First off, I really love my goats, and I enjoy taking them out. However, owning a horned minion is not for everyone nor does it fit into every lifestyle or complement every type of hiker. I remember reading somewhere a review by a group of serious backpackers who were really panning the use of pack goats for backpacking. Having read their review and considered my experiences as a novice backpacker, as well as the personalities and preferences of those more experienced than myself I’ve met on the trail, (or in Mass General Store/REI/etc.), here are some caveats to having goats on trail.
Goats are not compatible with 20 something hiking addicts with ultralight weight gear and endless reserves of enthusiasm for even the most grueling of climbs. If you like extended trail running, believe the only real hike is doing at least 20 miles a day, or are just really into high speed and high endurance, you will not be happy with a goat. Goats are “stop and smelly the daisies”, (well, at least “stop and eat the daisies”), kind of animals. They’ll walk at a steady pace, but occasionally they might want a break going up a hill. They won’t *run* very far unless pushed – and anyone who has pushed a goat will tell you that doing so is the number one way to make everyone’s life a living hell very quickly. Goats are not a way to get gear off your back so you can go faster, because the goats will not be able to keep up.
Goats used for hiking and especially for packing must be kept in shape. Goats that are not in awesome shape, (that is, do less than 8 miles every weekend of the sort of terrain you want to hike), are not going to be able to just suffer through a 15 mile single day trip with a pack like a horse could. They will sit down and refuse to budge on the side of the trail while passing hikers accuse you of animal abuse/cruelty/being a bad person, (which is typically not the case, but what do they know?). This means if you own a goat, you must hike it to keep it in shape. If you rent a goat, don’t pay good money for something that isn’t in shape! Don’t rent that couch potato dairy goat that hasn’t been out of the pasture in weeks!
*I have found that most goats, without a pack on, can do at least 6 miles of moderate terrain without any prior workouts. This is usually the mileage I start out with if I have a goat who isn’t working a lot.*
Goats require upkeep and care during the hike, no matter how tired you yourself are at the end of the day. If you aren’t into caring for dependents, (be they children or dogs or novice hikers), then having pack goats will annoy you to no end. Even after you’ve put up your tent, made your dinner, and rolled out your sleeping bag you will have to pass out goat grain, hang the goat tarp, and brush out the goat before going to bed.
Your pace and objectives must be within the abilities of not just you, but also the goats. This means you can’t take the trails that are too skinny for the goats to get away from oncoming hikers or dogs. If the goat gets too tired, or over heats because the weather warms up faster than you expect, you may have to abandon your hike even if you are still up to the challenge and enthusiastic to get on the road! You can’t plan to do 20 miles a day, (goats max out at about 15 tops without packs on).
If you live out west or in Alaska, (that is in or near mountain goat or mountain sheep habitat), there is currently a movement to ban pack goats in all national parks and Bureau of Land Management lands that are habitat for animals closely related to goats due to disease concerns. Pack goat enthusiasts out west have tried to fight this movement and even banded together and hired a lawyer. However, the outcome to this fight is far from decided and several parks have already begun to make rules against pack goat usage. So if you buy a pack goat you may not be able to pack it near your home soon.
North Carolina requires special activity permits to hike with goats. Okay, if you want to be a true blue rule abiding lawful alignment do-gooder, then you have to apply 2 weeks in advance and get approval from the head of the North Carolina state park you want to visit to bring a goat. When I have applied for the special activity permit required to do this it has always been approved, (knock on wood), but I’ve only day hiked with a single goat on a permit. It’s also a pain, because if the weather is bad the weekend you planned to come you have to reapply for a new permit!
Heat and goats don’t mix unless the goat is used to high temperatures and has short hair. Don’t expect your fluffy silky Tenesse Fainting Goat to suffer through 15 miles in 95F heat with a smile on its face. If you have a long haired goat (ex: cashmere, long haired European style Alpine, “silky” lines of goats, Angoras) your operating temperature ranges from about 3 degrees Fahrenheit to 65F if the air is humid or 75F if the air is dry. If you have a short haired goat, (ex: Alpine, Nubian), that is adapted to hot climates your operating temperature range is something like 20F up to 98F if it’s humid…and I haven’t tried this yet, but I’d bet over a 100F if the temperature is dry. Goats do not sweat like horses to cool…they will mouth breath and pant like dogs. This limits their ability to cool, especially in humid weather, and like an overheating truck is less useful, so are they if the temperature skyrockets. I hike without goats when I can’t take the goats out, but if you were planning some strenuous trek across Death Valley you probably want something other than goats.
Of course, the biggest issue you may have with goats is you have to deal with other people who, often having no background in the species in question, tell you you are doing it wrong! The important thing to remember is you can’t please everybody, so you might as well please yourself!