This entire adventure started with a simple question: How can we enjoy the wilderness and solitude of backpacking without forfeiting the creature comforts typically reserved for car camping?
The clue, as it turns out, was quite literally right under our noses, in the form of the Backcountry Goat logo. With the help of some goats, five big ones to be precise, we discovered a way to have our cake and eat it too, so to speak.
Our first step was figuring out exactly whom we needed to talk to, and what exactly we needed to know, in order to employ the help of some goats. Enter Clay Zimmerman, a real life goat whisperer who lives on a ranch near Evanston, Wyoming. For over twenty years, Clay has been perfecting the art of goat packing. His goats are specially trained to be pack animals, and his outfit, High Uinta Pack Goats, rents the animals out at a very reasonable rate. His customers range from adventurous types who want to bring along as much as possible (like us), to individuals with health or disability issues who want to get into the backcountry but need an assist with heavy gear.
When you can’t count on goats to do the heavy lifting, keeping your pack as light as possible is essential on backpacking trips. Check out these tips for lightening your load.
But before Clay would let us, or any would-be goat-packer, cast off into the wilderness with his prized goats, we had to visit the ranch for a training session. Clay keeps about thirty goats, and each one has a name and its own dwelling that looks like a big dog house.
After introducing us to the five goats that’d be joining us—named Wally, Castor, Pollux, Vulcan, and Patrick—Clay instructed us on how to attach the goat harnesses (called panniers) and how to carefully load the packs, using a scale to ensure an equal distribution of weight. It turns out that loading gear onto a goat is not unlike loading your own backpack, making sure that items are carefully placed to prevent any uncomfortable rubbing or hot spots. Each of the goats can carry an impressive 30-40 pounds and for the most part they take care of themselves—it’s a pretty slick deal.
Without a precise fit and an equal distribution of weight, a goat’s pannier can cause uncomfortable hotspots and saddle sores. The same goes for you when you’re carrying a full pack. Learn how to properly fit a backpack for a comfortable carry.
On any backpacking trip you hope for good weather, but unfortunately, on our first day on the trail we were met with cloudy skies and a constant drizzle of rain. The nine-mile hike became a bit of a slog and type-2 fun towards the end, but the scenery of the trail was beautiful all the same.
Just like some dogs who obsessively love to play fetch, these goats love to hike—it’s what they’re made to do. As soon as you start walking up the trail they fall into a single file line behind you. Before getting into a good walking rhythm, though, the goats needed to establish their pecking order to determine which goat would be the leader of the pack. There was a bit of literal head-butting and jockeying for trail position before it was determined that Vulcan would be leading the goat lineup.
The agility of these goats, especially when loaded with their packs, never failed to impress us. They have a strange aversion to water; instead of just walking through a six-inch deep stream, they’ll insist on hopscotching across boulders or navigating a skinny log like a tightrope walker. Every water crossing was a constant source of amusement.
With the exception of Wally, who was not thrilled at the prospect of a hike in the rain and who had to be coaxed along with a bag of goat treats, we all journeyed along at a good pace and finally arrived at our planned destination—a gorgeous high alpine lake surrounded by rocky cirques and pines. While wandering the mountain trails with our goat companions, it was easy to imagine caravans of camels on the way to Timbuktu, and mountain men leading pack animals into the untouched West.
Once at camp, we started a fire to warm our cold hands and dry out our wet socks. Tents were pitched, down jackets were zipped up, and we cooked up a tasty meal of steaks and Dutch oven potatoes, thanks to the goats who packed in the supplies. All of us, including the goats, were happy to finally relax after a long day on the trail.
The goats really were our companions. They have the temperament of Golden Retrievers and like to sit around the campfire with everyone else. When it was time to turn in for the night, they snuggled up as close as they could to the doors of the tents.
Fortunately, the weather cleared and was perfect for the remaining two days of the trip. We spent our second day exploring the area, lounging about, and fishing for our dinner. The goats seemed equally happy for a rest day, taking naps in the sun and snacking on the grass around camp. Lucky for us a few fish were biting and we caught a nice mess of brook trout to prepare for dinner. It’s days like that one that really make you appreciate wild places. Far from roads and crowds, surrounded by stunning views in every direction, it was clear that the hiking it took to get here was more than worth it. Whether or not you enlist the help of some goats to carry your gear, the allure and reward of backpacking is undeniable.
It’s true that backpacking with a small herd of goats might seem a bit quirky and out of the ordinary, but it was an experience we’ll never forget. Given the opportunity, we just couldn’t resist the chance to literally “put a goat on it.” Any time you get a chance to head outside, unplug from daily life, and spiritually recharge—that’s the backcountry, and for us it’s what the Backcountry Goat represents. It really doesn’t matter if you’re on a remote backpacking trip or a daily trail run, the reward is the same. Loyal, good-natured, and always up for adventure—our goat companions were a constant reminder of everything we love about sharing great adventures with our friends outside.