“I look over my shoulder for one last view of he gorge. Like looking
down at the bottom of the ocean. People spend their entire lives at those
lower altitudes without any awareness that this high country exists.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.
Hiking with Llamas
Llamas' intelligence, natural agility and calm disposition
make them outstanding pack animals. For over 4000 years llamas have been
used to transport goods across the rugged Andean mountains in South
America. Today they are found all across the United States and Canada,
carrying loads for North American backcountry travelers. Here llamas
serve as the pack animal of choice in situations that call for minimal
environmental impact, ease of handling. agility and surefootedness.
Former backpackers, outdoor
photographers, and public agency field crews use llamas to take the load
off their own backs. High country fishermen enjoy casting across alpine
lakes in float tubes packed in by their llamas. Hunters successfully
employ llamas to pack game out of rugged
areas that would be inaccessible to horses or mules. Families with small
children have trained their llamas to accept a lightweight rider, enabling
their youngsters to take longer backcountry journeys. Commercial llama
packers have led scores of adventurous travelers on truly unique outdoor
vacations with the support of their woolly packing companions.
llamas in good physical condition are best suited to packing. Both intact
and gelded male llamas make excellent packers. Many owners choose to have
their pack llamas gelded (neutered) unless they will be using them for
breeding. Geldings generally tend to get along better in a herd with fewer
dominance disputes. To avoid injury during normal pasture roughhousing
behavior all adult males should have their fighting teeth trimmed. As
social, herd-oriented animals, llamas prefer living with other llamas or
with other herd animals such as sheep or goats.
While some female llamas have been
trained to pack, most often their value as breeding stock keeps them off
the trail and in the pasture raising young llamas. Healthy, well-trained
female llamas may be useful as packers. Their packing duties should be
restricted during the three or four months prior to birthing and for a
similar period after.
Once a llama has learned to stand
to be caught and be easily haltered, and will follow readily on a loose
lead, he may begin pack training. During these lessons he should learn to
accept a saddle on his back and cinches around his belly before being
loaded with lightweight, bulky packs. Additional training should include
learning to walk into a trailer and allowing his feet to be picked up for
examination and trimming. Most llamas quickly learn packing tasks when
they are taught in a calm, consistent, and patient manner.
distance a pack llama can travel is affected by its condition and natural
athletic ability as well as its load and the terrain it will cover. A
seasoned pack llama that Is moderately loaded and in excellent physical
condition should be able to cover 10-15 miles on well graded trails. Steep
trails or especially heavy packs will shorten this distance. Young llamas
and those in the early stages of training will be comfortable with much
shorter distances. They will also benefit from an easy hiking pace and
regular rest stops along the way.
When they are between two and
three years old, llamas may begin carrying lightweight loads. At this
young age they are still physically maturing and should not be asked to
pack more than 40 pounds including their pack saddle. While youngsters
should be limited to lightweight loads, mature llamas three and a half
to four years old and in good physical condition may carry from one
quarter to one third of their optimum body weight. Any llama that is
overweight and out of condition will be limited in his ability to carry a
loaded pack. At times this may cause them to lie down in the trail and
pause for a brief rest. Proper conditioning is essential when owners
wish to pack their llamas with full loads and cover long distances. A
healthy, well cared for llama should be able to continue to pack for at
least ten years.
A variety of pack systems have
been developed especially for llamas. These usually consist of a saddle
and two pack bags, often called panniers. Most systems have a method of
attaching lightweight, bulky items on top. They may also feature a
breast collar and rump strap (a breeching or crupper) to fasten the load
more securely on the animal.
saddles come in two basic forms: frame pack saddles and frameless
"soft" pack saddles. Llama packers may choose from several
different types of frame packs made from lightweight aluminum,
fiberglass or wood. A frame saddle is used with a saddle blanket to
protect the llama's back. It may carry a pair of panniers or it may be
used to carry loads tied on with more traditional rope hitches. Soft. pack
saddles are usually made from leather or another stiff material, such a
cordura nylon. They usually have an internal method of padding the llama's
back along either side of its spine for the animal's comfort and
protection. These saddles are used with specially designed attaching
type of pack saddle should be checked to assure that it fits properly on
the llama's back. With any type of saddle there should be adequate spinal
clearance and care should be taken not to place heavy items directly over
the llama's spine. No part of the saddle should dig into the animal's back
or cause rubbing or soreness.
addition to the rest of their camping equipment, llama packers should take
along a swivel picket stake and 10-20 foot line for staking out their
llamas in camp, a hand scales for weighing and balancing loads, a curry
brush to remove debris before saddling, an extra halter, and a ration of
supplemental feed. In addition, it's important to take along a first aid
kit that includes medications and equipment for treating minor llama
injuries and ailments.
The amount of supplemental feed to
bring will vary depending on how much vegetation will be available during
the trip. On an average trip with good grazing opportunities supplemental
feed may be limited to a pound or two of grain or hay pellets for treat or
catch feed. On trips that include extended travel above tree line or where
edible vegetation will be limited, about one pound per llama per day of a
mixture of half corn, rolled oats, and rolled barley (COB) and half
processed hay pellets is recommended. It's best if the feed is weed free
certified in order to prevent introduction of non-native seeds into
backcountry environments, and is required by some national parks and
Llamas to the Trailhead
with stock racks, lightweight trailers and full-size vans will easily
transport one or two pack llamas and their gear to the trailhead. Larger
stock trailers may be used to transport three or more llamas.
An enclosed trailer or vehicle
will protect llamas from the elements, allowing them to ride comfortably
and safely. When hauling llamas in a covered trailer or stock rack you do
not need to tie them. If using a stock rack or trailer with no roof, it's
best to tie the llamas up on a short lead so that they will not jump out
if they become excited.
When traveling long distances with
llamas its a good idea to stop along the way, allowing them a little
exercise and a chance to relieve themselves. After a long haul, llamas
should be given an overnight rest before carrying a loaded pack up the
to successful llama packing is working with a healthy, well-conditioned
and well-trained animal. Llamas, like people, benefit greatly by being in
good shape before they're put to work carrying full loads. A pre-packing
conditioning program should include regular walks with light packs,
gradually working up to longer distances and heavier loads. Vaccinating
for tetanus and other livestock concerns, worming for internal parasites
and keeping toes properly trimmed will also help llamas maintain good
health at home and on the trail. It's a good idea to do vaccinating,
worming, and toe trimming well in advance of a pack trip to allow the
llama time for any needed recovery. Consult lLA's brochure "Llama
Medical Management" for more details on llamas' medical concerns.
Pack llamas should have experience
being saddled and carrying light loads before their first trip into the
backcountry. It's also important for them to know how to safely negotiate
a picket line and simple obstacles like streams and fallen logs.
Some types of plants, such as
those in the azalea and delphinium families, are poisonous to llamas and
other livestock. Llama packers should be aware of and able to identify the
potentially poisonous plants in the areas they visit. Their llamas should
not be picketed near or allowed to browse on these plants during the trip.
In addition, a llama first aid kit may include items that can be used to
treat illness caused by plant poisoning.
When planning a trip on public
lands, such as national parks or forests, llama packers should check with
the agency in charge of administering the area. These officials can
provide information on permits, trail conditions and any regulations that
may apply to pack stock use.
with llamas is a very special experience. Besides taking the load off your
they are unique trail companions. They often spot wildlife and other
backcountry travelers well before you do. They often give vocal comments
on trail conditions or their opinions about when it's time to take a
break. The way they negotiate obstacles with aplomb is a never ending
More than one llama may be tied
together to form a llama pack string. Llamas follow one another quite
naturally, and quickly learn to "line out" as they proceed up
the trail. The most common method of hitching a string of llamas together
is to fasten the lead rope of the trailing llama to the saddle of the
llama in front of him. Safety dictates that the attachment should be with
a quick release knot or that a "weak link" of lighter cord or
rubber should be used to allow the connection to break away if trouble
arises. Leading a string of llamas requires that you pay extra
attention. You should look back frequently to check on them and take care
when negotiating obstacles.
While they may drink from streams
along the trail, llamas may also completely abstain from drinking during
the hike to camp. In either case they should be offered water in the
evening after their ration of supplemental feed and again in the morning
When possible llamas should be picketed within sight of camp, away from
small trees and any potentially poisonous plants. Because llamas often
choose the dampest areas in which to make their dung piles they should not
be picketed too close to streams or lakes. As a safety measure, many
packers attach the picket line to the stake with a piece of rubber or
bungle cord. This acts as a shock absorber in case the llama spooks
and runs abruptly to the end of its rope. On layover days, the llamas'
picket sites should be moved morning and night to minimize grazing impact.
Llamas' padded feet, unobtrusive
dung, and light browsing habits have a lower impact on the land than
horses, mules and donkeys. In keeping with this principle, llama packers
should make a special effort to practice "no trace" camping and
leave as little evidence of their visit as possible. Llama groups should
set up camp and stake out llamas away from other backcountry users to
minimize social impacts. All garbage that is not burned should be packed
out. Stoves should be used for cooking instead of wood fires. Human waste
should be buried deeply, well away from water sources. All washing should
be done away from streams and lakes. And before leaving camp, llamas' dung
piles should be dispersed.
Special considerations should be
made when llama packers meet horses and mules on the trail. These animals
may become nervous or excited at their first sight of a llama piled high
with a fully loaded pack. Safety dictates that llamas, as more
maneuverable animals, give right of way to riders and their pack stock by
stepping off the trail several yards to allow them to pass easily.
Sometimes, this means going back down the trail a ways to a wider area.
And when possible, getting off below the trail is preferable to above.
It's helpful for llama packers to give a bit of warning to riders they see
approaching, letting them know that they're traveling with llamas and that
they'll get off the trail at the first opportunity. A friendly greeting
goes a long way toward promoting good will, reassuring the horses and
mules, and seeing that all parties have a safe and pleasant encounter.
Today, llamas are the newest pack
animal to enter the North American backcountry. Many people have never
seen a llama on the trail, and when llama packers meet hikers and riders
they are presented with an opportunity to introduce others to the pleasures
of traveling with llamas. A bit of time spent answering questions about
how much they can pack and where they come from can increase good will and
acceptance of these special creatures.
word of caution: packing with llamas can be habit forming; you may never
want to carry a backpack again! For, when handled with respect and
understanding, these unique animals will continually demonstrate their
natural abilities as hard working trail companions.
For additional references on
llama packing, packing equipment, and other llama and alpaca products
and services contact ILA at 1-800-WHY-LAMA (1-800-949-5262)
Daugherty has been packing llamas since 1984. She drew on past
experience working with horses and as a travel agent to develop her own
commercial llama packing business in northeast Oregon. She has served on
the Board of Directors of the ILA, the Eastern Oregon Outfitters and
Guides Association and the Nez Perce National Historical Trail Advisory
Council. She has chaired the ILA Packing Committee and facilitated their
efforts to work with public lands agencies. Stanlynn is the author of Packing
with Llamas, the first comprehensive guide to llama packing and has
contributed many articles to Llamas magazine.