Livin' La Vida Llama
August 21, 2019
By Jennifer Gurecki | @yogurecki
It’s very likely that Alexa Metrick, the editor of Pack Animal Magazine, is the only second-generation llama packer in the United States. She was three, or maybe four—she can’t remember—when her parents bought their first pack llamas, and she’s been exploring the backcountry with them ever since. Now Metrick is raising her two daughters on the trail with llamas. Why? Because pack animals make the outdoors more accessible to people who love to explore our public lands.
While llamas currently adorn everything from bike shorts to woven wall hangings to half-peeled stickers on battered water bottles and journals, it wasn’t their looks that got them where they are today. They were domesticated approximately 3,000 to 5,000 by the Incas to serve as pack animals and a source of clothing, food, and fuel. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that they were imported into North America, primarily from the Andean Mountains.
By the mid-1990s, llamas (and alpacas) became the latest trend, gracing the runways as show animals because of their illustrious fiber that could be harvested for wool. Llamas were selling for tens of thousands of dollars, primarily as investment opportunities. Owners were breeding them for their fiber—to get beautiful colors—but they were not paying attention to the confirmation of the animal. “They were only focusing on one part of the animal rather than all of it,” Metrick said.
The market became gutted and to make matters worse, the breeding techniques were not sound. The confirmation of the animals was being interrupted and the result was offspring with malformed legs, knocked knees, and heart murmurs. They weren’t suitable for packing and subsequently, the bottom dropped out of the market. Within a decade, there was a glutton of rescue animals and people were giving away llamas. Since then, the industry has slowly been rebuilding, with a focus on the pack llama in particular.
Llama packing, for those who are unfamiliar with the practice, is essentially backpacking, only the backpack has been outsourced to a llama. While shedding pounds off of your back can make backpacking far more comfortable, it also makes it more accessible to people who are not able to carry packs. Despite the lightened load, you don’t substantially change what you bring; you still must be light on the land and the llama.
When Metrick started packing in the early 1980s, there were only about 1,500 llamas in the whole country. Her father picked up the activity after reading an article in Sopris Unlimited (a multi-generational, one-stop llama packing shop that offers up leads, lines, loops, saddles, books, and more). He didn’t want to give up his love of exploring the backcountry, but with two small children, the logistics seemed daunting. At the time, there was no internet, no Instagram. Finding alternative ways to explore the backcountry was not an easy task. But when he found out about llamas, he knew he had found his ticket to adventure.
Today there is an entirely new generation of people who are seeking out llama packing and for myriad reasons. “People are becoming more and more interested in ways we can have less impact on the earth while also having a deeper connection to our food sources and the great outdoors. Everyone is trying to get back to nature and llamas are a great way to do that.”
The beauty of this sentiment is that connecting with the land looks different to everyone, and llama packing serves a wide range of interests. According to Metrick, beyond the conservation movement, llama packing also has been on the rise because of hunting. It’s no easy feat to carry an elk back on your back, and hunters have oftentimes turned to horses. But it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to go out on a horse. Llamas cost a fraction—a few hundred dollars over a weekend. “They are still a luxury,” Metrick notes. “But not like a fully-outfitted horse trip.”
Procuring a llama to set out on your next adventure isn’t as difficult as you might imagine, Metrick said. Courses, as short as half a day are available, or you can book a trip with an outfitter. After a bit of basic training, you are able to lease them. The equipment required to outfit them for the trail is relatively basic—a halter and lead, a saddle, a chest strap—and they only require a bit of grain to sustain them on a multi-day trip because of their tendency to graze.
There are a few random crossword worthy facts to know about llamas, according to Metrick, before you dive in: They have the personalities of cats, they don’t care for cuddles, they are curious, and yes, they do spit. Metrick recalled the one time she was spat on by a llama giving birth whose baby was breech and had to be turned. “As a mother myself, I completely understand,” she said.
Metric isn’t afraid to share the less-than-favorable critique of these animals she loves so dearly. If llamas can help more people spend time in the backcountry, then the greater chance we have in ensuring that our public lands are protected. “What we are facing right now are extraction industries that are very united and well-funded. When the various public lands user groups can't get along, when there is constant bickering between packers, bikers, hunters, hikers, equestrians, and the like, it's very hard to form strong coalitions to fight private interests,” she said. “So I don’t care how people choose to enjoy our public lands, I just want them to get out there, to enjoy them responsibly, and to fight for them when the need arises.”
For more information on llama packing, visit packmagazine.com and pick up a copy of the book Tails of the Trail.