So, you’ve decided to go to a dude ranch. Especially if you aren’t from the western half of the United States, you might have absolutely no clue what to pack.
Some ranches and outfitters provide a packing checklist, which can be really helpful. Occasionally, though, they can be kind of out of date (camera film?). Some don’t. So, here are the most important things you should take with you:
Yes, yes, helmets are dorky. Know what’s even dorkier? A coma. Some dude ranches do provide helmets, some require them (possibly only for minors), and some, unfortunately, discourage them.
Wear a helmet. Trust the person who has been kicked in the head by a horse. As you can see, I’m still here. Without the helmet I wouldn’t be.
You must wear a helmet designed for horseback riding. Do not wear a bike helmet. Bike helmets are designed to protect you from a completely different impact profile. They’re almost worse than nothing.
Unless you plan on borrowing a helmet at the ranch, buy a new helmet. Never buy a used helmet. Any helmet that is involved in a fall directly should be immediately replaced. With a used helmet, you may have no way of knowing whether it was compromised. Sometimes damage is obvious, sometimes it isn’t.
The cheapest option in the United States is the Troxell Sport or Troxell Spirit. I recommend going to a tack store and trying them on, as the two models fit slightly differently. I find the Sport much more comfortable than the Spirit, but your mileage might vary. There’s no need to buy an expensive helmet. All American helmets are made to the same standard and the Troxell “schooling” helmets do better on tests than some more expensive ones. If you aren’t in the U.S., I can’t really help you directly…I suggest talking to a tack store.
Some dude ranches specifically require cowboy boots. If you happen to have English riding boots they will probably be okay, but I would check first. I’ve so far used my English boots every time, but somebody might be a stickler.
The bare minimum is that you need a boot or a closed-toed shoe with a one inch heel. You should not ride in sneakers and you should not be around horses in sandals, crocs, flip flops, etc, unless it’s a beach ride and you plan on swimming. Then be very careful. Everyone who rides has had a horse step on their foot at some point. Sometimes they aim.
But if you’re spending two to three thousand dollars on your vacation you can probably afford to spend another hundred or so on proper riding boots. Boots support your ankle and make riding more comfortable and protect your feet from, again, those hooves. The heel prevents your foot from slipping through the stirrup and getting stuck if you have a fall, which can result in serious injury.
Some ranches do provide a selection of boots, but you probably don’t want to trust that they have something to fit. For your kids, it’s worth checking local lesson barns. Somebody may be selling outgrown boots at a lower price.
Unless it’s bareback, always ride in long pants. Trust me. Ride in long pants. (Some Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women with modesty concerns will wear a skirt over their pants).
Appropriate clothing for riding is, thus, comfortable long pants — I suggest an older pair of jeans — a comfortable shirt appropriate to the temperature. Wear socks that wick well if you’re going to be riding all day. Long sleeves are better, even if you are in a hot area. SPF clothing is great for the desert. The best source of something suitable is a sports store.
Ladies, consider a sports bra. Horseback riding is bouncy, especially if you aren’t that used to it. Definitely avoid lacy or skimpy bras. You want your girls well supported. Gentlemen, if you haven’t ridden much, then consider wearing a cup…
Don’t take clothing to ride in that you particularly care about. It will get dusty and dirty and may get torn. Research the climate before you go so you know how many layers of what type to take. It’s a good idea to ask the ranch for advice about this. They often have something posted on their website.
I’m that person. I ride without gloves all the time.
Don’t be that person. Not unless you too want to be able to see where the reins fall when you look at your hands. Why yes, those are permanent calluses.
Riding gloves cost no more than $10 from a tack store. If you happen to have cycling gloves those work just as well.
Do not wear plain wool gloves to ride in. Ever. You will sweat, the horse will sweat, and the reins will slide right through your hand. Your horse will then be snacking on whatever’s on the side of the trail.
You might want to rely on your phone camera, but you may want to take a proper camera as well. Make sure you have enough memory cards and batteries. If you’re on a moving trip you will not be able to charge your phone or camera — if relying on your phone for pictures, I suggest a solar or hand crank phone charger.
Keep your camera properly secured while riding — please, please keep the neck strap around your neck. If you drop your camera from on top of a horse it’s probably going to break. If using your phone, get a phone lasso, phone lanyard, whatever. Some way to secure your phone to your person.
An optional extra is a Go Pro or other “action” camera. Some people have come back with amazing videos. The chest harness is generally better for riding than the helmet attachment, but you can use either. Get a camera with image stabilization.
Those are the three most important things. Here are some more things you should pack:
Other Things to Pack
Here’s a checklist of other things you might want to pack, depending on the circumstances:
- Rain gear including rain pants. Rain pants are better for riding than a long slicker, which might not cover everything. If it doesn’t rain, your rain gear can be tied to your saddle. (Pro tip: Don’t try to put on or take off a jacket while sitting on a horse unless somebody is holding it and the wranglers have said it’s okay with that particular horse. If in doubt, dismount. Horses have been known to head for the hills).
- Insect repellent. The ranch will know what pests you need to worry about. Take good quality DEET-based repellent if you are going anywhere there might be ticks. Which is pretty much anywhere.
- Sunscreen. Especially if you’re going to the desert or will be at altitude. SPF 50 Sport style sunscreen is the best. You’ll want to put it in your saddle bags so you can reapply at lunch if you’re going to be riding all day.
- A small first aid kit containing band aids, mild painkillers, blister protection (yes, people have gotten blisters from riding boots when not used to wearing them), insect bite cream.
- Your prescription medication. I’m just going to toss it in there. Don’t be that person.
- A nice set of clothes to wear at the ranch in the evening.
- A trash bag. What? The trash bag is to put your nice set of clothes in so they don’t get horse and human sweat all over them from contact with your riding clothes. Trust me. It really helps.
- A vest with pockets. I have one of those travel vests that’s actually to save time for going through airport security. It also works very well for riding…I can carry my phone (I use a camera for photos), tissues, painkillers… Because it’s a vest I don’t overheat as readily.
- A couple of your favorite reads in case you don’t want to socialize in the evenings. If you’re at a ranch with power, an ereader is great.
- Bandanas. This is an optional extra, but if you’re riding in the desert or other dusty areas you will want them. They generally come in packs, just take all of them.
- Tennis shoes or other similarly comfortable shoes to wear in the evenings and around camp. You do not want to walk any distance in riding boots, they aren’t made for it.
- A western hat. I still recommend riding in a helmet, but it’s cool to have a proper hat for photo ops. If you do ride in a western hat, make sure it has a stampede string to keep it from flying off your head, hitting the face of the horse behind, spooking that horse and causing a wreck. This has happened.
- A flashlight. With extra batteries. Don’t rely on your phone’s flashlight function, as that will just drain your phone quickly.
- Hand lotion. Especially if you aren’t used to riding.
- Long johns. If you’re going somewhere cold or will be at altitude, take long johns. They don’t take up much space and you may be glad of them when you’re sleeping in a tent.
- A swimsuit if the ranch has a pool or if you’re going to be camping by a lake — sometimes there are swimming hole options.
- Fishing gear. Fishing is a very common secondary activity at ranches and sometimes on moving trips too. If you fish, take your gear, you’ll probably get lucky and might even be able to supplement lunch.
- Alcohol. Some ranches provide all the alcohol you could want. Some charge extra for it. Some only provide beer. Some only provide wine. Some provide none. Find out. If you want something they don’t provide, you will have to bring it yourself. (Pro tip: Do not drink and ride. If you are going to be above 9,000 feet leave the beer at home. Do not drink at altitude. Please do not drink at altitude).
So, there you have it. My tips, from personal experience, for what you should take on your dude ranch vacation. Again, the best source of advice on what to pack is the ranch or outfitter you’re going with, but some are better at this than others.