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.
You make some good points against the claims in my article, Matt, but your message would lose credibility with the personal attacks you smattered throughout the comment. Below are several of your counterpoints that I’d like to share with readers, edited to remove the insults. — Mark Kelley, Publisher, AdventurePossible.com
…Relying on an unloaded gun stashed in your pack for protection is nothing sorry of outrageous. You carry a gun on your hip in an easily accessible, safe holster like millions of people do every day without incident.
“The best defense against violent crime is to be aware of your surroundings.”
I agree with you whole heartedly on this. However, sometimes just being aware of someone’s presence and danger is not enough. Being alone in the woods miles from civilization leaves you pretty vulnerable, and “moving on down the trail” is not a guarantee of safety. A gun is an excellent deterrent…
…I am by no means encouraging someone with little firearm knowledge or experience to tote one along on the trail. But for those of us who are thoroughly comfortable with them, then they are a safe, effective self defense tool that very well could save your life.
I’m researching this trail and tips and whatever I can learn cause I’m planning a hike about a month out on the A.T . N I will definitely be with a sidearm rather have it and not need it . Then need it and not have it
Sorry bu I do not agree with you.To support your argument you say that as a gun must be transported in your back pack you will not have the time to use it in an emergency.Why carrying it in a back pack ? You can carry a gun around your belt , so it is ready to be used any time you might need it. Secondly you say that a gun is a too heavy weight to carry while hiking. May be a magnum 45 but there are many revolvers and guns that are extremaly compact, light to carry and at the same time very effective To sum up, a gun for whom enters in the wildness is a tool that some time can make the difference between life or death, not carrying it is very unwise.
I have to agree with the above counter points.. Your statements that the gun will be unloaded and in your pack were bewildering to me… Why in the world would someone carry a firearm for self defense and have it unloaded and packed away???? You also propogated a myth about black bears.. Yes Grizzlys are are more aggressive however most black bear deaths are from hungry bears..When a grizzly attacks its usually being territorial. When a blackie does in most cases its trying to eat you. This is why you play dead with Grizzlies and fight for your life with blackies.
Mark Kelley says
Thanks for the opinion, Kevin. Your counterpoints are published.
Updated Aug. 8, 2016:
Having now spent more time backpacking through the western states, where grizzlies are present, wanted to correct some unclear points from Kevin about grizzlies. If you are attacked by a grizzly at night or believe it is stalking you, then you must fight back (not play dead), as it is likely there to eat you. There aren’t grizzlies on the AT, of course, so this if for those who find this article while researching other hikes where grizzlies are present.
Also, this spring an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker was bitten by a black bear in the night. A scary incident no doubt which could have turned out better or worse, and it’s worth noting that ‘The victim was immediately able to scare away the bear’. Here’s the cited article: Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Bitten
I would never go hiking without a gun. Occasionally I have met people who just gave me a bad vibe. In those situation, I have my hand close to my pistol. Better prepared than dead.
Mark Kelley says
Thanks for sharing, Hugh. Hope you meet less scary people in the future on the trail.
Also, what do you (or any other hikers reading this who want to respond) do when hiking through national parks or other state or federal lands that prohibit guns?
Thanks for your measured comments, Mark.
I think of self defense this way: You never need a firearm until you do. Are your odds of being a violent crime victim low? Sure they are, but “odds” also implies that there *are* some people who become victims of violent crime. I don’t wish to be one of those statistics.
I think of it this way: My odds of a house fire or of getting in a car crash are slim, but I still own smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, and I still wear my seatbelt.
I’ve never hiked the Appalachian Trail, but I am planning on it. I am also an owner of multiple guns for both hunting and just general recreational shooting, and I am a huge advocate for concealed/open carrying. And I do like the thought of carrying a gun for protection on the Appalachian Trail, just in case the situation calls for it.
However, just think of the perception you may give off. One of the biggest draws of a hiking the Appalachian Trail is the community around it. People helping each other and being in the company of others who enjoy similar things. And having a gun holstered on your hip might draw attention away from that camaraderie and make you that sketchy person people worry about. Most will be thinking that the vast majority of hikers on it don’t carry a gun, why would you have to have one. Just something to consider…
Kathy Allen says
I often carry a gun on my hip and no one knows it is there. My shirt hangs over it …prob solved..also,.like several others it boggled my mind to imagine why anyone would have an unloaded gun in the bottom of your backpack! I can’t imagine anyone doing that esp some one who claims to be profecient with guns.
Mark Kelley says
Thanks for the comment, Kathy. After 2,500 miles hiking on the Appalachian Trail, the only guns I’ve seen have come out of people’s packs. One was a US marine, so I imagine he had training and proficiency with guns.
Virgal Bressner says
Mark, when seeing service members do things and give advice bear in mind that the regular military doesn’t conceal their firearms. They don’t teach CCW because when they deploy they are all “open carrying”. I am a currently serving (17 years in) Military Police Soldier with the US Army and ALL of my CCW training has been through civilian run schools and programs.
If that US Marine had his firearm in his pack, he obviously didn’t think it through. Predators (human and animal) attack from ambush, not in the street at high noon.
If you are concerned with weight, there are some very potent self defense guns (that would be ethical to use to stop large attacking dogs or medium sized attacking black bear) that are made for hiking. S&W makes an 11 ounce .357 Mag, that may not be fun to shoot magnums in but could very well save your life.
As for the laws, follow them. If your state doesn’t respect the Constitution then petition and fight to get the laws to change (14 states have adopted Constitutional Carry, more will follow). Becoming a felon because the laws are unjust doesn’t make you any less of a felon.
If you’re so afraid of people that you’re prepared to potentially kill someone because you feel in danger, just don’t go hiking. Stay at home. You make it more dangerous and unpleasant for everyone.
First, I am not “so afraid of people” that I’m prepared to kill someone because I “feel” in danger. I am fully prepared to use whatever force may be necessary to stop someone who may want to harm or kill me, an innocent party, or even you.
How does my carrying a firearm for protection make hiking more dangerous and unpleasant for everyone? I’ve carried a concealed handgun for 30+ years, it hasn’t killed anyone yet, and only a very few people have even known that I had it. It has, on a few occasions been displayed to a select few who then reconsidered their criminal intentions and chose to go on their way unharmed.
I am certainly grateful that you don’t get to make the rules for our society Snowy. If you choose to be a ‘soft target’ by all means do so, that is your right as a free American. I choose to be aware of my surroundings, avoid trouble if at all possible, but be prepared to stop trouble if it comes my way.
For some reason I believe that you feel that you are somehow morally superior to those who would take action to defend themselves or others. A person who will not defend themselves, yet will call a police officer to do violence in their stead is not morally superior. They are still using violence, they’re just forcing that police officer to get his or her hands dirty and carry the burden for them.
Great response to Snowy! I agree with you and, I feel safer with you on the trail rather than Snowy.
Virgal Bressner says
That is a very unhealthy way to look at the world Snowy. If you think taking your inherent right and duty to self reliance/defense seriously equates to being afraid, I suggest you do some soul searching. More likely you are just trying to bully people into thinking like you by calling them “scaredy cats”.
The truth of the matter is that bad things do happen and taking precautions to deal with those situations, should they arise, is the prudent thing to do.
We carry on the trail….period.
Mark Kelley says
Hi M, curious if you carry when hiking the AT through national or state parks where carrying firearms is prohibited. I posed the question above to Hugh as well.
Curious what the approach is here for gun carrying hikers.
Mark Kelley says
Also, are there restrictions on carrying guns across state lines? I understand that states like New Jersey, which the AT passes through, have strict laws around the transport of guns through NJ.
Hi Mark, as a conceal carrier. Whether it’s in your bag, inside the waist or even your pocket. It’s important to the carrier to know local laws and states in which you would be hiking thru. Laws change every election year. Each state is different when it comes to firearm laws. Reciprocity and recognition, VA we recognize most state conceal carriers but they may not recognize our s. NJ at this time doesn’t not reciprocate our carriers.
Mark Kelley says
Hey Joey, thanks for the comment. That is great perspective. I looked up Smoky Mountain National Park because I figured that concealed weapons wouldn’t be allowed in the Smokies, but it turns out they do allow carry if you follow some rules: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/management/lawsandpolicies.htm
I break the law. If I feel I should have a gun, I don’t allow the law to dictate my actions. I don’t care what laws I break going through over a dozen states. If a gun is on my person or in my bag for personal protection, and I make it from Georgia to Maine and back without using it, does it matter what state or local ordinances I violated? Does it make me a criminal? Nope, just makes me an armed hiker enjoying a piece of our great country.
Mark Kelley says
Hi John, thanks for weighing in. I get where you are coming from, that you believe in personal liberty and, as presumably a responsible adult, you can decide whether, where and when you carry a firearm in public. It doesn’t bother me personally that you have this outlook. You can certainly decide for yourself to carry a gun through public places that prohibit concealed weapons, public places on the Appalachian Trail or not, such as planes, post offices, or federal courthouses. If you do this though, you are breaking the law, which is synonymous with being a criminal.
Are there ways to carry a gun legally through the whole Appalachian Trail? Maybe. I don’t know. Anyone out there know?
1) You’re only a criminal until you’re prosecuted for a crime.
2) Somehow I think your attitude toward calling law-breakers a criminal doesn’t apply to illegal aliens, drug users, and their like.
3) Of course, unlike an ‘illegally’ armed person who doesn’t use their firearm on the trail, both illegals and those people who use drugs on the trail have either abused social services or contributed to criminal enterprises by purchasing drugs.
Mark Kelley says
1) Not true. You’re a criminal if you break the law in the municipality / state / country where you visit / live. End of story. Whether or not you are caught is irrelevant.
2.) Not true. Perceive whatever attitude you want, I don’t have one. If you break the law, any law, you are a criminal. Some criminal offenses are more heinous than others, but they are still offenses.
3.) I don’t even know what this means.
Mike Moore says
I have day hiked for years and recently started backpacking. Do I carry? Yes,concealed. Concealed, in an easily accessible location. The gun is loaded but for safety purposes I do not chamber a shell. Yes, I know that wastes precious time if something happens to chamber a round. It also basically eliminates the chance of the gun accidentally going off and hurting me or someone else. This is where the ” being aware of your surrounding part”comes in. I pay attention to stuff. If a situation arises, ( never has…..YET) I hopefully recognize it in time to retrieve my weapon and ready it. This is not the perfect setup but nothing is. I know I haven’t …nobody else does, so no one will feel threatened. I understand that. I feel uneasy around people that open carry to be honest.If I happen to stumble in a situation that I am unknowingly carrying illegally, no one else knows it either. If a situation warrants me getting it out yes I could be in trouble with the law. I will also be alive to be in trouble with the law. Makes sense to me. I might add that a don’t carry a bazooka. My gun would not kill a bear except for an extremely lucky head shot. It also only weighs 11 ounces loaded and fits a pocket holster, in my pocket. It will stop most anything else I encounter though in the northeast. Especially the most dangerous predator, humans. I just look at it as another type of insurance, like fire, car, health insurance, I don’t ever need.
Mark Kelley says
Thanks for sharing, Mike. At 11 ounces, it sounds like the ultra-light backpackers handgun.
Just a thought…..if you were “moving” to Maine and you started in Georgia…..most states allow you to travel through while transporting weapons to your new home…..as long as your only stops are food and or sleep and not visiting any one……but to be sure please check with each States Laws…..and long guns laws are generally not as stringent as hand gun…….personally I would carry concealed if hiking the AT for all the many above stated reasons…..
Mark Kelley says
Thanks for sharing, Rick.
Paul Usher says
I’m English & am planning a thru hike. My initial reaction to reading Bill Bryson a walk in the woods was to think about a gun..re; bears. I won’t bother looking into it now as it would be illegal anyway. I think a taser would be a better less permanent solution. Not sure if it would give a bear more than goosebumps but I’ll feel better knowing i haven’t killed something/someone.
Ehhhhhh, bears are pretty tough Paul! And when Mama is on defense she can move move really fast. I hope you don’t get yourself into that situation but,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
Paul really brings up a good question………..
Mama’s not gonna care if you make loud noises with your arms raised up above your head in an attempt to make you appear larger and louder. She’s gonna charge you and tear you apart.
I’m pro concealed side-arm (to keep the happy hippies happy) but Paul cannot be.
What does Paul do?
I don’t think a taser will stop a pissed off Mama at all! (When they are full bore attack, they are well,,,,, full bore!)
Is a good pepper spray in the eyes a good deterrent? (Skill Required)
Or maybe a concussion grenade/flash bangs/M84 be more effective? (Wait! even we can’t buy those! dagnabbit!!!)
Or go full hillbilly and find an H1000 (not legal still but,,,,,,, well you know,,,,,,,,, more easily obtainable and lighting it in a tense situation would require some mad skills though)
I’d like to hear some suggestions?!?
Wow. I’ve been roaming the mountains 45 years. My gun is never unloaded in my back! Never “needed it” but very comforting to know I at least have a chance against any 4 or 2 legged predator. The deer and birds aren’t coming to save you and your cell phone won’t get a signal if it does, take troopers 12 hrs to find you
Pepper Gel canister and a sharp fixed blade knife with a partially serrated blade might come in handy, won’t you say?
Whatever You Say says
Mark, you say you’re a 2nd Ammendment guy and try to make that case. To me you sound like a leftist plant trying to deter people from their right to carry in national forests. Sorry, but that’s the way you sound. Carry and stay safe everyone. Propaganda is everywhere.
Mark Kelley says
Call me what you will. I’m the one willing to use my name and email.
Rich Brady says
Truly enjoy reading the inquiries, but enjoy your responses even more. This one might be the best. Ha ha. Thanks for all the info!
Rich Brady says
Sure wish I’d proofread my reply…”thanks.”
Mark Kelley says
No worries. I see humor in the hostility.
I say carry a loaded gun or 2 in holsters, take protection dogs,& be smart about where U camp & many other things.Keep all your dogs leashed to U.If They’re great protectors, you’ll know something’s wrong when they act aggressively & just listen to them.Let them sleep in your tent with U for added safety.Always be alert whenever they are.
It’s fascinating to read the comments with regard to carrying guns for personal protection while hiking trails in the USA. Wow, the passion and fear is so bizarre to this 60-year old Canadian (gun owner, hunter, and with time in our military). I’m not making a suggestion either way (to carry or not to carry) as it’s your country, but I can tell you that for most Canadians that spend a lot of time in the bush, this whole discussion is from another planet, When i worked in the far north–in polar bear country–a gun is required for safety. Some will carry a rifle (and some handguns) in areas with grizzlies and cougars. But carrying a firearm when there isn’t a real concern for the critters–just a concern about the 2-legged ones–that just doesn’t enter the conversation up here. Are trails in the USA that dangerous?
Ben Fry says
No, Ian they are not and that’s why this whole debate is somewhat silly.
Hey – I LOVE my guns and totally get why someone would feel more comfortable with them on the AT but ultimately it’s still just about fear: they’re afraid they’ll find themselves in a scary situation and need a gun (even though it is extremely unlikely). I get it. It’s tempting to carry but ultimately in the end it’s likely riskier to carry (from a legal standpoint) than not to (since the chance you’ll need it is almost non-existent).
Not that I would blame someone for carrying or try to stop them from doing it but, yeah, your assessment is correct: guns aren’t really needed on the trail (statistically, anyway).
No. The prime difference I see is Americans are actually citizens, and have a constitutional right to self defense. Englishman, and, by extension, Canadians, are subjects, and have whatever rights their governments and Crown have spelled out for them. To a large degree, they seem happy with this. One can, of course, argue the virtues of either system, but, crime has not been eliminated under either system. Americans are simply able to do something to try to prevent being victims that goes beyond running and hiding. London’s crime rate, including murder, exceeded NYNY for the first time in history, this past year.
Nancy Welsh says
Not a thru AT hiker, but I have hiked the NC/TN area. Carrying a weapon (or anything) outside of a pack is cumbersome and could be dangerous if a person stumbled or fell, which is definitely possible in many AT areas. Camped with two females and another couple who were more afraid of each other than bears. They let us know they had mace. Maybe we should have been afraid of them (LOL). (Grizzles, by the way, are western bears. Black bears are AT bears.)