Our family lives in an area of the country that provides a myriad of year-round outdoor sporting opportunities. We cross-country ski and ride our snowmobiles in the wintertime. When the snow is gone, we hike and explore backcountry trails on our four-wheelers almost every weekend. On occasion, we encounter wildlife on our trips to the woods, but more often than not, they peacefully go their way and we ours. Recently, there was a bear attack on some hikers not too far from us, and it caused us some alarm since we travel those same trails.
This past summer, we heard of a couple being robbed at a remote trailhead that we sometimes use. This got our attention to the point of doing a little investigation about the amount of illegal activity taking place in our state’s recreation areas. We were absolutely shocked at the amount of criminal activity going on where we once felt totally safe.
Between the animal attacks and the human predators, we have decided to buy a handgun and take it with us when we go on our backcountry trips.
Can you give us some tips on what kind of handgun we should buy and also how to carry it? Would we need to get a concealed carry permit to carry a gun in our backpacks? Some of the trails we travel through are state and national parks. One crosses the border between two states. How does that affect our ability to carry a handgun with us?
The concerns that you have are quite real. I applaud you for being proactive rather than resigning yourselves as potential victims of circumstance.
The first thing that I would advise you to do is think your situation through thoroughly to determine what you really want to achieve.
Many uninformed people buy a handgun for convenience and not so much for performance. For example, there are lots of small pistols and revolvers sold that rarely, if ever, get shot. If they are in a caliber substantial enough to kill a bear, as in your case, the recoil is so violent that an effective shot on the bear would stem more from luck than skill.
My advice is to start simple and work up from there. A stainless steel .357 Magnum revolver with a 4-inch barrel is a good place to start for most people. It allows you to train by shooting lower-powered .38 Special cartridges on the range but carry the .357 Magnum cartridges in the field. You will, however, need to practice with the .357 Magnum ammunition prior to your field trips so you will know what to expect should you ever have to put the gun to its intended use.
I need to add that I, along with many of my colleagues, view the .357 Magnum cartridge with 158-grain or heavier bullets as the bare minimum for engaging a bear. My personal preference is a .44 Magnum, but that caliber is not for beginners. With practice and marksmanship skill advancement, the .44 Magnum might be a future consideration for you.
Cover Yourself for Carrying Concealed
I recommend that you obtain a concealed carry permit for each state in which you recreate. That way there should be no question if you had to throw on a poncho during a rainstorm — resultantly concealing your gun — as to whether or not you were carrying legally.
If I am equipped only with a handgun, I prefer to carry concealed, regardless of the situation. The reason? I simply don’t want to advertise what my capabilities are until they are needed. Besides outright avoidance of an incident, the element of surprise gives one a huge tactical advantage.
Keep Your Handgun Accessible
I would recommend against carrying a gun in your backpack because of the time and access factors. It takes precious time to take the backpack off and access the carry location to get to the gun. In a camp or parking lot situation, the backpack might not be anywhere near you to access it.
It is always better to have your handgun on your person for quick and easy access. Shoulder or chest holsters are comfortable and convenient to access when riding off-road vehicles or hiking, although there is nothing wrong with a strong-side, belt-mounted holster if it works for you. The bottom line is to have the gun available when you need it. This applies to the human predator as well as a wildlife encounter.
I wish I had an easier answer for you regarding traveling through different recreation areas, but without knowing specific information about your travel routes, the answers vary widely. My recommendation is when planning your trip, list all of the areas that you might potentially go through. Include any parks, tribal lands and designated state and federal recreation areas and check the USCCA’s Concealed Carry Reciprocity & Gun Law Map for each state. You should also have a peek at the Federal Laws page for additional information. Be aware that laws often change without notification, so a pre-trip check is prudent prior to leaving home.
Have fun exploring outdoors and enjoy the addition of shooting sports to your list of recreational activities. It’s a lifelong endeavor!