Should You Carry a Gun Outdoors?
A sincere discussion about the ethics, practicalities, and responsibilities of packing heat on the trail
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.
Earlier this month, a debate started among our Gearheads Facebook group members about the need for people—and women in particular—to carry guns while hiking. I figured this might be a good opportunity to address a topic that has sparked a lot of mainstream fervor, and to do so in a rational(!) manner.
So, should you carry a gun when you go hiking, camping, or other stuff outdoors? I do. Here’s why—as well as why my approach isn’t for everyone.
Statistics Don’t Lie
We are all guilty of worrying about dramatic yet rare dangers while failing to prepare for events that are statistically more likely to kill us. In national parks, most people die by drowning, vehicle accidents, or falls—not wild animals or humans. Between 2007 and 2013, 1.9 billion people visited the parks. Only four were killed by bears. Five were killed in gun accidents. There was one homicide.
So, should you carry a gun in a national park to protect against the very, very unlikely chance that you’re attacked? Again, the statistics suggest that you should worry an awful lot more about your ability to swim well. Should you worry about dying in a national park? No more than you currently worry about dying from Ebola. Which is to say that you shouldn’t really worry much at all.
Selling Fear Is Selling a Lie
Perhaps my biggest issue with the gun world is that it relies on fear to sell guns. We live in a relatively safe country, where violent crime is exceptionally rare. Again, looking at statistics, we should all be much more concerned about fast food (heart disease), pollution (cancer), and our abysmal road safety standards than violent crime.
In 2016, there were 17,250 murders in the United States. That same year in this country, 37,461 people were killed in car crashes, 630,000 were killed by heart disease, and 609,460 were killed by cancer. If you want to buy something that’ll protect your life, make it a salad, not a gun.
Why Do I Carry?
I like to help people. I’m the guy who will, for example, stop and fix your car when you break down in Death Valley. I carry a substantial first-aid kit so I can use it to possibly save other people’s lives. I carry a gun for the same reason. I was able to fix that couple’s car in Death Valley because I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning how to work on vehicles. My first-aid kit is expensive, heavy, and a pain to carry, and I had to spend a lot of time learning how to use the stuff in it.
With good intentions, you might stop to help people in need. But good intentions aren’t the same thing as developed and practiced skills. See where I’m going with this?
Like everything described above, carrying a gun is an enormous responsibility that necessitates hours and hours and hours of training, practice, and good judgment. While a gun can, in very rare circumstances, save a life, it can also very easily take the wrong one. And if you step forward to be the good guy with a gun in a violent situation, you will be putting your own life on the line.
Carrying a gun is very much not for everyone. And it shouldn’t be. You take on an enormous burden of responsibility every time you strap a gun to your belt—one in which you’re assuming your skill, training, and judgment can overcome odds that are stacked against you.
Nonlethal Self-Defense Is the Better Option
What should you carry instead of a gun?
Bear spray is a great option outdoors. It will deal with any dangerous animal, two-legged or four. It’s what I carry when I go play in Baja, Mexico. (You can’t take a gun across the border.) Combined with my two dogs, I feel that it satisfactorily handles my safety. You don’t really need to aim bear spray—it hangs in the air as a shield even if you miss your target. It also won’t look out of place or scare people if you carry it around.
(Update: since the time of publishing this story, I have taken a closer look at the guns versus bear spray debate.)
But bear spray canisters are too large to carry day-to-day, away from outdoor activities. The nonlethal solution my fiancée (who also carries a handgun, for the same reasons I do) uses is a Kimber Pepper Blaster II. Small, slim, and light, it’s easy to carry in a purse or pocket (there are also plenty of holster options) and employs a unique percussion-fired pepper gel design that gives it a couple unique advantages. Pressurized canisters like bear spray can leak if left in a hot car or just due to age, but this nonpressurized design remains inert until fired. Also, the shotgun-like blast of pepper gel isn’t affected as much by wind and can’t blow back on the shooter, making it more foolproof in action. You get two of those blasts, which stain an attacker’s face bright red for later identification and have a range of up to 13 feet. The wide shot pattern also ups your odds of actually hitting your assailant as much as possible during a highly stressful situation.
The thing with a nonlethal option is that you’re able to take action if you feel threatened, but without risking a life. This is hugely empowering: you get the ability to decisively deal with a threat free from the burden of making a life-or-death call.
Regular readers will also know what I’m about to suggest next: if you’re looking for deterrence, just adopt a big dog. When we walk our two dogs, strangers will cross the street when Virginia or I approach after dark, rather than risk passing near us. They provide the absolute best alarm system and deterrent for our home or camp. Plus, they’re fun to snuggle up with at night. No one wants to be on the receiving end of two big dogs and a pepper blaster—no gun needed.
If you want to start carrying a Pepper Blaster, I suggest you order three or four and find a safe outdoor place to test-fire two or three of them so you know what to expect if you ever have to use one. They handle and sight just like a compact pistol, so if you’ve spent any time with guns, they’ll be immediately familiar. Buy the red ones instead of the gray so a cop will never mistake the plastic device for an actual handgun.
What If You Still Want a Gun?
One of the funny things about our country is that if you want a gun, you can probably just go buy one. It will blow your mind how easy it is to purchase a gun if you’ve never done it before. If you want to carry one around outside of your house or the gun range, things are slightly more difficult. Depending on which state you live in, you’ll probably need to complete a classroom course, then apply at your local law-enforcement agency for a carry permit.
That’s in civilization, of course. In the wilderness, openly carrying a handgun is often permissible. Consult your state and local laws before giving that a try.
But that’s just the act of carrying a gun. If you ever have to use one, things get much more complicated. It turns out that getting a gun out of a holster and actually hitting stuff with it in an expedient manner and under pressure is really difficult. To be able to do that, you’ll need to pursue professional training and regularly practice what you learn. And when you carry your gun, you’ll be accepting the most significant responsibility possible into your daily life. In the exceedingly rare event that you ever need to use that gun, you’ll have to be absolutely sure you’re making the right decision about ending someone else’s life, because if you get that wrong, it could be the end of yours.
And you’ll be taking all that on without any demonstrable need to do so. Not only is it exceedingly unlikely that you will ever be faced with the kind of situation in which a gun will be necessary, but there are better options for resolving that situation—developing better situational awareness, running away, carrying a Pepper Blaster, walking your dog—that all involve a hell of a lot less burden.
But don’t take it from this liberal snowflake. A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to take a course in house clearing from legendary special forces veteran John F. Mullins. After I’d managed to shoot only one hostage-shaped target, we got into a discussion about the need for normal people to carry guns in everyday life. Mullins has more experience using guns in a professional capacity than virtually anyone else in the world, but you know what he told me he carries now? Pepper spray.