After my encounter with the mountain lion I promised to write a post about practical ways to stay safe in the backcountry, here it is!
While I’m specifically talking about safety from four-legged predators and snakes, most of what I’m saying can also be applied to safety from 2-legged human predators. In all my time on Public Land (BLM or Natioanl Forest) numerous times I’ve been afraid of animals, but I’ve never once been afraid from humans. Not only that but I rarely hear from other people who have been afraid of people on Public Land—although I have heard one or two stories. I started to wonder how often it happened so I’ve done several google searches trying to find statistics on the crime rate on Public Land, and I’ve never been able to find any; as far as I know it’s so rare no statistics are kept. For that reason this post will be limited to animal attacks, but if you are concerned about humans, everything in it can be applied to them as well. If bear spray can drive off a bear, it will also drive off a person.
Second, it’s extremely unlikely that most of you will ever be in a situation where you need to worry about it. Predator attacks in the Lower 48 sates are rare and when they do happen it’s usually with people who spend a lot of time in the backcountry. Please, don’t allow reading this to instill more fear of the wilderness in you!!! My goal is just the opposite, to assure you that you can go into the woods safely and with peace of mind. Learning about ways to defend yourself should reduce your fear, not increase it. I find that knowing that I’m not helpless or defenseless is very important and empowering to me. I never intend to use any of the things I’m going to talk about, but neither do I intend to be without them.
Finally, let me tell you that this post is strictly about ways to defend yourself from an animal attack. It isn’t about prevention by keeping a clean camp or blowing a whistle, hunting or survival. Those are all extremely important but they’re a different topic for different posts. I always carry this rescue whistle on me in a necklace around my neck, get it from Amazon here: Adventure Medical Kits Rescue Howler Whistles I also always carry this Kershaw automatic opening pocket knife: get it from Amazon here: Kershaw Folding Serrated SpeedSafe Knife
While your first thought is probably going to be to carry a firearm, that isn’t my recommendation. Animal attacks happen so suddenly and so quickly that for a form of self-defense to work you must be willing to carry it with you 100% of the time, it must be foolproof and it must be very fast to bring into use, firearms fail all those tests.
This post is only about why you shouldn’t rely on a firearm and in my next post I’ll give you my recommendations for what you should carry.
Having lived in Alaska for 45 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in very dangerous country (everywhere in Alaska is bear country!) and because of that I’ve done a lot of research on the best way to stay safe. This isn’t going to be an exhaustive list, there are more things you can do, but based on my research and experience these are the best and most practical solutions. However, it is strictly my opinion and I am by no means an expert in any way! If you’re betting your life, you should perform due diligence and do your own research.
Start your research with this article out of the Anchorage Daily News. The author was a Biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 30 years and I consider him a legend in Alaska—he’s an expert I would bet my life on. It’s by far the most balanced and informative I’ve ever seen, and it includes many links to back up his facts and opinions: http://www.adn.com/article/are-guns-more-effective-pepper-spray-alaska-bear-attack
Here are some of my experiences in Alaska, but keep in mind most of these were before bear-spray even existed:
- My first long backpacking trip in the Alaska wilderness I carried a bolt action 30-06 hunting rifle with a scope. Carrying that thing was such a misery because of its length and awkward size I swore I would never do anything so stupid again—and I never did.
- My next trip I carried a 12 gauge shotgun with a short barrel. It was lighter and shorter so it was a big improvement. However, it was still awful to carry. The only time I saw a bear that trip was when I had carried two water bottles and my filter down to the river to get water. There was a bear walking down the bank towards me–and where was my shotgun? It was leaning against my tent 40 feet away! If the bear had charged it could cover the distance between us before I could turn and take two steps toward the shotgun. Fortunately, he was fishing and well fed on salmon so he had no interest in me. If he had, I would have been defenseless even after carrying that stupid shotgun all around the country.
- Finally I decided to wear a 44 magnum revolver in a chest holster. That was a big improvement in size and weight—although it was still very heavy. It was heavy and awkward enough that I don’t believe I would consistently carry it, but that isn’t why I gave up on it. If I was going to be able to use it effectively I had to practice with it, if I didn’t, I would have been more at risk from it than from the wild animal. Even worse, if you get a shot into the animal but only wound it, you are a thousand times worse off than you would have been without it. There is very little chance you can get more than one shot into a bear and most likely that will be a very poorly placed shot. Even if it’s properly placed a single shot from a 44 magnum will not kill it or even slow it down. Even if you can get all 6 shots into it he won’t die right away; he may go away and die, but not before he kills you. I tied to practice enough to be good with it but the ammo is very expensive, practicing takes a lot of time and it’s very punishing to your body. I soon gave up on practicing and then stopped carrying it. (Today there are much more powerful handguns than a .44 magnum, but all the disadvantages of the .44 magnum apply to them, except they are much worse!!–not recommended!)
Requirements for Self-Defense from Predator attack
- The single most important thing is that it must be light and easy to carry. If it’s heavy or awkward you won’t carry it consistently and even when you do, it’s a certainty that when you finally set it down, that’s when the bear or mountain lion will show up. This is a big reason I don’t recommend firearms for self-defense in the backcountry.
- It has to be instantly available and you must be able to bring it onto target very quickly and easily. Bears and Mountain Lions are so fast that most of us can’t comprehend it; that’s why you MUST never, ever run from either one!!! Under the most common circumstances, from the moment they begin the charge toward you until when they are ripping into your flesh is usually seconds. Any fumbling or delay to get your weapon on target means it’s nothing but a paperweight. This is especially true of Mountain Lions because they are so stealthy you may have no more than 2-5 seconds warning of an attack, and quite possibly none at all. Long arms like rifles or shotguns will probably be carried slung over your shoulder and with the safety on. Getting them un-slung, safety off, and brought into position takes too long. If you are carrying it in your hands, you’ll get tired of it and set it down or stop carrying it. Handguns in a chest holster are better but take a lot of practice to use safely.
- It has to be easy to use and not difficult, nor can it take a lot of practice to be able to use it. Firearms require lot of practice ad training and most of us just won’t bother. We’ll start out with good intentions and they will slowly drift away until it’s been years since we practiced and we stop carrying the weapon. Firearms take a high level of commitment to training and practice that most people won’t continue. And even if they, do its fairly likely their training won’t be enough in the panicky moment of extreme duress.
- It can’t make the situation worse. This is a critical reason I don’t recommend firearms for defense from predators. The most common bear encounter is when you come across a bear suddenly on a trail—it’s happened to me 6 times. If it’s a single bear it’s very likely to just run away, but if it’s a mother bear, everything changes. The most common occurrence is she takes her cubs and runs away. However, fairly often she will make a bluff charge at you to scare you off, then she turns at the last minute to go and gather her cubs and rush them off to safety. If you shoot her during a bluff charge, it’s no longer a bluff and she is now enraged and you’ve become a very serious threat to her cubs, she won’t stop until she thinks you’re dead! Shooting a charging bear almost always makes things worse. The only time it’s absolutely the best thing is if the bear intends to eat you and that is very, very rare.
Let me close with two quotes from legendary Alaskans. This first one is from an article by outdoor journalist Craig Medred, a legend in Alaska, who managed to kill a charging grizzly with a .454 Casull handgun, but not before it mauled him. He recommends bear spray: http://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2014/07/09/opinion-canister-of-bear-spray-is-best-bet-for-alaska-backcountry-runners/. The article is about two runners who were mauled by a grizzly bear near Anchorage (remember, all of Alaska is bear country), but as hikers we are very much like them and his advice applies to us:
Lots of people at this point can get into a nice debate about bear spray and guns. Let’s not. Have you ever tried running (I added–or hiking) with a gun capable of stopping a charging grizzly? … Nobody is running very far loaded down with a short-barreled .375-caliber H&H rifle or a sawed-off shotgun stuffed full of buckshot and slugs. And even the smallest .454 Casull handgun is a handful at 3 pounds, 9 ounces, fully loaded sans holster. (I just weighed mine.) … Bear spray weighs 10 ounces and fits easily in your hand. You can carry it like a running baton. It is there, always ready. And it is easier to use than a firearm.
If you go past a bear in the bushes, and you’re maintaining a steady course and speed, there is an argument to be made that the bear won’t pay any attention to you. But if you’re alert, and you spot the bear, and you stop. … Well, then the bear has just been warned that it has been spotted by what could be a predator, and it needs to make a decision: fight or flee. Most flee, but I had one that came running to me when I saw it and stopped last summer. … I yelled, loudly. It stopped. It was a 2- or 3-year-old bear. We played the sort of games young bears play. It would approach. I would yell. It would back off, then approach again. … The game went on until the bear finally got bored and wandered away. I probably should have sprayed it, but a can of bear spray costs almost $50, and I’m cheap. Plus I know some bear biologists in town who might have made fun of me upon learning I had to spray a young bear. The only thing more embarrassing would be getting chewed on by one.
Which is why I carry bear spray all the time when running or mountain biking in Chugach State Park. I’ve never used it on a bear, but it’s better to haul a can around for years and never use it than to need it and not have it.
Bear spray works! This is the one I own and the only one I recommend because it comes with a chest holster, get it here from Amazon: 13.4oz Bear Spray with Chest holster
I also recommend walking poles because they dramatically help when hiking and can be used as a weapon in a pinch. Just waving them around may scare off a bear. Black Diamond makes some of the best: Black Diamond Trail Walking Poles
The second one is from Rick Sinnott who was a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for 30 years and has since retired: http://www.adn.com/article/are-guns-more-effective-pepper-spray-alaska-bear-attack. When I grew up in Alaska, Rick was a legend and anything he suggests pertaining to the outdoors is what I would do because he’s been there many times and lived to tell the tale. This is what he says about carrying a firearm for defense against predators:
Because when a bear attacks and you have two seconds to react … and it’s raining … or dark … and you can’t see 10 feet into the brush … and your shotgun is leaning against a tree … or your rifle’s scope makes it difficult to acquire the bear … or you short-stroke your 12-gauge and jam it … or you empty your .357 magnum and the bear keeps coming … or you’ve never shot a gun before … and the ground is slippery … and your partner steps between you and the bear … or the bear straddles you, pinning your long gun in the present-arms position … you might be wishing you had a can of bear spray.
The bottom line is I don’t recommend that the average person carry a gun for animal defense and in my next post I’ll discuss much better options.
13.4oz Bear Spray with Chest holster