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October 29, 2009 Comments (0) Editorials

Self Defense On The Trail

One thing that we haven’t talked much about here at Woods Monkey is self defense while you’re in the great outdoors.  When the words “self defense” come up, the first thing we think about is an attack from another individual or a group of people.  But, while enjoying outdoors recreation like hiking, backpacking, camping, boating and so forth, you have to also add wildlife to the equation.  There is a sad Chronicle Herald article about a Toronto woman that fell victim to coyotes while she was out on a day hike.  This particular story has been discussed in a couple of forums I’ve visited today, and one of the first things talked about is having the ability to protect one’s self from such an attack.  I thought it might be worth discussing here as well.

Aside from human predators, in North America there are several animals that pose a threat no matter how unlikely the chances might be.  One of the first that come to mind are bears; you can also throw into the mix coyotes, wolves, boar, mountain lions, and feral dogs as well.  Depending on the situation and time of year, there’s always the possibility of attack from unlikely aggressors such as deer or elk.  As a matter of fact, it’s always a good idea to keep your eyes open for any potential threat no matter how unlikely it is.  When it comes to wildlife, you’re on their turf, not yours.

Depending on who you speak to, there are different answers to the question of what to carry for self defense on the trail.  Some folks are fine with just a field knife.  Some like to have a firearm handy.  Those that aren’t comfortable with either of those two choices might go for something like a can of pepper spray or a hiking stick.  This isn’t a decision I or anyone else can make for you, but we can offer a few observations as things to think about for the next time you go out into the wild.

To be honest, my first choice is going to be a firearm where they are allowed.  There are places where firearms aren’t allowed, but where they are, I’m going to have one for a couple of reasons.  Those reasons are sound and distance.  In a situation where an animal is attacking, there’s a chance that just the sound of a shot going off is enough to stop an attack.  If not, a firearm gives you the best ability to defend yourself from a distance.  When it comes to using a knife, a stick, or pepper spray, you’re going to have to be fairly close to the attacking animal for it to be effective.  I’d much rather be able to protect myself from a distance when it’s possible.

Naturally, a rifle or a shotgun are going to be more powerful self-defense tools than a pistol or a revolver.  However, aside from hunters, the vast majority of folks going for a fun outdoors experience aren’t going to be toting around long arms for protection.  The vast majority will be using a handgun if carrying a firearm, and when the adrenaline hits, you better believe getting off an accurate shot is going to be fairly difficult.  So, the key to using this tool for defense is practice, practice, practice.  That way, if an occasion does come about where you are attacked, your body can naturally engage the target from “muscle memory” even if the adrenaline and effects of tunnel vision kick in.

There are all sorts of debates that occur regularly as to which caliber to carry while out in the field.  All I can suggest is the hardest-hitting caliber you can still shoot comfortably well.  There’s no sense in having a .454 if you can’t shoot it well and aren’t able to get quick follow-up shots with it.  For outdoors protection, my own personal power floor is .357 Magnum.  This caliber will do for just about any wildlife that’s in my area of the continent, and it’s the #1 man-stopping handgun round on the market.  While it wouldn’t be my first caliber choice, I did read a story where a hunter saved his buddy’s life by emptying a full magazine into a bear’s head from his Taurus 9mm pistol.  If a .38 or a 9mm is all you can handle, then roll with it.  It’s certainly better than chucking gravel.

Another important consideration is going to be the size and weight of the firearm.  If it’s too much to lug around comfortably, you’re going to start leaving it at home.  Make sure that whatever you choose is going to be something you can live with when it comes to having it on your person at all times.

So, what if you can’t or don’t want to carry a firearm?  Well, that’s up to you.  To me, it’s not much of a consideration.  While outdoors, I will always have a knife on me as just a matter of course.  However, it’s probably the last tool I would go to as a defense weapon.  If you’re close enough to fight back with a knife, then you’re in real trouble.  Again, that’s where the distance factor comes in for me.  If I couldn’t carry a firearm, then I would absolutely make sure that I have both a canister of pepper spray that is easily accessible and a hiking staff as well.  Both of these tools are going to give me the advantage of distance over the use of a knife for self defense.  Let’s say the worst case scenario happens and you are attacked by a bear.  I personally think a canister of pepper spray from a reputable maker would be a better defense tool than a knife or hiking staff.  A lot of folks would argue that it’s actually a more effective tool than a firearm since your aim doesn’t have to be quite as precise and a bear’s nose is very sensitive.

Just like any other survival scenario, your best tool is going to be your brain.  When you’re walking down a dark street in a bad neighborhood, most of you are going to be more aware of your surroundings and you’ll probably pay closer attention to everything that’s going on.  You have to have that same kind of mindset while you’re in the outdoors.  Keep your distance from all wildlife, even the cute ones.  There’s quite a few stories about hunters being attacked and severly injured by deer.  Make a lot of noise while you’re out.  If given the choice, most wildlife will prefer to get away from you just as much as you want to stay away from them.  A lot of attacks occur when an animal is surprised and they react out of fear.  Also, think three-dimensionally as well.  The attack might not always come from the ground around you.  Mountain lions like to attack their prey from above so they will take a seat in a tree or on an overhang and wait for the right moment.  Look up and down as well as all around.

Have a plan for the possible scenarios.  One of our first instincts as humans is to turn and run when we think we’re going to be attacked by a wild animal.  However, doing that can actually trigger the predator instinct in a lot of animals and they could just end up giving chase as a result.  If you can calmly back away from the threat while keeping an eye on the situation, that’s probably the best course of action most of the time.  Certainly, do everything possible to avoid doing anything that would be threatening to the animal.

Unfortunately, the odds of being attacked by a fellow human being are much greater than being attacked by wild animals.  That’s just the nature of our our society now a days.  Some of the same rules you use in the city apply out in the woods as well.  Travel in groups of two or more if possible.  A solo hiker presents a much easier target than a group of three or four people.  Being situationally aware and prepared for an adverse event has the effect of making you more confident, and helps make you appear to be a harder target.  When around unfamiliar individuals, keep up your guard and don’t get distracted.  Your priority should be your safety and the safety of family members.  You wouldn’t meet someone in a dark alley and hang out with them there the first time you meet.  Use that same rule when you meet someone on the trail.  Be alert, be polite, and then be gone.

All of the things I talked about are just personal observations and opinions.  What works for me might not work for you.  However, I would encourage you to at least think about the possibility of suffering an attack from an animal or even a person while you’re in the out of doors.  Try to come up with practical solutions that you believe will work for the way you recreate, and then put your plan to work.  Practice using whatever tools you choose and take the time to mentally work through how to handle different situations should they ever arise.  My personal opinion is that firearms, knives, and sticks/staffs each require a certain level of training and practice to be able to deliver immediate impact.  The one tool available that usually delivers a strong punch and requires the least amount of training to use effectively is pepper spray.  If I can’t carry a firearm, I’ll always have a canister of this on my person whether I’m on the streets or on the trails.

My musings about self defense on the trail are not meant to be the last word on what you should or should not do.  I simply wrote this piece to help jump-start the thought process and get you thinking about the steps they should personally take to provide for their own safety.  Each person is different, so a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.  It takes a little thought and planning to make personal safety a part of your every day routine.  But, you never know.  The day just might come when you’ll be glad that you did.

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