Staying Safe on the Trail. With A Gun

The woods are pretty damn safe. I mean, you can spend every weekend hiking through areas “infested” with dangerous wildlife, and see nothing more than a snowshoe hare or a mule deer. But Lady Luck is a fickle bitch and there’s always at least a miniscule chance you will run into something – or someone – that wants to take a peek inside you. There are as many strategies for deep woods self-protection as there are picnic tables in Yellowstone, so the first order of the day is to know your adversary . . .

This is a discussion about hiking and camping, not hunting. Where you choose to commune with nature defines the short list of bad guys you’ll need to concern yourself with. If you aren’t in the Northern Rockies, things get much easier since you don’t have to worry about grizzly bears or Northwest Canada’s brown bears.

Mountain lions are likewise limited almost exclusively to the western US. Eastern adventurers’ biggest worries are black bears, and to a lesser extent, tasty members of the porcine family. Protecting yourself against an angry pig usually involves trying to steal his bacon to begin with; I’ll leave the mechanics of hog-defense to our Texas boys.

Black bears are the wimps of the woods…usually. Most black bear encounters end with the bear asses-and-elbows. My only blackie encounter occurred in the woods of western Massachusetts in the Deerfield River area. I was lugging a 20 pound camera rig down a two mile forest service road when I rounded the corner and came upon a large sow. I knew she was a sow because of the cute little cub nearby.

My first instinct was to film the encounter; my second was to run like hell. But long ago I learned you never run from a predator and my feet stayed planted. I raised the camera to my shoulder, and started shouting “HEY BEAR” while trying to look as big (and in hindsight, as stupid) as possible. It worked. Mama bear dashed into the woods and I never saw her again.

That doesn’t mean that they’re harmlessm though; far from it. Virtually all black bear attacks are predatory in nature (the exception being sows protecting cubs). Bear experts recommend fighting for your life if you’re attacked by a black bear because it wants to eat you. What’s that? You don’t want to be eaten? Then you need to fight back and on this blog that means bringing firepower to bear.

Now let me contradict myself. Your primary weapon against any bear should be a can of bear spray. Not pepper spray, but the 2% Capsaicin stuff specifically for use on bears.  Before you guys get all up in a huff, consider your point of aim on a 200 pound black bear that just put his head down and starts charging you from ten yards.

One second later, at about two yards, he will jump and knock you down. How’s your aim under duress? Will your round be strong enough to penetrate its skull? Can you find a heart shot and will the bear drop before it takes some good-sized chunks out of you? All in a couple of seconds?

With bear spray, you can instantly put a big orange cloud of pain between you and the bear which almost always stops the charge. Any good brand of spray will be most effective between 10-30 feet.Use both hands to hold the can, (the pressure is high and the can kicks up), and you want to aim low so the spray doesn’t go over the bear’s head.

What if that hungry black bear isn’t affected by the spray or what if it’s windy and raining, rendering the spray ineffective? Get your damn gun out. Shoot the bear until it’s no longer a threat.

Now, you’re thinking, what gun is the best for bear defense?  Of course, one that will stop a bear in its tracks.  A .375 H&H Magnum always at the ready will do the trick, but that’s not very practical on a Sunday hike. Let’s look at what features and functions are important in bear defense.

If you have never seen a real bear up close, it can be hard to convey the power and speed the brutes have, especially grizzly bears. I took my dad to Yellowstone this past week, and we had the extremely rare opportunity to observe a big male grizzly up close. He was on the side of the road, just out of the park, and we watched from the safety of the car while he grazed on the low shrubs.

Without warning, he took several steps toward the car; just a drainage ditch separated us. Fingers went to the power window button. His next move revealed raw speed and power. The bear turned and bolted up the hill, easily covering thirty yards in about three leaps.  Imagine you’re in the woods, and that griz is thirty yards away.  What firearm can you bring to aim in less than two seconds? Forget long guns; unless it’s an SBR, you won’t have time to swing it around to target.

Who wants to hike and carry a long gun anyway? Sure, if you’re hunting, but on a camp & hike trip it’s going to be a burden. The logical conclusion is a handgun in as big a caliber as you can comfortably manage.  Internet Forum concensus seems to hold across the board that nothing less powerful than a .357 Magnum for black bears, and for grizzlies, a .44 Magnum is minimum, with .454 Cassull or .500 S&W recommended if you can handle the large frame. When it comes to Canada’s brown bears, forget it. If you don’t have a big bore rifle, you’re on the menu. Accept it.

Grizzly bears are the assholes of the forest.  It’s very rare for them to prey on humans, but most grizzles won’t hesitate to bitch slap you and let you know who’s boss.  Their aggressive demeanor is readily apparent in their tactics. Grizzlies will bluff charge, and possibly knock you down, even giving a bite.  If you are no longer a threat, the bear will usually leave.  But if you act like a scared little animal, it could return and eat you.

Just keep your spray at the ready when the line of sight is limited and you’re in grizzly country.  If you do have to shoot, put as many big bullets as you can in the area above the lowered skull and below the big, muscular hump.  As a last resort, if the bear is on you, shoot inside the mouth, in the eye if you can get it, or in the chest under the neck.  If that’s your only strategy left, at least try not to be under the bear when it dies.

The next consideration to bear is your choice of bear ammunition.  There are a few manufacturers that make rounds specifically for bear defense. They’re hard ball and non-expanding so they can punch through 8-12 inches of skin, muscle and fat in order to hit a vital.

Now, we’ve covered everyone’s scary nightmare animal. What about the rest?  Wolves, mountain lions, rabid badgers, anything not a bear gets treated like a human, which for me means 20+1 rounds of 9mm Hydra Shok 124 grain in a Beretta 92FS.  I will likely never have to shoot anything in the woods, but I know that my handgun and a couple of extra mags makes me a bit more prepared to handle the unexpected. Especially when the unexpected has teeth.

My recommendation for the trail is a three-tier approach.  First, bear spray in a holster on your pack’s chest strap, strong-side.  Any time DefCon bear ramps up, unholster the can to reduce draw time.  The spray is also useful against lesser mammals.

If the spray can isn’t an option due to weather or other circumstances, or if you decide the threat requires lethal force, your favorite pistol open-carried in a retention holster is the way to go.  I carry my 92FS at 2 o’clock, secured to my pack’s waist strap. It’s a bit worse for wear after a couple of trail spills, and I’ve only had to draw once, when the stench of cat urine filled the air while we were crossing through a tight spot.

The final line of defense is a large caliber revolver as a backup. Carry options are open, but my preference would be a Ruger Alaskan in a weak-side ankle holster, because if you reach the stage where you will need to draw it, you are going to be in a fetal position anyway, putting it within easy reach.