddle Panniers. Cordura is lightweight, durable, economical and easy to care for. The Pack-A-Saddle is a complete pack system that includes panniers, pannier inserts and top pack. It is also convertible so that you can use it on your pack saddle or convert it to use on your riding saddle. When using it on your riding saddle, like all saddle panniers, you can also roll them up and tie them on behind your saddle so you can ride in and walk a load out.
- Iron Cloth Pack Bags, or Utah-Style Pack Bags as they are sometimes called, are great for packing meat out. They are made from ballistic material, a type of heavy-duty woven fabric that is breathable and washable. Their unique shape (tall and wide, but not very deep) and design (no lid) makes them well suited for this type of load but not many other pack loads.
Which panniers do I use?
When I go on a pack trip, I typically pack 2-3 mules. I will pack 1-2 mules with HorsePac panniers or ProPac panniers with my kitchen gear and food. I then use top packs for my duffel type gear. The other pack mule is packed with a mantied load because manties are flexible for large, odd-shaped items and are very handy to have around camp. When I hunt, I use a set of the Oversized Canvas and Vinyl panniers. They are perfect for packing out elk quarters.
So to choose pack panniers, I suggest that you assess the gear you want to pack in, your animals, the terrain you will be packing in and through, etc. Then, based on the pros and cons from above, choose the panniers that best fit your needs and will make your next horse pack trip the most enjoyable.