By Charlotte Zimmerman of High Uinta Pack Goats in Evanston, WY
“You can pack with goats? What a novel idea!” Those are usually the first words out of the mouth of someone who sees them on a trail for the first time.
We were avid backpackers, teaching our four children to enjoy the outdoors, when we learned that I had very bad knees. In fact, I was told that if I didn’t stop carrying anything over ten pounds immediately, I would be looking at surgery within five years. In 1993, that meant I would be lucky to be able to walk normally after surgery. I was 35.
That same fall, we learned about the possibly of goats. I don’t know what llamas cost now, but in 1994 they were around $3,000 a piece—compared to a goat at $50. We can feed fifteen goats on the same amount of food a day as one horse. We had limited funds and limited land, so goats it was.
We found that we loved goats. Just like people, they each have a very distinct personality. Unlike most pack animals, goats are more of a companion than a beast of burden. Over the years, we have had the attention hogs, the pet-me-only-once-please types, the bullies, the shy, super-alert, and totally-uncaring-what-happens type, and one zipper-opening trail mix thief.
Goats are probably the easiest to train of all pack animals. You need to hand bottle feed from birth, touching and talking to each one daily. As they are weaned, you continue the talking and touching daily for the rest of their lives. From birth to three-and-a-half, get them to walk in water, lead well (some forests require all stock to be led), to come to their names being called, and to go on long walks with you, following just like a dog without leash. If they have learned these basics, the saddle training takes all of five to twenty minutes. Allow them to smell the saddle, then put it on. Repeat with the panniers. Most goats will barely notice—in twenty years, we have had only two goats react: one danced in a circle for ten minutes, and one ran off in fear when something in the pannier rattled. He returned with it, perfectly fine, twenty minutes later. The more the goat trusts you, the less time it takes.
A goat is a small pack animal: like humans, they can only carry one-fourth to one-third of their body weight (a third when the trails are very smooth and mostly level and below 8,000 feet elevation, less on more rugged, higher elevation trails). The biggest mistake people make is overloading a goat and then wondering why it is so very slow when compared to the unencumbered person. We have sixteen packers this year and the maximum weights they can carry range from twenty-five to forty-five pounds of gear, not counting the saddle—so thirty to fifty pounds maximum, depending on the total weight of the individual goat. We allow our goats to walk unleashed and they sort themselves and us into a line, usually with one of us in the front and one in the back. With more people, it is goats and people all mixed up in order, almost always with one human leading and one human near the back. One thing about goats is that you should always hike with at least two.
Most folks use goats on a personal level, raising their own for family backpacking trips. We, as High Uinta Pack Goats, rent them to folks who don’t have the land to raise them and need the help of a pack animal but do not know anything about pack stock. Goats are that easy to work with! Goats do well on hunts, as they do not spook as easily as other livestock and, when they do spook, they tend to huddle around their trusted human protector.
Right now, because of issues with Bighorn Sheep, the BLM is trying restrict packgoat use. NAPgA, the North American Packgoat Association, is currently fighting this legally. More about this is posted on their website at www.napga.org under ISSUES. If the BLM wins with packgoats, what is next?
Twenty years has given us a lot of experience and thousands of memories. And, thanks to the goats, I have continued to “backpack” for fifteen years. I finally had both knees totally replaced in 2010, and I am still “backpacking”—all because of goats.
We will teach anyone about packing with goats free of charge. We encourage renting from us before jumping into goats to save others from the headaches we had early on. For in-depth information on training and care and for some really awesome trip pictures, visit our website at www.HighUintaPackGoats.com.