You may already know that I’m training a donkey to be a pack animal so that I can take him hiking and backpacking with me, hopefully through the Smokies in North Carolina and the Pinhoti Trail in Georgia. If you’re from the East Coast, this probably seems a bit odd. Pack animals aren’t common on the East Coast. Horse and hiking trails are often separate; there is only one small section of the Appalachian Trail that allows horses, for example. Pack animals are a bit of a novelty in the East, but they’re very common in the western United States and in Europe. What I’m doing isn’t new or inventive; it’s just really uncommon where I live.
That begs the question of why. Why do I want to hike with a donkey? Wouldn’t that limit where I can go rather than make it more accessible? Aren’t donkeys really stubborn? Why can’t I just carry my own gear like everybody else? I’ll try and answer those questions, but beware, my donkey is really cute and you might find yourself thinking a donkey isn’t a terrible idea after all!
I’ve owned horses for years, so getting a donkey wasn’t a totally foreign endeavor for me. I already knew about equine care and handling, and I had a place to keep my donk. In fact, I know more about how to take care of a donkey than I know about backcountry camping. I’m still learning a lot of the backcountry skills.
I wouldn’t advise everyone to go out and get themselves a donkey, but if you’ve got land and experience with livestock, you might be a good candidate. There are other options for pack animals as well (llamas, mini horses, even large goats), but each one requires a knowledge base to care for it properly. I happen to know about equines, so that’s what I went with.
I’m hoping that my donkey, Rusty, will solve a couple specific problems I’ve run into while backpacking. First, I like to be remote. I started out car camping at the state park when my kids were toddlers. We were on a concrete pad surrounded by RV’s and the noise of generators. These days I prefer more of a wilderness experience. That means I have to slap on a pack and start hiking into the backcountry. I want my kids to go too, so they have to carry a pack and hike as well. The heavier the pack, the less miles they want to hike. I’m sure there’s some sort of equation for campsite selection that involves the weight of the pack times the amount of miles to the campsite divided by the amount of whining I’m willing to listen to.
If we want to go remote, we need to carry less stuff, and that means we can’t stay more than one night because my kids can only carry so much weight. A tent big enough for the three of us, plus our food, plus extra clothes because my son WILL destroy his, plus sleeping bags, plus sleeping pads, plus our kitchen and toiletry items equals a considerable amount of weight. When I backpack alone, there are comforts I can do without, but with kids it’s a different story. It’s supposed to be fun for them, and they’re not yet at the age where a suffer-fest is fun.
Enter the donkey. He can carry some of our bulkier items like tent and sleeping bags, thus lessening the weight the kids have to haul. Don’t worry, he won’t be weighed down heavily, but he will provide an extra back to tote some gear. You know the saying “many hands make quick work?” Well, many backs make lighter packs.
When I backpack alone, Rusty will be a tremendous help. I have some issues with my back that cause me to be in pain on an almost daily basis. I’m not a candidate for surgery or anything like that; I just put up with moderate amounts of back pain that get worse with certain physical activities. Riding long distances on my horse, for example, is excruciating. Anything over about 10 miles and I’m miserable. That’s why I’m planning to hike and bring a pack animal rather than ride one of my horses. Hiking is actually easier on my back than riding. Carrying a heavy pack also isn’t great for my back, so having Rusty along to share the load will make me a lot more comfortable. I can bring luxuries like a thicker sleeping pad and a flask of whiskey! I’ll toast Rusty while I’m sipping my evening cocktail around the campfire.
There are plenty of physical conditions that would make a pack animal an attractive option- bad knees, bad back, or even just getting older and wanting to be able to carry heavier, more comfortable gear than we did when we were 22 and seemingly invincible. Pack animals make it possible for people to go further, faster, and more comfortably than they could on their own.
Next, I don’t do much winter backpacking because every time I’ve done it, I’ve ended up cold and miserable at night. Lightweight gear that is also warm is very expensive. I don’t have primo gear. I have middle of the road gear that I’m slowly replacing with nicer stuff as I’m able to afford it. I would love to escape into the woods in the winter for a quick overnight. The woods in winter are so quiet and still. It’s really a different experience than the warmer seasons. Again, Rusty saves the day. He will help me to carry heavier, warmer gear and make my dreams of winter camping in the backcountry a reality.
You might be wondering if the donkey is more trouble than he’s worth on the trip. Donkeys do have a reputation for being stubborn. I’ll also have to pack things for him- a high line (a rope set up between two trees to tie him to), his food, collapsible water bucket, brush, hoof pick and first aid kit. Isn’t that just extra baggage? Well, yes and no. Everything I’ll need for him is relatively light. My donkey eats far, far less than a horse and only requires a little bit of grain each day. Lots of people backpack with large dogs and the dogs require more food than my donkey. Most of his calories come from forage. The entire world is his salad bar! A well-planned trip will include stops at grassy meadows for Rusty to have a snack. I’m a map nerd and I love diving deep into Google Earth and topo maps. I’ll plan trips that take advantage of available grass and campsites near water so that I can fill his bucket easily.
As animals on the trail go, a donkey is a relatively low maintenance choice. He is not like a dog that is used to living and sleeping inside. He will be just fine sleeping under the stars. Equines are also designed to move all day long and forage here and there. In the wild, horses and donkeys travel 20+ miles a day looking for food and water. This is what they evolved to do. I’m just taking advantage of their natural propensity for wilderness travel!
Some people say it’s a hardship on the animal to have to work. I strongly disagree. I think animals benefit just as much as people from having a purpose, especially animals that have been bred to work. I’ve seen this over and over again with my horses, especially rescues that sat in a field for years with nothing to do. Both of my mini horses LOVED to go for a hike. As they got more and more fit, I was having trouble keeping up with them. I never had a situation where I was dragging an unwilling mini down the trail.
Yes, I will have to stick to trails that allow horses but, lucky for me, north Georgia and western North Carolina are full of them. There are several wilderness management areas close to me, as well as the Pinhoti, the Smokies, and the Cohutta Wildnerness. I don’t see myself running out of trails anytime soon.
As far as donkeys being stubborn, obstinate creatures, my experience with equines of all kinds (horses, mules and donkeys) is quite the opposite. Most of them have a remarkable work ethic. They understand that they have a job to do, and they seem to enjoy doing it well. They have a keen sense of justice. They expect to be rewarded for a job well done, and they react badly to harsh treatment. Of course, there are training challenges, but I see them as opportunities to get better at what I do, which is to build mutually beneficial partnerships with animals.
Equines have a wonderful sense of partnership with humans that goes beyond a pet/owner relationship. I imagine it’s similar to people who have working dogs that they depend on to get a specific job done, like herding sheep or keeping the baby goats safe. That’s different than having a dog that waits in your apartment while you go to work and then you go on a walk together for fun. There’s a whole other level of communication that comes from working with an animal where something is actually at stake. I’m not saying that either situation is better or worse; they’re just different. If you’ve ever taken a dog on a long-distance hike, you’ll understand what I mean.
On the trail with a dog or a donkey, we’re solving problems together. How are we going to cross this creek? How can we get around that downed tree? When you spend time working with an animal in that capacity, an extraordinary relationship blossoms. You learn to trust each other’s instincts. You discover that the human doesn’t always know best. You’ll find yourself communicating with the animal in a depth that you might not have thought possible. If you’ve never worked with an animal in this way, I can assure you it’s a transformative experience.
And that is the biggest reason I want to take Rusty with me. I want a companion on the trail. Rusty is only 3 years old, just a baby. Donkeys live into their 30’s. My daughter and I have done every bit of his training so far, and we get to do all the rest. We get to watch him transform from feral, skittish animal to confident, trusted friend. He already can’t wait to go for a walk. He hee-haws as soon as he sees me get out of my truck at the barn. He shoves his head in the halter and can’t wait to get going. I’m looking forward to years of adventuring together. Who knows how many miles we’ll hike together, how many mountain-top sunsets we’ll see, how many nights we’ll spend together under the stars? It’s a big world for a little donkey!