Hiking in woods carry a gun
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[ED: More TTAG classic content on the long holiday weekend. This one is from 2012 and if you spend any time at all in the wilderness, it’s well worth your time.]

By David Liberman

The woods are pretty darn safe. 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 wench and there’s always at least a minuscule chance that 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 pic-a-nic 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 mostly limited 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 readers.

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 shouted, “HEY BEAR!” while trying to look as big (and, in hindsight, stupid) as possible. It worked. Mama bear dashed into the woods and I never saw her again.

That doesn’t mean that they’re harmless 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 and 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 consensus 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 Casull 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 grizzlies 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, un-holster 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.

94 COMMENTS

  1. Somehow the song “Teddy Bears Picnic” is running through my head. Not much of a woods hiker these days but I had always carried my trusty 45. Now I think I might get that H&H 357.

  2. I carry my G32 on hikes and trails.

    Ultimately reliable and the 150gr Federal Premium JHP bullets at 1150 FPS do the job on 2 OR 4 legged predators.

  3. No to bear spray.

    I have worked around black bear for years. If the bear sees you and doesn’t run, it considers you a threat or food.

    Heavy 44 special or 45 colt would be fine as most weight 350.

    Don’t know about Browns but I would start with a 44 mag or 45 ruger load and maybe a 45-70 levergun.

    I’ve seen regular pepper spray waft back on the user….not about to trust a deterrent that can incapacitate me instead of the threat.

    But you do you.

  4. Only dangerous predatorsin my neck of the woods, other than those that may be rabid, are black bears, wild hogs and homo sapiens. When I would take Renee’ and Odie (K-9) for a walk on the farm I carried my scout rifle. Every bear I’ve ever seen ran away. No guarantee. Never happened to me, but I know several men who have been put up a tree by both boar and sow. Homo sapiens? Toss a coin. The most dangerous animal on the planet. The scout rifle? Less convenient than my 44 Mountain Gun, but very effective against all aforementioned predators. In all honesty I carried the rifle more for Renees’ comfort than mine. She was more worried about the dog’s safety than ours.

  5. Bear or big cat country=12 gauge/3inch 4shot to the face or head. A blinded bear will have a harder time finding you. Also don’t forget to move. By that I don’t mean run. Lateral movement is best once the bear is hit and continue firing until the bear is down. Know this is no time to be timid. Your life will depend on you being aggressive. So think these things through before you ever place yourself in these possible circumstances. Some may think what I’ve said is a bit extreme. Having been in this situation. I can tell you everything happens very fast. Hesitation can well result in your death rather than the bear’s. Being prepared both mentally as well having the right tools can make all the difference. So be alert and remember you are in their playground and not the top of the food chain.

    • That’s a damned good idea. Especially the lateral movement. A load of #4s in the face of a bipedal asswipe will probably take any notions of aggression away also.

    • Don’t think that number 4 will penetrate much on the bear.

      If you’re objective is to blind then number 6 would give you more pellets.

      I question that a blinded bear would have a hard time finding your stinky, human ass.

      Seriously, their smell is tremendous. Black bear can smell food for miles.

      Finding you at 20 yards wouldn’t be a big deal….and since they would be blinded, they would be double pissed.

      I’d load solids….but that’s just me. They work the best on bipeds as well.

      • Obvious opinion based on little or no knowledge of shot placement or the destructive effect of a shotgun blast to the head/face. The bear died after a second shot to the side of the head.

  6. Tinkley bells, bear spray, and a 9 mm is what my son uses, he hikes and camps a lot in Washington and Oregon. He recently told me he now uses two headdlamps, one forward and one facing back trail, those and a mask with a face on the back of his head…

    • Wood cutters in India have taken to using the, “two faced deterrent” a mask worn on the back of the head seem to help keep tigers from sneaking up on them.

  7. Oh p.s… He said it’s not the four legged critters that concern him as much as the two legged ones.The main reason for the gun.

  8. My hike setup is a G20 10mm with underwood 220g hard cast vs 150g penetrator in a HPG chest pack. Bring the 40SW conversion barrell for on the road home defense

    • Hilton committed one of his homicides in the Appalachicola National Forest. Practically grew up hunting there. See Liberty County, FL. A woman I know was approached by Hilton in a convenience store in Bristol, FL. She told me he gave her the creeps. When she saw his pic on tv she called FDLE. He had told her she reminded her of the murdered woman that had been found a few days before. She said she took a round about route home. Need a better reason to carry a weapon anywhere?

  9. Been a backpacker since I was a young teen, a long time gone now. Somehow the need of a firearm for self defense came up in the teen years, and it would be a .22 that I had on me. Twice involving human troubles. In both cases I was very lucky as the mere presence of the gun sent them away from me. One of those was witnessed at a distance by a Border Patrol lookout. Who sent a vehicle to 4-wheel in and bring me out. Apparently, as it turned out, I’d wandered into a new drug smuggling corridor. This is long before it became the trouble it is today.

    As an adult I backpacked with a S&W 59 for many years, loaded with Speer Lawman HP’s. Because it was what I had. Worked on a few rattlers and wild pig one time. While I hiked in places with black bears and mountain lion I never encountered one on the trail.

    In a public campground tho, different story.

    As an adult I have been on scene after a black bear attack. I had a 12ga, was a few minutes behind the two LEO’s and their 12ga’s. Mine was not needed then, but my first aid gear was. That was the ugliest thing I ever saw.

    Here’s interesting info from the Buffalo Bore ammo people about stopping bears:
    https://www.buffalobore.com/index.php?l=product_list&c=108

  10. You can stop a Black bear with a .40 and .45 using Underwood Xtreme penetrators. They will also do more damage than hardcast. I carry a 10mm with Xtreme penatrators when the bears are out otherwise I just bring my carry gun.

    And capacity does not matter when you are facing a wild animals. You won’t have time to get off more the 3 or 4 shots before it runs you over

  11. Recently retired I worked in eastern black bear country and have vacationed in black bear country in Canada for decades. In both cases the big bore handguns I own weren’t a possibility, although I do carry otherwise. It is, of course, pretty much impossible to carry a handgun in Canada and I wasn’t allowed to carry on the job due to work rules promulgated by some bureaucrat comfortably sitting behind a desk in the state capital. I did carry pepper spray in the US. Oddly you can buy pepper spray in the US and Canada, but I have been repeatedly told at the border that you can’t legally carry it across. I have had several encounters with black bears on both sides of the border and they generally don’t want to have anything to do with you, particularly in areas where they are hunted. From numerous discussions with both bear experts and locals the greatest dangers are the big, mature alpha males, mothers with cubs, and any bear who has learned to associate humans with food. Since the eastern black bear population is growing rapidly the most likely encounter is with a young bear recently abandoned by a pregnant sow making room for the next family. These “teenagers” are generally both clumsey and innocuous and generally appear more afraid of you than you are of them.

    Mr. Liberman has overlooked or written off at least three real possible dangers on the trail in the eastern US in my opinion.

    The first, of course, are humans. Accidentally blundering across a marijuana patch, meth lab, illicit still, or many other illegal activities can be really dangerous for obvious reasons. My scariest encounter was on a one lane road to an illicit coal mine.

    Second, although not common, I have heard several credible sighting of mountain lions and have seen tracks too big for Bobcats in the eastern US.

    Third, coyotes are becoming common enough that attacks by a pack, although not likely, is becoming increasingly probable in my opinion. Genetic testing has demonstrated that there has been some interbreeding with dogs and wolves as coyotes migrated east through Canada so eastern coyotes are bigger, stronger, and possibly more aggressive than western coyotes.

    • Noticed #2 and 3 around the Albany area here in NY back around 2015 and while I haven’t had time to get out as much due to work I have heard the coyotes when I visit friends around the suburbs of that area and we did have an incident with one at the Capitol a year or so back.

    • Would you be willing to share more about the illicit coal mine? I’m a miner by trade and explore old mines in my spare time. I’ve encountered some very weird things while doing so.

    • Unfortunately due to poor health and old injuries, I will always be the slowest guy in the group, unless there is someone in a coma. I have seen 300 pound plus black bears rummaging thru garbage cans less than a mile from my house. I have seen coyotes walk thru my yard, packs of feral dogs, and my 6 toed, web fingered, yellow toothed, spam sucking mutant neighbors are always around. So what you guys are carrying while hiking and camping are what I’m carrying in my own back yard, usually a Glock 17.

  12. I’ve done a lot of backpacking , hiking and hunting all over the US and have run into several black bears in that time. I’ve also had at least two occasions of seeing a Mountain Lion near my camp and once when doing some night back country skiing, seeing where a lion’s tracks had crossed mine as I came back down the trail on the returned trip. One of the blacks was out on the Olympic Peninsula in the early sporing when the bear had recently come out of hibernation. I was packing alone and had stopped for a snack when I heard the bear woofing and saw it checking me out. In all the cases the animal beat feet once it knew I had seen it.

    Really, the biggest threat hiking is the same as going shopping . . . people. I find that a .357 is a pretty good round for either one.

  13. Ruger Alaskan in an ankle holster while hiking? I think the author put that at the end just to see how many readers were able to pay attention that long.

  14. Population pressure has resulted in a serious mountain lion and man overlap. Over 10 years ago I lived in Northern Arizona. My dog kept me from walking under a tree branch full of big cat. Changed dog walking pattern, found big, ugly pug marks next to the dumpster behind a fast food place solidly within the city limits on the main road to town. Oh yeah, about those bells…I’ve heard they’re sometimes found mixed in with bear scat…or so I’ve been told.
    Mountain lions…racoons that can kill you.
    -30-

    • Up in this neck of the Rockies, we refer to “Bear Bells” as “Touron Dinner Bells”…none of the locals wear ’em…we sell them to the tourists. Most of us carry 10 mm or bigger when hiking.

  15. The face to face encounter with a big cat at Granite Lake years ago was my come to jesus moment. Standing there with an easily 100+ lb. kitty staring at me didn’t really inspire confidence in my G19. That was the summer I bought my super blackhawk.

  16. Hopefully the wind won’t blow bear spray back in your face or away from the bear. Just a thought.

    Also don’t hike alone and arm all members of the party. 2 or 3 guns do more damage than one.

  17. Notice how the federal forests with the largest most predatory animals wont allow you to carry firearms for personal protection? I REFUSE TO GO TO ANY forest or preserve that treats animals better than humans and looks on humans as expendables. Even when I go dove hunting I carry my Kimber .45 Compact CDP with me. Hydrashock ammo and two extra magazines as well as a back up knife. No one is going to tell me I have to try and use a stick or a rock to defend myself against wild animals. The worst predators in the woods are also PEOPLE, criminals and drug growers are rife in the federal forests and I have walked into two pot groves. Each time I notified the Park Rangers and they never batted an eye when I explained what I found.

      • Happened to me once while exploring well off a trail in an Arizona national forest. When I realized what I’d walked into, I got out of there fast as I could, pistol in hand.

        As I thought about it I realized all the plants were dead. Talking with the cops later, they told me it was probably abandoned by someone already busted for something else. At least that was their guess. They went in and hauled away all the dead plants, the watering system, gardening tools. Luckily, no booby-traps were found.

  18. I have read that some experienced folks recommend that you eat a carnivorous diet before heading out in the woods where there are large predators so that your pores will exude the foul (to them) smell of a fellow carnivore and not to eat a primarily vegetarian diet which smells like dinner (to them).

    Good book to read on the larger issue.
    https://www.amazon.com/Seconds-Until-Impact-skyrocketing-predators/dp/1981502831/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1546227697&sr=8-1

    Dont forget 45 super.

    • Serious? If this works, then I gotta be the safest guy in the woods, because I am a voracious meat eater. My idea of salad is the lettuce and tomato they put on my double cheeseburger. My theory is I should not abandon the climb my ancestors made to the top of the food chain, and therefore embrace the idea that “big” eats “little” but opposable thumbs trumps “big”.

  19. I did a 12 mile hike in Montana bear country near Yellowstone last summer. It was blazing hot and windy with most of the treas burnt from a recent forest fire. So Burt out the treas looked like giant black toothpicks and the wind was knocking them down all over the mountain side. I Was well provisioned with a 25lb pack and a G20 loaded with hot buffalo bore.

    Started out like an eager beaver making noise, clapping and saying “hey bear!!!!” On the way back to the trailhead with about a mile to go I was so cramped and dehydrated I was walking like a tin man. At that point a charging bear would have did me a favor and put me outa my misery.

  20. I’ve spent a lot of time around the smokies, so I’ve had plenty of encounters with black bears. They want the food you have with you; they don’t want you for food (there are always exceptions to the rule). My first encounter was when I was 8 or 9 and I was walking ahead on the trail while my Dad and his friend were resting. I heard a big commotion, and came back to see a black bear steal my Dad’s backpack and run off. The bear tore into the pack, took the food, and left. We told a park ranger about it later, and he said, if they get close, just throw some rocks at it, and it will leave (which is actually what they did).

    My point is, in the southeast anyway, something like a 9mm is fine. I’m much more worried about cougars and two legged predators than bears. Cougars are supposed to be extinct here, but there have been more and more sightings in recent years.

  21. Anyone that believes black bears are wimps, apparently hasn’t been told that the overwhelming majority of humans killed by bears have been killed by black bears. Of those few that have survived a black bear attack, most have been partially eaten. In the past ten years more victims of bear attacks have been carrying bear spray than not.

    Aside from that, the author is a pompous rertard.

  22. Carry the Extreme Penetrator series from Underwood.
    It punches through 1.25″ ballistic glass in 10 mm Auto format, hit the ground, dig a 2″ hole, bounce up, and hit the berm behind.
    Nice solid copper round was still in the same shape it left the barrel.

  23. In my State, this past summer, a woman was killed and partially eaten by a cougar before her body was found. Reports state that she had fought for her life. She was unarmed. Black bears and cougars are rampant where I live. I have spent my life hiking, berry picking, horseback riding in “the woods” by myself. Now at 61 years old, I am one terrified little lady to venture out after what happened to that woman (also an avid hiker).
    I have a 9mm and a snub-nose 38 special.
    I guess it’s time to join a hiking group. 😔

  24. Whatever happened to Dean Weingarten’s research articles on the ineffectiveness of bear spray? I miss his article in general.

    • Great point and will look into that brand in a few months. After all any iron not carried in a manner you can quickly retrieve it is weight carried for exercise

  25. Hiked and camped all of the AT in NC. Only animal I ever saw was a wild turkey and a skunk. That was 40+ years ago. I would not go into the woods now without at least one medium caliber handgun but as mentioned above that’s more to do with 2 legged animals than 4. Do you hear banjos?

  26. I live in the Pacific Northwest, we have everything here, Cougars, Coyotes, Wolves, Bears, Big horn Sheep, Mountain goats, etc. I shot a nice Black Bear in September (Legally, hunting season) but these do not concern me as much as the two legged predators that are in the forest. I spend time in the woods scouting before seasons start. I always carry. Way to many weird liberal type somewhat mentally unhinged snowflakes hiking around, especially on the Pacific Crest Trail. However I feel safer in the woods more so than in walking around the human animals living in Seattle or Portland. Thank God I only go there maybe once a year.

  27. The damnedest thing I saw was an old lady beating the hell out of a black bears ass with a broom for getting in her trash. Bella Vista Arkansas. Lol she was yelling, the bear was making noises but just kept on eating trashh.

    • Sometimes you can get away with that. You can punch a black bear in the nose and it’ll go away. Maybe. Not guaranteed. I’ve been charged by black bears while hiking on the AT. Not fun.

      Traditionally I only carried a pistol when I was backpacking with my daughter or sister, never while hiking alone. Now that I am 62 and retiring next month, so anticipate resuming backpacking, I’ll probably carry all the time now, but mostly just for 2-legged critters.

    • I can visualize my grandmother doing exactly that. She was a tough old lady, made it to 93 mostly on pure meanness. I always figured Grandpa died at the age of 57 just to get some peace.

  28. Im just going to armchair this one and kind of look at the author a bit funny. On one hand he espouses the speed of a bear, then says you will apparently have time to spray the bear, then shoot it, as if you have all the time in the world… as it gives you a playful swat and love bites.

  29. There are plenty of black bear in the lower Appalachians and their foothills, and while I understand this article is several years old now they’ve been reintroducing cougar and wolves into West Virginia at least for 20 years or so at least. It’s always wise to be on the lookout for drug problems in wild areas east of the Mississippi now as well.

    While I’m not aware of any cougar or wolf attacks in my home state of Tennessee recently, I am aware of multiple people having been killed by bear in Fall Creek Falls State Park in the last ten years and thus have no reason to believe they couldn’t be a problem in the Smokies.

    Anyway, whenever my travels take me to the wilds of Tennessee or West Virginia I bring along my .454 Casull lever gun because if I can’t kill it with ten rounds from that I don’t want a chance of seeing it. While out hiking I’ll have on a .357 Magnum and the big thing, a decent sized fixed blade knife carried opposite the pistol (which seems to be an egregious error in the lack of mentioning by the article.)

    • have no reason to believe they couldn’t be a problem in the Smokies.

      I’ve had problems with bears in the Smokies! I’ve not been killed yet, as far as I know.

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