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home : blogs_old : heads up hiker August 1, 2014

Heads Up Hiker
By Cheryl Hartz, Prescott Valley, AZ
The best hikes in the county, safety, plus plants, trees and wildlife on the way!
Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Blog: Guns or no: Are you 'packing' when backpacking?

 Cheryl Hartz

Ornery hiker Cheryl Hartz shows her strength and her defense plan in the bear and wolf country near Hannagan Meadow. Photo by Myron Hartz

In all fairness, if you're expecting an article on gun use, gun control, Second Amendment Rights, hunting, or my opinion on any of the above, you will be sorely disappointed. I'm simply curious as to how many hikers routinely carry a gun on their jaunts, excluding hunting trips. What kinds of guns? Has anyone ever felt the need to actually fire one for protection?

My husband and I have traversed some pretty remote wilderness in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon and Arizona where large game animals - including black bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, elk and moose - roam.

We've never felt the compunction to carry firearms, despite coming across bears, moose, deer, coyotes, elk, rattlesnakes and a couple of really wild-eyed jackrabbits. I can still beat a fast retreat. Just kidding. We backed off slowly and climbed into our canoe when a bear entered our camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on the Minnesota/Canada border. We backed slowly into the trees off a trail in Colorado when a bear coming down the path stopped, stood and sniffed, then angled off in another direction. I don't go where the griz are.

In our nearly 27 years in Arizona, only my husband and his dad glimpsed a pair of mountain lions in the wild. The humans were most impressed by the thudding of the big cats' footfalls on the dirt path as they immediately galloped away into the Bullpen Wilderness (Clear Creek) near Camp Verde. It was the off season, not when hordes use the swimming holes. The cats are elusive.

The wolves I watched Game and Fish and then Sec. of the Interior Bruce Babbitt set free near Hannigan Meadow on the first Arizona release of Mexican Gray wolves (1998) were still in their acclimation pens, so I shot photos through the chain link enclosure. But we never saw a wolf in the wild in later years when backpacking in wolf territory around there. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is so huge and so dense, that came as no surprise.

My only up close and personal encounter with a wolf designation was when I photographed the "wolves of the sky" - Harris' Hawks - in New Mexico.

Coyotes have come very near on several occasions, including one encounter with four of them on the Iron King Trail in Prescott Valley, but they never were aggressive, just curious.

Personally, I'd much rather shoot an animal with a camera than a gun, but that doesn't mean I don't like venison. I do. Very much. I'm happy to cadge it from my brothers and nephew when I visit them.

I understand that some hikers carry guns more to protect themselves from the human element than wildlife. Occasionally, very dangerous characters hide out in the woods.

Statistically, I believe those instances are so rare as to be a non-threat, and not worth "packing" the extra weight. We usually pack a large knife and sturdy rope for any variety of uses, but that's about the extent of our weaponry when hiking or camping. Plus I'm kind of an ornery ol' gal. I might stab you with my spork if you try to take my reconstituted freeze-dried dinner.

Please feel free to weigh in on this. I don't know if the Forest Service has any way to guesstimate how many hikers routinely carry guns onto public lands. Inquiring minds want to know.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, July 5, 2013
Article comment by: Van Krunk

Look lady, if I could figure out how to carry in the shower I would...any further questions?

Posted: Thursday, July 4, 2013
Article comment by: Steve Weed

I carry every time I backpack without exception. The three psychos my freind and I ran into that were on horses with guns that threatened to torture and kill us, backhanded my freind and pointed a pistol at him all because we marked the trail by our camp spot with a couple of small sticks and an empty beer bottle ( wich we planned on picking up ) have something to do with that. We were very appologetic and polite but these guys were very sick in the head. the ranger said these guys live up there and threaten people often. Bears are a concern but not as much as the two legged critters. I wouldn't have handled the situation any different even if I had my gun on that trip, but it was a reality check. There are bad people everywhere. I am safe and usually carry concealed to keep fellow hikers from being uncomfortable.

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2013
Article comment by: Another Opinion

After hearing of two separate incidences involving big cats, I think carrying a weapon is prudent. Both cases involved bikers who were biking in the wilderness in the mountains in Southern California. Both victims were the last riders in the row of bikes. One victim was simply carried off and eaten in the brush. The other victim was heard to scream by the rider in front of her. He tried to save her by hitting the cat with a rock as it bit into the woman's skull. The cat didn't react to the rock attack and dragged the woman into the brush where her remains were later found.

It's probably a good idea that if you go into an area with wildlife that can kill you to carry a gun or that someone in your party does. I'll bet the women who were carried off and eaten had wished they had one. Pulling a gun or knife from your side and shooting/stabbing the cat would have ended the attack. Or had a member of the group been able to shoot/stab the cat vs hit it with a rock a life may have been saved.

Not all wildlife attacks. But when you are on their turf and they do, you are very limited in what you can do to protect yourself if you are unarmed. You can back away, remain still, play dead, etc, but if an animal decides you are it's next meal, good luck. Even if you are armed with a knife, the animal will be able to get close enough to kill or maim before you can protect your life. If your luck doesn't run out, you'll be ok. Chances are your luck will keep you safe, but as in the cases of the women in So. Cal, sometimes you become the target of wildlife and if not prepared, you die.

Posted: Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Article comment by: Mr. William

I do carry occasionally a revolver in a holster. Never had to use it as of this writing and continue with that trend. I started doing this after I had one venture where I walked upon some drug dealers cash crop of Marijuana down by New River in a creek and seeing a man with a rifle asleep in a little shack that was thrown together. Called the Sheriff after that but now I carry just in case. I would rather have it with me and not need it then need it and not have it.

Posted: Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Article comment by: Dave Walls

I live in rural Nevada and visit Arizona often. While the odds of coming across bad guys in the woods is low, if you do, it probably won't end well if you're not prepared. In my opinion it's foolish and naive to enter the wilderness without a sidearm. To each their own though.

Posted: Saturday, March 9, 2013
Article comment by: Steve Peacock

I don't. I used to as a teen because I didn't know any better. I own and use hunting rifles and shotguns. I don't carry a side arm when hunting.

If I know of a person carrying a weapon - especially if concealed - while back packing, I try to get as much space between me and that person for the night and the rest of the trip. The person with the weapon is by far the most dangerous animal near me. I'd consider it a courtesy if they'd tell me they have one. Happy to talk caliber and make.and model.

Don't carry it in a bag or some place that is not easily accessible. If an animal is going to attack, they will not give enough warning to let you find it, arm it (hope there is not a chambered round, brrr) and bring it to bear and aim. If it is that big a predator, a hand gun would be the wrong tool.

If they want to eat you, you don't stand a chance. They are good at it. That is how they learn their living.

If it is a human, I also very much doubt they are going to give any warning if accosting you. I don't have any data on how many wilderness human to human interventions require deadly force - once you are 6 miles or so in.

Considering the number of animal attacks (mountain lion encounters are extremely rare - a dozen over 50 years) and black bears victims are usually 16-24 years old, usually inebriated males with girls near by. Same stats for snake bites on upper torso.

Grizzly bears are best dealt with a large bore long gun. A pistol would not be a good idea.

Although you can carry it, you can't discharge it in any National Park legally.

If, in the lower 48, there was a danger out there (other than perceived) I'm sure it would have been efficiently taken care of a long time ago.

People live in very close contact with all kinds of non human predators. As you drive up to your favorite hiking trail head - notice all the summer cabins. Not many missing weekenders, I suspect.

Posted: Saturday, March 9, 2013
Article comment by: Billy Jack

As shared by another commentor, I carry a revolver not for the wild animal threat, but for the slim chance of coming across some doped up transient with a knife.

Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013
Article comment by: Molly Bertch

I grew up hiking and camping in some pretty remote Arizona wilderness. I have never had a firearm during any of these excursions and never felt unsafe. Sure, if I let myself think about how many cougars or escaped criminals could be hiding around every scrub bush, the wilderness could be a scary place! In reality, Wild West bad guys don't hide in the forest anymore and wild animals will avoid human contact. I see no need for a gun.

Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013
Article comment by: Not a scaredy cat

I don't "pack" anywhere - unless I'm hunting or target shooting.

Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013
Article comment by: John Thomas

I always pack:

A bear cannister.

Mostly because, as I am wont to say: "They're Fast Food!"*

* TM pending....

Outside of Brown Bear country up along the Canadian Barren Lands there are far better alternatives: Bear Spray and knowledge being the foremost two (the "Bear" food canister is actually for rodents, the real scourge of the wilderness, IMHO.)

Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Article comment by: Back PackingHiker

I carry when hiking. It is light and easy to wear. I have never met a fellow hiker that wasn't pleasant and I realize that it would be an extremely rare event that I would ever need it for an animal attack. While personally I would feel horrified if I ever killed or injured an animal with my firearm I don't feel the need to become dinner for one that is sick or injured either.

Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Article comment by: Oppressed Middleclassman

Much of the fun of going into the outdoors is deciding which gun to take!

Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Article comment by: Jake Hesse

As the nephew who routinely hunts and who is relatively new to hiking/backpacking, I can say I have often thought it might be a good idea to carry a bit of extra weight but have never actually done so.

Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Article comment by: Eric Hesse

I don't know about hiking in the woods with a gun and not be hunting. Personally around where I live I would be more likely to be packing when I go to Wal-Mart than into the woods. Just kidding. Or am I? I've only hiked in the wilds such as described above with my aunt and uncle. They don't see fit to take a gun I guess I don't either. This isn't a biased statement as my aunt does happen to be the one who wrote the article. I trust that most animals aren't out to get you and would just as soon avoid you as you would them.

Posted: Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Article comment by: Pon Derosa

I own a rifle but never carried a gun into the forests. I did hike with some friends in Colorado in a forest known for its large black bear population. One of my buddies carried a handgun and I took some comfort in that.

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