Backpacking With A Gun - Necessity or Bad Idea?

As an avid backpacker and a gun owner, I've been conflicted in the past when trying to decide if I should bring a gun with me into the back country.  Unfortunately trying to find places to have a polite, civil discussion about this topic is basically impossible as the discussion often devolves into 2 sides who are unable to understand where the other side is coming from.

As I prepare for a trip later this year our West in Grizzly country, this topic has been on my mind a lot lately so I'm laying out all of my thoughts on the pros and cons of bringing a gun with you while backpacking and if you decide to do it, what the best options are.

Should You Bring A Gun At All?

Everybody knows that gun nut that brings a gun with them everywhere.  To the store, to the kids baseball games, to the dentist, etc.  If you ask that guy whether or not you should bring a gun with you when you go backpacking, you already know the answer.  Of course!  Unfortunately this person is so obsessed with guns that they don't weigh the cost and the benefits.  They bring a huge gun with them that weighs down their pack in exchange for some added protection that they may never end up needing.

On the other hand you have people who dislike guns and will never own one.  They insist that you don't need a gun at all, but especially in the woods where the odds of a violent crime happening are much lower than in everyday life.

So how do you know if you even need a gun?  You need to start by thinking what you would use the gun for and what you are protecting yourself against.

Backpacking With A Gun As Protection Against Other People

If you're protecting yourself against other people then as the statistics show, this probably isn't really a big concern.  The odds of being a victim of violent crime in the back country are much lower than they are in your normal, every day life.  Of course, stuff can happen and when it does it's much more likely to make the news and stick in people's minds, but the truth is if someone wants to commit a violent crime, why would they hike 15 miles into the woods to do it?  It's much easier to find a random victim in the city or at least not hours away from civilization.  In my opinion, bringing a gun with you for defense against other people is being overly prepared for an incredibly unlikely event; you are probably wasting space and weight if your main reason for bringing a gun is self defense from other people.

Backpacking With A Gun As Protection Against Wildlife

The other reason to bring a gun when backpacking is to protect yourself against wild animals. This reason holds more weight in my opinion and there are some real world examples where having a firearm has saved someone's life.  Look at the clip from a video below where a grizzly bear decides to charge some bow hunters and they're able to scare it off by firing a round into the water.

If you feel like a gun would help protect you against attacks from wild life then the next question is what gun should you bring?

How To Choose The Right Gun When Backpacking

Backpackers are always focused on reducing the weight of their backpack.  A heavier pack makes you walk more slowly and tires you out faster than a lighter pack so it's natural to cut as much weight as possible so you can cover more ground and use less energy when you're backpacking.

The basic test backpackers use to cut weight from their pack is to consider if the item their bringing is an absolute necessity.  Ask yourself if you can go without it for a couple of days when you're hiking and if the answer is yes, don't bring it.

Bringing a gun with you goes directly against this philosophy and depending on what gun you choose to bring, you could add quite a bit of weight to your backpack with an item that you most likely will never need to use.

So the first factor to consider when finding a gun for backpacking is weight. The lighter then gun is, the better.

But as any gun enthusiast knows, this presents another problem.  The smaller and lighter a gun is, the less stopping power it has.  Stopping power is basically a way of quantifying how powerful a gun is.  On the low end with no stopping power you'd have something like a BB gun or an airsoft gun.  These guns have little to no stopping power and if you shoot a grizzly bear with it they probably wouldn't even notice, let alone stop their attack.

On the other end of the spectrum is a shotgun with a slug or a hand gun with hollow point bullets.  The stopping power on these guns is incredibly high and it would only take a single shot to stop most predators dead in their tracks.

So how do you find a balance between low weight and stopping power?  

There are a lot of options on the market but they break down into two categories.  Revolvers and rifles.

Best Revolver For Backpacking

Gun manufacturers have special models they make specifically for stopping large, wild game like grizzly bears.  If I was going to bring a hand gun with me while backpacking it would be the Ruger Super Redhawk Alaska.

The frame of this gun is just 2.5" and it weighs 45 ounces.  It also costs $1,100 at the time of writing this which is another thing you'd have to take into consideration.  Adding 4 pounds to your pack and paying over $1,000 to do it is a tough pill to swallow for me.

But if you want to protect yourself from wildlife and minimize the space you use to do it, this is your best option.

Best Long Gun For Backpacking

If you are willing to sacrifice more weight and space for increased stopping power, the long gun I'd take backpacking is the Mossberg 500.

The amount of stopping power in a shotgun can't be touched by anything else out there.  This is the gun hunters use when they're looking to take down wildlife quickly so it only makes sense that it would work well as protection when backpacking.

The trade off you make here is space and weight.  The Mossberg 500 is 48" long and weighs 7.5 pounds.  When you're hunting that's fine, but when you're backpacking that's a LOT of extra weight and space to be putting in or on your backpack.

If you really think you need a shotgun while backpacking I'd urge you to think long and hard about exactly what threats you are preparing yourself for and whether or not you could make due with a smaller and more lightweight firearm.

Most backpackers try to stay under 40 pounds of total weight so this gun will be using up almost 20% of your total weight. I'd personally not choose such a heavy gun if I was going to bring one with me but if you're going somewhere with a lot of aggressive, large animals it might be worth considering.

How To Handle Your Gun On The Trail

One last thing I'd like you to consider before bringing a gun with you on the trail is how you will store it and handle it.  If you're going to leave it in your backpack buried under your food and clothes, why bring it at all?  If an animal shows up on the trail in front of you and decides to attack, you won't have time to get your gun out and defend yourself.

You need to store your gun in an easy to access location that will allow you to quickly defend yourself. I'd recommend buying a holster to store your gun on your waist so you can quickly access it.

This also saves you from looking like the crazy doomsday prepper guy who has a gun strapped to his back and an ammo belt across his chest.  With a good holster you'll be able to conceal your gun from other people on the trail while still making it accessible if the need arises.

Using Bear Spray Instead Of A Gun

An alternative to bringing a gun with you is to bring bear spray.  Bear spray has been shown to be more effective in protecting against bear attacks.

In a 2008 study on bear attacks that took place in Alaska between 1985-2006, researchers found that bear spray was effective in deterring a grizzly bear attack in 92% of encounters.

Out of all the people who carried bear spray, 98% of them escaped without any injuries.

Of the 2% that were injured, none of them were injured significantly enough to require hospitalization.

If you're on the fence about using a gun on the trail, I'd highly recommend bear spray instead.  In addition to being more effective, it doesn't require precise aim.  Hitting a charging grizzly bear with a gun is much more difficult than using bear spray which just requires you to spray it in the general direction of the bear.