Trails for everyone, forever

Home News Magazine Features Light-Footed Hiking Helpers
Perry Burkhart hikes with his goats Prince, Chelan, Gobi, Zermatt and Hershey on Buckskin Ridge. The trip was a six-day loop trip that Perry took with his wide, Sharon. Photo courtesy Perry Burkhart.

Light-Footed Hiking Helpers

Pack goats are friendly, fun and—best of all—can make it easier for anyone who can't carry a heavy load to hike or backpack | by Aaron Bredl

Perry Burkhart is a lifelong adventurer. He began hiking in his early teens and is still trekking along at the age of 72.

Perry grew up hiking and camping throughout most of Western Washington with his siblings, all of whom were heavily influenced by their mother’s love for the environment. In Perry’s early years, he developed a strong connection to the outdoors, and the outdoor community, by hiking, skiing and mountaineering. Perry and his now-wife, Sharon, met in their late teens and immediately bonded over their shared appreciation for trails and public lands. Throughout college, the couple spent most of their free time hiking in the Cascades. They loved that they could escape to the mountains in less than an hour.

After Perry graduated from the University of Washington, he and Sharon moved to Beaverton, Oregon, where he worked as a chemical engineer and she worked as a nurse. They spent most weekends venturing into the forests and mountains around the Willamette Valley. While Perry and Sharon enjoyed exploring new areas, they often returned to visit Washington. After living in different parts of Oregon for about five years, the couple’s longing for easier access to the North Cascades and their desire to raise their kids in Washington state led them to move to Gig Harbor in the 1970s.
By their mid-40s, Perry and Sharon’s lives were consumed with family, business obligations and newfound hobbies. They didn’t have time to get outside as often, although they made time for outdoor outings with their three daughters every few months.

Perry and Goats (2).JPG
Photo courtesy Perry Burkhart.

As their daughters moved on to college, Perry and Sharon began hiking more regularly and wanted to backpack together again. They found it challenging, however. Perry struggled with back pain, and Sharon had problems with her knees and hips. It was difficult for them to carry packs. The backcountry felt far out of reach.

Then, in the early 2000s, they found an answer. Perry and Sharon were hiking near North Bend when they came across a couple who were hiking with pack goats. The goats carried the hikers’ load; it made the hike look effortless. Perry and Sharon talked to the couple for an hour and asked many questions. By the end of the conversation, they were overcome with excitement and possibility.

That week, Perry and Shannon bought several pack-goat books and read them cover to cover. A few months later, Perry attended a seminar on pack goats and bought his first two kids (baby goats) and two adult goats. That summer, he and Sharon started hiking with the goats. It didn’t take long for them to realize that hiking with goats was everything they’d hoped it would be—it revolutionized the way the couple hiked.

Today, Perry and Sharon are the proud owners of 14 pack goats, many of them young with minimal trail experience and some with thousands of trail miles under their hooves.

Over the past 15 years, Perry and Sharon have spent many nights together with their goats, many of them in the Pasayten Wilderness and along the Pacific Crest Trail in the North Cascades. In the early years, when their grandchildren were young and unable to carry their own packs, the goats allowed three generations to hike together.

One of the more memorable trips was when they took their daughter, Kim, and her children, including 2-year-old twins, backpacking at Chinook Pass. They had seven people, and so were able to bring five goats, to meet the limit of 12 heartbeats for wilderness trails. The goats and Perry made the trek twice in order to bring in the gear and food they needed at the campsite.

Perry and Goats (3).JPG
Photo courtesy Perry Burkhart.

Being able to share these experiences as a family has been unbelievably gratifying for the Burkharts.

While Sharon is no longer able to pack with Perry, she has vivid memories of the last trip they took together five years ago. The couple spent four days hiking the Buckskin Ridge Loop, going from Harts Pass into the North Cascades.

“Goat packing has been the most wonderful thing,” Sharon said. “It has allowed us to stay in the high country. I am so glad (Perry) continues to hike, even though I haven’t been able to keep up. I’m okay with him going hiking by himself as long as he has his boys with him.”

“Goat packing has been the most wonderful thing, it has allowed us to stay in the high country."

On a typical outing, Perry takes four goats, each fitted with its own halter and panniers to carry the gear he needs for a backcountry trip. The four goats make it possible for Perry to travel down the trail with comfort and ease. Most of his goats can carry up to 30 pounds. They can walk about 2 miles an hour for 8 to 12 miles a day—with the occasional grazing break, of course.

Early imprinting has made it easy for Perry to keep his goats close as he hikes.

“They have a very strong herd instinct and if you raise them from the time they are young, with a baby bottle, the goats bond to you,” he said.

With a bit of help from his goats, Perry can go on much longer trips than the average person. And he’s fine hiking without another person.

Perry and Goats (1).jpg
Photo courtesy Perry Burkhart.

“I’m very comfortable hiking alone—having the goats along probably helps,” he said.

He does carry an InReach satellite communicator and messages Sharon once or twice a day. Perry takes four or five backcountry trips, from four to eight days each, with his goats each year. Most often, he explores the wonders of the alpine landscapes in the Pasayten and Sawtooth wilderness areas.

“I enjoy the exercise and I find hiking very peaceful,” Perry said. “When I was still working, getting away from the ‘time clock’ and pressure of things to do was quite calming.”

This summer, Perry is planning on heading off into the Pasayten Wilderness once again, for a four-day backpacking trip with his goats up Buckskin Ridge.

Get Started With Goats

For anyone interested in pack goats, the Burkharts suggest reading “The Pack Goat” by John Mionczynski and “Practical Goatpacking” by Carolyn Eddy. These were among the most helpful resources when the couple initially became interested in pack goats. For other resources, check out the North American Packgoat Association, High Uinta Pack Goats, Pack Goat Central and Northwest Pack Goats and Supplies.

The earlier you can adopt your goat and begin the imprinting process, the better. Imprinting— getting a goat to consider you part of its herd—is an important process for pack goats. It often involves hand-feeding young goats with a baby bottle, which helps them form a strong connection with you. Once a goat has been imprinted, it is far less likely to stray from your side while on trail.

Although goats leave a light impact on the land, especially when compared to larger pack animals, you should still follow Leave No Trace principles when hiking with them.

  • Verify that stock is allowed where you plan to hike, and observe limits on group size.
  • Plan ahead for food for your goats. Check on the availability of grazing before you hike. Bring supplemental food unless you’re certain there is adequate forage to avoid overgrazing. Feed for the trail should be pelletized or processed. If you feed your goats hay at the trailhead, use weed-free hay.
This article originally appeared in the July+Aug 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.