Guns in the backcountry: When should you carry? Should you carry at all?

If you want to start an argument these days, just bring up the topic of guns.

On one side, you’re going to have folks who are concerned about gun violence, safety and a fear that America’s “gun culture” will leave the country’s populace vulnerable to things like mass shootings.

On the other side are people who assert that one of our nation’s fundamental freedoms is to be able to possess firearms, and to use them for protection from well-armed ne’er-do-wells who are the real problem. Their thinking: A well-armed populace is a deterrent to crime, not an enabler.

I recently read a piece on Outside Online about whether or not you should carry firearms into national parks. It got 209 comments. Any other similar story is going to get similar reactions. People are fired up about this.

You can read the article yourself, but the main point the author makes is that he sees no reason to carry firearms into a national park.

It’s legal to do so. It got me to thinking about the subject, and exploring the pros and cons.

PROS

It’s not a huge burden, physically speaking. Depending on the firearm and the amount of ammunition you take with you, it’s not going to be a big deal in terms of weight. Composite materials have taken the weight out of a lot of sidearms.

Protection from unfriendly wildlife encounters. Yep, the backcountry is full of wildlife. Most wildlife is pretty harmless, but predators such as bears, mountain lions and others can make a cool moment turn into something deadly in a hurry. Other wildlife, like moose, can be aggressive. Your Bowie knife or trekking pole won’t be much of a deterrent. Sure, stuff like bear spray can work, but the stopping power of a high-caliber sidearm is one of the few tools you have that can meet deadly force with deadly force.

Protection from unfriendly people. Most of the folks you meet in the backcountry are pretty cool. And if not, they keep to themselves. But that’s not to say there aren’t unsavory types who disappear into the woods to cause problems. Drunks at campsites, people setting up mobile meth labs or criminals guarding secret pot farms – not an everyday thing, but they’re out there. Some of them come with bad intentions, and are themselves, armed. Other predatory types don’t necessarily go away just because you’re out in nature. The thinking: an unarmed person confronted by these types is going to be a victim.

It’s a right. The law and the courts, starting with the Second Amendment, give people the right to possess firearms.

As a society, the U.S. has the most heavily armed civilian population in the world.

CONS

It’s dead weight. If you’re a serious hiker or backpacker, every ounce counts. Lugging along a firearm and ammunition you are very unlikely to use is a mini-boat anchor you will regret hauling around.

Non-lethal countermeasures for  wildlife are better. Being aware of your surroundings, how to handle wildlife encounters and non-lethal weapons like bear spray are better, lighter, cheaper and lack the consequences of a firearm incident gone wrong. Plus, everyone (thing) gets to walk away alive.

Backcountry crime is way overhyped. Criminals are looking for opportunity. Places that are hard to get to, not accessible by car and devoid of “victims” aren’t going to attract criminals.

It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Many gun owners are responsible, but let’s be honest: Given the stress of a confrontation, how many people are really ready to use a firearm? Doesn’t having one heighten the chance for an accident? The one thing that’s true about firearms is that once the trigger is pulled, you can’t take that bullet back.

MY TAKE

First, a disclaimer. I’m a gun owner. I’m not an NRA member and haven’t been hunting in years. I’ve never used my firearms for anything except hunting or shooting clay pigeons.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ve got a few thoughts on this subject.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time in the backcountry, most of it with people, occasionally on my own.

Personally, I’ve never seen the need to carry a firearm in the places I’ve been in Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico. Not that I haven’t had wildlife encounters – I have, one a bit scary – but nothing where I felt I would have been safer packing heat.

I also remember a backpacking trip I took a few years back where one member of our group decided to bring a sidearm. It was a beautiful high-caliber revolver, complete with a leather holster and several rounds. It was a weighty piece, for sure, and added to the guy’s already hefty pack.

Our trailhead was sitting somewhere below 10,000 feet, and our campsite was about 1,500 feet higher, going up steep switchbacks. It didn’t take him long to realize his firearm was weighing him down. He was struggling a bit with the altitude anyway, so he got a fitter, lighter member of our group to take the gun and holster back to the car and lock it away.

We didn’t meet anyone who was even close to being hostile. Our wildlife encounters were far from unfriendly. He didn’t miss his gun for a second.

Some places have the kinds of wildlife that make the question of carrying a firearm into the backcountry a much more serious question.

Now, a caveat. Not all backcountry environments are the same. So here comes another story.

Many years back, I was in Montana doing some fishing not too far from Bozeman. I had been near a lake and decided to go below the dam to some streams that looked more promising.

The brush was thick and tall. Just getting to a place to cast was a challenge, and I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in any direction.

About then, I remembered some stories I’d heard that week from Montanans about their own experience with bears and other animals out here. As in, how easily a bear can run up a mountain. Or the time when a hunting guide at her camp had to face down a grizzly with her lever-action rifle, narrowly missing her own demise. And so on.

I realized that if there was a grizzly bear nearby, I wouldn’t know it until I ran right up on it. Startling a bear, or angering a mother with her cubs nearby, and I would be a statistic. I had no weaponry at all.

If this place had been in Colorado, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Not so in Montana. Or any other place where grizzly bears call home. I bugged out of there.

I completely understand why people would carry a firearm in grizzly country, in states like Montana, Wyoming or Alaska. I wonder if it would be foolish not to.

My conclusions? For starters, know where you’re going.  Know the risks in terms of wildlife encounters, as well as people. Prepare accordingly.

If you choose to carry a firearm, be very comfortable with it. Know how it works. Be well-practiced in shooting it. Know the law in terms of when you can carry it and where, and when you are legally allowed to draw down, aim and fire. And definitely know how to retain your weapon, just in case someone tries to take it from you during a confrontation.

Most importantly, be mentally prepared that if you pull your firearm on something or someone, you must be ready to fire and to shoot to kill. Otherwise, you’re asking for untold trouble.

If you are with a group, do the right thing. Make sure the group is aware you plan to carry. And if members of your group are not comfortable with that, be big enough to honor that. Explain why you wish to carry, and if they’re still freaked out, stow your firearm or pull yourself out of that particular trip. Some people just get weirded out by guns, and no amount of reasoning will change that.

Also, do not let the fact that you are carrying a firearm lull you into a false sense of security. Be as vigilant out there as you would be if you weren’t carrying.

Lastly, understand human nature. Bringing a firearm into a human confrontation automatically heightens tensions. Your firearm is a method of last resort.

In short, be safe and understand your responsibility. You have a right to carry, but it’s not like a gun is a fashion accessory or a badge of machismo. It’s a tool, and a serious one at that. Owning and carrying one is a huge responsibility.

Got any thoughts on this subject? Or any stories? Let me know in the comments section. I’d love to hear what you all have to say.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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19 thoughts on “Guns in the backcountry: When should you carry? Should you carry at all?

  1. Good points, and I agree. I hunted when I was younger and handled guns for years. We always had them in the house. I think some people like to carry sidearms to look cool or tough or what ever.
    A gun is a responsibility and not a fashion statement or a political statement. I do not think hunters need automatic weapons and neither does anyone else who is not in the military.

    • Good take. I also wonder about the need for civilians to own military-style weapons. Seems like your 30-30 is a better hunting option than an AK-47 or an AR-15. But I don’t think there are many lawmakers with the stones to take that on.

      I worry about the folks who carry “because they can.” If you feel you have a need for protection, by all means, do what you have to do. Otherwise, eh.

  2. I am a new gun owner. I never thought I would own a gun. My husband has them and my mother-in-law gave my son a .22 rifle that used to be her father’s, an heirloom in great shape. So I decided with the guns around, I should at least know how to use them. I went to the gun range several times over the past few years and tried them all out.

    My husband does not backpack or hike with me, so it is often just me and my two kids. My husband thinks I should carry in the backcountry, and even daily due to all the crazy things happening in CO lately. But though I bought my own gun over the summer and I have taken two NRA pistol classes (Basic Pistol and Personal Protection Inside the Home), I have not yet taken a gun in the backcountry. I’ve been told even by gun enthusiasts that bear spray is more effective against animals in most cases, and my 9mm Glock would not stop a bear anyway unless I got really lucky with shot placement. So if I did take a gun, it would be to fend off any nutty humans.

    I don’t have a concealed carry permit, and I’m not sure if I’m going to pursue that. I am still learning about and considering the pros and cons of both concealed carry and carrying in the backcountry, so I appreciate your post. I did two trips this past summer with another family and the husband brought a revolver. It didn’t bother me that he had it, but I did wonder what people we passed thought about it since it was not concealed.

    • First off, kudos to you for taking the step to learn how to properly use a firearm. That is an important step.

      The bear spray argument is a good one. It’s only drawback is range. But you are correct in that most handguns lack the stopping power needed to take down a large predator animal.

      Bottom line, you should do what you feel comfortable doing while also realizing the seriousness of carrying a weapon like a gun. Sounds like you’re already there, and if you do decide to carry, my bet is that your deliberate consideration of the responsibility will make you a safe person to be around.

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. my 2 cents worth I am schooled and continue to seek training in different firearms disciplines, I am also an instructor, my rule of thumb is be trained and always carry… around town or in the woods i carry a knife, a personal sized pepper spray and in the woods always a can of UDAP bear spray. And btw dont try to take my AR that will be a very bad day… the 2nd amendment is not about hunting or what type or arms its designed to protect us from government tyranny therefore my AR’s stay 🙂

    • Don’t worry about anyone taking your AR. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

      Couple of questions, and these are honest ones:

      Why do you carry on a daily basis? And what is it about the assault rifle that you like, outside of it being fun to shoot?

      I’ve shot an AR and an AK47, and had a blast. But justifying the expense vs the utility leaves me not really having the desire to own one. I’d love to hear your perspective on these questions.

  4. Good article and good takes on everything.

    I think bringing guns into the wilderness should be limited to situations where the chances of encountering a grizzly or other top predator is high, that just makes sense. If you are hiking where “criminals” are in the backcountry, honestly, why are you there? Sure I would love to hike in Mendocino County but considering the illegal marijuana growing in the forests, why knowingly step into danger just for a hike? As for keeping the gun for self protection from the human element, while not causative, I think there is a correlation between relative easy access to guns and using those guns during disputes. If someone is being a jerk or you are, having a gun there seems to make it too easy to turn to that gun to “solve” things. Also, there are accidents with guns, necessitating rescue and there are instances of gun fire causing fires which in the West is a big deal considering the dry conditions out here.

    I am not going to argue the 2nd Amendment here but as it stands, people have the rights to have guns and take them into the backcountry. Fine, you have the right, but I think whether you “should” take the gun into the backcountry has to be limited because it seems to me that a gun is not practical and can cause more issues than it helps except in limited bear-related circumstances.

    • I can see that. The question or arming yourself is a serious one, much more so than most people think.

      A gun is, first and foremost, a tool. It can be used to hunt, it can me used for protection. But it is deadly serious. A gun’s purpose is solely to project lethal force. So given that, the choice to carry is a heavy one.

      I don’t carry in the places I go. I often run in sketchy urban areas, but have never felt threatened to the point where I felt I needed any weapon at all, not even spray.

      Now an incident could change that, or if I picked up on a threat I didn’t see before. Some people have very legitimate reasons for arming themselves. I don’t begrudge them.

      But I feel that to own and possess a firearm, you have to train yourself and ask yourself the right questions before making the plunge. Big responsibility.

  5. My husband was charged by a grizzly in the back of beyond in Alaska. He had a shotgun ready and even as the grizzly charged said that it felt ‘like a toothpick’ in his hands vs. that enormous bear. He had the very lucid thought that shooting it might just ‘piss it off’ more than anything. Before getting to the point of pulling the trigger the grizz pulled up from its charge, postured a bit and then ambled away. I’m not sure how much lead it would take to bring down a grizzly but his decision NOT to use the gun may have saved his life. Now that I have kids the thought has occurred to me, more than it ever had, that in the backcountry I wouldn’t mind having a bit more of a way to protect my family, just as we do at home. But between having a clean track record so far in terms of luck (which I humbly know can change at any moment) and being at least something of a reasonable ounce-counter, well, no guns in the backcountry yet for for us.

    • Wow! Great story, Alisa. I can see where he would feel a little overmatched with just a shotgun unless he was packing a rifled slug in that thing. That is fascinating about how the bear stopped just short of attacking after your husband stood his ground. I’m sure a few wildlife biologists would like to talk to him about that.

      Very happy that he lived to tell about it, and thanks for sharing.

      • Something somewhat similar happened to me when walking with two guys in a work-related day on the edge of the forest. Two yearling black bears came barreling through the forest, one taking a trajectory paralleling us and the other came straight at us, full speed. My two companions’ flight reflexes kicked in. The bears were hauling ass, going at least 15-20mph, full speed. There was no outrunning them. I didn’t have time to think but stood there instead of running. The bear screeched to a halt 3′ in front of me and just sat there looking at me. I could have reached out and petted his head he was so close. My brain shut down for a minute and I only have the foggiest outline of what the bear looked like. But slowly the neurons started firing again and I started walking slowly away from him, talking quietly while my two collegues started hollering like fools wondering what was going on. The bear wandered off and we all lived happily ever after. One of my collegues had tripped as he ran down the log-covered slope that was his escape route and had fallen and cut his nose up. He looked like hell and probably wished he had just hung out with me, not reacting at all. There was really no choice in the matter…it all happened within a matter of seconds. But it’s interesting, our instincts. In this and a couple of other instances I have found that I have no flight instinct. I’m probably doomed in the long run. 🙂

    • Not at all! That was right on target. You explained how your husband was in the backcountry, faced a hostile wildlife encounter, and how the decision not to fire on the bear probably saved his life. This is exactly what I like to see on this topic: Real-life examples.

  6. Great article and very excellent points. I was a hunter in my younger days and I have hunting guns and have always been around various types of firearms. With that said, other than hunting I have never felt the need to carry in the woods, the only weapons I carry are knives and quite honestly do not consider them weapons but tools. I honestly never thought the need for it but I love your points about grizzly country and I probably would in those areas if aloud. This is a hot issue lik abortion right now but it is our right, just think if people tried to take away our first ammendment rights, which for some people would be great (Westboro Baptist People)

  7. Interesting enough I fail to see anybody mention an EPI pen as a real line of defence. What is an EPI pen? a special tool that looks like a pen and is jabbed into the victim of a bee sting.
    A bee sting? what has that got to do with guns and dangerous wildlife?
    Statistically (facts, not urban legends) more people die from bee stings than any other animal attack.
    Food for thoughts?
    And for me: I am lucky to no longer live in USA and now live in a country where guns are seriously restricted. Needless to say that in Australia mass murders are no longer an occurrence since they changed the law.

    • A little bit of apples/oranges there, as anyone with a bee sting allergy would hopefully have one of those at hand. However, it is worth noting a couple things on the Australia angle: What they did worked, but what they did, politically speaking, seems incredibly unlikely to happen here. It’s a cultural thing (something the Aussies shared to an extent) that’s really strong in the U.S.

      It would not bother me much at all if I had to face the same regulations people in other countries face regarding their firearms. For other people I know, it would bother them a lot. There is a fear of the *possible* that’s really strong here, so strong as to override what crime statistics tell us. Thanks for the comment, and come back and visit the states any time!

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