So here’s a few stories, and then a topic most of us don’t like to talk about when it comes to backcountry issues. The topic: Self defense. Here goes…
Last week, musician and avid hiker Taylor Mitchell was killed by coyotes while on a solo hike in eastern Canada.
About two months ago, two women hiking in Colorado were attacked by a knife-wielding man. They fought him off with their hiking poles, and the man was later arrested.
Two facts of life in the backcountry. Sometimes wildlife encounters don’t go well for people, though coyote attacks are extremely rare. And more often than not, people are the most dangerous things someone might encounter.
I’m reminded of a couple of stories I heard from people I met in Montana, which is famous for its big game and big predators.
One involved a Texas preacher who moved up to Montana to pastor a church there. He liked to hike in Colorado and New Mexico, but wasn’t expecting the encounters he got in Big Sky country. First, he got treed by a moose. Don’t be fooled into thinking moose are just docile plant eaters. Moose are some of the most dangerous wild animals in North America. On another trip, he was hiking along a steep ridge when he saw a bear. The bear ran up the slope with ease, but had no interest in him. But the speed at which the bear moved gave him pause. Last, he ran into a mountain lion which stalked him all the way back to his car. At this point, the pastor realized that he was going to have to arm himself if he wanted to do any more hiking in Montana.
Then there’s the truly scary story of a woman whose family runs a guide service. It was her turn to watch the camp while her husband went out in the field to hunt with some clients. The woman heard her horses acting up, then saw the source of their anxiety: an old, nasty and ill-tempered grizzly bear. She’d brought a lever-action rifle with her, and it’s a good thing, too. The bear charged her. She got off five shots, hitting the bear twice. One slug broke the bear’s shoulder. She later tracked the animal down and finished it off. But she easily could have been that bear’s supper.
These tales bring up the often sticky topic of self defense in the backcountry.
I was reading a piece on woodsmonkey.com on this subject. The author had some interesting points. Let’s go over your options for self defense, with some help from our friends at woodsmonkey.com:
Pepper spray. Non-lethal, and to use it does not take pinpoint accuracy of a firearm. Many pepper sprays are particularly effective against predators that rely on scent, such as bears, canines and big cats. People are likewise deterred by pepper sprays. Downside is the effects of wind and the relatively close proximity to your target you have to be in order to be effective.
Knives, hiking poles and other hand-held weapons. Not as bulky or controversial as a firearm. Such weapons have multiple uses beyond self defense, will probably be in your pack anyway and won’t be susceptible to weather or the elements. The women in Colorado used hiking poles to fend off their attacker. Better than nothing, but to use these things as weapons means you’re in direct contact with your attacker. If this is a bear or a mountain lion, your chances are not good.
Firearms. A gun is the great equalizer. A defense can be made from a safer distance than with your other options, and with proper training a person with a gun can shoot accurately and effectively. A high enough caliber weapon will stop just about anything. The downside is the limited use of a gun for your other backpacking needs, the added weight and bulk, the risk of accidental discharge and the fact that they aren’t legal to carry in some places. You might also find that some people just aren’t comfortable around folks who are packing heat.
Common sense, however, is one way to bring down the risks of being attacked in the wild, regardless of who or what the attacker is. Hiking with people is safer than going alone. Making noise as you go will scare most animals, even predators, away. Being aware of your surroundings is key. And when camping, store your food in a manner which prevents animals from seeing and smelling your stash.
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