Goatpacking in the Back Country
A cool breeze blows as Rose and I bask in the sun atop an alpine ridge, high in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. A stunning view of the Three Sisters, a trio of 10,000+ foot peaks is our reward for a steeply uphill climb. We are both hungry, so I munch on an apple while Rose grazes on some bear grass and lichen. Rose is an American Alpine goat, and she and I have packed ten miles into the backcountry on a three-day backpacking trip.
My fascination with goatpacking began with John Mionczynski’s book The Pack Goat. My husband and I are avid hikers and backpackers; when we met, our first “dates” were morning hikes to watch the sunrise. Having raised Alpine and Nubian dairy goats for a few years, we began to wonder if our affectionate dairy goats would be willing to carry a light load into the backcountry.
We began daily training walks around our forested, hilly property, first without a pack, and gradually adding a saddle, panniers, and then weight. While we were prepared to guide them on the trail with collars and lead ropes, we found that the goats willingly followed us on the trail, only pausing for an occasional snack from their surroundings.
Our first backcountry adventure was full of trial and error. Lacking a proper livestock trailer or pickup truck, we piled into a friend’s Volkswagen Vanagon, with Rose and her yearling Lupine in the back, and a Nubian doe named Hazelnut in the passenger area. Packing the goats’ panniers with a small bag of grain, water bowl, leashes, ropes, and tarps, we kept their load light for this trial hike.
On trail, the goats eagerly followed us for about five miles. At this point, Hazelnut, the Nubian decided enough was enough, laid down on the trail, and refused to continue until we enticed her with a bit of grain. A few miles later, we reached our destination – a beautiful rocky ledge overlooking an alpine lake.
The goats settled in on the warm rocks, chewing their cud, and resting with a dreamy look on their faces. It seemed as though the Alpines were especially content, perhaps feeling at home on the high rocky slopes.
With a successful trip under our belts, and confidence in our goats’ packing abilities, we continued with twice yearly summer backcountry adventures. Breakfast granola and hot coffee with fresh goat milk were just a few of the perks of bringing goats along. My husband and I continued to carry our own backpacks, but gratefully accepted the help that the pack goats provided. And the goats’ antics and companionship brought much fun and laughter to our adventures.
Fast-forward a few years: I was seven months pregnant and desperately wanting some pre-baby backcountry time, but it was increasingly difficult to carry a fully loaded pack around my growing waist. It was time to ask our goats to carry a bit more weight, which they willingly did. We now filled the goats’ packs with our tent, food, and cookware. Reducing the hiking mileage to three to four mile days kept everyone happy!
Our family has now grown to four people, and we continue to enjoy backcountry adventures each summer, with the help of our goat companions. With two children on our backs, we rely on three to four goats to carry our personal gear. Base camp life can be a little hectic with so many beings to tend to, but we have learned a few tricks to keep things manageable.
Most importantly, we keep the goats away from the camp area and all food preparation. By tying a rope between two trees, and using a carabiner with a three-foot leash, we allow the goats safe access to browse and water, while keeping them out of camp.
We have found that morning and evening milking is best accomplished with a team of three people: one person to hold a bowl of grain, one person to keep the human kids occupied, and one person to milk. Enjoying warm, sweet goat milk in the backcountry is still one of the best rewards of the effort it takes to get there.
Our family is frequently stopped along the trail and asked about the goats. It is truly a gift to witness the looks of astonishment and joy upon fellow hikers’ faces when they see our herd of pack goats approach on the trail. Their bright red packs and shining wood saddles do make for quite an attractive image, and we are often asked for photo opportunities.
We use our interactions as an opportunity to educate people about dairy goats, goat packing, and homesteading, and as a chance to connect with people who share our love of accessing wild places.
Packing with our dairy goats has allowed our entire family to experience the backcountry together. My children, ages 2 and 5, get to enjoy some of the most pristine and remote wilderness areas in our country, and my husband and I continue to feed one of the passions that first brought us together – being in the outdoors.