For Americans, gun rights and gun control debates are often at the center of our most intense political debates. As well, there is always some hiker asking the question or whether or not they should carry a gun while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Let me first tell you my stand on guns. I own several guns, mostly shotguns and rifles used for hunting. I was raised around guns. The men and women in my family own and shoot guns. And I am in general comfortable with the right that Americans can own and carry guns.
Though I am a gun owner and am comfortable with them, I do not recommend that hikers carry guns on the Appalachian Trail.
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Here are a couple reasons why people suggest a hiker should carry a gun on the Appalachian Trail.
Robbery / Rape / Murder: Indeed there has been some violence on the Appalachian Trail, including murders, which I outlined in this post about murder on the Appalachian Trail. However, the incidence of such crimes is quite low relative to the millions of people that hike the trail each year.
While having a gun could provide you with protection against an assailant, it’s likely the gun will be buried deep in your pack, so accessing it quickly would be a challenge if attempting to fish it out in a scenario where an assailant has surprised you. Furthermore, the gun would probably be unloaded and you’d have to take time to load it.
The best defense against violent crime is to be aware of your surroundings. If you encounter a suspicious person, move on down the trail to be safe. Also, most violent crimes are committed against hikers by non-hikers, so it’s also a good practice to not camp in an area too visible and accessible by outsiders.
Bears and other animals: The Appalachian Trail does have a black bear population, but these bears are often more scared of hikers than the other way around. These bears aren’t grizzlies. They’re not man hunting Kodiak bears or Polar bears. They’re black bears, and black bears are scaredy cats.
If you were to encounter a black bear on the Appalachian Trail, like I have four times, chances are you’d only see their backside as they are running away from you. If a bear does threaten you, typically the strategy to deter a black bear is simply to be loud and big. The bear will typically scurry away.
Should you encounter a mama black bear and find yourself between her and her cubs, then you are certainly at a greater risk for bear attack, but if you back out of the situation you can defuse the tension. And really, do you want to shoot a mama bear in front of her cubs?
Against the adamant pleas of my family to “carry a gun for protection”, I did not carry a gun on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I figured a gun is heavy, can be dangerous, and would be seldom needed, so I decided that I would not carry a gun. I didn’t want to lug it 2,175 miles, and I simply didn’t think I would need it.
In all of my 165 nights and 2,175 miles, I met many black bears, an angry moose, and numerous sketchy folks around town, but never did I have a want or need for a gun.