Llamapacking Questions and Answers

In this section is a series of questions concerning pack llamas that everyone needs to address when purchasing, training or packing with working llamas. The answers to each question is just my opinion based of twenty years experience breeding pack llamas.

Question: Lots of new llama owners acquire them because they want to pack, but can just any llama make a good packer?

The important word in this question is "good". Most llamas will go for a walk but not all will carry a heavy pack on a mountain trail. Not all llamas are physically or psychologically able to do the job. I will get into some specifics in another question about both of these factors. Trying to pick out an individual llama as a packer presents different questions depending on the age of the animal. With a weanling , size and ultimate conformation cannot be known for sure. More importantly personality of such a young animal is not completely formed. Although packing can be done by most personality types I have found that the more assertive crias will make the better packers. It is very important to look at the mother and father. The chances are better of getting a good packer if the dam, stud, or both have been used as working animals. The parents’ ancestry is also important as several lines are well known for producing packers. When your prospective packer is older or an adult it is much easier to discern their suitability. Even if your prospect isn’t well trained any seller should allow you to test drive the animal to see if he or she has the right stuff. For a beginner this can be an overwhelming problem and perhaps taking someone along with experience could save a great deal of expense and trouble. Many people would be well served either not to purchase an untrained animal but to search for one with trail time. Even then there are unscrupulous sellers that will dump a broken down or otherwise unsuitable animal on the unsuspecting. Really good experienced packers may be hard to find because their owners do not wish to sell them. Very superior packers probably are not available since these are not common and would be rather expensive. There is no set price for a working animal but generally would be higher as the age, training and experience increase. To produce a llama, trained with trail experience takes the seller 3-5 years, so you should expect to pay for the time and expertise required. My preference would be to acquire the animal at a young age and train it to my requirements, but not everyone will have the time or inclination to do this. I have found that my relationship with the animal is much closer if they were born here or arrived as a weanling. This makes for a much more trusting relationship which translates into faster training, less trouble and a happier human. This lead me to the next question below.

Question: Just how do you go about training a llama to carry a pack?

Of course the type of training is dependent on the llama’s age and what skills he/she already has. Whatever the age the most important thing is to build a trusting relationship with the llama so he can concentrate on learning, not on worrying if you are going to doing something bad to him. Most of my training has been with crias but the same principles can be used for adults. First, I do not consider my interaction with the babies to be training but merely guidance. With the lines in my herd and with more experience initial training does not take long and involves no physical force. At birth all my crias are Mallon trained which has been very helpful in allowing them to be much more receptive to human interaction. During the later part of their first month they are allowed in the barn and a halter placed on them. They are allowed to wander around the barn for a short time then the halter is removed. I repeat this procedure several times. Next the cria is haltered and attached to a lead rope with a bungee tied to something solid. The cria is observed while on the lead but no personal interaction takes place. After several sessions the cria should be ready for leading. Leading lessons should be short--less than 5-10 minutes. Because llamas are very insightful please do not attempt any of these training session when you are upset or angry. The trainee will pick this up and respond adversely. These lessons should be all business with no emotional overtones. I do the initial lead training in the barn and with no other llamas to distract. With small tugs on the lead rope and much encouragement my cria will figure out the situation and respond with a few steps. Most of my recent babies get the idea within several minutes and I take them outside for a short walk. After several of these short walks they are introduced to some obstacles. During their first year I take them for brief walks on the premises and through the obstacles. At about a year of age a small training pack is put on with just enough weight to hold the panniers down and they go on short walks and through the obstacle course. About this same time they learn how to back up. Usually I wait until 18 mo-2 yrs. to teach them about being staked. It seems that it is easier for a taller animal to handle the stake line. When staking them out it is best to closely observe them at first to make sure they do not injure themselves or get really tangled. After a few tangles they catch on and respect that stake line. From 18 mo. on they are large and independent enough to go on some longer walks with their training pack and even lead behind an experienced packer. A few have gone on wilderness trips with a small size pack but very minimal weight. During all this education, praising the animal goes a long way toward giving him confidence. I do not use treats in any of this training but see no reason not to if they have difficulty with a particular skill. They do not know that they can do these things and it is up to us to teach the youngsters that they have the ability to be a packer. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of letting the trainee know he is doing a good job. Again, forming a good relationship with the animal is all important. If you can establish trust they will really try their best.

Question: How do you know what a llama is capable of packing and how do you decide for any given animal? Is it by age, size, both, neither?

In the last issue I went through generally how my own animals are made ready to be mature packers. Any llama less than four years should not carry a full load. Between age 3-4 they certainly should be able to keep up with the string, but with a light load. For most llamas 25% of body weight would be considered top packing weight. You must know your animal since the above figure may be too much weight for some packers. You must have an accurate weight on your animal to know this figure. A weight tape is not good enough. Many feed stores have a scale that would work if you don’t have one. I would like to emphasize that no matter how much your llama can carry always put less than a maximum load on him. This gives you and him added safety and assurance that you can make it to your destination for the day. This makes for a happy llama and therefore a happy camper. For instance if your packer is 400 lb. his largest load should be 100 lb. Using today’s lightweight equipment there is no need to come close to a 100 lb. load. Unless the trek is a short distance such large loads will only result in problems. Only in emergencies should a maximum or greater load be used. I have never had to do this but have heard of individuals carrying way over 100 lbs. Only once for a rental have I ever approached maximum weight. It was taking in some Elk hunters who had used horses the prior year and brought all kinds of things. Even folding chairs were included in their equipment. The trip was only for three miles and with little elevation gain so my big stud had no problem. These hunters really liked the llamas compared with horses so they are going again this year. Most working llamas will not weigh 400 lb. so the great majority of loads will be in the 70-80 lb. range or lower with a smaller animal. The above animal is only an example and it is not to imply that you should go out and look for a 400 lb. llama. Many of the really superior packers will be much smaller many weighing only 275-300 lb.

To be sure of what you are putting on the llama, a scale to weigh the panniers is necessary. There are several types but by far the best is called the No Fail Scale. It stores easily and only weighs 8 oz. There are two sizes but for llamas the one with 60 lb. capacity is adequate. I have seen some of the llama vendors carry this scale or it can be purchased from Wyoming Outdoor Industries Inc. for $29.99 plus shipping. Their phone is 1-800-725-6853. The website is www.wyomingoutdoor.com. This is a very elegant piece of equipment.

In summarizing this answer, know your animal and its weight, weigh the panniers, and always put less on your animal than his capacity.

Question: Is there a different set of criteria in llama choices between the casual day trekker and the serious packer?

The day hiker will be going very light and probably encountering less challenging terrain so his silent brother need not be highly conditioned nor structurally perfect. Any llama taken on the trail should have been trained beforehand for the task. For the serious hiker the llama should be well trained, conditioned, structurally correct and with trail experience. For longer trips the llama is your partner with each dependent on the other so you better have the best prepared animal possible. The difference a trailwise llama can make is always amazing to me. I have come to be very dependent on my leader and don’t like to go on trips without him. A good packer will anticipate his handlers every move and be very predictable in his own actions. Many newcomers have not seen a truly superior packer and should visit local ranches to see, compare and maybe test drive several good packers. I would think that most ranches specializing in working animals would be accommodating and even welcome the attention. Below is a list of factors that I consider important for a superior packer to have. The list is not in order of importance. Some of the criteria are heritable therefore looking at parents and siblings can give you some insight into whether you would be dealing with a high quality working llama. Acquiring such an animal is a subjective, time-consuming undertaking.

Working Llama Conformation

1. Good height with long legs to step over obstacles rather than having to jump.

Everyone will have their own definition of good height but mine is at least a 44" wither height. Long legs should produce a ground clearance greater than the depth of the girth (vertical chest height). This can be easily calculated by subtracting ground clearance from the wither height. The resulting number is the depth of girth.

2. Relatively short back The back should not be concave but can be just a little convex. This allows for better weight carrying ability. If you have ever seen a large flatbed trailer they are designed so the trailer bed is slightly convex so they can carry heavier loads without the trailer sagging.

3. Less than 6" between the upper portion of the front legs. Any more distance produces a waddling gait that puts inordinate stress on the shoulder.

4. Straight legs with no sickle or cow hocks.

5. Upright pasterns

6. Body mass index of 6.5-7.7 for males and 7-8 for females. This is the weight-height ratio and is essentially a measure of leanness. Some of the great packers will have an even lower index than this, producing amazing athletic ability. The assumption here is good health with no malnourishment.

7. Should have a high flank

8. Relatively narrow-medium frame. Large chested males have a higher body mass which may lead to endurance or temperature regulation problems. This does not exclude those individuals with a heavier build from being good packers but is just my preference. I do have one of these heftier boys and he has done fine so far.

9. Plenty of guard hair

10. Prominent pectoral muscles

11. Wither height greater than hip height With the animals we have to work with this criteria is not often met but should be looked at. If there is a large difference between hip and wither heights more weight of the animals load will be placed on the front legs which normally carry 60% of their weight. Most of the llamas I have measured are higher at the hips.

Non-physical Factors In Superior Working Llamas

1. Superior athletic ability This goes along with perfect structure in allowing free and easy movement. My great athlete does not walk anywhere but runs because its so easy for him.

2. Should have a strong confident personality-this does not necessarily mean friendly. My lead packer thinks he is better than humans but will deign to greet us if asked.

3. A high level of trust in the human handler

4. Very alert to the environment

5. One or both parents are proven working llamas

6. Heritage from a line known to consistently produce good working animals. The Poncho Via line seems to be the best of the North Americans. There are a number of North American outcross lines that also produce great packers.

7. If the individual is a gelding his surgery should not have been before 18 mo. of age.

What to expect from a Superior Pack Llama

1. Easily caught and haltered

2. Loads, travels and unloads from a vehicle easily

3. Stands still when getting pack put on

4. Is desensitized so all body parts can be handled

5. Is not disturbed by manipulation of the pack once it is on

6. Very sensitive to signals from the handler It should seem like they are reading your mind.

7. Should never sit down on the job unless there is a serious problem

8. Able to easily carry 20-25% of body weight unless the load is unusual, trail is supersteep or environmental temperature is unusually high.

9. Will handle unpredictable situations with a logical safe response

10. Must be a pleasant trail companion; this does not necessarily mean friendly

11. Does not walk up on handler when going downhill

12. Keeps the lead loose at all times

13. Will meet other stock, humans, and wildlife without problems

14. Crosses streams without jumping or otherwise endangering the handler or himself

15. Will back up or sit down on command This includes allowing the panniers to be loaded in a sitting position.

16.Trained to understand picketing or being staked out while in camp

17. Will tolerate close by gunfire without a problem.

18 .Does not take shortcuts on the switchbacks

19. Able to go through complex blowdowns with a pack This includes understanding how to crawl on their knees under a blowdown.

20.If possible will go off-trail to defecate

These points represent ideal performance and your packer should not be expected to be perfect at all times. Many of the above traits are heritable so a prospective packer’s family is important. Many individuals can be adequate packers without exhibiting some of these behaviors. However I would expect elite packers to perform almost all points most of the time.

Question: There are tons of different pack types and styles. Is there really a difference and what criteria are there for choosing?

The one pack not to choose is one made by yourself. The major pack manufacturers have spent much time perfecting their products and you should not attempt a homemade version. Your llama will appreciate a correct fitting saddle not a homemade one that irritates and does not stay put. There are just a few manufacturers of packs all of which should work for you. The problem is that it is difficult to try each type of pack on our own animals. These systems are relatively expensive so switching brands is usually not an option. If you talk with pack owners, most are satisfied with the brand they use if it has come from one of the current major producers. Therefore searching out these few manufacturers and finding out what they have available is the first chore. Knowledge is always helpful and there is a booklet to help educate the novice about packs. The title is "Evaluating a Llama Pack for Comfort and Function" by Gwen Ingram. This booklet is available from Lost Creek Llamaprints, 81894 Lost Creek Rd., Dexter, OR 97431. Cost is $5.95 +$2.00 s/h. This is extremely well done, bargain priced, and the only comprehensive information on packs. After you have digested the info in the booklet and considered your needs it’s time to find brochures from the manufacturers. They are hard to find unless you know where to look. The easy way is to find a publication where almost all advertise, or vendors that carry them have ads. "The Backcountry Llama" is a quarterly publication devoted to llama packing where you can find most of the pack makers. Subscription for this magazine is $20/yr. and back issues are available. The address to subscribe is: BCL, Box 1070 Plains, MT 59859.

Each manufacturer will have a number of systems available. If you plan only day hikes or short trips perhaps you will not need the top of the line equipment. All of the top llama packs should last many years without problems even with heavy use. Those packs used for longer trips will fall into a cost range of $350-500. Although the prices may seem high they are much less than premium horse packs. I used to think the manufacturers were overcharging until I made a set of panniers myself. Just the material and hardware for my panniers was $80 not counting the labor of putting them together. My homemade panniers are functional but not near the quality of commercial products. If you are looking for training packs a good substitute is a bicycle pack modified with a chest strap and one cinch. I have found this to work well for starting out a youngster.

Question: Most folks are fair weather packers even if they are serious trekkers. What sort of pre-season training and conditioning do you consider a must?

If you talk with any experienced llama packer they will consider some sort of pre-season training and conditioning the most important thing they can do to prepare for a enjoyable trip. Many of the problems on the trail stem from lack of adequate conditioning of the animals. Lack of a conditioning program is dangerous and is a disservice toward our silent brothers. Needless to say you need to know a weight on your packer to understand his needs during any conditioning. If he is overweight perhaps a diet is necessary in addition to exercise. My boys usually stay pretty trim during the winter so their diet remains the same during conditioning with maybe an extra treat occasionally. I usually begin at least one month before their first trips with a program of hiking every other day for at least three miles. The first few trips will be with less than usual loads but then increasing to 70-80 lb. depending on the individual animal. Conditioning hikes need to include up and down (elevation gain and loss). I try to avoid hard paved surfaces and use mostly gravel roads. Actual trails would be ideal. These practice hikes give me a chance to introduce young animals into the packstring. My lead packer will usually provide any discipline needed for these younger animals so they learn quickly. Usually I like to go in the morning to avoid higher temps especially at the beginning of the program. Of course all the packers are completely sheared by early summer. Barrel cuts look good in a show but packers should get rid of any extra wool that can snag straps and brush.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of some sort of pre-hike conditioning even if you plan only a day trip. Taking a obese llama even for a short hike is asking for trouble. The only trail death I have seen was when an overweight, overloaded llama was used without any conditioning. This occurred after only an easy four mile hike.

Question: Do you have a "must have" list for packing?

I am assuming this is referring to the llama and not their human companions. There are a small number of things that may be extra but also critical in case of problems. The first are a few pieces of extra equipment including an extra halter, buckles for the pack, bungee cord and plenty of duct tape. A scale, sewing kit, multi-tool and brush could be included under this category also. Some packers carry a foot booty in case of a cut foot pad. Other must have items relate to medicines. I always carry banamine with a syringe and needles to give it. This medicine can only be obtained from a vet. It is used for pain. Activated charcoal in case of poisoning should also be carried along with a long tube and large syringe to administer it. You can get the charcoal at the pharmacy without prescription. Other first aid products can be the same as those for humans.

Question: What about food and water needs for the animals when on the trail?

While hiking you cannot assume that your packer will get anywhere near normal nutrition from grazing. They will be working much of the day and there may not be much available grass in camp. In fact grazing is prohibited in National Parks . Therefore some type of feed should be carried. I usually carry about 1.5 lbs of supplemental feed for each llama per day. This feed can be any of the locally available concentrated supplements with lots of protein and calories. The 1.5 lb./day may not even be enough on longer trips especially in winter like conditions. Many of my conditioned packers will lose a great deal of weight on long trips.

Free access to water is essential particularly with high environmental temperature. If there are not many water crossings it is important to allow each llama the opportunity to drink. Most of the time they don’t drink for several days but must be afforded the opportunity. They should not be allowed to stand in the stream but to drink from the shore. If they stand in any stream for a short time they will defecate. In camp I keep water available in a two gallon collapsible bucket. This bucket can also be used to filter your camp water from. Using a bucket to filter from rather than directly out of a stream will keep debris out of your equipment.

Just a reminder about stream crossings. Llamas are excellent at making difficult stream crossings when not pressured or pulled across. They should be allowed to find their own way across. If pressured or forced they may hurry with resulting injuries. Novice packers tend to jump small streams so the handler must be careful not to have a llama land on him. Usually after a few stream crossings the llama will learn to just walk across and not to jump.

Question: Can anyone just grab a llama and wander into the backcountry or are there permits required?

The answer to this one is maybe, yes and no. Permit requirements depend very much on the local requirements that are set by each wilderness, park etc. National Parks have the most regulations and even prohibitions for stock. Those Parks that do allow stock will have designated camps that exclude grazing. These campsites are usually designed and located for the convenience of horses. Since horses can travel longer distances these camps can make it difficult to conform to the requirements. Some of the National Parks will even have per night charges for all campers, a fee for each party plus park entry fees. Wilderness areas usually will have less regulation and permit grazing. Each area is unique so you have to check with the local authority to be sure of the rules. Your vehicle will also require a parking pass no matter what trailhead you are using. These can be purchased on a per day or season basis from ranger stations or local vendors.