Prepared for adventure: How to choose the best saddlebags

Published on: Jan 19, 2013

 By Amy Engle

Unlike competitive equestrian sports, trail riding requires a relatively minimal investment in equine equipment. Horse, saddle, bridle, and whatever else might be required for a day out in the wilderness. That’s the good news. The bad news is that riders venturing out beyond the boundaries of the stable yard — whether for a few hours at a local state park or a week in the wilderness — need somewhere to put all those necessary items like food, water, first aid kits, hoof boots, halters and so forth. That’s where saddlebags come into play.

But as is the case with so many types of equipment, saddlebags are hardly a one-size-fits-all solution to your customers’ horse packing needs. Lynn Foster from TrailMax and Outfitter’s Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana notes that the most important thing when it comes to socking saddlebags is to know what type of trail riding your customers will be doing, and the kind of equipment they’ll need to take with them. “In the Midwest, for example, most trail riders only go out for about three or four hours,” explains Foster. “But out here in the West, people will go out for days, even weeks at a time and have to pack for all sorts of weather. So it’s important to buy for your customers and the type of riding they do.”

It’s also important to take into account your location and the type of weather your customers are likely to encounter most frequently out on the trail, as well as the styles of riding most common in your area. Is your store in a cold, wet climate or a dry hot one? If so, you may want to seek out bags that offer weatherproof fabrics and designs, or a good insulated lining for keeping water and food cool while out in the hot sun. Do you cater mostly to English, Western, or Endurance riders? Most good saddlebags are designed to fit best on a specific type of saddle, so knowing what type of riding your customers do is an important step in selecting the most appropriate style of bag.

In addition to selecting the right size and style of bags, it’s imperative to pay close attention to both the type of materials used and the quality of the construction. Regardless of whether they’re being used for an afternoon on the bridle path or a week in the Colorado backcountry, saddlebags must be able to handle heavy, awkward loads, extreme weather conditions, and a whole lot of wear and tear.

 

[SUB] Assessing Quality and Utility

No matter where or how they’re being used, saddlebags are destined to take plenty of abuse, and should be made to hold up to just about anything your customers can throw at them (or pack in them). For this reason, it’s worth taking the extra time to be sure that the products you select for your store are made to last. Here are five factors to consider when determining whether the product you’re interested in is up to the challenge of the trail:

Fit and Balance

One of the most important things to look for in a saddlebag is how it fits both the horse and the saddle. Bags that hang too low, stick too far out off the horse’s sides, or fail to balance out properly (regardless of packing) will allow the weight of the load to rest uncomfortably on the horse or interfere with his natural movement. “Make sure that the distance between two saddlebags isn’t too long so they won’t hit the horse in the flanks when he moves,” says Foster. Also, check to see that the bags are not just square boxes held together with straps. Look for curves that fit the contours of the saddle and the horse.

 Security

While there’s no reason to worry about keeping saddlebag contents under lock and key, it is imperative that anything put in a saddlebag can be easily and snugly secured to the saddle. Flopping and shifting bags are not only irritating to both horse and rider, they can actually become a legitimate danger in the wake of an unscheduled dismount, or a sudden acceleration. Foster recommends checking to see that there are several points of attachment so the bags won’t move, shift or flap when the horse travels at speed. In addition to selecting products that can be easily and steadfastly secured to the saddle, pay attention to the construction of the attachment points — look for reinforced stitching, double-grommets, and other signs that the product has been made to last. Finally, look for bags with external compression straps that can be tightened to help keep the load from flopping around or used to attach extra supplies.

 Access

 There’s nothing worse than finding the perfect saddlebag for carrying that bottle of water or digital camera, only to discover that it’s impossible to access your gear while in the saddle. So when selecting saddlebags for any application be sure to consider how easy the saddlebag is to get on the saddle, get off the saddle, and how easily it can be accessed while in the saddle or on the ground.

 Also, don’t forget to pay attention to that all-important access factor: the zipper. Look for quality zippers and buckles that won’t fail when they get a little dirty or a little cold, and pay attention to details like pull-tabs or lanyards that will help make access easy even when wearing gloves.

Durability

Make sure the saddlebags you select are made of rough, tough, long-lasting materials, and then consider the tradeoffs in terms of weight and weatherproofing. Traditional leather saddlebags will last forever, but they’re not exactly lightweight. On the other hand, styles made from lightweight materials may not hold up under heavy loads or in extreme conditions. The best bags will strike a balance between weight and durability, so keep an eye out for products made from high-denier nylon and other rugged materials, and quality construction that includes reinforcement at seams and other stress points. “Look for saddlebags made of coated nylon or polyester fabrics,” says Foster. “The coating adds both durability and water resistance. Also, good zippers are a must.”

Weather Resistance

While casual, fair-weather riders won’t necessarily want to pay extra for waterproof saddlebags, serious packers, hunters and trail riders who have to contend with nasty weather conditions will be grateful for packing options that will help them keep their gear safe and dry, no matter the weather. Many manufacturers offer water-repellant coatings and little design features — including insulated liners — that help keep the elements at bay. Insulation can also offer a secondary benefit in that it can help provide padding for fragile objects like cameras or other electronics.

Finally, bear in mind that for some riders the look of the saddlebag may be just as important as the quality of its construction or the features it offers. There are plenty of traditionalists out there that would not be caught dead with anything other than a classic leather set of saddlebags. On the other hand, many manufacturers are now offering quality, functional bags in a wide array of bright colors and, yes, even animal prints. It’s all a matter of taste. Thankfully, as long as you take a little time to insure that the products will stand the test of time on the trail, the rest can be left up to your customers.

Resources

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of saddlebag manufactures, here a few companies that have a long history of producing innovative, quality bags that might be just the right fit for your store and your customers.

Barefoot / An Action Rider Tack Company
255 E Barnett Rd, Suite 104
Medford, Oregon 97501
Phone: (877) 865-2467
www.barefootsaddlesusa.com

 Cashel Company
3500 W US HWY 377
Granbury, TX 76048
Phone: (800) 333-2202
www.cashelcompany.com

EasyCare Inc. / Stowaway Packs
2300 E. Vistoso Commerce Loop Rd. 
Tucson, AZ 85755
Phone: (800) 447-8836
www.easycareinc.com

Gunderson Sunrise Products
1439 Westside Highway
Dayton, Idaho 83232 
Phone: (208) 747-3260 
www.gundersonsunriseproducts.com

Lami-Cell (Partrade)
3801 Commerce Drive
Kinston, NC 28504
Phone: (800) 223-2102 
www.partrade.net

Snug Pax Horse Design & Mfg. 
10594 Leslye Lane
Palo Cedro, California 96073
Phone: (530) 549-4740
www.snugpax.com

Tough-1 (JT International)
12607 Southeastern Ave.
Indianapolis, IN 46259 USA
Phone: (317) 862-6842
http://jtidist.com

TrailMax / Outfitter’s Supply
7373 US Highway 2E
Columbia Falls, MT 59912
Phone: (888)467-2256
www.outfitterssupply.com

Weaver Leather
7540 CR 201
PO Box 68
Mt. Hope, Ohio 44660
Phone: (800) 932-8371
www.weaverleather.com