LAWS OF FIREARMS
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
Interestingly, a poll on Yahoo's BackpackingLight
group, "Do you
carry a gun in the backcountry?", had these responses:
When it is legal.
When it is appropriate to the area.
I have never felt the need.
I don't like guns.
I think the idea is stupid.
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
This document is broken down into four sections:
1. The Arguments FOR
2. The Arguments AGAINST
3. The RIGHT answer
4. Other considerations
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
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
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
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.
almost worthless against large predators. A single shot will rarely
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
In parts of South America, and Africa, for instance, it would be stupid not to have a
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
Useless to carry: This is simply an uninformed
statement. Firearms have been useful in the back country since their
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
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
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
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
When considering items to take with you, you have to establish a
criteria for the selection of items. Usually this is broken into two
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!?"
Later...in 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
An extreme example of risk management skewed by years of accurate
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
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