Backpacking has a lot going for it. The views. the exercise. The challenges. Together they all make the hours and days in the splendor of mother nature worth every step.
For all its rewards, backpacking is not without its threats. Four-legged and two-legged creatures create situations where hiking armed is the best choice for those who prefer to be prepared. Therefore, if you are going to carry, you must determine the best way of bringing your firearm with you on the trail.
I’ll be honest. Carrying a firearm can be a burden. I’m talking about physical challenges. We will leave the personal and social discussions for another day.
Guns can be bulky and heavy. They just aren’t a natural extension of the human form. Occasionally you find that perfect combination of pistol and holster that melts into you – if so, cherish the combination. Now you are adding backpacking into the mix.
Backpacking, either a day hike or a long trek adds several challenges to preparedness. From the challenges of comfortable concealment to the selection of the right firearm.
We each must make choices based on threats, access, and comfort. This article will discuss the challenges, benefits, and solutions to carrying while hiking.
Why would someone carry a gun while backpacking?
We all take chances when we wake up in the morning. Not to be paranoid but dangers are everywhere. When you need a gun, it is in response to an immediate threat.
No time to go unlock the safe. No time to get it from the car. You need it now, else someone will suffer grievous bodily harm or worse. That is why we carry.
Backpacking is no different. Threats can, and do, come from man and nature. Consider the following recent events:
A man in Cody, Wyoming, was injured when he surprised a grizzly bear who was sleeping in a day bed only 7-8 feet away from him. The bear charged the man, knocking him to the ground while causing injuries to his chest and arm.
More well-known are the murders of Geoffrey Hood and Molly Laurue in September of 1990. The couple was killed by an individual whom they had met on the trail early in their hike. At the time, their killer was already wanted for a murder occurring in 1986.
These are two of the many cases that happen each year. Animals are unpredictable and attack unexpectedly. Coyotes, fox, cougars, and bears, are all capable of injuring or killing a hiker. When we are in the woods, we may not be the apex predator. We are in their territory and they have the advantage.
The other unfortunate truth is that humans stalk the woods as well. However rare it may be, it still occurs. Whether violence is the result of a crime of opportunity or anger, bad things happen to good people.
We are all aware of the capacity of some people for evil. That doesn’t change between the heart of the city or the heart of the woods.
Considering animal or human attacks, grievous bodily harm or death can be avoided with situational awareness and the proper tools. The probability of an attack is low, just as in normal life.
That being said, the consequences of needing a gun and not having one are dire. If you have already decided to carry in your daily life, then there is no reason not to carry while backpacking or hiking.
Can I carry a firearm while hiking?
Can you carry while hiking? As with most firearm laws, that’s a complicated question. Where jurisdictions allow, the answer is a definitive Yes. But first, you need to execute your due diligence.
First, let’s consider national lands. The national park and national forest system is a great resource for getting out into the wild. Federally, possession of a firearm is allowed in both national parks and national forests.
That being said, there are restrictions. Call ahead to the park office to get the specific rules for your specific destination. Here is a Quick Guide to Gun Regulations in the Intermountain Region, which is put out by the National Park Service
You must also consider state laws. State laws do apply on federal property so be knowledgeable of them as well.
Next is state property. Some states do not allow firearms in their parks. Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and others strictly prohibit firearms in their parks. Carrying on these lands can be a straight ticket to jail. Claiming ignorance is not an effective defense.
Finally, watch your trails. As fun as a meandering trail can be, they can also get you in serious trouble. Some cross state borders while others wander into restricted territories. Do your homework and know any trails or backup routes that will take you close or into these zones.
Once you understand the no-go zones head out with confidence. Aside from these restrictions carrying on the trail is legally no different from daily carry off the trail.
Problems with carrying a firearm while hiking
As I mentioned, carrying a firearm is neither comfortable nor convenient. Hiking doesn’t make it any better. I know…way to sell it.
Let’s start with comfort. Most of us either carry IWB, OWB, in a purse, or a similar pack. All three have challenges with hiking. Any belt carry method may interfere with the hip belt on your backpack.
If you are out on a day-hike with a belt-less pack then this will not be as much as an issue. Combining a belt, heavy pack, and IWB is not comfortable. Personal experience speaking here.
Purses, messenger bag, all conflict with a backpack. By carrying a backpack, you are upgrading your off-body storage. However, in a way that is less convenient during the draw.
Drawing from a purse or messenger bag will be much quicker than dropping your pack, opening the gun compartment, and drawing.
Next, backpacking for any appreciable distance is all about balance. You must load your backpack such that it is easy to carry. Heavy gear towards the bottom, even weight left to right.
Adding a handgun on one side without balance will affect your gate. This eventually stresses your knees and hips. The more you compensate for the imbalanced load the more you hurt.
Now introduce endurance. Wearing a firearm in your daily life may see you cover a mile or two. Hiking is all about the miles. Any means for carrying (aside from in your backpack) will wear on your body at the location of the holster.
Blisters, chafing make you miserable and can lead to larger and deeper sores. Once you start to compensate for these you further throw off your gate. It’s a vicious cycle.
Finally, you must also account for the care of the firearm. Any sort of on-body carry method is bound to generate sweat. Sweat and firearms do not mix. It is imperative that after that long and hot hike, you field-strip and clean your gun.
Once you get home it deserves a good deep cleaning. Remember, once the hike is over, your day has just begun. Protect your gear so it can protect you.
How to carry while backpacking
With the popularity of backpacking, the number of carrying options has increased. Gone are the days of bulky uncomfortable hip holsters. We now have multiple options for both open and concealed carry. Many are designed for use with backpacks and daypacks.
Your choice of open or concealed carry is impacted by both local laws and your comfort with the concept of open carry. First, consider local laws. Some jurisdictions prohibit open carry while others allow it without a permit. Review the laws of the lands you traverse.
Next, assess your personal preference. I come from a background of defensive carry. I have always carried concealed. The only time I carry openly is while hunting.
First, I don’t want to announce that I have a gun to a would-be attacker. Secondly, I don’t want the hassle from any boisterous anti-gun passers-by. To me, a gun is best hidden. Well hidden.
Assuming you are comfortable with open carry you have several options. Your regular OWB hip holster will still be compatible with a day pack lacking a hip belt. Assuming your pack has a hip belt, you must look at other options.
Drop leg holsters could be an option. They place the gun on the thigh without interfering with your hip belt. I have yet to find a comfortable and stable drop leg holster. They tend to flop around while moving and straps suck. They are too tight, then too loose, then the loose ends annoy me. But that’s just me, your mileage may vary.
Another option is a drop holster. Blade-Tech, as well as others, make a drop-offset attachment that places the holster slightly below the belt-line. It is designed for use with battle belts and I find them more secure than drop leg and thigh holsters. As an added benefit. there are fewer straps to contend with and to rub on sensitive skin.
A radical departure from hip holsters is the option for chest carry. Several styles are available and most are designed for hunting. The Gunfighters Inc. Kenai series is designed to comfortably and securely hold a large frame semi-automatic (Glock 19, Sig 226) or big bore revolver (Ruger Blackhawk). The position of the holster and the buckles keeps all bulky connections out of the way of your pack straps.
Moving on to concealed carry we start with traditional carry. As mentioned above this will be difficult with a hip belt. It can be done, but not for long periods and not comfortably. IWB and OWB are best used on a day hike with a minimalist pack.
More practical carry options include concealed chest rigs. These are more akin to an admin pouch rather than a holster. Chest mounted with shoulder straps they are designed to fit between the pack straps. You may have to be size-selective for proper fit and access.
Hill People Gear have mastered the art of the chest carry. They manufacture a series of chest kit holsters. From the Snubby Kit Bag to the Recon Kit and Runner’s Kit bags. Each fits a need and a size.
The Recon is a more tactical bag and is equipped with external Molle straps. The Snubby and Runners are more in line with the gray man concept.
The EmmersonGear Recon Kitbag has a similar form factor to the Hill People Gear packs. The EmmorsonGear Recon has external Molle straps and internal Velcro and elastic attachment points. This well thought out bag allows a good deal of customization to your preferred kit.
While both chest bags conceal your firearm, they are obvious to those familiar with carrying. If you desire deeper concealment there are several very effective holsters.
Under Garment Holster Options
First, the Bellyband offers comfortable carrying while providing deep concealment. The Bellyband offers nearly unlimited positioning guaranteeing that you can find a comfortable position between your backpack shoulder straps. With a pull up of your shirt, you can draw and present your firearm quickly and efficiently.
For the deepest concealment, you could give Thunderwear a try. Positioned below the beltline and between your underwear and your pants, Thunderwear holsters are not quickly accessible however they greatly conceal your firearm. Like a lot of things, some people swear by them and some people absolutely despise Thunderwear.
A similar deep concealment holster is the Flashbang. Designed to hook to the center of a bra the Flashbang is designed for smaller framed holsters. A quick reach under the shirt followed by a downward pull is all that is needed to present your gun.
A note about varying carry methods. You must practice regardless if your holster is open or concealed. The efficacy of shooting from the draw can be debated. What cannot be debated is you must be comfortable and smooth with your draw. A fumbled grab for a firearm is more of a threat to self than it is a means of security.
Inside the Backpack
I also want to note another method of carrying – a gun deposited in your pack. I realize it’s done usually for comfort but access will always be an issue. I have only carried a backup in my pack. It’s there if I need it but it is only as a last resort.
That being said my backup is a KelTec Sub2000 with a 33 round Glock happy stick. I relegate the upgraded backup to the backpack. If I go there, it’s a serious fight! I also fully acknowledge that if I need to retrieve this folding carbine it will take me a lot longer than opening a chest pack.
What is the ideal backpacking gun?
This is a loaded question. It depends on your threats, your comfort, and your skills.
First, assess the greatest threats you can encounter on the trail. These will tie to your location. Preparing for grizzly bear country is different than rattlesnake country. Review the area news for attacks and natural dangers.
Next, extend your threats beyond the natural to the manmade. Have there been two-legged attacks on your planned route. Extend the search radius by 50-100 miles. Any attacks now? Human predators have a wide range. Remember this and plan accordingly. How remote is your planned route? How long will you, and your group, be on your own?
Next review the terrain, length, and expected exertion for your trip. Ounces equal pounds. Pounds equal pain. The extra pound of a firearm on your hip or chest holster detracts from your comfort. The longer the trip, and the more uneven the terrain, then the less comfortable the rig is.
Finally, factor in the comfort and carry-ability of your rig. Have you already logged the miles and found the rub spots and pinch points? Have you fixed those? If so, you are ready for the long haul? If not keep practicing and perfecting your rig. You wouldn’t head out on a long hike with a new pair of boots. The same goes for your firearm and holster. Once you’ve done a lengthy shakedown, hit the trail!
If your greatest threat is from men and not beasts, your regular carry pistol and caliber is a worthy choice. If, due to your carry method, you require a smaller pistol then try several. Whatever you select practice until you are proficient with it.
Some folks will prefer the size and functionality of a sub-compact pistol like the following:
- Glock 26: 9mm double stack pistol that can accept Glock 19 and Glock 17 mags for greater reload capacity
- SIG 320 Compact: 9mm double stack that includes a rail for a light mount, other varieties available
However, if you choose to carry deep cover then you may wish to carry something even more concealable like:
- Glock 43: 9mm single stack pistol with Glock’s legendary reliability
- Smith and Wesson M&P 9 Shield 2.0: 9mm 7+1, 8+1 single stack that includes an integrated laser sight
- Ruger LCP: .380 small but powerful, select a modern defensive ammo
If your plan includes protection from larger critters then you can afford a bigger caliber with more punch. Some options may include:
- Smith and Wesson 686: The classic .357, select the longer barrel if carrying openly
- Ruger Redhawk: 44 magnum, best for bear country
What are effective less-than-lethal alternatives?
Firearms aren’t our only options for self-defense. There are a variety of less-than-lethal options that can be carried openly. These items also belong in your kit as a function of a well-layered defense strategy.
The first is pepper spray. The chemical that makes hot peppers hot, capsaicin, distilled into a more potent form. Gel sprays are less likely to come back on you in the wind.
Next is bear spray. Pepper spray’s bigger brother. At almost twice the concentration of pepper spray, bear spray is designed with animal physiology in mind. They are packaged in larger canisters and dispense more spray than pepper spray designed for humans.
Finally, don’t overlook the simple. Most animals are happy to avoid humans. Those same animals generally react poorly when surprised. Usually, we make enough noise to keep larger critters at bay. Black bears are notorious for wanting to be left alone. If you want to help them notice you from afar bear bells are a great choice. They make just enough sound to ensure the animals get sufficient warning to move on.
Choosing to use a firearm as a means of defense is a weighty decision. When you choose this path, you must recognize that it comes with effort and resolve. The effort required to gain and maintain competency with your firearm cannot be emphasized enough. Dedicate time and effort with all your defensive firearms to maintain proficiency.
The resolve to use a firearm when needed is also a part of an armed life. Whether you are on the streets, in your home, or on the trail. Predators can sense an armed individual without the will to use their gun.
Backpacking by its very nature is both a challenge and a joy. The reward of pushing your physical limits and overcoming all obstacles proves you’re alive. Challenges are not only physical though. Animals and man both present threats in the backwoods.
Handguns have been called the great equalizers. Few defensive weapons allow self-defense across such disparities as a handgun. Carrying a handgun while hiking can be challenging, however, if you choose the correct equipment it can be done. Done successfully!
Grab your pack. Grab your sidearm. Get some much-needed dirt time. Most of all have a safe time!