This article was first published in the July-August issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
Click here to download the “Packgoat Breeds at a Glance” chart that I prepared along with this article: Packgoats_CHART
When I was young I used to love to backpack. At 60, those bulging packs of equipment have lost their allure. Fellow Baby Boomers, handicapped campers, and families with young children who have a lot of gear to backpack into the woods face similar problems: how to transport their equipment yet save their backs?
Enter the packgoat (yes, I said goat), the companionable, ecology-friendly answer to “Who’s going to carry all this stuff!” Packgoats are already a presence in the Western mountain states, now packgoat fever is gaining momentum throughout the rest of North America too.
What is a Packgoat?
Packgoats (according to the North American Packgoat Association, the preferred spelling is packgoats, not pack goats) are large, people-oriented goats trained to carry their owners’ camping gear in panniers (bags) attached to scaled-down sawbuck saddles like the ones used on traditional pack animals like horses and mules.
The concept is nothing new. Goats have served as beasts of burden for thousands of years, and for good reason.
* Goats are sure-footed, agile climbers—a goat can go anywhere a human can tread, unlike bulkier pack stock like equines and llamas, making them ideal for traversing steep, rocky terrain.
* They’re hot-wired by Nature to bond with humans and to fall in line behind a leader. Since they stay with humans of their own volition, packgoats needn’t be kept on lead nor picketed in camp at night.
* Goats are browsers. They nibble a leaf here, sample a twig there, never stripping a single plant of its foliage. Since they needn’t be tethered in camp, goats browse most or all of their meals. They process what they eat into dry, deer-like pellets, which they deposit on the go, instead of in unsightly piles.
* They’re clean, biddable, easy to handle and relatively close to the ground. There is no need to hoist packs as high as a horse’s back, making it a pleasure for anyone (even children) to work with packgoats.
* Packgoats are inexpensive to buy, outfit, transport, and maintain. Most packgoat enthusiasts begin with dairy breed bottle bucklings (newborn male baby goats) costing anywhere from free to about $100. Mature (three-year old and older), trained packgoats cost in the neighborhood of $250-400. Considering a packgoat’s 8 to 10-year working life, that’s a bargain. A high-quality, well-padded companion pack suitable for day trips costs about $200, while a complete new set of serious packgoat gear—saddle, pad, and panniers—costs about $350. Packgoats are easily transported in vans, SUVs, and ‘goat totes’ in the back of pickup trucks; you don’t need a trailer to haul packgoats.
* They’re strong. A mature, well-conditioned packgoat can tote one-quarter to one-third of its own body weight, up to 15 miles per day. Most packgoats tip the scale at 200 pounds or more and neatly pack 50 pounds or better of goods. That’s a lot of gear!
* Friendly, fun-loving goats make world’s best camping companions. Their entertainment value alone is priceless.
Packgoats from a Hobby Farm Perspective
If you already raise goats (especially dairy goats) and you hate the thought of sending excess kids to slaughter, raising packgoat prospects makes good sense. You needn’t invest time and feed in raising kids to market size if you sell them as bottle babies. In addition, since goatpackers treasure their four-legged trail buddies, kids you sell as packers find good homes.
If you live near unspoiled country, love goats and camping, and you’re seeking a part-time, farm-based business, consider a guide service utilizing packgoats. Enterprising packgoat outfitters in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Arizona already offer wilderness adventures in the rugged Western mountains, but the Appalachians, the Smokies, the Ozarks, the Poconos, New Hampshire’s White Mountains? Or beach trips, or fishing forays, or overnight hikes through Michigan’s north woods? The opportunities are out there; grab one!
And finally, if you simply enjoy country walks and backwoods camping, by adding a packgoat or two to your menagerie, you can vastly improve your life. Since hiking and camping with goats is easier, more relaxing and a lot more fun, you’ll probably go more often—and in today’s hectic world time spent in Nature is golden.
Getting Ready for Goats
You don’t need fancy facilities to keep a few packgoats. Give your goats a dry, draft-free place to get out of the weather; secure fencing; appropriate feed and bedding; and fresh, clean water—they’ll be happy as pie. That, love, companionship, training, and vet care when it’s needed are really all that goats require.
Goats are gregarious creatures and pine without friends, so you need more than just one goat. Or, give your live-alone goat companionship of another kind: a sheep, horse, or pony can serve as a pal for a single packgoat.
Goats can be housed in a standard barn or in stand-alone structures like homemade run-in shelters or Port-a-Huts (www.Port-a-Hut.com), allowing eight to 12 square feet of floor space per goat. Bed your goats on wood shavings, clean straw, shredded papers, and the like. Many goatkeepers simply bed with the hay goats waste.
Goats are not the tin can-eating critters of cartoon fame. They thrive on browse (leaves, brush, and weeds are prime goat fare), grass, and clean grass hay. They can also utilize legume hays like alfalfa and lespedeza, and concentrates such as corn, barley, oats and bagged goat feed, but feeding these foods in improper amounts can trigger potentially fatal diet-related disturbances like urinary calculi (mineral stones in the urinary tract), bloat. and enterotoxemia. For the full skinny on the important topic of packgoat nutrition, read veteran goat packer Carolyn’s Eddy’s Diet for Wethers; A Guide to Feeding Your Goat for Health and Longevity.
Clean water is nearly as important as feed, especially for male goats who tend to form urinary calculi when they don’t ingest an adequate amount of water. Goats are picky eaters and drinkers; they waste hay and turn up their noses at less than pristine drinking water. If you wouldn’t drink your packgoat’s water, chances are, neither will he.
Since goats don’t require huge pastures, fencing needn’t represent a huge cash outlay; a half-acre of good pasture is ample for several goats. Keep in mind, however, that goats are experts at climbing through and over fences and that fences must be tall and sturdy enough to keep out predators like coyotes and free-roaming dogs. Woven or barbed wire, chain link, cattle panels, and electric fencing; they all work well when correctly installed. For more information, Google fences for goats.
Most goatpackers start with bottle babies. Kids bond with their caretakers. Once a connection is forged, they’ll follow their surrogate parents anywhere, and that is the essence of packgoat training. To avoid selling them to the meat market, goat dairies are often happy to sell day or two old male kids at rock-bottom prices; check around and find one—gain a lifelong companion and save a life.
Barring that, many goatpackers raise stock to sell and offer it as bottle kids, started kids (older kids that have been taken on hikes and already know the basics), and adults in various stages of training. To find them, subscribe to Goat Tracks, the Magazine of the Working Goat or join the North American Packgoat Association.
Dairy goats are the Western packgoat of choice. Their longer legs and greater agility render them more suited to steep, rocky climbing. Shorter legs and bunchy muscles make meat goats and meat/dairy goat crosses less versatile in mountain country but they can carry more weight and do well in less rugged terrain.
Any willing goat can carry a pack (even Nigerian Dwarf and Pygmy goats are great for day trips) but for serious goatpacking, look for tall, large-framed goats with wide, straight backs (so the pack fits well and doesn’t slide); sturdy leg bones; and legs that track reasonably straight when viewed from the front. Goats with posty hind legs (legs that look exceptionally straight when viewed from the side) don’t hold up to hard use; avoid them.
While most goatpackers prefer wethers (castrated males), a dry doe (non-lactating female) works just as well. Some packers choose milking dairy does (after a day on the trail, a foamy cup of milk with supper really hits the spot) but these need protection for their pendulous udders.
Some packers are partial to horned goats’ regal looks, while others say horns are accidents waiting to happen. Goats with horns may intentionally use them when pressured (think vaccination and hoof trimming time) and the friendliest goat in the world can accidentally put out a handler’s eye. Goats owned by families that include small children or vulnerable adults should be polled (naturally hornless) or disbudded (de-horned as tiny kids); otherwise whether a goat has horns or not is purely personal preference.
Whatever age, breed, or type of goats you choose, buy them from herds that are tested for CAE (Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis, a progressively fatal, arthritis-like disease of goats) and CL (Caseous Lymphadenitis, a nasty, recurring and very infectious, abscess-forming disease).
Finally, look for what packers call “gung-ho goat”: a compelling desire to work and spend time around people. Even tiny kids show gung-ho goat. They have it or they don’t; always choose the goat that does.
Since goats automatically follow a leader, basic packgoat training is the essence of simplicity: simply take your kids on lots of short hikes. Babies as young as three and four weeks old will follow their surrogate parents (walk slowly!) and learn to traverse puddles and scamper over rocks and logs.
Since goats detest getting their feet wet, water training is best begun early on. Give babies their bottles while everyone stands in a large puddle; ford shallow creeks and keep on walking until the babies catch up.
As they gain size and maturity, take older kids on day hikes and eventually, camping, but don’t expect them to pack until they’re older.
How old is older? Opinion varies. Some goatpackers fit their youngsters with lightly loaded soft training packs as early as six months of age; others say soft packs damage a young goat’s spine. These packers take their goats camping don’t add packs until the goats are almost two years old.
How to know which is best? Read books or join packgoat groups at Facebook, and ask questions; attend a packgoat seminar hosted by a regional packgoat club; or go whole hog and take in Goatstock, the North American Packgoat Association’s annual goat gathering and camp-o-ree.
Fun With Packgoats
The North American Packgoat Association Rendezvous, also known as Goatstock, is a friendly, three-day annual gathering of goatpackers from around the world. Always held in a scenic Western location, this year’s Goatstock is set to take place on July 19-21 in the mountainous San Juan National Forest near Dolores, Colorado. Like previous Goatstocks, this one offers packgoat enthusiasts the chance to share great campsites, delicious outdoor food, hiking opportunities, educational seminars and lots of camaraderie. All admirers of working goats are welcome to meet at Goatstock; for more information about this year’s gathering, contact
In 2006, Ohio-based goatpackers organized a second NAPgA Rendezvous, this one for Eastern states packgoat enthusiasts. This year’s four-day event was held in Bur Oak State Park in southern Ohio on June 8-11 and included, “daily hikes of the camp’s trails, demonstrations concerning packgoating and general goat care, potlucks, bonfires, music, and lots of fun with other goat folks”.
A marvelous way to enjoy goatpacking is to introduce its joys to the next generation. 4-H packgoat programs continue to skyrocket in popularity, with active clubs operating in such far-flung places as Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, Mississippi, Arizona, and all of the Northwestern states. Through the program 4-Hers learn to raise and train a packgoat and put it through its paces at the county 4-H fair. Obstacle courses of increasing complexity keep youngsters and their goats coming back year after year. Adults who volunteer to guide 4-H packgoat clubs learn about packgoats and reap the joy of helping children do the same. Check it out; call your County Extension agent and offer to start a club in your locale.
Goats, with their happy, winsome ways are good for a human’s soul. Adding goats to the wilderness experience is as good as it gets. Raise a packgoat (or two or three or four) for your own enjoyment, build a business, join a club. Your life will be richer for the experience. We guarantee it.
North American Packgoat Association
PO Box 170166
Boise, ID 83717
North American Packgoat Association
Hiking with Packgoats
Goat Tracks Magazine