If you’re into guns and you enjoy hiking then you probably have or at least want a good “woods gun.” There are a lot of different ideas out there about which guns are most appropriate for the outdoor enthusiast, but I haven’t seen a really good, systematic analysis of the issue, so I’ve decided to offer up a few observations.
First things first, you should ask yourself a few questions:
1) What type of hiking do you typically engage in? If your idea of a “hike” is a stroll down a nature trail in a city park then your requirements are going to be different than someone who is engaging in strenuous hikes over difficult terrain. The person who takes leisurely walks can get away with carrying a heavier gun. A person who needs to scramble over rocks and who will be out in the woods for days at a time will probably want a light, durable, rust resistant firearm.
2) What sort of threats are you concerned with? If you’re hiking in the Alaskan wilderness then you’re going to want the biggest, meanest handgun you can carry. You may even want to consider a long gun if you can tolerate lugging the thing around. If you’re hiking on the East Coast then you can afford to carry a smaller, less powerful firearm.
3) How important is concealability to you? Some folks are fortunate enough to live in communities where carrying a firearm in the woods is considered normal. Some of us live in communities where people will freak out if you openly carry, so we look for ways to comfortably conceal our guns.
Answering the above questions should help you think through the trade-offs between firepower and ease of carry. If you want firepower you’re going to have to carry a larger, heavier gun. If you want maximum concealability and comfort of carry then you’re going to sacrifice something in the area of firepower. What follows are a few suggestions grouped according to some notional responses to the above questions…
Scenario A. You engage in moderately stressful hiking in an area of the country where a bear attack is possible, albeit still very unlikely. Concealability is important to you.
1) The Glock 29. This may be the perfect woods gun for people who want a lightweight, reliable firearm chambered for a cartridge versatile enough to defend against both four and two-legged predators. The Glock 29 is a compact autoloader capable of holding 11 rounds of 10mm. For people who hike in areas where bears are a real concern, 10mm is a good choice for personal protection — coming close to .41 magnum performance. In addition to carrying more rounds than a revolver, most people tend to prefer the ergonomics of autoloading pistols like the Glock. This increases their “shootability,” meaning they are more likely to hit what they are aiming at.
Cons: Having a double-stack magazine makes the 29 a little wide, which can make it harder to conceal.
2) The Ruger SP101. Ruger has a reputation for making some of the most rugged handguns in the world. The SP101 seems to epitomize that sentiment. It’s built like a tank! And of course the venerable .357 magnum cartridge is a great choice for personal protection against both animals and bad guys.
Cons: The chief disadvantage of the Ruger is its weight and its capacity. Five shots of .357 doesn’t give you a lot to work with if you’re being charged by a bear; and because it is built like a tank, the gun is a little on the heavy side. The .357 magnum cartridge is probably useful for black bears, but I doubt it would be effective against larger animals.
Scenario B. You engage in very demanding hikes that involve some significant rock scrambling or traveling over some other type of rough terrain. Your threat environment includes animals and people, but large bear attacks are unusual.
1) The S&W Model 642 Centennial Airweight. An alloy framed .38 Special is a great choice for physically demanding hikes. The alloy frame of the 642 won’t rust. Moreover, the gun is extremely lightweight, but still chambered for a round that has good stopping power. That said, a .38 is probably worse than useless in a bear attack scenario. But if you live on the East Coast you probably shouldn’t be overly concerned with bears anyway. The 642 is my top choice when I take to the woods. My preferred load is the Speer Gold Dot 134 grain +P round.
Cons: Once again, you have only five-shots and none of those shots is going to be particularly effective against large animal. Also, a lot of people find shooting snubbie revolvers to be very challenging. This is probably a gun best suited for an experienced shooter.
2) Kahr Arms PM-40. I don’t own a Kahr product, but I have heard good things from people who are serious about guns. The PM-40 is extremely compact and light, but still capable of handling .40 +P ammo. Once again, I don’t think it would be particularly useful in any scenario involving a bear larger than a panda, but I think it would perfectly adequate for dealing with the full range of other threats.
Cons: The biggest disadvantage of the .40 is that it is what it is — a great cartridge for dealing with bad guys and a not-so-great cartridge for dealing with large animals. Otherwise, it rocks.
Scenario C. You engage in light to moderately stressful hikes in an area where your primary concern is animal attack (e.g. bull moose and brown bears).
1) Ruger Redhawk .44 Magnum. The four-inch barreled version of the Redhawk gives you a lot of power in relatively compact package. I wouldn’t want to hike for several days over tough terrain with a Redhawk on my hip. I also wouldn’t want to try and conceal a service sized revolver like the Redhawk, but if I lived in a place like Alaska I would probably own one.
Cons: Like the Kahr, the Redhawk is what it is — it’s heavy and not so easy to conceal if you’re hiking in light clothing, but darned powerful.
2) Glock 20 in 10mm. The big brother of the Glock 29, the Glock 20 is a full size service pistol with a lot of firepower. Think 16 round of 10mm goodness.
Cons: Difficult to conceal.
Of course, the above scenarios aren’t meant to capture the full range of possible situations people might face. I just wanted to address a few of the more interesting ones. Most of the time your normal carry gun will probably suffice for regular, light hiking. I wanted to focus on scenarios that might require a person to make a special purchase.
A few notes about ammo…
The bottom-line here is that you should carry a load that matches the threat. If you aren’t concerned with four-legged predators then regular personal defense ammo is fine. Even though you aren’t going to be as concerned about over-penetration in the woods as you would be in an apartment complex, you still want your bullet to dump all of its energy into the target. In my humble opinion, I think this means rapid energy transfer and relatively shallow penetration. The Border Patrol standard is nine inches of penetration. The Border Patrol gets in more gunfights than any other federal law enforcement service and from what I’ve read their standards are pretty darn good. After reading “Stopping Power: A Practical Analysis” it certainly seems to me that high velocity rounds that transfer a lot of energy within the first few inches are probably more likely to stop an attacker than rounds that transfer energy later.
The same rounds that work well against bad guys may not work as well, or at all, against animals. Penetration becomes more important when dealing with larger predators. Some cartridges, like the 10mm, can be found in very solid hunting loads, which provide excellent penetration with solid energy transfer. Such rounds produce a large “crush cavity” (areas the bullet actually touches), as well as a large “temporary stretch cavity” (organ displacement that occurs as the projectile travels through the body). For some cartridges, like the .45 ACP, 9mm, .357 SIG, and .38 Special, it will be harder to find hunting rounds that will get the job done — if you can find them at all. These cartridges were designed to neutralize bad guys, not bears. If you are limited to using a firearm chambered for one of these cartridges then it may not be a bad idea to use ball ammo — e.g. full metal jacket (FMJ). Solid projectiles will give you far better penetration than hollow points.
Some thoughts on concealment…
If you can get away with open carrying without looking like a weirdo then that’s awesome, but most of us aren’t that fortunate. For that reason, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the problem of how I can comfortably conceal my firearm. Because I engage in some challenging hikes involving rock scrambling, I have to think not only about comfort and concealment, but also weapon retention. I don’t want my gun falling out of my holster! For about a year I used a kydex pocket holster for my .38; however, I found that it rubbed against my leg which was EXTREMELY uncomfortable when I was sweating. I would come home with a painful scrape on my thigh after a long day of hiking in the summer. Not fun. For that reason I purchased a Wilderness Tactical “Safepacker,” which allows me to carry my gun securely and comfortably. It looks a little lame (like a black fanny pack), but then again I’m more concerned with being comfortable than I am looking cool.
The one real downside of the Safepacker system is that it isn’t that easy to get your gun out. It’s not exactly difficult, but it does take some practice and it certainly isn’t as fast as my old pocket holster. That said, it’s the best solution I’ve found to the problem of how to carry concealed while on a challenging hike in an area where people are generally anti-carry.