At AllThingsNature, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What Is a Pack Animal?

Melissa Barrett
Melissa Barrett

A pack animal is an animal that has been trained to carry equipment, food, or other items on its back for transportation purposes. Frequently, the type of pack animal used is reliant on the native species of an area. Most often, working animals are from the horse, or equine, and cow, or bovine, families. In harsher areas, species of camels may be used to transport people and goods. By using beasts of burden that are indigenous to the area, handlers are assured of a constant supply of animals that are best suited to the environment.

Members of the bovine family are often used as pack animals in agriculture settings. Besides providing milk and meat, bovines are well suited for transportation. These animals are large and sturdy and have a slow but steady walking pace. As a result, the broad backs of these animals can often carry hundreds of pounds for long periods without overly taxing the cows.

Donkeys are considered to be pack animals.
Donkeys are considered to be pack animals.

In the colder areas of Asia, for example, tame long-haired yaks are often used for transportation. In the warmer and wetter areas of Asia, domesticated water buffaloes are used not only to plow rice patties but to transport the crop to buyers. The common ox, cousin to the water buffalo, is used similarly in many areas of the world.

In the arid areas of north Africa and west Asia, species of camels that are native to the terrains are domesticated and used to carry loads. Traditionally, the nomadic people of these areas used the camel as a pack animal to carry supplies between living areas. Merchants and farmers of the area quickly adopted the practice.

Horses may be used as pack animals.
Horses may be used as pack animals.

The llama, a small, hairy camel species native to the Andes mountains in South America, is a popular pack animal for hikers worldwide. These animals are very adaptable and do particularly well in cold or dry areas. In comparison to other animals used for transportation, llamas eat very little and thus produce less waste. In addition, they are known as calm and affectionate companions.

Both horses and mules are used frequently as beasts of burden. Of the equines, the donkey has the longest history as a pack animal. Records, including biblical references, note the use of the ass as a beast of burden as early as 4000 BCE. These animals are sturdy, resistant to heat, and easily domesticated. Donkeys are also very observant and, as such, were frequently used by parties on the Oregon Trail both as transportation and watch animals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a pack animal?

A pack animal is a creature that has been domesticated and trained to carry loads for humans. These animals are chosen for their strength, endurance, and ability to navigate difficult terrain. They are essential for transporting goods in areas where vehicles cannot go, making them invaluable in remote locations and throughout history.

Which animals are commonly used as pack animals?

Common pack animals include horses, donkeys, mules, camels, llamas, and yaks. Each species offers unique advantages depending on the environment and the type of load. For instance, mules, a hybrid of donkeys and horses, are known for their sure-footedness and strength, making them popular in mountainous regions.

How much weight can a typical pack animal carry?

The carrying capacity of a pack animal varies by species and individual strength. For example, a horse can typically carry up to 20% of its body weight, while a donkey might manage around 20-30%. Mules are particularly strong and can carry up to 20-30% of their body weight, according to the American Donkey and Mule Society.

What is the importance of pack animals in history?

Pack animals have been pivotal in human history, facilitating trade, exploration, and warfare. They enabled the establishment of trade routes like the Silk Road, where camels were crucial for crossing vast deserts. In many cultures, pack animals have been the backbone of agricultural and economic development.

How are pack animals trained?

Training a pack animal involves conditioning it to accept various loads and to respond to commands. This process requires patience, consistency, and positive reinforcement. The animal is gradually introduced to wearing a pack saddle and carrying small weights, which are increased over time as the animal becomes accustomed to the work.

What are the welfare considerations for pack animals?

Ensuring the welfare of pack animals is essential. This includes providing proper nutrition, rest, and medical care. Overloading and overworking can lead to health issues, so it's important to monitor their condition closely. Ethical treatment also involves training without cruelty and ensuring that the animals have a good quality of life.

Discussion Comments


@Ana1234 - After a certain point I think most people would have had pack animals, just because they are almost essential for agriculture of a certain scale. You just can't till a field without some kind of creature willing to do it with you and once an animal is tamed to the point where it can pull a plow, it's a simple matter to get it to transport other things.


@pleonasm - I don't know all the details, but I do know that llamas and alpacas come from South America, so they did have at least those pack animals. I can't imagine they would make good war animals, which has got more relevance for colonization I suppose.

Camels and elephants were probably better for war, but they would be useless in cold conditions and I can't imagine elephants were often successfully transported by ship.


I've heard there's a theory that the reason Asia and Europe ended up being more advanced in technology and colonizing everywhere else was because they had more domestic animals suitable for this kind of work than other places.

Horses, for example, are natives of Asia and Europe. They were brought over to the Americas by the Spanish. It might not seem like it to us, but domesticated animals were an advanced form of technology for people who didn't have them. And, while many people had smaller food animals, pack animals and the means of keeping them were more rare.

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • Donkeys are considered to be pack animals.
      By: Norman Nick
      Donkeys are considered to be pack animals.
    • Horses may be used as pack animals.
      By: Mikhail Kondrashov
      Horses may be used as pack animals.