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!