The Place With No Name


hiking area - please read the disclaimer on the library's main page, and the fine print, before continuing.








1.  If you carry a firearm, know how - and when - to use it.

The subject of guns on the trail is possibly THE most divisive discussion among hikers.  It is a subject that is despised on most discussion lists, causing hot arguments, angry responses, and calls for banning the subject entirely.  When discussing firearm carry on various lists, I have had questions answered and good points raised. However, I have also been accused of being naive, insecure, fearful, paranoid, stupid, and of having a small penis. I am, quite simply, astonished. It seems to be legitimate to discuss trail gear, and although I consider firearms to be trail gear, I find that there has been very little real discussion on the subject...

Interestingly, a poll on Yahoo's BackpackingLight group, "Do you carry a gun in the backcountry?", had these responses:

Choices (56 replies)



Yes, Always. 5  8.93%
Yes, When it is legal.   1  1.79%
Yes, When it is appropriate to the area. 17 30.36%
No, I have never felt the need. 13 23.21%
No, I don't like guns. 1  1.79%
No, I think the idea is stupid. 19  33.93%

So, 41% of responding hikers carry a firearm in the backcountry.  Obviously, then, the subject deserves rational discussion. Unfortunately, there are irresponsible parties on both sides. One side main-lines adrenalin and the Second Amendment while declaring that a gun must ALWAYS be carried. The second side vehemently declares that you must NEVER carry a weapon of any kind, and to do so is simply stupid. It has gotten to the point where nobody wants to have the discussion because the zealots on both sides will instantly start a war and nobody - especially the newbies - will learn anything at all and in some cases be worse off than they were before. The messages that they need to hear - namely responsible gun ownership, training, and proper carry and use are never covered. In reality, with good training and proper education, a gun IS just any other piece of gear.

What, then, should you do?  Should you carry a firearm in the backcountry?  Well, despite the zealots, the right answer is: "Sometimes, you should, other times, you shouldn't."   What follows is (I hope!) a rational discussion of the whys and the why nots.  It is long, but after reading it, you will be able to make you OWN decision about what, when, and where, and if to carry.  In this essay, bears are used as the common example of the large predator often encountered in the back country.  I admit that this is rather unfair to bears, since there are several kinds of large predators in the back country - including bad people.

This document is broken down into four sections:

1.  The Arguments FOR
2.  The Arguments AGAINST
3.  The RIGHT answer
4.  Other considerations


"The Second Amendment guarantees my right to carry a firearm."

Really, this isn't what the discussion is about. For the purposes of this discussion, rights are irrelevant to the topic of whether or not you need or don't need a firearm in the backcountry.  You will find, in all MY posts on the various lists that I never bring up the subject of rights, privileges, or freedoms - nor do I discuss the subject when someone else remarks on it. None of that has anything to do with the decision making process for or against the carry of a firearm in the backcountry.

While I believe in Second Amendment rights, they become a smoke screen that some people hide behind when the subject comes up.

"A gun is the best tool if a hiking partner is being mauled."

NO! Spray them both if you have pepper spray. If that fails, crack the bear with a hiking pole or stick to disengage him from the person being mauled. Don't try to shoot a bear in the process of mauling someone. You aren't that good. I'm not that good either. There are probably less then ten people on the planet who are.

"I used to carry pepper spray in bear country, but then realized that I didn't want to wait until the bear was within range of the spray.  Distance has its privileges."

You should carry the spray. The big one. You shouldn't be shooting bears or other critters at any distance greater than 'danger close'. (Unless you intend to eat them...) Use the spray first, and the gun second. Every situation is different, but shooting a bear because he wants your Twinkies and shooting a bear because he wants to chew on your skull are two very different things. Remember: He lives there, and you are just visiting.

"I carry a gun everywhere I go."

I would agree that some people should carry a firearm everywhere, but that would be limited to law enforcement personnel and people with a lot of training.  Simply having a gun isn't a guarantee of safety, and this blanket statement is no better than saying that you would never carry a firearm under any condition.



"A firearm isn't lightweight, and is against lightweight backpacking principles."

Not all firearms are lightweight, but there are a few that are relatively light.  In reality, weight has no bearing on the topic of weather or not to actually carry a firearm.  It is, just like the Second Amendment argument; a smoke screen.  

"Fear of wild animals comes more from the movie theaters and TV than from actual wilderness experiences."

Not fear, respect. In my 26 years or so of backcountry wandering, I have personally used a firearm, and personally seen a firearm used, to save human lives in a time of crisis.

If you break it down statistically, on the AT, you are eight times more likely to be killed by another human being than you are by a bear. Your primary concern, therefore, in a backcountry violent encounter, is humans. Police officers carry firearms, not through any burden of fear, but because they must be prepared for worst case scenarios.

"Firearms are almost worthless against large predators.  A single shot will rarely stop them."

I have actually witnessed bears being brought down twice. One with a rifle, and the other with a handgun. Both bears died like any other shot game, and didn't remain animate for long. Shot placement is VERY important.

Before I get a box full of hate mail: I was not the one doing the shooting. I like bears.

Stopping power and shot placement are topics, I think, that are outside the scope of this document. Discussions of ballistics, etc., are rather involved topics. To be brief, skip the 10mm and .40 SW and go with .45, .44Mag, .454 Casul, or 12 Gauge and you will not go wrong. The different delivery systems for these calibers (read 'guns') is also really beyond the scope of this document, and there are excellent resources that you can learn from. I carry a Glock 21, or a .44 Colt Python, or a .454 Casul, or a American Arms single shot 12 break open. I can reload the 12 faster than most people can pump, which is a necessary skill when carrying that type of firearm.

"Many gun accidents occur every year in which people are mistaken for animals and shot."

If the accident argument makes sense to you, then you shouldn't carry matches because they might start a forest fire.  There is no such thing as a 'gun accident', just as there is no such thing as a 'matches accident'.  Only people have accidents.

For all the complaints that guns on the trail are unsafe, I can't recall any instance of one hiker shooting another by accident. I can recall instances of bears eating hikers, and I can recall instances of bears who wanted to eat hikers being dissuaded by various means - including guns.  Ditto for bad people.

"Pepper Spray is a better option than a firearm."

I'd rather say that it is your second to last option - the last option being the firearm.  Pepper Spray is NOT 100%.  Despite that, I think that you should ALWAYS carry pepper spray - even when not in bear country.

"Knowing that there might be a paranoid gun carrying person backpacking in the same area that I am certainly doesn't give me piece of mind."

So I guess rangers, and other law enforcement personnel, are 'paranoid gun carrying people' that you worry about...

I don't understand why having a piece of equipment makes me paranoid or dangerous. Does my down vest mean that I'm paranoid of hypothermia, or does it mean that I'm properly prepared? "Ya'll better watch that boy. He's afraid 'o freezin' ta death. Us? Why we're wearin' cotton. When's the last time anybody froze to death? Why, it almost never happens!"

Think about two simple, unrelated statistics:

The vast majority of people who die in house fires die in houses where there are no smoke or fire detectors.

The vast majority of people who get mauled by big critters are carrying no equipment to defend against big critters.

Those that would argue that such occurrences are so rare that it isn't worth preparing against, must also argue that house fires are so rare, that only paranoid fire freaks would have smoke alarms.

"A knife is better than a gun in a mauling situation."

Possibly, but that is another whole discussion of a different area of skill. Blade types, sectional density, insertion points, and depth of entry are also complex topics and skills that take time to learn.  Not to mention that knife combat against a large predator requires a level of mental preparedness that most people simply do not have.

"People carry guns because they personally feel inadequate."

If you feel adequate, then that's great.  Simply feeling adequate, however, won't keep you from being eaten, mauled, raped, robbed, or murdered.

"Weapons are just extra weight which you will dump after a few days."

Not if you've already made the right decision.

"People who carry firearms carry more than just the gun - they carry an unreasonable burden of fear."

This is the 'Burden of Fear' argument that comes up from time to time.  Sometimes it sounds quite rational.  "A reasonable fear of the unknown is natural and healthy and keeps us on toes. An unreasonable fear of the unknown spoils our fun and can result in irrational thought and illogical behavior."

The 'Burden of Fear' argument, while alluring, doesn't prove out when thought out carefully.  If the burden of fear argument were true, then those arguing for it would hike on a ridge top in a lightning storm - because really, what are the chances of being struck by lightening? The reality is, in that situation, very high. 

When I travel in such areas, carrying something with which to fend them off actually alleviates any 'burden of fear'.

Thought out another way, I carry extra water in the desert, not because I fear dying of thirst, or have an unreasonable fear of thirst, but because it is prudent to do so.

> the ones I know who are sensitive to the > negative symbolism of firearms and the fear that > firearms generate in others create for themselves > reasonable-sounding but fallacious arguments regarding > the actual level of threat in their personal > environments.

We all have fire extinguishers and smoke alarms in our homes, not because we have created reasonable-sounding but fallacious arguments regarding the actual level of threat of fire in our homes, but because such items are prudent and have been shown to save lives.

"I think taking guns on a backpacking trip is not only stupid, but useless, and often illegal."

This is an argument that is often used, and covers three ideas:

Stupid to carry: It depends entirely on where you are. In some areas it is stupid NOT to take a gun. For instance, anywhere that you are likely to encounter a polar bear, you should have a weapon capable of killing one. Polar bears aren't especially aggressive creatures, mind you, but they are huge. They are also insatiably curious. Most polar bears don't know what a human is, and if one sees you he/she may decide to find out what you are. They can stalk you for many days over many miles. In the end they will kill you, not to eat you or out of meanness, but because they don't know what you are.  

In parts of South America, and Africa, for instance, it would be stupid not to have a gun.

I am surprised that every time this subject comes up, people on both sides make blanket statements like "Carrying a gun backpacking is stupid.", or "I never go anywhere without mine." A gun is like any other piece of your gear. You don't take swimming trunks to Everest, and you don't take your arctic parka to Tahiti. Most of your gear has a reasonable application in some environment, but not in all environments. You carry gear that protects you from thirst, heat, cold, hunger, rain, snow, etc., because these are all threats that are commonly faced. Predation by another creature - human or not - while rare, does happen more often in some areas than others. You must do a reasonable risk assessment whenever you go out.  To make such a blanket statement is ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst.  I don't need a shotgun in my own back yard. I do need one in other places.

Useless to carry:  This is simply an uninformed statement.  Firearms have been useful in the back country since their invention.  

Illegal to carry:  You should be aware of all legalities regarding firearms in the place where you are traveling before making the decision to carry one.


The right answer, by now, should be obvious, so let's ask the question again:  Should YOU carry a firearm in the backcountry?  You can clearly see that the answer is, "Sometimes."  Knowing WHEN that 'sometimes' is, however, requires careful consideration.  There is an often used quotation that, "It's better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it."  You can't argue with that statement.  The logic of this theorem is FLAWLESS. It is a statement that is true beyond the petty discussion of whether or not to carry a firearm in the backcountry.

It is a statement of absolute logic, however, that disregards limits of weight, sanity, and prudent choice. Using the theorem, one would be inclined to carry a MIG welder while backpacking, because it's certainly better to have one and not need it than to need one and not have it...right?

Well, you certainly can't carry everything, and the answer is obviously no. Criteria have to be set on every object and every ounce of weight that are rational and sane. Unfortunately, we have all seen people who have thrown out rational sense and carry 80 pound packs for a nice weekend hike - which invariably turns into a nightmare...  On the flip side, there are people who don't carry enough and wind up in trouble.  In order not to make these mistakes, you have to make prudent decisions.

A gun should be considered in the category of 'safety equiptment', similar in function to a climbing helmet.  While this is a document about firearms, let's leave that for a little while and talk broadly about safety equipment.  When deciding which emergency gear to carry, you should rationally evaluate rationally the odds of meeting different sorts of emergencies on the trail - but that isn't the only consideration.

That question can only be answered on a hiker by hiker basis. Many people point out the statistical improbability of some occurrences. Risk management isn't just about the likelihood of an occurrence, it's also about the end result if the unlikely does happen. It's not likely that nuclear reactors will melt down, but if they do the results can be catastrophic, so measures are taken against that unlikely eventuality. You can't just 'rationally evaluate the odds', you also have to rationally evaluate the end effect if the odds do not fall in your favor. For instance, what are the chances that I will fall down while hiking? Very slim. I have never taken a bad fall and I've been hiking a long time, so why should I bring the climbing helmet?. If I am going hiking on nice level ground, I won't take the helmet. If I am going to hike treacherous mountain slopes, however, I will wear the helmet. Why? Because if I do fall, the fall is more likely to be severe - and I am more likely to bonk my head - in the difficult terrain. I've never needed it, but if I do land on my fool head, I will be glad to have my skull bucket.

Having said that, there is no piece of gear that can eliminate accidents. There are only pieces of gear that can help lessen the severity of accidents (climbing helmets, for one), and pieces of gear that can help you perform a self rescue (rope, first aid supplies, compass) if necessary.

When considering items to take with you, you have to establish a criteria for the selection of items. Usually this is broken into two groups:

1. What do I need to take with me?

2. What do I want to take with me?

Items that are on both lists are obviously more desirable than items on one list or the other.

There is another question, however, that is also important:

3. What if I do not take this item with me?

Let's use an obvious example: Water. In Southern Louisiana, I rarely have to carry more than 16 ounces of water. It's far easier to just drop the filter tube into any number of abundant water sources than to carry a lot of water. So, if I am traveling to Honey Island Swamp, and I ask myself, "What if I do not take water bottles with me?", the answer is, "I'll just have to drink out of the filter tube, but that's not a big deal because water is everywhere."

If, however, I am traveling to Arizona with the intention of hiking in the desert, and I ask myself, "What if I do not take water bottles with me?", the answer is, "I'll probably die."

Anytime I get the 'probably die' answer, I always take the item. I also usually take the item if the answer is, 'could get mangled'.

It seems to work every time. For the weapon example, let's not use guns - since so many people are opposed to them in an irrational way - let's use a nice sturdy ash pole. Six feet long, 1.5 inches wide, weighs about 20 ounces, and makes an excellent walking stick. Same scenario: Honey Island Swamp. "What if I do not take this heavy pole with me?"

"Won't have anything to discourage alligators. Could get mangled. Won't have anything to help me drag myself out of the muck. Could get drowned. Take the pole."

This isn't an unreasonable or paranoid answer. I have had to fend off a few swamp lizards (alligators to you Yankees). Nothing serious, mind you, but not something you want to do with a Leki either. Add to the equation that people vanish in this area on a frighteningly regular basis (supposedly by being eaten by 'gators), then the pole becomes prudent.  Trying to drag yourself out of a muck hole with a pair of Leki's is likely to end in two broken poles and a major 'Holy $h1t' moment.

Change the scenario to Arizona: "What if I do not take this heavy pole with me?" "My load will be lighter, and I'll be able to carry a set of hiking poles that are better suited to the terrain."

What you need - and even what you want - will be dependent on the terrain, the weather, and the prevailing circumstances in the area. You wouldn't carry snowshoes in the rain forest just in case it snows, and you wouldn't carry Bermuda shorts in Antarctica in case you decided to go for a swim. You would, however, carry those things in places where snow or swimming were possible - sometimes even when such occurrences may not be likely.

Of course, there is another theorem that is also popular; that is the ultra-light theorem, which essentially says: "It's better to leave something behind, rather than have to carry it, if you aren't going to use it." This is another inarguable theorem - which, like the first, disregards limits of ability, sanity, and prudent choice. Unfortunately, I have seen people follow it to its unfortunate end by discarding prudent things. The fallacy of this theorem is affecting more and more people, and the number of people who aren't carrying enough gear is on the rise.

There have been stores on the lists of such people. I personally came across group of hikers who had no first aid kit at all. "We've been hiking for years and never needed one!" After I patched the bleeding gash on one fellows leg, I recommended that they should reconsider the importance of eight ounces worth of first aid. Sometimes ounces mean the difference between life and death - and those are the ounces that count.

Many years ago I came across a pair of hikers who were going to freeze to death in the night because they didn't have enough gear and hadn't lit a fire. When I came upon their camp in the late evening, it had begun to white-out. Since they were obviously VERY cold, I asked them why they hadn't lit a fire yet, since the little sheltered spot could be warmed easily. I got an irate five minute lecture about the evils of camp fires and the principles of LNT. At the end, I told them that I would be glad to take messages to their next of kin and make sure that the rangers would be able to find their frozen bodies when I made it back to civilization. After a short pause, they asked me if I could spare some matches. They didn't have any, because they didn't expect to need fire...

Just a little bit of prudence goes a long way.  Sometimes, though, when traveling in unfamiliar territory, mistakes can be made based on accurate experience in other places.  Risks must be assessed appropriately, and you should be properly informed about those risks before making decisions about what - and what not - to take.  Some people continue to consideration of certain items because they have never needed, or don't like it, and this is potentially very foolish.

Take for example a fictional hiker in Florida to paint the metaphor... Let's say that I have only hiked in Florida. I've been hiking there - and only there - my whole life. I have never carried a sleeping bag. I have never needed a sleeping bag. In all my experience, people who are carrying sleeping bags are carrying a burden of fear that is totally unnecessary. They are preparing for something - freezing to death - that statistically NEVER happens in Florida. I am convinced - as are all of my friends - that carrying a sleeping bag is just plain stupid. I hate sleeping bags, and won't even own one.

Eventually, we decide to hike outside Florida. We decide to go somewhere really remote. The Northwest Territories. In February. As the helicopter pilot drops us and our gear off, he notices our light packs and thin clothing, and asks us if we've got sleeping bags that are warm enough. "Sleeping bags!? We've been hiking for years and years and in all our vast experience we've never needed sleeping bags before, why should we need them now!?" camp... "So, where should we light the fire?" "Fire?" "Yeah, let's light a fire. I can't feel my fingers." "Ah, well, we could put it right here." "Great, let's find some fuel." "Ah, um, well, we haven't seen anything except rocks and ice all day..." "Rocks and ice? Come on guys, stop fooling around - you know I'm snow blind - just light the *&^%! fire." "Uh, maybe we should set up the tents..." "TENTS! Did I hear you say TENTS, heathen!? I only packed the tarps." "Tarps?" "Yeah, I've never needed walls before...and I've got lots of insect repellent if the bugs get bad."

An extreme example of risk management skewed by years of accurate experience...

So when I hear someone say that they won't carry something because they've never needed it, don't want it, and think that it's stupid, I just have to wonder what they will be thinking when they ARE faced with the situation where the DO need that item...

Of course, once the drunk hits you, it's too late to buckle your seat belt...

The converse is, of course, true as well. If we see someone hiking in Florida carrying their bomb-proof arctic tent and their -40 degree sleeping bag with the aluminumized vapor barrier, we will think that they are quite off their rocker when they declare, "I ALWAYS carry my sleeping bag. You never know when a bad storm will drop twelve inches of the white stuff..."

Of course, being over prepared isn't likely to kill you. Just make you miserable...


  • Under construction...








This website is designed to be viewed at a resolution of 800 x 600, or higher, using Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Failure to use these settings may cause in inconsistent results.