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Twenty years ago, Clay and Charlotte Zimmerman regularly took multi-day backpacking trips around the mountains of their home state of Wyoming. Then Charlotte began to suffer from debilitating joint pain, specifically in her knees. When she finally went to the doctor, the prognosis was about as depressing as an active couple could hear.
“The doctor said she had to put away her backpack or she was going to need a knee replacement,” Clay says.
Unwilling to give up on their outdoor adventures, the Zimmermans’ began looking into pack animals to pick up Charlotte’s load. Horses, they soon realized, would be too expensive and difficult to care for; llamas, meanwhile, were “too temperamental.” Finally, they settled on a more unlikely breed of ungulate: goats. They invested in a few adult males, with names like Paco, Levi, and Buck, and outfitted them with makeshift saddles and panniers. The results were even better than they had hoped.
“Goats are friendly and extremely low-maintenance,” Clay, who’s now in his 60s, says. “They’re really the perfect pack animal.”
As one of the earliest domesticated animals, goats have long been valuable sources of both sustenance and companionship around the world. Yet in the U.S., they seem to exist mainly for amusement. Viral trends like goat yoga and even goat Zooms highlight the creature’s stuffed-animal-like cuteness, while practices like goat therapy attest to their chilled-out, zen nature. But all that obscures the fact that goats can also be surprisingly capable beasts of burden, and in the last few decades, this realization has gained traction in the outdoor community.
“It’s like having a walking backpack,” says Nan Hassey, a pack goat enthusiast from Rye, Colorado, and a member of the North American Pack Goat Association (NAPGA). “It opens up a whole new world for people who are not physically capable of carrying 50 pounds of gear through the wilderness.”
Aside from being easier and cheaper to care for than other pack animals, goats are also more eco-friendly, since they’re able to forage on native fauna, leave smaller tracks in the ground, and generally make less of a mess. At the same time, they’re natural hikers: a typical goat can carry up to a fourth of its body weight, meaning a 200-pound adult can haul around 50 pounds of gear during a trip.
On top of all that, many goat breeds are as loyal and companionable as dogs — and arguably even more so, depending on who you talk to.
“I call them anointed animals, because they seem to have been specifically chosen by God for humans to live amongst,” says Marc Warnke, an Idaho native who runs PackGoats.com, a popular resource for goats, gear, trips, and videos. In addition to breeding goats, Warnke also employs them on his guided hunting trips, where he’s unabashed about their utility.
“Backpacker elitists tend to measure the quality of their experience by how much suffering they’re doing,” Warnke says. “But come on a trip with me, and you will love the fact that we still cover miles and hike our ass off, but we sit in a chair instead of a stump, and instead of dehydrated meals we get to eat ribeye.”
Pack goats have likely toted humans’ stuff since early history, but their origin in the U.S. traces back to the early 70s, when the naturalist John Mionczynski began taking them along on backcountry research expeditions. (Mionczynski’s 2004 book, The Pack Goat, is still the subject’s definitive text). Since then, they’ve slowly caught on among outdoorspeople like Hassey, Warnke, and in particular the Zimmermans, who themselves have become unexpected pioneers of the industry. After experimenting with various breeds on their farm in Evanston, Wyoming, in 1994 the couple started High Uinta Pack Goats, which is still the only pack goat outfitter in the country (Backpacker rented a few of Zimmerman’s goats back in 2014, and he also assisted in a project mapping the Continental Divide Trail in 2007).
The Zimmerman’s are also co-founders of NAPGA, which now has 200 members and serves as a community hub, hosting an annual “rendezvous” where enthusiasts can trade stories and tips. “We have goat competitions, goat how-tos, you name it,” Zimmerman says. “Last year I think there were over 100 goats.”
Still, as cute and harmless as they may seem, not everyone is happy to see more pack goats in the backcountry. In recent years, wildlife conservationists have raised concerns over the impact pack goats can have on wild bighorn sheep, whose populations are already threatened in many places across the mountain west. Specifically, domestic goats can carry pathogens like Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae — essentially, goat Covid — which can prove lethal to their wild sheep counterparts.
The concerns have spurred National Forests in states like Colorado and Idaho to consider bans on goatpacking, in turn triggering pushback from groups like NAPGA, whose members argue there is little evidence linking their goats to wild sheep deaths. The highest-profile battle between the two sides came in 2015, when NAPGA and an Idaho wool growers association sued the U.S. Forest Service over a proposed ban on domestic sheep and goats in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, home to the largest bighorn sheep population in the country. They eventually reached a compromise that limited pack goat use to outside core bighorn sheep habitat.
“It may not be cut and dry that goats cause bighorn sheep diseases,” says Katie Fite, director of Director of Public Lands at WildLands Defense. “But it’s sort of the same as when you take any domestic animal into a wild landscape. You run the risk of introducing exotic pathogens that can have really serious, unintended consequences.”
For the Zimmermans, the conflict hits close to home. The Wind River Range portion of Shoshone is right in the couple’s backyard, and Clay says he now avoids its western side entirely, rather than be forced to deal with the complicated permitting system that was put in place along with the core ban. But like most goat packers, he’s fine with that, as long as he and his ungulates still have somewhere to roam.
“Getting into goat packing allowed us to continue to hike and do what we love,” Zimmerman says. “And it put off my wife’s knee replacement by 20 years.”