August 24, 2022
By Joe Ferronato
Pack animals go a long way in the backcountry hunting realm—literally. The use of stock animals can help you trek farther to unpressured hunting grounds and help you quickly and efficiently pack your downed game out of the mountains. Let’s face it, even the most athletic individuals will feel serious fatigue when they have 60 pounds
on their back and are humping it into the most remote places our country has to offer—not to mention the grueling nature of strapping a bull elk to your pack for the return trip. But with a string of horses, you just opened up a world of possibilities—and saved your muscles a bit in the long run.
Horses and mules are going to be the most common stock used to pack into the mountains, though, there are people who use llamas and even pack goats. With stock, you may still be walking, but it’s a lot easier to walk when you aren’t carrying weight. By using pack animals, you are negating a major fatigue factor that will allow you to hunt deeper, go farther, and stay longer. This makes solo trips doable, plus you will always have the companionship of your animals, and in bear country, it is nice to have the wherewithal of the senses of these pack animals. I have been alerted of the presence of grizz by horses well before I had any idea of the lurking danger.
You may want to jump into the world of stock, but before you do you need to understand the cons of owning your own animals and realize that it isn’t for everyone. Owning pack animals is a year-round commitment. If you plan on using stock only for hunting, you may find yourself cursing them the rest of the year.
If you don’t have property, expect several hundred dollars a month for boarding costs—at least for horses. Land is important, but beyond that, you need to feed and water them. Hay can be pricy, especially if harvest yields are low.
You’ll need saddles, halters, and bri- dles. If you choose horses or mules, you’ll need good riding saddles and pack saddles—which can be pricey. Panniers, mantys, and tie rope are needed for all stock to attach gear and game to their backs. These items aren’t overwhelmingly expensive, but the costs add up, especially if you plan on running a full pack string.
Transporting animals isn’t easy. There are those who convert their truck bed into a stall with high barriers made for hauling stock, but then you lose gear space in the bed of your truck. A trailer is more efficient. But it’s a big purchase—not to mention you’ll need a place to store the trailer when not in use. A heavy trailer can also mean that you may need a new truck that can handle pulling the heavy weight—also not a cheap purchase.
Horses and Mules
I’m partial to horses—my mom had me on horseback before I could walk. I am comfortable around them and on them, and I wouldn’t trade anything for the time I spend on horseback in the wilderness.
Horses and mules have been used for centuries to pack and for good reason: They’re damn good at it. They can carry more weight than any other stock and they can carry you. Horses are lovable and offer great companionship on long excursions into the woods. If you choose to hunt with horses and mules, you won’t need as many. I know plenty of guys with big draft crosses that will load a full elk onto one horse for the trip out. With horses, think about the 20 percent rule: A horse can safely carry 20 percent of their body weight—smaller horses can carry around 200 pounds while a big draft could carry up to 400 pounds. Follow the same rule for packing mules. A good standard rule of thumb, though, is to pack each side of the pack saddle evenly with 50 pounds per side. Heavier items can be secured on top of the pack saddle between your side loads. Both horses and mules will be able to carry weight for long distances at a consistent, steady pace.
Horses are great animals, but they require a lot of feed and water.You’ll need to set camp in an area that has a lot of good grazing and access to water, or you’ll need to pack food into camp with you which may require an extra trip or two. Horses and mules tend to wonder, especially if food and water are abundant in an area. A solar-powered electric fence is a necessity. Or learn how to hobble correctly to keep them from wondering too far. Gear for horses will be the most expensive. Both riding and pack saddles will empty your wallet quicker than a weekend in Sin City, but, if treated properly, will last a lifetime.
Llamas have been used for packing in South America for decades. They’re a great pack animal and don’t require as much attention as horses when you go into the backcountry and they will loyally follow you anywhere.
Their sure-footed nature and ease of handling makes it easy to get them into remote areas, and they can stay there for long periods of time. They don’t tend to wonder far from camp but hobbles or an electric fence are still recommended. The biggest advantage to hunting with llamas is their ability to access rugged terrain. They can traverse the gnarliest country with ease due to their split toe like that of a mountain goat. Their pads are soft which gives them great traction on loose or steep rocky terrain. They are mellow tempered, so they're easy to manage. If they have decent grazing, you won’t need to worry about them as much as a horse.You can lead a llama to water...but it probably won’t drink it. As part of the camel family, they will go a day or two without wanting or needing water, but you should at least try to get them to take a sip. You can mostly count on grazing as a source of feed for llamas but packing in pellets or hay when you know there isn’t an ample amount of green forage is a must. However, you won’t need to spend as much time packing feed for them as you would for horses.
The biggest con with llamas comes with their weight-packing ability—and you can’t ride them. The 20 percent rule holds pretty true with llamas as well. That means even the biggest of llamas can only carry between 75 to 100 pounds. What’s more, when you have them loaded down with their maximum carrying capacity, they will only be able to make it roughly 2-3 miles without needing a break. With the reduced carrying capacity, you are going to need more animals to successfully pack your camp and game. Adding more animals will add more costs. Pack saddles and panniers are cheaper for llamas, so you won’t cringe as much when you get to the checkout.
I haven’t spent much time with goats other than at the local petting zoo. But there are people who use these compact critters to access some of the most remote places out there.
Goats are going to be the smallest and easiest animals to care for. They eat far less food than their larger counterparts and consume about the same amount of water as a llama. A small spring in the high country is more than enough to water your goats. Goats traverse country like no other pack animal, they are sure footed and share the same ability to climb steep country just like wild goat species. No camp is unreachable with a string of goats. One of the biggest bonuses for goats is easy transport.You can haul a lot of goats in the bed of your truck or in a small stock trailer. This is a good thing because you need a lot of goats to pack your gear.
Relative to their body weight, goats can carry more than most stock, but they are small, so even if your goat is conditioned and can carry nearly 30 percent of its body weight, you’ll be lucky to put 50 pounds of gear on one animal.You’ll need a lot more animals to equal the carrying capacity of a good horse. There is also an ongoing fight against pack goats. There are those who believe that they will transfer deadly pathogens to wild sheep herds. Out West and in Alaska, people are concerned that using pack goats will end up damaging wild herds. While there is no outright ban, there are many places considering ending the use of pack goats in regions where bighorn and even mountain goats thrive. There are pros and cons to most everything in life, including the use of pack animals for backcountry hunting. It adds another layer of planning for your hunt—but in the long run, the pros of utilizing stock animals can outweigh the cons. Especially when it results in a trophy loaded in your panniers.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.