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There is good news for hikers and campers who have struggled under the burden of carrying heavy equipment on their backs to enjoy the outdoors.

A new four-legged friend awaits to help — a llama. Llamas were bred in the Andes Mountains of South America for thousands of years, to carry burdens and relieve humans of this unwelcome task. They appear to be built for this chore. They are sure-footed even on the roughest trails. Their feet are split, with two toes each, and they have soft, dog-like pads that do not tear up the terrain. However, they are pack animals and are not meant to be ridden.

"Hikers, forest work crews and backpackers have discovered their use as beasts of burden," said Laura Higgins, co-owner and guide at San Juan Mountains Llama Treks, a Cortez, Colo., company that provides guided tours of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado.

Because these animals can carry a quarter of their body weight, nearly all the equipment a hiker needs can be packed into the llama's saddle panniers, thereby easing the strain.

Redwood Llamas, a Silverton, Colo., company that also provides pack trips, is owned by Bill Redwood. "Saddles for trekking llamas are either of wood or plastic and the panniers hang on either side of the llama's body" carrying all gear and food for a single or multi-day hike, Redwood said, leaving only a small day pack for the hiker to carry.

Llamas generally are curious, intelligent and gentle. Their easy-going nature makes them ideal companions on hikes for both adults and children. Redwood first became interested when he planned a hike with his young twins. He tried llamas and found that they were great assets.

"Pairs of llamas are best since llamas are social animals. They like a companion, and are also friendly with humans," Redwood said.

After successfully trekking with his children, he began breeding his own stock in the 1980s. He now has nearly a hundred llamas on a ranch near Dove Creek, Colo.. From June to September, he transports 30 llamas to Silverton for the trekking season.

Higgins, with San Juan Mountains Llama Treks, keeps 16 llamas on 23 acres near Cortez and uses them for both backpacking and shearing. Their fur is woven into small rugs that she sells. She gives her animals playful names: Kid Calico, Mr. Peanut, and Teddy Bear among them. She began her llama adventures in 1997 in Tennessee.

"Llamas became popular in the Southwest back in the 1980s," she said. "They are popular for their common sense, agility, and gentleness."

Although natives of the Andes, the animals are at home in mountains just about anywhere, and have adapted to the Sangre de Cristos and San Juans with ease.

"Llamas have many uses, such as racing, the show ring, cart pulling and as therapy animals, but in the United States, the main use of llamas is as recreational companions on trails," Higgins said.

And they can offer protection against predators as well. Llamas make excellent guards for livestock, sounding an alert and chasing trespassing dogs or coyotes, Higgins said.

"They are not easily spooked" she said.

Llamas communicate by humming and also express themselves by the position of ears, bodies and tails. "They do not spit at humans unless mistreated," Higgins said.

They have a tooth pattern that allows them to graze or browse much like deer and their droppings are deer-like pellets.

"This means they are less messy for those who follow behind," Higgins said. Blending in with the natural wildlife and environment, make them a preferred pack animal of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, which grant permits to llama trekking services.

One of the advantages of using the llama trekking businesses is that a novice camper can take the whole family without having to invest money for equipment. The trekking companies provide the needed gear. The businesses are aware that people new to the idea may be wary of trying it.

"We will train you the night before," Redwood said, explaining that the training allows people to get comfortable with the animals before embarking on the trip.

Both Higgins and Redwood say they look forward to sharing their love of llamas with hikers who are new to llama trekking.

MORE INFO

Guides: Some companies offer orientation so hikers can take llamas out by themselves. Others require guides to accompany the hikers and llamas. Many guides encourage hikers to lead the llamas to foster a relationship with the animal.

Trip: Treks can range from a single day to multiple days. Although llamas carry the equipment, hikers must be in good physical condition for the trek. Going with a pair of llamas is recommended because they are social animals.

Cost: Prices vary on outfitter, number of people and trip length.

Colorado: San Juan Mountains Llama Treks, based in Cortez, sanjuanmountainsllamatreks.com, 970-565-2177 or 865-368-7513. Redwood Llamas, based in Silverton, redwoodllamas.com, 970-560-2926.

New Mexico: Wild Earth Llama Adventures, based in Taos, llamaadventures.com, 1-800-758-5262. Llamas del Sol, based in Albuquerque, llamasdelsol.com, 505-453-1740.

Virginia A. Jones writes about the outdoors for The Daily Times. She can be reached at ginnyj@sisna.com.

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