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Which Panniers Should I Use on My Pack Saddle?
So you are ready to start packing. You have your pack horse or your pack mule. You have chosen a Decker Pack saddle or a Sawbuck Pack saddle. You have chosen your pad pack. Now it’s time to choose the saddlebags. But which ones? Below I’ve outlined a few options and also let you know what I like to use when I go on a horseback trip.
Types of pack bags
There are several styles of pack saddle bags (or saddle bags, as I’ve sometimes heard them called) that can be quickly grouped into hard saddlebags or soft saddlebags. Hard saddlebags, as the name suggests, are box-like carriers made from a strong material like wood, aluminum, or molded plastic. Soft panniers are more like bags made from materials such as canvas, leather, vinyl, etc.
Each material used in hard saddlebags has its pros and cons.
- The wood is strong and solid, but heavy. Wooden crates are usually coated. Additionally, the wood is porous and can take on water and can break more easily in a wreck than other types of hard saddlebags.
- Aluminum panniers are lighter, but they are also noisy and easily dent when hit against trees and rocks. Once dented, it can be difficult to get them back to their original shape, which can prevent your cover from fitting properly again.
- Molded plastics are lightweight, yet strong and can be shaped to fit the animal’s body. They seem to survive shipwrecks as well, if not better, than other types of materials. These panniers are sturdy enough to use as a step stool or seat in camp and some models are designed to convert to a table or flat work surface. Personally, I prefer rigid molded plastic saddlebags.
Rigid molded plastic saddlebags
There are three types of molded plastic hard saddlebags: horse-shaped, box-shaped, and bear-resistant.
- Horse shaped transport boxes, like the Ralide-West HorsePacs, are curved in the back to follow the shape of your pack animal’s ribs. These saddlebags hang straighter on the animal and as a result give you a slightly narrower load and a flatter shelf for your top bag. However, the curved shape of these boxes affects the amount and shape of storage space available inside the pannier. You have to work around the curve and large square items may not fit as well in these packing boxes.
- Box shaped saddlebags, on the other hand, like the Ralide-West ProPacs, are rectangular in shape, which can simplify packing your gear on a riding trip. These panniers are big enough for a small wall mounted tent stove like the Riley Side Kick. However, the rectangular shape does not lie flat against the animal, so your bag load is a bit wider going down the trail and the bag boxes roll at a steeper angle. This means the tops of the boxes won’t be as flat, but your top pack will still roll just fine.
- Bear Resistant Saddlebags (sometimes known as Bear “Proof” saddlebags, although this is misleading) are designed with lids that are inserted and screwed down to prevent Bears from being able to lift the lid. 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 being a nuisance or danger to humans. If you are traveling or camping in these areas without bear resistant panniers, you will need to hang your food to keep bears out (100 feet from the tent, about 15 high between two trees). These panniers are often shaped like a horse and therefore roll well.
Soft saddlebags are lighter and more flexible so can be useful for odd shaped loads you might have on your riding trip. To protect fragile items from impact, you can add a saddlebag insert, such as the PolyPac Ralide-West insert, to many types of soft saddlebags. Saddlebag inserts also provide a stable platform for using a top bag.
Soft saddlebags are available in several styles and materials:
- The most classic soft bag is probably the one made from canvas and leather. These panniers look great on the trail, but the leather inside them requires more maintenance and makes them not machine washable. If the bag has leather ends it may have more stability and provide more protection than a bag without, but again a saddlebag insert is the best way to get structure and protection for your contents .
- Canvas saddlebags also offer you a traditional look for an economical price. They also have the added benefit of being machine washable. These soft saddle bags are also typically sized for use with PolyPro saddlebag inserts to give them stability and protect your contents.
- Oversized saddlebags. We had many requests for a pannier that could carry a large cooler, so we designed the TrailMax oversized canvas and vinyl panniers. These soft saddlebags are canvas on the outside and vinyl on the inside. These panniers are perfect for coolers up to around 70 liters or your large bag loads like camping furniture, tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Due to the vinyl lining and soft shape, they also make excellent meat bags and are fully machine washable. These panniers offer plenty of space, so be careful not to overload them. And realize you will be wider than normal going down the trail.
- Soft saddlebags may also be available in Cordura-like nylon, like in our Pack-A-Saddle saddlebags. Cordura is lightweight, durable, economical and easy to maintain. The Pack-A-Saddle is a complete pack system that includes saddlebags, saddlebag inserts and a top pack. It is also convertible so you can use it on your pack saddle or convert it to use on your riding saddle. When used on your riding saddle, like all saddle bags, you can also roll them up and tie them behind your saddle so you can get a load in and out.
- Iron Cloth Bags, or Utah-Style Pack Bags as they are sometimes called, are great for packing meat. They are made from ballistic material, a type of hardwearing woven fabric that is breathable and washable. Their unique shape (tall and wide, but not very deep) and design (no lid) make them well suited for this type of load, but not many other pack loads.
What bags should I use?
When I go on a pack trip, I usually take 2-3 mules. I will pack 1-2 mules with HorsePac panniers or ProPac panniers with my cooking gear and food. I then use higher packs for my duffel type gear. The other pack mule comes packed with a mantie load as manties are flexible for large odd shaped objects and are very handy to have around camp. When I hunt I use a set of oversized canvas and vinyl saddlebags. They are perfect for packing elk quarters.
So when choosing panniers, I suggest you evaluate the gear you want to pack in, your animals, the terrain you’ll be packing on and through, etc. Then, based on the pros and cons above, choose the most suitable panniers. will adapt to your needs and make your next pack trip the most enjoyable.
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