Want to Travel in the Backcountry with Small Children? Rent a Llama.
It was around three o’clock in the morning when I began to worry about the llamas. I was huddled in a tent at 11,700 feet in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and as sheets of rain and gusts of wind shook the nylon walls, I thought of the two llamas standing outside with nothing to shelter them but a stunted spruce tree. It had been storming for 12 hours straight. The temperature was around 40 degrees.
When I put on my rain gear and checked on them the next morning, the llamas seemed none worse for the wear. They were a little wet and doleful looking, but llamas were bred to withstand the brutal weather of the Andes. My three-year-old daughter, Jo, and her five-year-old friend, Huck, were also unfazed. In fact, the only ones bothered by the relentless rain were the adults—me and my husband, Jesse, and Huck’s parents, Dev and Marian. The conditions were not exactly what we’d had in mind for a two-night llama-packing trip in the Weminuche Wilderness.
But if the storm had pushed us beyond our comfort zone as parents, well, that was part of the point. We had rented llamas to schlep our camping gear into the backcountry specifically because each of us is drawn to whatever indescribable thing happens in places where you have no choice but to confront the weather head-on, places that are remote and wild and force you to strip to the bare essentials. Before having kids, each of us had spent lots of time in such out-of-the-way locales.
Even after having babies, we continued hiking and backpacking, hauling our infants up mountains and across deserts and snuggling them into our sleeping bags at night. But as our kids got older, we’d found ourselves stuck. Between the ages of, say, two and six, most kids are too small to hike very far on their own and too big to carry, especially while also lugging backpacking gear. We occasionally got around this by going on river trips—using canoes and rafts to transport our stuff and ourselves into the backcountry—but otherwise we stuck with car camping.
Car camping is great, of course, and anything can be an adventure when you see it through a toddler’s eyes. But part of me craved something more. The mountains around our home in southwest Colorado beckoned, teasing me with summits that seemed, for the time being, out of reach.
Then I learned about llamas. A year earlier, a friend from Wyoming happened to visit and mentioned that he had been leading llama-packing trips in the greater Yellowstone area. Llamas are easier to manage than mules or horses, which means you can lead them on your own without a guide. Their padded, cloven hooves do minimal damage to trails, making their environmental impact lower than that of other pack animals. They’re also well suited to mountainous weather and terrain, can defend themselves against predators like wolves and bears, and are gentle enough to be around kids. They can carry around 75 pounds of gear apiece, and some can even be ridden by children, making them a great option for families that want to get a little deeper into the wilderness than car camping or day hiking allows.
After my friend left, I began researching llama outfitters in southwest Colorado and found Redwood Llamas, based in the town of Silverton. For $125 per llama per day (plus additional fees for a llama-orientation class and transportation to and from the trailhead), the owner, Bill Redwood, will rent his llamas to carry your gear along any of the numerous nearby trails. I called Redwood and reserved two llamas for what turned out to be one of the worst weather windows of an already very wet summer.
A few weeks later, I found myself at a trailhead, meeting two pack llamas named Boyd and Artemus. Marian, Dev, Jesse, Huck, Jo, and I learned how to put on their saddles, how to stuff our tents and sleeping bags and food into the roomy bags that hung over each side, and what to do if the animals got loose (stay calm and lure them back with a palmful of grain). Then we were on our own, standing at the edge of Colorado’s largest wilderness area.
The skies that morning were brilliantly blue. Although it was August, there was a chill to the air that felt like early fall, and the trail was lined with green forage and ripe wild strawberries that enticed llamas and kids alike. Boyd and Artemus were surprisingly docile and easy to lead: all you had to do was walk in front of them with the lead rope in your hand, occasionally giving it a little tug if one got distracted by a mouthful of grass. They clambered up steep rocks and across streams without hesitation. And they offered such novelty that whenever the kids got bored, we offered to let them lead the llamas for a short stretch, and they quickly regained their enthusiasm.
Between the allure of the llamas, bribing the kids with candy, and occasionally carrying Jo, we covered the seven or so miles to camp by midafternoon. We set up our tents next to a luminous lake beneath a sweep of granite, which we hoped to scramble up the next day. We staked out the llamas and gave them water in a collapsible bucket. (Wild greens suffice for their food, though we had a plastic bag full of grain as a special treat.)
Then, as if on cue, the sky darkened and thunder began to grumble. Hail pelted us. Then rain. The temperature nose-dived. Just before a cloud settled over our camp and limited visibility to about 50 feet, Marian managed to get enough service on her phone to check the forecast. She reported grimly that the rain wasn’t supposed to let up for the next 36 hours, and would likely turn to snow.
That night, with nothing to do but sit in our tent, Jo and Jesse fell asleep early. I tossed and turned, worrying about whether the llamas were OK, whether our tent was staying dry, and whether it had been selfish to take two little kids on a 14-mile trek above 10,000 feet in the middle of a truly epic storm.
When I got up to check on the llamas the next morning, we were still shrouded in a cloud. Curtains of rain had turned our camp into a mud puddle. Over hot chocolate and coffee, we decided that rather than sit in our tents all day and pack up the following morning in the snow, it made sense to bail early. It was disappointing, but also a relief. Surely, I rationalized, even Boyd and Artemus would appreciate warming up and drying out. Their woolly fur was drenched.
Jo and Huck each broke down in tears on the hike out—pushed to their limits, I imagine, by the long days of trekking and wet conditions. But toddlers have breakdowns even in pleasant weather, and thanks to the llamas, we had plenty of snacks and warm layers to cheer them up. As we hiked the final two miles to the parking lot, both kids were singing, laughing, and dashing ahead to pick wild strawberries.
Despite the weight of my own sodden rain gear, I felt somehow lighter, too. Even though car camping would have been easier, there’s something about blinking raindrops from your eyelashes that helps you see the world a little more clearly.
With that renewed perspective, I decided maybe it wasn’t selfish to bring our kids so deep into the wilderness after all. I mean, OK, maybe it was a little selfish. But it’s also a gift to be able to give your children the experience of waking up to the drumming of rain and the squawks of a gray jay instead of the whine of a generator and the slam of a neighboring camper’s car door. We may have only gotten one night in the wilderness, but it was a memorable one. And perhaps when our children are older and trying to find their way in a world that looks like who knows what, they’ll recall that no matter how bad things get, you can sleep in a tent in a rainstorm and wake up feeling washed clean.
Want to Try Llama Packing Yourself? Here’s How:
Where to Go: Most western states have at least one llama-packing outfit; there are several options in Colorado alone. Llama rentals are less common in other regions, though there are some guided llama trips near popular national parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains.
What It Costs: Redwood Llamas charges $775 for two llamas for three days and two nights. Because much of that goes toward orientation and transportation fees, a longer trip actually pencils out to less money per day. You can also think of it this way: after dividing the cost between multiple families, it’s less expensive than a weekend of resort skiing.
What to Pack: Although it’s tempting to pack more luxuriously than you might for a backpacking trip, keep in mind that everything not only has to stay within the llamas’ weight limit but also fit in their saddlebags. We stuck with the bare essentials for camping (a lightweight tent, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads) and splurged a bit on food (real food instead of just dehydrated meals). Then we corralled everything into waterproof stuffsacks to compress it enough to fit in the saddlebags.