I grew up in a car camping family.
In other words: my parents loved the outdoors, but not enough to strap crap on their backs, hike several miles, dine on instant oatmeal, and sleep on rocks with whining children.
Now that I am an adult, I have come to realize what the true barriers to entry for these kinds of trips are:
1) Lack of expensive gear,
2) Lack of expertise, and
3) Bears that want to eat your toothpaste.
Still, the idea of vacationing that far from civilization has always fascinated me. Which is why, when a family vacation brought us to Wyoming last summer, I added a few days to our itinerary and booked a 3-day llama trekking trip with Jackson Hole Llamas.
Backpacking purists will be quick to point out that it’s kind of cheating if you let a llama carry your load, to which I say, “Who cares? They’re cute.”
A typical llama trip
The multi-day backcountry trips aren’t cheap, but you get a lot for your money: all your gear (except personal items), all your meals, and professionally trained guides who do all the work. Also, you get to lead a llama. Hailing from the land of the Andes, llamas are calm, soft-footed, and sure-footed. They don’t spit, they don’t trip, and they don’t step on you. If you can walk a dog, you can lead a llama.
Co-owners, spouses, and guides Jill and Dave have spent decades perfecting honing their backcountry craft, and it shows. And good lord the food! Not only did they cater to kids, vegans, and a vegetarian on our trip, every single meal had all of us pestering them for recipes. No lie.
Says Jill, “We strongly believe a well-fed camper is a happy camper. Our meals are thoughtfully planned and prepared to nourish you throughout the day and leave you feeling satisfied. We strive to provide organic, locally-grown foods when possible and often supplement with vegetables from our garden. All our deserts and sweet treats come to us fresh baked locally. We are happy to accommodate special dietary needs and offer gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan options. For breakfast, besides teas and hot chocolate, we serve organic fair trade coffee and organic cream or other non-dairy options such as almond or soy milk.”
No instant oatmeal on this trip, my friends.
Our trip took us deep-ish into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness (adjacent to Grand Teton National Park), a pristine and beautiful landscape we simply couldn’t have seen on our own without Google Earth. We traversed fields of wildflowers, got close to wildlife, crossed streams, and slept under a million zillion stars. All with llamas!
Another huge plus was that the trip seemed to self-select awesome people, both the guests and the guides. We had a group of adventurous, interesting, funny people to spend our days with and not a single jerk (unless it was me, and I just didn’t realize it…). Everyone was reasonably fit, but not insanely so. About half our group took strenuous day hikes up to 11,000 feet on days we spent in camp. The other half of our group lounged at base camp playing cerebral card games such as “Spoons” and “B.S.”. Guess which group I was in? Oh, shut up.
Tips for a successful llama trip
If you’re considering a llama trip, and you totally should, here are a few things I recommend to make your trip a) possible, and b) fun:
1. Book right this minute: Jackson Hole Llamas is a very small operation with a very short season. If you think one of their trips is perfect for you, reserve right away. Many of their planned excursions this summer are already sold out. If you have a tight schedule, they may be able to customize a trip (which is what they did for us). Be aware that they’ll need a minimum number of guests to go, however, so your trip will be written in pencil until that minimum number signs up.
2. Take the packing list seriously: These people know what they’re doing. When they say bring hiking boots, they mean bring hiking boots (not your old running shoes). When they say bring rain gear, they mean bring rain gear (not your water “resistant” wind breaker. You are not allowed to bring pillows, only pillow cases to stuff (a rule I broke). Toiletries need to be small, few, and unscented (a rule my teen daughter broke). At night, all toiletries will be stored inside this cool portable electric bear fence, so take that, bears.
3. Enjoy your guides: My God, the guides are great! Their cumulative experiences, good humor, and willingness to answer question after question make them really great company. On our trip, we learned so much about botany, zoology, cooking, backcountry survival, and search and rescue. Additionally, Pepper, the resident dog, is a retired drug-detection dog, so we learned heaps about that too. I’ve never heard so many great stories in my life.
Don’t want to sleep with llamas? Do a day hike
In the event that you are not the camping sort (or the multi-day trips sell out), book a 5-hour, 5-mile day hike. You’ll get a lot of the fun experiences for a fraction of the cost, and still be able to sleep on a pillow without feeling mildly guilty. The minimum age for these trips is 7, but the folks at Jackson Hole Llamas are happy to make exceptions for people who are willing to carry their own children when things go pear-shaped. They will never mix singles and older couples with families with young children, so that’s another thing you don’t have to worry about.