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Pack Goats

Backpacking with Pack Goats

Horses, llamas and goats, oh my! Thought to only be used in the backcountry by commercial caravans, pack animals for families is a growing trend.  Excited about our expanding family, there were questions looming about how adventures after baby would be different or even possible. 

Pack goats were the solution for our family. Our herd has opened up hundreds of miles and millions of memories for us.  Backpacking has remained a central part of our lives and we’ve continued to add another human and many goats to the mix.

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Why Pack Animals?

Sunset at camp with pack goats

Backpacking with Kids

Backpacking with kids is not impossible. I found it physically demanding and was somewhat crushed but my heavy pack. To be clear we didn’t have ultralight gear and that makes a difference.

The why?

Being out days on end far back in the wilderness is what fuels my love for summer time. I was not willing to give that up and I wanted to share that love of the mountains with my children. My husband felt the same, we were determined to find a solution.

Working out the Weight

Kid 1, 36 pounds, Kid 2, 24 pounds. Strictly human weight needing to be carried was 60 pounds. There were other options besides pack animals. Lower mileage days on easy trail so kid 1 could hike and not be carried, invest in ultralight gear or car camping. All of which are good options, but for us, pack goats.

Horses, Llamas or Goats for Packing

Pack Horses

Horses can travel far and fast. There is a reason why they are the most common pack animal, from cast iron pans, coolers and even humans they can haul about everything. The weight to load ratio is the lowest of the three animals at 20%, but as the largest of the three animals their load is still colossal compared to the other two. Down sides to the horse is all of the expense with a larger animal, food, land, and the cost of the vehicle and trailer used for transport.

Pack Llamas

Llamas are similar to goats in several regards but can be double the weight of a goat, allowing their load to be much heavier. Being much smaller than a horse they eat significantly less and do not require supplemental food. Their mileage per day is less than a horse and similar to a pack goat. They are said to startle less than the other two animals. Plus sides to llamas, being a less expensive animal to transport and the overall cost of living expenses is lower.

Pack Goats

Pack goats are said to have the highest weight to load ratio, although the smallest of the pack animal community. Goats can graze at camp, where permitted, meaning you don’t need to pack in extra food. As herd animals they naturally stay and work well together. The mileage they cover is much less than a horse but diverse terrain is no problem. Goats require the least amount of food and acreage at home and they hop in the back of the truck to head out on a backpacking trip.

Frequently Asked Questions on the Trail

Barnhill family posing for a photo while backpacking with goats

How much weight is the Pack Goat carrying?

Anywhere from 40-50 pounds. Most sources say 25-30% of their body weight is how heavy you can load a pack goat. Health and how in shape the goat is also make a difference in load capabilities. A goat’s ability to pack well depends heavily on the owner and the time and energy they spend with the goats.

What do they eat?

We backpack where the pack goats are able to graze along the trail and at camp. That’s right, we don’t pack food for them! Fun fact, goats can go days without water. A myth bust, goats are picky eaters.

Do they follow us?

Heading down the the trail the goats follow in the single file line sandwiched between my husband and the kids. We have leads accessible at all times for the goats but rarely need to use them. There is training that goes into good trail behavior.

How do we get Pack Goats to the Trail Head?

As stated before, they hop in the back of the truck, which is covered with a shell so no one is jumping out. There are tethers in the truck bed to minimize the odds of fighting while driving.

Pack Goat Know How

Packing the Pack Goat

Each goat wears two packs called panniers. Panniers are weighed each time the goats are loaded to ensure balance. The set has to be equal to allow the goat to carry a stable load, instead of 10 pounds on the left and 30 on the right. A lopsided goat ins’t a happy goat. At the trail head the pack goats are saddled and the panniers are then looped over a cross buck saddle.

Goat Packing Safety

Backpacking with pack goats we still carry bear spray and have bells on all our goats. Although we are a loud smelly group a bear could see a packgoat as an easy meal. Practicing proper bear/wildlife safety rules most definitely still apply with pack animals.  At night we stake out the goats, a highline is also commonly used, if they get spooked there is no running away and their bells alert us to anything coming into camp.

Horns VS No Horns

We have chosen to leave our goats horned.  Horns act as part of a goat’s cooling system and can also be used as a defense against a predator. There is the thought that horns can look intimidating, which can be helpful since dogs are our most common threat to goats on the trail. 

Pack goats on the ridge trail

Trail Etiquette for the Packers and Hikers

A Herd on the Trail

Between the kids and goats there can be circus behavior on the trail. We carry Rockie Talkies with us to be able to communicate if there is a dog or a party that needs to pass us along the way. When needed we go as far off the trail to give a comfortable distance for both parties. Pack stock does have the right of way and it is appreciated and helpful when that etiquette is followed.

Dogs and Pack Goats

Not to ruffle any fur but our scariest experiences on the trail have involved dogs. Dogs should have a leash close at hand and be able to be obey their owner to be out on the trails. When we see a dog on the trail it can be minutes before we see it’s human. If hiking with a dog and pack stock are headed your way please give the stock plenty of room when passing or being passed.

Please don’t touch the Horns

There seems to be an irresistible desire to touch the goats horns. Pack goats horns are used to show dominance, hence they are not fans of this and will challenge you. Take all the pictures and give the goats a nice scratch behind the saddle. If a hip belt is open and your trail mix bag is hanging out, that won’t go unnoticed.

The Challenges of Pack Goats

Restrictions with Pack Goats

As mentioned earlier there are pros and cons to each pack animal, here’s a look at the dark side. Pack goats are restricted in many areas, like national parks. If pack goats are allowed permits may be required and camping options might be limited. Even though pack goats are easily able to graze and eat, there are areas where it is required that food be packed in for them. Before a trip is planned these items must be checked first.

A girl and her pack goat

Goat Packing with Kids

Backpacking is our favorite summer activity to do as a family, but it is work. On a trip there are two kids and 4-6 goats who all need attention of some kind. There is a lot of dividing and conquering that happens between cooking food, grazing the goats, setting up and taking down camp and all the loading and unloading of the pack goats.

Safety between Kids and Goats

Goats can feel very irritated with heat and bugs, it is good to be aware that when they shake their heads, horns are attached. Kids should be made aware to give them space and be mindful of the horns. Temperament matters, we have a grumpy goat, a gentle goat and one that doesn’t care about anything. Getting to know your pack goats will give you idea of the kid friendly ones.

In Sickness and in Health

These pack animals work really hard for you and in turn, you love them. Sickness and injuries happen and can be extremely difficult for many reasons. When you’re not backpacking they still need a place to live and food to eat. Like humans, pack goats need to exercise to have a good backpacking season, living in an area where you can take your herd on walks is a game changer.

Girl leading the goat packing train

Our Herd of Pack Goats

Our Breeds of Goats

Our herd is currently made up of 4 different breeds and 6 goats. Zelph, is an Alpine and our alpha of the pack but spooks the easiest. Kishwor, is an Oberhasli and true to his breed the first goat to cross the stream. Gokyo, is a mix between Alpine, Oberhasli and a bit of Boer, he’s straggler, very interested in trail foraging.  

Pack Goats in Training

Yogesh, a Toggenburg, and Rasta, Toggenburg and Oberhasli mix, are 2 years old and have yet to pack but are in training. Baby Nims, another full Alpine, isn’t quite 1 and wants to be as big as all the others. While these goats aren’t carrying loads they are learning from being out on the trail with our big goats. Each goat brings something different to our family.

Backpacking Memories

When the goats get riled up and head butt each other it can sound thunderous in woods. Stephen, my husband, goes out of sight and they all start crying for him, it’s hard to describe, their cry is such a unique sound. Watching them climb and play is fascinating, their natural climbing abilities aren’t hindered by life in the pasture. During huckleberry season it can be a bit of a battle to get to the berries first but we all share, most of the time.

Goat Riding

Kids that are within their load limits can ride a pack goat. My kids aren’t enjoying riding goats and we having pushed it. Gokyo, our most mellow goat, gives them rides at home but the kids show not interest riding on the trails.

Losing a Herd Member

We had a shocking and unexpected loss of Rumi, Gokyo’s brother. Urinary calculi hit hard and fast over a weekend in the off season and he was gone. It was terrible and hard but gave an understanding of how deeply we love our herd. Every single memory our kids have backpacking is with our pack goats. Not only do we appreciate them but love each one for their unique personality and strengths they bring into our lives.

Pack goat peaking around the corner

Ready For A Pack Goat

Breeds and When to Buy

If this has been more than informative and goat packing sound like a possibility, these are things to consider.  Research which breed or breeds make the pack goat you want, size, temperament and work ethic are important factors. It takes 3-4 years for a baby goat to grow into a pack goat, know you can’t buy a baby this year and put a pack on them.

A Pack Goat Must Read

“The Pack Goat,” by John Myonisnki is a must read for the prospective packer. If the Pack Goat community has a icon, John is that icon. The book a quick, informative read and preps any soon to be Pack Goat parent.

North American Pack Goat Association

The North American Pack Goat Association (NAPGA) is the go to resource for all goat related information, including their yearly pack goat rendezvous. For all the questions that arise be it medical, trail or gear related NAPGA has or will find the answers.

Backpacking with Goats Resources

The Pack Goat 
North American Pack Goat Association
Mark Warnke Expert Goat Packer 

Related Articles

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Family Backpacking Gear  
Camping and Backpacking for Families 

Pack Goats

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  • Shayna Barnhill from Sugar City, ID. My two kids are home grown adventure buddies. I grew up in the same area we currently live and have found it is our paradise, we plan on being here forever. Our herd of pack goats hit the trails with us in summer and we love a winter spent on skis.