In my recent post on camping while female, I mentioned I bring weapons that are legal and that I’m trained to use. Out of curiosity, I asked what folks envisioned those weapons might be. Most of the answers involved firearms.
Before I say more: THIS IS NOT AN INVIATION, NOR AN EXTENSION OF PERMISSION, TO DISCUSS OR DEBATE GUN CONTROL AND RELATED TOPICS IN THIS SPACE. ANY COMMENTS THAT CROSS THE LINE—AND I DETERMINE THE LINE, DARLINGS—WILL BE DELETED.
Guns are the default, truly. When we hear armed, we think “gun.” When we hear weapon, we think “gun.” When we watch crime dramas, we see “gun.” When we watch the news, we see “gun.” So it’s natural to assume the discussion of weapons concerns guns. And, for anyone familiar with and comfortable with guns, it’ll seem odd to hear I am, too, but have made the decision to leave them behind when I camp alone.
So here’s why:
Say that as fast as you can while you pretend to draw a gun from your holster (or shoulder a rifle), disengage the safety, take aim at a moving predator, fire, and hit the target.
Certainly there are people who could not only accomplish that skilled feat, but could also count on their single shot dropping the hurtling creature at their feet. Certainly that number is much, much smaller than the number of people who think they could do it.
I do not count myself as one of those skilled people. I don’t spend enough time with a firearm in my hand to count my knowledge as “skill.” And the more I gained actual skill in other areas, the more I realized the limitations of both the firearm and my ability to wield it as anything but a weapon of desperate and last resort in most circumstances.
It seems logical to want a firearm in bear country, but only if the actual nature of bears and attacks aren’t long considered. Many bear attacks happen under conditions of mutual surprise: the bear is startled by the sudden appearance of a human, and so startles the human by charging and mauling. There is a great deal of speed, a great deal of mass, and a great little smidgeon of time involved.
The same is true when it’s a mountain lion, but without the smidgeon of time. I mean, if a mountain lion wants you, it’ll stalk you from behind or drop from above and bite the back of your neck to kill you. A good thing it is mountain lions aren’t much interested in adult humans.
So once I put that information together with the actual cumulative likelihood of being attacked by a bear or mountain lion (it happens to a total of five or six people in Colorado a year), and with the knowledge of what I can do to further reduce the likelihood (safe and simple actions often not taken by folks who are attacked outside city limits), bringing a gun along didn’t seem all that important. In fact, some of the research I looked at seemed to point to bear and mountain lion attacks bearing a striking similarity in setting to sexual assault: wildlife attacks are more likely to occur on one’s home property than in the wilderness.
But there are indeed well-trained and experienced gun carriers who could pull off the shot, and quite a few more who are certain they could if properly motivated.* Are you one of theem? Try it with a stationary target. Then simulate the live attack by having a friend toss a 300-pound sack of unsheathed daggers at you when you least expect it. One-Mississippi.
I mean, absolutely the right gun in the right hands will stop a bear or mountain lion. I don’t dispute that. But the absolutely comes into play only in the presence of the those two “rights.”
So how about two-legged predators? The ones who lie in wait along remote mountain paths in anticipation of a lone victim out for a five-mile hike? Or the ones who cruise through campgrounds after dark in search of a lone victim asleep in a tent?
Well… those are almost non-existent. The hiker or camper is far more likely to be attacked by a bear or mountain lion than a skulking human. Yes, it happens. But we’ve discussed the actual likelihood of a woman being attacked before. Searching Colorado news reports for the last year—imperfect, but what I have time to do—I find one report of sexual assault in a Colorado campground. It was, heartbreakingly, a crime against two children camping with their parents.
But let’s put the data aside completely. Let’s assume that, no matter the statistical risk, I want to be prepared for the worst case scenario. The rare horrible thing.
I still am not going to reach first for a gun because, as I mentioned above, the more I understand about how attacks actually go down, the less effective I see the gun as a defensive weapon in my hands in most scenarios.
Just as with wildlife attacks, folks consistently underestimate how quickly a human attack happens and overestimate how quickly they can respond. If I’m going to be jumped by someone on a trail, the attacker would have to give me—at my skill level with a gun—about three Mississippis… which means I’d have to count on being attacked by an incompetent attacker suffering from a sprained ankle and a fever.
Or perhaps we’ll go with the creepy nighttime attack, the attacker who will attempt to silently unzip my tent and creep inside before I awake. Do I need a gun to stop that person? Only if I’m unwilling to move from my sleeping bag. And honestly, from the perspective of someone who has camped in Indiana, where many popular camping areas involve sites that are quite close to their neighbors, I wouldn’t want anyone firing blindly through a tent wall within fifteen feet of where my kid was sleeping in an RV.
So what do I bring along? What do I consider part of my self-defense?
My dog. Even though he has the appearance of a dog who could be a weapon, he absolutely is not. He is a defensive tool. An alarm against all attackers, and a deterrent for two-legged attackers. He has given warning of Something Scary Is Ahead during our hikes. He has growled deep in his chest when something walks past our tent in the middle of the night. I’ve watched people give our campsite a wide berth once he stands up to stare at their passing.
I don’t expect him to attack any creature that comes to attack me, but I know I can count on him to warn me, and a heeded warning can be a lifesaving thing. And in some instances, a big dog makes a potential target seem to be just too much trouble to mess with.
Bear spray. This is something I added since moving out here. I’ve carried pepper spray before, but never much worried about it while camping in Indiana because that state doesn’t have the wildlife population of Colorado. Unlike a firearm, I don’t have to be concerned with fantastic aim and slamming stopping power. Bears don’t like this stuff. Bears run away. I don’t think mountain lions would much like it, either, and am pretty sure a human getting a noseful of it will desire to be elsewhere at a rapid pace. Yes, there is a risk of spraying myself. As with any weapon, practice pays off.
My bo. It’s about six feet of hardwood, of a diameter that fits firmly in my fist, and I’ve spent far more hours with it—striking stationary and moving targets—than I am likely to spend with any firearm. It lets me strike and thrust at a distance or at medium range. It can be a shield against attacks at medium or close range. It’s in my hand when I hike, either as a walking stick or in an “at ease” position at my side. It leans against my chair when I’m beside the campfire. I can’t swing it inside a tent, but I can darn sure ram its end into the face of someone trying to sneak in. That would really hurt.
And please—please—understand that bo-as-weapon is nothing like bo-as-baton-twirling. I mean, I can twirl a bo to amuse my instructors, and there’s a whole tournament scene where people compete in bo twirling and acrobatics. But y’all know I’m likely to point out the difference between what flashes and what works. I prefer Yamanni Ryu.
Knife. I’ve a couple I trade off wearing, depending what I feel like. My preferred is better for stabbing, though it’s sharp enough for cutting. One is better for cutting, but can certainly stab as well. One is quite heavy. One is light. But no matter which I have, I know if I’m using it against an animal—four-legged or two-legged—I’m also like to be in the process of being injured myself. A knife is an up-close, personal weapon. I’d be perfectly content to go through life without testing my capabilities with one.
Like a gun, a knife takes time to draw. But, unlike a firearm, I feel perfectly comfortable sleeping with one at my fingertips, even with my dog tromping and rolling around in the tent, as the accidental discharge of a blade is highly unlikely.
There are other things I bring along should the fancy strike me, and a multitude of camping accessories that can certainly be utilized should the need arise, but the four things above are as about as complicated as I’m likely to get. I didn’t feel any more or less safe for the presence or absence of a gun. Others will feel differently, and I respect that. Others will have different skill sets and abilities, and I most certainly respect that.
Should circumstances change, my preferences might change as well. (I might feel safer, reasonably or not carrying during springtime hikes, when bears have cubs to protect.) But I’m good for now.
And really, more than anything, I was just curious what most folks thought I carried into the woods. 🙂
*This is the same magical thinking that happens with folks who have a few years of martial arts training. “I know how to score in a sparring match, therefore my punch will stop an attacker.”