I have been hiking, camping, and hunting practically all of my life. I suppose the term “spelunking” might also apply to some of the caverns I’ve traversed. I have usually had a firearm with me, unless I was overseas, and generally not felt in any danger from assaults. The weather, injury, and cold are more likely to be a danger.
Just the same, there have been times when I was glad to have a firearm. Beginning the research on this report, I found only a dozen or so murders along the Appalachian Trail during the past 45 years. That isn’t many, but is pretty important if you are the one at risk, and there are many more trails and open areas around the country, including the Adirondacks and the Rockies.
Firearms While Hiking?
There is cause for concern. As an example, one of the sick monsters I read about during my research shot two men on the trail and is now out of prison after 15 years. If that isn’t motivation for you to carry a firearm, I don’t know what is.
Folks traveling in pairs have been killed. In a particularly tragic case not far from my home, a young woman was murdered by a dangerous ex-con. The woman was skilled in martial arts. Her dog was later found wandering the trail. While a canine is an excellent warning system or alarm, very few are useful for protection, and if they are formidable against humans they are often too dangerous to have around the family. A hardened human can kick a 60-pound dog to death, and you as well. That leaves us with the firearm. We’ll also look at other means of protection.
If you have not mastered fear, a weapon simply attacks the symptoms, but it is good to be armed or prepared.
First, we’ll go over some gear/tools. I think that a good hardwood walking stick is a great advantage on the trail. I don’t always need a walking stick, but when I do, I need one badly. While it helps me walk when I limp due to old injuries, I have some skill with the stick. Study the cudgel and you may have a line of defense.
My own walking cane was handcrafted by my son and his family. It is of hardwood, has a blunt striking area on one end, and has striations for handling. There are also Norwegian runes honoring his heritage. This is a great tool and one I must have, and even if you do not have old injuries or a weak knee, the staff or cane is a great aid on the trail.
Reach is better than any knife. That said, a good knife should be carried on the trail. A hatchet or axe should be handy as well, for gathering firewood and perhaps building a hasty shelter during a downpour. There are many things that should be carried on the trail and most of them will be more important than guns for hiking almost all of the time. But if you need a firearm, you need one very badly.
There are a couple of concerns. First, will you store the firearm and use it for camp defense or carry it on the belt ready to go? Where will you hide or store it when swimming or sleeping? Either way, you will be humping the gun through the wild and weight is already a concern. I think that it makes sense to have the gun ready for action and carried in the clothing, on the belt, on a harness, or in the pocket.
The threat profile is important. You won’t be plinking with the gun, it is illegal to fire a gun on most parklands. Be certain to check, but it is legal to carry a gun in a national forest. So, the obvious intent of the law is for personal defense.
The extent of the journey is also a consideration. I have no problem with packing a heavier gun for a short duration. If spending weeks outside, then every ounce has to count. Another consideration is just how good a shot you really are. I don’t say that lightly.
Many handguns, perhaps most, are useful for no more than a threat to deter an attack unless you are skilled. A lightweight, but powerful and accurate handgun is a gem. When in the wild, a firearm of any type can be a comfort. I am amazed at times of the places I grew up loving, that appear scary to those who have seen too many horror movies!
An old camp, an old house, and the deep woods call to me. Just the same, I am not going to explore old towns! There are perhaps a dozen old mining towns completely deserted and bare in the south, while the ones in the west are better known. The ones in the south are now in forests and you sometimes see a hint driving down a main road. Knowing humans as I do, it is an even bet these towns have some residents. Whether hiding out or simply members of the hobo or train-hitching hippy class, they are antisocial and don’t live by the rules that we do. Leave well enough alone.
Trail Gun Choices
If the threat is dangerous animals and humans, then the firearm must combine power and accuracy, but then a lightweight is a big problem. Accuracy can make up for power. My own threat profile includes humans and feral dogs. Not far away, a bobcat bit seven people. Since it was not captured, all had to be treated for rabies.
A good quality .22 caliber rimfire is a choice. If you can shoot, the Smith and Wesson Kit Gun has been an outdoors standard for over 100 years. With a four-inch barrel and fully-adjustable sights, the little Model 317 Kit Gun .22 LR is a great outdoors companion. Weight is a feathery 11.7 ounces. With anything that needs to be shot, shot placement is everything. If you prefer a self-loader, the Smith and Wesson M&P 22 Compact carries 10 rounds and is nearly as accurate as the Kit Gun revolver. Mine has never failed and offers good accuracy. It is heavier than the 317 at 15 ounces, but still a lightweight.
Small Guns to Consider
Another couple of small guns for hiking that are worth mentioning, require the user be skilled in their use, like all firearms. The Bond Arms Derringer isn’t your usual derringer. The Bond Arms is reliable and safe to carry fully-loaded by dint of its transfer-bar ignition system. I have watched a video of the great Bob Munden hitting a steel plate at 65 yards with the Bond Arms .45 ACP.
It isn’t exactly a Winchester miracle, but the product of an athlete and great shot who knew his guns. I am able to duplicate the feat at 20 yards. Practice is needed, as the two barrels do not strike to the same point of aim. The Bond Arms Derringer features useful sights and a decent trigger. It is safe if dropped. It is available in serious defensive calibers. It is a minimal handgun certainly, but if defense at intimate range is the primary concern, it doesn’t take up much room.
Next up, are some of the most useful combination personal defense and outdoors revolvers, and you may already own one. The Smith and Wesson J-Frame .38 Special is one of my favorite all-around revolvers. With a set of hand-filling grips and enough practice, you will be able to defend yourself well at modest range. The .38 Special is a hard-hitting cartridge with the proper loading. As an example, when in the wild, I often load the Model 49 with the Buffalo Bore 158-grain Outdoorsman. At 1,000 fps or so, it kicks, sure, but it also gives you a chance of stopping a large animal with good shot placement. The Smith and Wesson 640 Pro .357 Magnum with a slightly longer barrel, excellent grips and night sights is a real advantage. These are good guns for hiking.
There are others. If I really thought I would need a gun, I would carry something larger, but the odds are low. I always carry the pistol concealed unless hunting. Everyone has guns during hunting season. When on a trail, some folks don’t know the difference between good guys and bad guys. A concealed handgun gives you the element of surprise and the bad guys won’t cave your head in just to get the gun. Use a secure holster, perhaps with a thumb break, and practice the draw.
Large Guns to Consider
Almost 100 years ago, a famous outdoorsman was camping in Montana. He returned to camp to find his rifle and all of his gear stolen. It was inexplicable, he wrote, and he had never seen such a thing happen and he never tracked down the thieves. He would have sworn no one was in the area for many miles. He spent a week feeding himself and a companion with a Colt SAA revolver and the small knife he had on his person. He used that knife to make a hasty shelter and slept in a bed of boughs.
Conclusion: Best Hiking Guns
Without essential gear, it was a struggle simply to get home. Take care with your choices and be certain you have a good walking stick, a knife or two, first aid gear, emergency food, and protection from the elements. And maybe a little pistol just in case. Perhaps a four-inch barrel .357 or a 4¾-inch barrel SAA .45 would be an excellent safety net if you can carry this weight. Guns for hiking aren’t for everyone, but carefully consider your needs and they just might save your life.
What are your favorite guns for hiking? Why? Let us know in the comments section below!
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January of 2021. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.