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Guns & Backpacking

I am new to backpacking and have only made a few serious trips. Everyone I hike with always carries a gun. Do you carry a firearm when in the United States? Or am I just paranoid?


I am new to backpacking and have only made a few serious trips. Everyone I hike with always carries a gun. Do you carry a firearm when in the United States? Or am I just paranoid?

Submitted by - Damian - Alamogordo, NM


First off, there’s no easy answer to this question–and no real consensus in the hiking community. Smart, responsible backpackers on both sides of the debate hold reasonable positions (see Bruce Barcott’s great essay on the hiker/hunter debate in "Killer Hike").

Unfortunately, discussion around guns in the backcountry almost always gets hijacked by the most partisan voices and disintegrates into unproductive name-calling. Backpacker tries to hew a middle course on the issue: The magazine’s official position is this: If you’re a responsible gun owner with proper training and permits, and if carrying a weapon enhances your backcountry experience, and if you respect other hikers who might be uncomfortable around firearms, then by all means, carry them where they are legal.

But you’re asking me, personally, if I carry a gun. The answer is a definitive no. I’ve never carried one, nor have I ever hiked with anyone who has. Frankly, it would freak me out a little. I was not raised with guns, and have no need or desire to bring them into my life, particularly my wilderness experience.

I once took a 10-day trip into grizzly-thick Wrangell-St. Elias NP with my friend, Annie, and nothing but a couple cans of pepper spray. Everyone we met en route to our remote camp (including our bush plane pilot) was amazed that we weren’t packing heat. Two girls headed into the Alaskan bush with no guns? They thought we were crazy. To us, it wasn’t even something we ever considered. Did we see grizzly? Yep–two at once. Was it scary? Yep, but in an exhilarating, unforgettable, all good way. (We would have been sorely disappointed if we ended that trip without a bear encounter.) Did we for one split second wish we had a gun? Nope.

Damian, what do you feel you need protection from? Animals? Highly unlikely. The odds of you getting attacked by any animal are slim to none, unless you do something really dumb, like bring a T-bone steak into your tent in grizzly country. Even grizzlies will leave you alone if you follow proper protocol and keep a clean camp (Check out our "Ask a Bear" section for all the dos and don’ts in bear country.)

As for protection from criminals, I do, personally, think that’s being paranoid. I’ve been hiking for 20+ years all over the country–many times alone–and I’ve never once felt uneasy or threatened by any person I’ve ever encountered. Yes, I know it does happen on rare occasions–although almost always in frontcountry settings–but I believe that having a gun in pocket could potentially turn a bad situation worse, especially if you’re not fully trained on how to use it. (On the remote chance that you do run into a weirdo on the trail, read these tips on how to deal with it.)

There are also practical reasons for not carrying a gun: They’re heavy and bulky and awkward. And if everyone you hike with is carrying one (as is their right), yours would only be redundant, weighing you down both physically and mentally. I’m assuming your hiking partners are well-trained in gun use. If a situation arises and a gun is necessary, let them deal with it.

Bottom line: Unless you’re hunting, I personally see no reason to carry a gun while backpacking. For me, one of the main joys of backpacking is escaping from stress. Guns require serious responsibility and serious responsibility causes stress. To reiterate: This is my personal opinion, but you asked!


  1. justinfoust

    I will [always/never] carry a gun backpacking. I once knew someone who [insert story supporting my view], and have felt it [necessary/unnecessary] ever since.
    Also because this is my view I feel [nobody/everyone] who hikes [should/shouldn’t] carry while in the woods.

    There, I have left it so you are free to decide for yourself lol. In my experience those that are for it are REALLY for it, and those against it are REALLY against it. So do what you are comfortable with.
    I have a few pistols but on my trip to the Smokies last month I decided I didn’t need it. I didn’t even bring bear spray. I trusted in the universe and here I am.

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  2. mygalaxynoteivgmail-com

    I am a minimalist, solo hiker but also a former police officer, veteran, and firearms and use of force instructor. Most importantly- I’m a Canadian who loves hiking in the amazing US National Forests that you are blessed to have 🙂
    Last July, I was solo, back-country on Chicoma Peak in New Mexico. I fully anticipated- and was hopeful for- a bear encounter, but had no experience or perspective of mountain lions… until my first (and only) night there. After building my campfire, I sat down to enjoy the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen in complete solitude and disconnect from any signs of human life. (read- no help for 20 miles, or cell reception). I must have caught movement from the corner of my eye, because I turned abruptly in time to see a beautiful, 6 and 1/2 foot mountain lion closing in on me from less than 30 feet. Yelling, rock-throwing, fire-swinging, bluff-charging, pleading, and sweet-talking while pinned against a cliff fall, are the only things that kept the cat at bay until sunrise (11 hours). I even took the time to take several pictures of it, so there would be a chronicle of my demise should anyone ever happen upon my remains or belongings.
    I was told by rangers and outfitters since, that is not typical mountain lion behavior, BUT….I can’t reasonably or lawfully travel through your incredible States with a firearm so will never solo-hike in back-country again. I feel there is merit to all sides of the debate on firearms possession within National Parks and Forest, but there should be allowances for lawful and reasonable possession of firearms FOR EMERGENT USE ONLY, with heavy consequences for those who act outside of lawfulness and reasonableness.

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  3. dpsol2outlook-com

    I’ve backpacked for 50 years, all in the lower 48; never carried a firearm, and I never will.
    I’ve become more security conscience recently about leaving my car at trailhead, because the past few years has seen an increase in auto vandalism at trailheads along the Appalachian trail here in VA; mostly where parking areas are close to major thoroughfares and cities (and popular party sites for townies), so I make more careful arrangements around where I begin a trek and how I get transported there.
    I won’t trek with anyone if I know they are packing a firearm. I could provide my litany of reasoning, but since it’s my personal boundary I don’t see the point. I have no issue with legal gun ownership or carrying, just not in trail companionship with me, and no interest in engaging in persuasive debate regarding should/should not. This has worked for me for a lifetime.

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  4. jcruz907hotmail-com

    It’s simply a matter of what you’re comfortable with. You may feel stressed about the responsibility carrying a firearm brings or you may feel uncomfortable not having all solutions available to you.

    Bear spray usually does work well. But, if the animal is up wind from you, you can make things worse by not hitting him and spraying yourself instead. Now you’re disabled in front of a potential threat. That’s not an optimal situation.

    Nothing is guaranteed, but, personally, I feel more comfortable knowing I have EVERY option available to me (never give up). I’ve carried a firearm all my adult life both professionally and personally and have had the occasion to need it (human threats). I’m still standing and that’s convincing enough for me. I also know of incidents where handguns have been effectively used defensively against critters including bears. These incidents have involved, hikers, hunters, guides and FS/LE personnel. True, it is very rare, but it does happen.

    As far as the added weight is concerned, fully loaded handguns do weigh a couple of pounds. But, if you know what you’re doing, your pack isn’t that heavy anyway and the extra 2 pounds is a minor factor and, for me anyway, well worth the peace of mind (= less stress) it gives.

    Acknowledge and respect the fact that others may feel uncomfortable at the knowledge of someone with a firearm in their midst. I make it a point not to advertise the fact that I’m armed even if I can carry openly legally. There’s no use in making people around you nervous and/or pissing them off or otherwise spoiling their outdoor experience. There’s also no need to give up your tactical advantage of surprise. If someone’s intent on doing wrong and they know you’re the one with the gun, guess who’s going to get taken out first – you. If something bad is about to go down and no one knows you’re armed, you stand a better chance of seeing it coming and successfully reacting. A good chest holster over a light undershirt and under an over-sized vest or sleeveless T with big arm openings works well in warm weather and an over-sized rain jacket or windbreaker is good for colder climes. While giving good access, chest carry also has the better chance of not getting Rosco wet on crossings.

    As to caliber, whatever you can deploy most effectively with the biggest punch is best against big critters. I’ve heard of people taking bears down with a 9mm but that’s the exception rather than rule. All the LE/FS incidents I’ve read about involved the 10mm and above. 10mm is most manageable and gives the added greater mag capacity. Yes, a .44 mag or .50 AE is better, but what good is it if you can’t one or more shots off effectively?

    Finally, if you do decide to carry, be sure you know how to use it safely, responsibly and confidently by training regularly (following all standard safety precautions of course) and that you’re legal (unless you’re OK with going to jail for while and kissing your firearms/licenses bye, bye – I’m not). Also be sure to take any peculiarities of hiking/backpacking into consideration in your training. For example, if you use trekking poles, think about what you’re going to do with them if you suddenly need your weapon and train until you can get to it safely without thinking.

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  5. jlbbryant2000yahoo-com

    I carry a Gun at all times I believe in being prepared you never know what may happen in the woods or in the city. I am not afraid of the animals or people but with animals you never know, and not all humans are good people. I have lived in my house for over 20 years and never had a fire but I still have a fire extinguisher just in case. I am 57 years old been driving for many year never had a wreck but I still wear a seat belt. so yes I carry a gun.

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  6. oldnevada

    NOLS (Nat’l Outdoor Leadership School) did a couple of great seminars on bear encounters. Dr. Tom Smith’s and Katie Baum-Mettenbrinch highly recommend ‘best’ avoidance practices and bear spray as a deterrent to bluff and actual charges. Dr. Smith suggests that to kill a large charging bear barrelling down on you in 30 seconds is not the time to verify your accuracy and emotional stamina. Using bear spray will work over 90% of the time. If you miss a dead shot with a weapon, things just go from very bad to terminal.

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  7. drmackay

    I don’t carry a firearm when I backpack. I don’t see the need and I find there are either lighter alternatives or behavior I can change to avoid the need for a firearm when I backpack. I don’t want the weight. That said – there is no reason to be freaked out if someone is carrying a firearm when backpacking. I have met someone on the trail visibly carrying a firearm. It didn’t bother me, no reason to be concerned. When I reflect back on trips and items I wish I had brought along that I didn’t bring – a firearm has never made the list. None of my backpacking partners ever claimed they were glad they brought a firearm (this doesn’t deny that someone was glad they brought it). I figure the most dangerous part of my backpacking trip is the car trip getting out of town and to the trail head. It doesn’t concern or bother me that others do carry a firearm – if they know and exercise proper usage of their firearm everything is fine. And so far everyone I met backpacking has exercised proper usage and handling of their firearm when backpacking. I expect it will remain that way. Another thought if your backpacking partners are all carrying firearms – why do you need more? How many firearms does your group need? Does everyone in the group need to be individually armed? Do you each need to carry your own stove too?

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  8. t-j-f

    “Damian, what do you feel you need protection from?”

    That wraps it up perfectly for me.

    In my opinion there’s only one reason, other than target shooting and hunting, that citizens want to legally own and carry firearms and that’s fear. Fear of animals or fear of people.

    And, as is usually the case, fear can be eliminated with facts. But as we live in a belief over fact society….

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  9. immadman

    Looks like a pretty old thread, so this may or may not be pertinent. I was brought up in the country surrounded by woods and grew up hunting, fishing, camping, and backpacking. Still do, to some degree or other, although at 62 years of age, I have slowed down a bit. I did not then, nor will I now, go into the woods without at least a sidearm. Not too concerned about bears, but there are other critters out there that are not too people friendly. I also have an enhanced concealed carry permit, so I can legally carry concealed in those states that I have reciprocity in. I shoot and train on a regular basis, although admittedly not as much now as when I was younger. If I am not hunting, I will only carry a sidearm. I have no need to carry a long gun while backpacking or just out in the woods walking around. In town, I carry all of the time. More boogie bears in the city than in the woods, in my opinion. If I am in bear country, I will also carry bear spray. Statistically, there are more bear attacks deterred with spray than with weapons. Am I afraid of something or someone? No, I just prefer to be prepared.

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  10. john-duke-emtgmail-com

    I’ve been guiding for 15 years all over the lower 48 and I’ve never felt like a gun was needed, or even a good idea, until I started hiking with my less than 1 year old son. Now with the day hikes I do, I’m carrying him, and I’m in the front country. The trails around town have fairly frequent mountain lion sightings, though so far no attacks. Personally I’ve seen tracks, and heard the shrieks of mountain lions while out hiking. I guess it’s a little bit of the Papa bear coming out in me, but when I’m hiking with my little one in lion country, I feel better having a firearm. That said, I grew up shooting and I’m very safe and responsible with my guns, if I had no experience with them, I probably wouldn’t want to hike with one. I do carry my gun openly, which is legal without a permit where I live. I have a holster on my child carrier pack, and I like it there for 2 reasons; the first is it’s more comfortable than having it between my body and the hip belt, and the second is, it’s easily and quickly accessible if, heaven forbid, I should need it. A gun in your pack is of no use if you’re suddenly attacked.

    I wouldn’t bother to carry a gun on an overnight trip unless in grizzly country, and even then I would think long and hard on it. Guns, and ammo, are heavy! I work hard to keep my pack weight down, and I don’t want to throw 2lbs of steel and lead in my pack that I don’t think I will need.

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  11. stevefoutzmd-com

    I’m not sure it is fair to fellow packers to ‘leave it to them’. Any more than it is ok to drink their water or eat their food or wear their raincoat. I carry, because it is more likely I’ll need my heat than my rescue rope. But I carry both anyway. And I don’t have to worry about varmints like weasels or skunks or other vermin, including sapiens vermin. I also don’t like the fact that I am food when I’m out. I have seen a great cat in OR twice, and a dozen bears. I DON’T feel OK around them since I was the prey. They are magnificent, but also very efficient killers.

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  12. davidlamb

    I do a fair amount of long solos in mountain lion country. Water sources are often surrounded by tall grass where I go, and I am told that being alone, I could be viewed as an easy target by a big cat. I carry a small Ruger ACP in my pocket on these trips. I am trained and permitted. I also don’t generally advertise this fact when I am in the backcountry, but it makes me feel much more comfortable.

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  13. Josh

    Great reading.. especially the comments! My brother & I have walked into MJ grows here in CA. Once while hunting with his friend, my brother startled a “guard”- luckily for them, they had their rifles at the ready (they were stalking a deer), and his shotgun was a few feet away.

    For this reason, we carry pistols whenever we backpack… though I am looking into a way to carry a rifle w/ a bullpup stock depending on how far out we go. Sometimes it’s easier to hunt for food along the way instead of humping in everything we need.

    In National Forests & BLM land, totally legal without Carry permits. Also legal whenever hunting (at least in CA) to carry concealed (of course.. you already have a rifle or shotgun). As was mentioned before, 99.9% of the time, if you are observant & aware of your surroundings the wildlife will leave you alone. Be safe, and only do what you are capable & comfortable doing. If you don’t like firearms, or are freaked out about their presence… you won’t even know others have them if they’re being responsible.

    • t-j-f

      Do you know how many hikers or backpackers have ever been killed by illegal growers? In everything I’ve been able to find the answer would be zero. They’re like bears. They want nothing to do with people.
      And is it REALLY easier to hunt for food than carry a plastic bag with what you need? Really?
      Don’t need to go in to the stats of wild animal attacks on people in CA. They’re inconsequential and also what spray is made for if people feel the need.
      Dude. I think you just dig carrying a gun. And that’s fine man. Totally your call if it’s legal. But I’m not sure your reasons add up.

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