Backcountry Backup: Defending Your Life and Property

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Enjoying a remote adventure, alone or among family and friends, combines the pristine grandeur of a wilderness setting with your comfort level of your outdoor know-how and self-reliance skills. A vital part of that comfort zone is knowing how to prepare should you ever encounter a situation in defense of life or property (DLP). Even venturing into managed areas such as national parks, designated wilderness areas, refuges and other outdoor recreation sites — particularly those with expansive sections of remote backcountry — requires the prudent outdoor adventurer to maintain a heightened level of DLP awareness and readiness.

Though extremely rare and highly unlikely, the most common life-threatening scenarios in our national parks and other similar recreational areas involve large, carnivorous animals — brown bears, black bears, wolves and mountain lions. Even a confrontation with a moose can result in a fatal kick or being crushed by a huge set of antlers. And then there’s always the human threat too.

It is often said that when an individual leaves civilization and heads into a wild area, they “re-enter the food chain.” Though this is unassailably accurate, it doesn’t mean that you have to act like (or end up as) food.

It is often said that when an individual leaves civilization and heads into a wild area, he or she “re-enters the food chain.” Though this is unassailably accurate, it doesn’t mean that you have to act like (or end up as) food.

Fight or … Fight

Oftentimes, the threatening hand dealt to you doesn’t allow you the option of playing the avoidance card. Instead, you might be forced, sometimes traumatically, into fight-or-flight mode. In backcountry, where access is limited to flying, floating or footing it in, an effective retreat is not often a viable alternative either. Carrying a firearm might be your only lifesaving option and ultimate DLP course of action.

Public Law 111-24 makes it legal to possess firearms in national parks and refuges. You might carry a firearm, concealed or otherwise, as long as applicable federal, state and local firearms laws in the state in which the park is located allow your possession of that weapon. That law does not, however, change prohibitions on the use of firearms in national parks or affect any hunting regulations. And even if it’s legal to carry a firearm within a park’s boundaries, it’s still not legal to discharge it.

Know the Local Laws

These regulations were adopted with specific scrutiny toward each state’s laws, including non-restricting laws, regarding the carrying of concealed weapons. Certain areas within federal recreation areas (visitor centers, offices, etc.) still enforce site-specific bans on firearms.

“More than 30 national parks are located in more than one state, so visitors need to know where they are in those parks and which state’s law applies,” said Kathryn Warnes, grant management specialist with the National Park Service. National Park websites have been updated to include links to each state’s firearms laws.

This responsibility upon the firearm-carrying visitor gets even more challenging when international borders are crossed. Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Areas Wilderness (BWCAW) and Voyageurs National Park are two specific examples of how complex this law can become if you haven’t done your firearms possession homework.

Because both areas share a water border with Canada, there is no visible line to tell you when you’ve boated into our northern neighbor’s waters. Cross the line at Voyageurs and you must now also abide by Canada’s firearms laws, which prohibit handguns but might allow certain types of “camp guns.” However, absolutely no firearms of any sort are allowed in Quetico Provincial Park, the BWCAW counterpart unit on the Canadian side of the vast boundary waters region that shares many border lakes with the U.S. It is up to the individual to make arrangements to deal with a firearm in his or her possession before entering Canada.

Defensive use of firearms changes in the backwoods. Not only are human predators always a factor, animals such as moose and bears pose a very real danger to hikers and campers.

Defensive use of a firearm changes in the backwoods. Not only are human predators always a factor, but animals such as moose and bears also pose a very real danger to hikers and campers.

Mind the Borders

Many of the laws between adjoining states conflict. Boaters cruising the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin on the St. Croix River, where an imaginary border line runs down the center of the channel, must abide by the Badger State’s law against carrying concealed firearms without an accepted permit.

Using Minnesota’s laws as a perspective, there are currently 32 states whose handgun possession laws are “not substantially similar” to Minnesota’s firearms possession laws and, as such, are not valid in the state. Furthermore, laws in the state where a firearm is registered do not supersede Minnesota’s laws or regulations. In the case where a portion of two or more states lie within a park boundary, it is up to each individual to check the status of laws in each of those particular states.

NOTE: You can learn more about each state’s firearms laws by visiting the USCCA’s Concealed Carry Reciprocity & Gun Laws by State Map.

Backcountry Mixed Bag

While the question of whether it’s legal to carry a concealed weapon in a national park has been answered by Public Law 111-24, the need to carry a firearm for DLP in those parks and other backcountry recreation areas continues to be one of personal preference and ongoing debate and discussion. Even before this new firearms possession law was tacked on as a rider to the 2009 Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, proponents of the law were applauding it as yet another expression of the country’s Second Amendment rights. Opponents, however, feared its passing would cause a heightened potential for gun-related mishaps in an otherwise pristine and safe environment.

Wildlife Woes in the Backcountry

Defense against attacks by wild animals has always been a valid concern among those who frequent the backcountry of America in areas where there is a heightened chance that you might encounter a huge carnivorous animal. However, incidents resulting in death are extremely rare. According to an article in the Journal of Wildlife Management, through a 25-year period in Alaska, 52 brown bears and 38 black bears (5 percent and 3 percent, respectively, of the total bear kills during that period) were dispatched in defense of life or property.

Of that number, there were no human injuries in 98.5 percent of the brown bear incidents and 99.2 percent of incidents involving black bears. Still, during the period from 1985 to 1996, bear attacks did result in 36 injuries to humans and six deaths.

Besides brown/grizzly bears common to, and an attraction of, several parks in Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, an encounter with a black bear could occur throughout much broader regions of the U.S. Other animals that could also cause a serious threat to humans include mountain lions, wolves and even moose.

National Park Wilderness District Ranger Wendy Artz offered basic advice common to bear country everywhere. “Be places where bears expect to see you — open areas, river banks, beaches, etc.,” she said. “If you have to pass through an area where bears can’t see you, make noise, talk loud, sing out loud, etc.”

A Different Type of Predator

Not all threats come from wildlife. Consider an incident that occurred on a border lake in the BWCAW several years prior to the passing of this law. Randomly firing into the air and surroundings using an assortment of weapons, including semi-automatic AR-style rifles and pistols, a half-dozen drunk men, operating boats powered by outboards (illegal on a section of this particular lake), raided several remote campsites and spent hours terrorizing canoe campers on Basswood Lake (hence the group subsequently being referred to as Basswood 6).

It was a rare incident that has not since been repeated, at least within the remote BWCAW, in the seven years hence. Nonetheless, those campers were defenseless against this attack. Under the revised law, members of those campsites could legally possess weapons to use in self-defense. Whether such counter-actions would have evolved into an even more dangerous situation fuels an ongoing debate.

Difference of Opinion

Popular firearms in Alaska include .44s in chest holsters, while others prefer to carry a shotgun.

“When I’m in the backcountry, I carry my .40 service weapon in a chest holster and a marine flare in my pants pocket,” Artz said. “I have not had to use either one.”

Most outfitters in the BWCAW argue against the need to carry a firearm into the wilderness area. “I have been in the outfitting business for 51 years, and I have never recommended carrying a firearm into the BWCAW or Quetico Park,” said Dan Waters, of Canadian Waters Outfitters. “There are simply no dangers that would warrant carrying a firearm into the canoe country.”

Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minnesota, agrees. “It’s really a non-issue,” Piragis said. “I always discourage anyone from carrying a gun. It’s just asking for an accident or unwise use … [Bear attacks] are so rare as to even be mentioned in my opinion.”

Frank Udovich, the owner of Kawishiwi Lodge & Outfitters in the BWCAW, said that it really comes down to a matter of preference, one now made easier by the new law regarding firearms in national parks. “I personally would like to carry a gun at all times but feel the chance for an accident outweighs the need for one,” Udovich said. “Also, most of my friends and locals bring guns into the wilderness. It normally isn’t even something discussed. You get to camp, people pull out guns, no surprise. It’s almost like ‘Where’s the ketchup?’”

In bear country, you might even consider procuring a specific woods gun apart from your usual carry gun; .380 doesn’t work particularly well against this fellow.

In bear country, you might even consider procuring a specific woods gun apart from your usual carry gun, as .380 wouldn’t work particularly well against this fellow.

Walk Softly and Pack a Big Bore

As far as a preferred weapon for DLP, particularly against attacks from large critters, .40-caliber service sidearms, .44 Magnum revolvers and shotguns appear to be the weapons of choice among those in the public and private sectors who carry firearms. Bear spray is a serious option as an alternative or complement to a firearm. Many feel it is equal to or better than a firearm for deterring animals or humans.

There are no definitive answers about whether or not you should possess a firearm when adventuring within a national park or other similar area, nor about which caliber to use. Clearly, owners of firearms should be proficient and comfortable with their weapons to be used as effective and safe tools in defense of life and property. Public Law 111-24 extends that right and responsibility throughout most of our national parks and other recreation lands as well.

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