Advice from Professional Llama Packing Guides
Wes and Mary Mauz have been backpackers since 1968, llama packers since 1984, and professional llama packing guides since 1985. Wes devised Llama Packing 101 with the novice in mind . . . the person with no llama packing experience preparing for their first outing. Wes assumes that you, the student, possess basic camping skills and back country navigation skills. You might be a backpacker who is tired of lugging the load, a person with a physical limitation, a person who would simply enjoy having a private porter, or all of the above. According to Wes, one thing is for sure: you will find that packing with llamas is a joy!
Your load lugging friend is smart and is inclined to be an opportunist, and a successful back country experience depends on you exercising common sense in maintaining positive control of him at all times. A llama that gets loose becomes the first priority for your time; if he is not recovered, the loss can ruin a pack trip. Positive control of the llama is making certain that 1) his halter is securely buckled, 2) the lead rope is securely attached to the halter, and 3) the other end of the lead rope is securely attached to a tie out or held properly in your hand.
A tie out is an object that is solid enough to hold the llama when he pulls hard, as in a lunge. Rope knots can be a problem in that, if not made properly, they can (and will) work loose-freeing the llama. We have developed a lead rope with an eye splice on both ends, one end with the snap, and the other with a carabineer. The carabineer takes all the knot tying out of the procedure for those with questionable or no knot tying skills. The snaps have given us (and other packers) a few escaped llamas due to bent or weak springs, so now, before leaving the trailhead, the snaps are duct taped against working loose. Periodic checking is essential, just a quick glance at the critical points is all it takes.
AT THE TRAILHEAD
Now that we know how to hang onto to our friends from the Andes, let’s go to the trailhead for an overnight trek. Llamas have a strong herd instinct and are more comfortable with another llama along, so we have two for our trip, with two persons. Transporting the llamas can be accomplished in a variety of ways: van, trailer, or stock rack in the back of a pickup. After unloading, the snaps of the lead ropes are duct taped and the llamas are tied out to the trailer or other handy, immovable object.
- For carrying the load: pack saddle, pack pad, set of panniers, hand-held scale to weigh the panniers, extra carabineer, and lead rope.
- Items of their own: Essentials: overnight picket rope with a screw picket for each end, and first aid kit.
- Optional: grain and grain bowls, collapsible water bucket, and bug spray. On extended trips, llama dietary supplements such as grain or high protein pellets may be essential.
You should become familiar with the pack equipment provided by each outfitter and its use: 1) the packsaddle; which side is left and how are the cinches set up, 2) the panniers; which is left or does it matter, how to pack them, how are they hung on the llama, how are top load is held on, and 3) the system of front and rear straps to keep the load from shifting.
ON THE TRAIL
It’s time for what we’ve all been waiting for: getting on the trail with the llamas! First of all, proper handling of the lead rope is important; it should be coiled in your right (convention again) hand in such a manner that it will not become tangled around your hand or wrist if the llama pulls away. Leave about five feet of lead rope free so the llama doesn’t have to follow right on your heels, which is uncomfortable for both of you. Do not tie or fasten the lead rope to your body in any way. If the llama shies at something, you don’t want to be yanked off your feet and possibly injured. Rather, you want to stay on your feet and play the llama with your hands and arms. In bear country, it is a good idea to attach a small bell to the lead snap or the bottom ring of the halter so that bears will hear you coming and have a chance to avoid you, rather than suddenly encounter you on the trail.
Now that you’re on the trail, you and your companion who is leading his or her llama are a team. You should stay close together so that the llamas are not anxious about being separated. You and your companion should work together and communicate. Keep an eye on the position of the panniers on the llamas; even if they are of equal weight, the geometry of the load might cause one to start to drop lower, twisting the packsaddle. If this happens, pull the cross tree until the saddle is centered again. It might be necessary to transfer a pound or two from the low-side pannier to the high-side pannier.
It’s not necessary for you to do much thinking for the llama when the trail is in good shape. When you come upon obstacles, such as mud, downed timber, brush, stream crossing, bridges, poor trail conditions, very steep areas, and many others, it is necessary that you pause, give the llama the full lead rope so he can see well, and give him time to evaluate what he needs to do. Many times he will need to be encouraged by pulling on the lead rope. Common sense should prevail. Take a minute to size up the situation, talk it over with your hiking companion, work out a plan and proceed deliberately. After some experience, much of this becomes automatic and intuitive. Keep in mind that a good pack llama will follow his human leader willingly (almost) anywhere, including onto dangerous areas where he could be hurt; the llama’s welfare should be foremost in your decision-making.
Stream crossings and mud seem to cause the most anxiety with llamas; they probably see it as a bottomless pit that’s going to swallow them up. Experienced llamas have little trouble and some seem to enjoy wading. Having their feet in water makes them want to go the bathroom, and you should try to keep them moving so they don’t do so in the water. When you come to water on the trail, give the llamas a few minutes to drink; be patient, it may take them a minute or two to decide. Don’t be alarmed if they don’t drink all day-they might be getting enough water in the grasses and plants they eat. They know when to get water, and all you have to do is give them the opportunity. Water crossings are good opportunities for the humans to take a break for a snack and drink, since the tempo of travel is interrupted anyway.
Narrow water crossings that you can step across don’t require much preparation, but be careful: llamas tend to jump over and they may land on you, since you are pulling them straight at you with the lead. To avoid this circumstance, step to one side and pull the llama over as you extend your arm to the side, and be prepared to step out of their way. Wide water crossings may require you to wade as you lead the llama across. A lot of llamas, especially the inexperienced ones, tend to “launch” themselves into the water, and you should be ready to avoid being landed on. Stand sideways so that you can see them and hold the lead outward to one side as you encourage them by pulling steadily on it. You should be ready to move out of the llama’s way if a collision looks imminent. A sloping gravel bottom is a much better entry than a vertical bank. At some crossings, there is a “people bridge” and a separate place for livestock to wade. We’ve found the easiest way to handle this type of crossing is to leave the llamas at the water entry point with one person while the other crosses to the exit point.
Using a length of rope (the picket rope works well), throw a loop over to the person at the entry point, tie or clip the lead rope of one llama to a loop tied in your end of the picket rope, and have the person on the opposite end pull him across; repeating this procedure with the second llama. Tie the llamas to a tie out as they come across, and wait for your human companion to come over.
While on a day’s trek, you will want to take a lunch break-for both you and the llamas. You should select the site with the needs of the llamas in mind, choosing a place that has some grass for them to lunch on. An easy solution to exercise positive control of our lunching-munching buddies is to get one or two screw pickets from the panniers and place them where the llamas will have ample grass when their leads are clipped or tied to them. Remove your lunch from the panniers and enjoy. Sometimes the food panniers are removed from the llama for lunch, it depends on how much weight is in involved, and how long you plan to stay. If you have just a few things and the panniers aren’t greatly out of balance it is okay to just remove lunch; if it’s a lot of weight, then it’s best to remove the set of panniers. Be sure to check the balance of the panniers after lunch before starting back on the trail.
It is not unusual to have a rain shower during the day, and such is the case on our trip. When you see that rain is inevitable, that is when to prepare–don’t wait until the first drops to fall because covering yourselves and the load on the llamas in a panic can result in mayhem. First, find a tie out for the llamas or have your companion hold them, then get their rain covers and your raingear out. Remember, their rain cover is in the front-end pouch of the right pannier. Place the rain cover over the top of the saddle and panniers and tuck the edge around under the bottom of the panniers where the elastic will hold it in place. Put your rain gear on and you’re ready to resume.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS – VERY IMPORTANT
You are likely to meet people with horses on the trail, and there is trail etiquette to follow in this situation. As soon as they are within earshot, call to them and tell them you have llamas and that you will get off the trail. If possible, get off fifty feet or more. If the trail is on a hillside try to get off on the downhill side (this is because most animals perceive an animal above them as more of a threat, as in a mountain lion). Be considerate of horse people, they have to deal with a big animal that can get very nervous when confronted with an animal with which they aren’t familiar. At the same time, keep an eye on the llamas, especially if the horses make any sudden movements that may frighten the llamas. This applies to on-the-trail encounters with dogs, as well; many llamas will be familiar with dogs, but seeing them away from home may remind them too much of a coyote. They may make an alarm call and/or become skittish, so ask the dog’s owner to hold the dog as they go by to prevent a close encounter that could result in injured animals.
IN CAMP WITH LLAMAS
After a few hours on the Trail, we’ve arrived at our destination: a small lake right at timberline. We’re all a little trail weary after all the work today, and a relaxing couple of hours before dark will be welcome. First, have your companion hold the llamas while you scout for a campsite, preferably at least 200 feet from any water. Included in the site selection is consideration of where the llamas are going to be picketed, which should also be away from the water; they can be led down to the water for a drink. It’s best if you can observe the llamas from the campsite; you’ll want to be checking on them, even during the night. Besides, they are good company and a source of entertainment. Their picket line should run across an area that has good grass and has a dry area where they can kush (bed down). There are noxious plants that can be harmful to llamas and you should learn about the ones in your area and avoid them when possible on the trail and in camp.
Now to unload the panniers and saddles and get the camp set up. Find a tie out near your campsite and secure both llamas. If there is no tie out, one of you will have to hold both lead ropes, or you can put a screw picket in the ground temporarily. In these situations, it is a good practice to clip the two lead ropes together (whether they are being held or clipped to the screw picket) as an extra safety measure -two llamas together won’t get far as one and will be easier to retrieve than two individuals, should one or both get loose (positive control). Unloading the llamas is the reverse of loading; take off the top load and set it aside. Unclip one end of each of the front and rear straps and clip the free end onto the “D” ring with the other end. Now, with you and your helper on each side, lift the panniers up and off; set them down. If you have to unload the panniers alone, lift the left hand one up and off and set it down, and hold onto the cross tree to keep it from twisting over as you move around behind the llama to remove the right side pannier. Unsnap the Fastex buckles from the left side of the saddle and remove it. Give the llama a little scratch where the pad was, fluff up his wool, and check for any rub points.
Before you set up your tent and camp, the llamas need to be put out on their picket line. Get the two screw pickets and the picket line from the panniers. For two llamas, the picket line should be at least 30 feet long with at least two drop-loops tied twenty feet apart. The leads (ours with the carabineer on the end) are 10 feet long, and the 20 foot spacing of the drop loops will keep the llamas far enough apart so their leads won’t get tangled. Position one of the screw pickets on one side of the grassy area and tie off the picket line with a knot, two half hitches or a bowline, then tie off the rope end with an overhand knot back on the picket rope (this prevents the bowline from loosening). Walk across the grassy area paying the picket rope out as you go until at least the 30 feet are paid out. Install the second screw picket and tie the picket line to it in the same manner as the other end. The picket line should be stretched out but not taught. Now attach the carabineer of each lead rope to a drop loop. The llamas are picketed and are free to move around in an extended circle, as they drag the picket line and their leads. In the event of a lunge, the picket line acts as a shock absorber.
Llamas need to learn to be “rope wise.” If you have an inexperienced llama, he might get tangled in his lead rope and you should keep an eye on him. If he gets tangled the lead rope could be wrapped around his body and/or legs and could be very tight. You should act immediately to untangle him: (1) attach the extra lead to his halter and clip the carabineer any where on the picket rope (this maintains positive control while you deal with the other lead), (2) with the tangled lead, unsnap the snap at the halter or the carabineer from the picket line to free him; free up the lead rope and re-snap at both ends, (3) remove the extra lead. Hopefully, he has learned something and won’t repeat the same mistake.
Give the llamas a little time to settle in as you set up camp. Later, if you have some grain, offer it to them it (or a substitute granola bar) will be eagerly accepted. Before dark, take them to water (or bring a collapsible bucket or pot of water to them) and give them a few minutes to drink if they want to. The last thing to do is to check on them before you turn in. During the night you can tell if something alarms them by the sound of their feet on the ground, a stomping sound; another good reason to have your tent nearby. If they have bells on, you will get to know normal sounds and sounds that require your attention, such as our greenhorn friend getting tangled again. If you have a nature call in the night be sure to use your flashlight to check on them.
Aaahh, morning! The best time of the day, get the stove started and have a hot drink as you wait for the sun. This is a great time for photographs of the camp and llamas with the warm light of the rising sun. But I digress. Your morning starts with the normal camping chores after checking on the llamas. They like to take their time getting started, rolling, eating, and chewing cud. You should give them a chance to drink before you settle into breakfast and packing, which usually takes a couple of hours.
Packing is much the same as at the trailhead. At some point during the packing process, bring the llamas up near the camp and tie them out so that you can take up the picket line. You might leave the picket line out this time for the water crossing, looped over the cross tree or tucked under the flap. Check the pack pads, cinches, and rump and chest straps and put them on the llamas. Load as you did yesterday and you’re ready to go.
Your companion wants to take some photographs of wild flowers and the llamas on the trail, so he/she asks you take his/her llama. How did he/she know you could string llamas together? First, make a loop in your lead rope about a foot down from the snap at the halter; then slide the lead rope of the other llama through the extra carabineer (that you’ve been carrying) that’s clipped to the rear hanging strap of the left pannier on your llama; clip the carabineer of the rear lead rope onto the loop you made in the lead rope of the front llama. The effect of this is to tie the lead ropes together so that, by leading the front llama, you also have lead rope communication with the second llama. In the event of a problem with the rear llama, he will be pulling on the loop in your lead rope rather than on the lead llama’s halter or pack.. Start off down the trail and the llamas will string out, and you’ll be amazed at how well they will track along, even over obstacles. With longer strings, some llama psychology has to be practiced since they have preferences as to where they are most comfortable in a string. I have had as many as eight llamas in a string for extended travel, nine for a short river crossing. It’s very important to keep moving, even slowly, when handling a long string. If you stop and they start to mill around it can be a big problem–just keep circling. It’s amazing that the llamas seem to understand what’s expected: similarly, a troublemaker will seize the opportunity to cause problems.
Your return down the trail is uneventful, except that the rear llama balks at some mud. You, however, were able to encourage him by pulling on the lead rope with out affecting the front llama because of the drop loop in the front lead. When you reach the water crossing your companion catches up and takes his/her llama. The water crossing is much smoother this time, a testimony to your learning curve. The hike back to the trailhead goes well and you find that its hard to pass other hikers going up without stopping and answering a lot of questions about trekking with llamas, a subject on which you’ve become an expert. You explain the virtues of your four-legged porters and that packing with them is pretty simple, just a matter of common sense and practice.