To be honest, you will probably never use a weapon while hiking. But knowing you have something with which to protect yourself will give you a feeling of security like nothing else.
First, know your audience: what are you defending yourself from? The top three perps are bears, cougars, and people. Statistically speaking you’re hundreds of times less likely to be assaulted by a human in nature compared to in the city, and animal attacks are incredibly rare. Self-defense is about giving you the security to enjoy your time outdoors, knowing that just in case anything happens you can protect yourself—but the odds of ever actually having to defend yourself are next to zero.
Next, know yourself: if you aren’t okay with using one type of self-defense, find another. If you aren’t a hundred percent comfortable with a handgun, don’t carry one. If you don’t see yourself stabbing a cougar with a knife, don’t carry one. A weapon is only as effective as its user, and a weapon in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to or doesn’t feel comfortable using one is more dangerous than no weapon at all.
Then, know the facts. Fear can be a funny thing, and convince you that if there is a one-in-a-million chance of something happening, you’ll be the one. But you really need to know that you are much safer from attacks than the media, your anxiety, or your non-hiking friends would have you believe. Public perception of the risk is skewed, and leads to unnecessary panic.
From Backpacker Magazine: In general, women report much higher levels of fear of violent crime than men do, even though men are much more likely to actually be crime victims—a phenomenon sociologists call the fear-gender paradox. “It’s very natural for women to feel afraid because that has been ingrained in our minds from a very young age,” says Jennifer K. Wesely, Ph.D., professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida. In reality, women are much more likely to be assaulted or raped by someone they know than by a strange man lurking behind a boulder, but people tend to fixate on the latter. “The fear is what’s holding women back, not the reality. Women are not in more danger in wild spaces,” Wesely says.
- As for the odds of a cougar attack, Washington is home to about 2,100 cougars, but in the past 100 years, the state has only seen two fatal cougar attacks. In the same time period, the entire continent of North America has experienced 95 nonfatal cougar attacks and 25 fatalities.
- As for bears, the average attack rate for the past 100 years is about 40 attacks per year worldwide, with 10 or so attacks per year in North America. There have only been only 4 fatal bear attacks in Ontario, Canada, in the last 100 years. Cows kill more people than bears.
- There has been one wolf attack on people in North America since 1998, in Canada in 2019. It was an elderly wolf likely a bit disoriented, and the family was able to fight it off.
- FBI crime statistics for 2014 show that people are safer on public lands than almost anywhere else. You have a 0.0003% chance of being a victim of violent crime on BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, or National Park Service lands. You’re over 3000 times more likely to be hurt by another human outside of designated wilderness areas.
However, if you’re walking alone at dusk near a creek with no other hikers around, you’re going to feel better holding a canister of bear spray or a stun gun in your hand. Again, you will probably never use it, but the feeling of security it gives is unparalleled. Let’s look at some common options:
- Bear spray, pepper spray, mace: The number one pick for hikers, spray allows you to disable the animal or person from a healthy distance (upwards of 20 feet) in a non-gory way, and gives you time to get out of the area while they are writhing around in spray agony. This is an option that won’t fatally harm you if it is turned on you or if you get a few drops on you. As long as you hold it at arm’s length and don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth afterwards, you’ll be ok.
- Stun gun: Second choice is the stun gun, which usually comes in the form of a flashlight or a walking stick, and can also be a great non-gory choice and can be used on animals and people alike. Pros: easy to use, inexpensive, and humane. Cons: you need to press it right on the assailant in order for it to work so there is a chance you will get injured while fighting whatever it is off.
- Handgun: Controversial topic on many levels, from ethics to red tape, but I’ll mention it here because some folks choose to carry and it’s something to consider if—and only if—you are incredibly competent with your weapon. You need to be able to react in a crisis while not injuring yourself or someone else. Given the permanence of a mistake and the chance that your weapon could be used against you, this isn’t a good choice if you have any doubt about your ability to handle yourself in a situation involving gunfire. Also, do you really see yourself shooting a person or an animal? Or do you just want to disable it and escape? If you are one hundred percent confident in your abilities, by all means, carry a gun; consider warning shots over killing animals if you aren’t in immediate danger. Before you do, look into your state’s open vs. concealed laws and any guidelines which may differ from National Parks to BLM land to state forest areas. If you think you might forget which way turns the safety on and off, do us all a favor and find any other means of protection.
- Knife: Handy in any first aid kit or overnight backpack, you may carry a knife anyway, but whether or not you choose to use it as self-defense is another question altogether: it involves being in very close proximity to your subject, it requires getting a good stab or two in, not dropping it, not letting a human get it and use it against you, and not being thrown off focus by a messy aftermath. The general sloppiness and margin for error does not make this a big favorite with many people.
- Rocks: The most primitive of weapons, rocks are usually available in abundance along the trail and don’t require any training or batteries or directions. Most animals can be scared off simply by having some rocks thrown at them, or holding one in your hand and hitting them should they get right up on you.
Some other preventative protection you can use to feel safe:
- Bear Bells: Medium-sized jingle bells you can put on your pack so you don’t accidentally surprise any bears that may be nearby. Making any sort of human sound (talking, singing) is good so they know you aren’t prey.
- Whistle: For scaring off animals, for letting them know you’re in the area, for calling for help.
- Ultrasonic dog chaser: Works on wolves and coyotes, makes them run away from you.
In the event that you do come across an animal on the trail:
- Cougars: Make noise, get big, flap your coat, wave your poles. Do not run. Do not turn away. If safe back away very slowly. Throw rocks if you can. Keep them in your sight at all times as they like to attack from behind. If you see one, let Fish & Wildlife know as soon as you get back.
- Bears: Make a little noise as a warning so you don’t startle them, walk at a normal clip, semi-ignore the bear. Some people hike with bear bells on. Most bears don’t want to see us any more than we want to see them, and will just keep eating their leaves and berries.
- Deer and elk: They will run from you, self-defense is not necessary.
- Mountain goats: Give them a wide berth, get big with your coat and poles. Stay still until they move on. They love pee, so don’t be surprised if they come closer as you’re peeing, or walk around your campsite sniffing and licking. For the most part these guys are harmless but they do have very pointy horns and can get aggressive, but usually only if provoked.
- Owls and birds of prey: If you have a small dog, a leash is mandatory. Owls have been known to swoop and peck at beanies and ponytails, wave them off with poles if necessary.
- Snakes and lizards: Leave them alone, keep your distance.
- Wolves: Don’t turn your back to them. They will usually avoid humans and leave the area when they see, hear, or smell people close by. If you see a wolf or any other animal and are concerned about your safety, make sure it knows you are nearby by talking or yelling to alert it to your presence. If you are carrying a firearm, you can fire a warning shot into the ground. Most stun guns make enough of a sound that that might scare them off as well.
- Coyotes: Are more of a problem in rural and suburban neighborhoods, where they have discovered easy food in the form of trashcans and pets. Coyotes tend to scatter when they see humans and are nocturnal, so the odds of them coming at you are slim to none. Your unattended campsite food is another story though. Keep food safe in Bear Cans.
In the event that a human harasses you on the trail:
- If you think you are being followed, get to where there are people. Have your pepper spray (or whatever) in hand just in case. If you have cell service, make a call. To a friend, to 911, depending on your level of concern. If you can, let them pass.
- If someone approaches you in a weird, threatening, or inappropriate way, don’t be friendly. Be curt, don’t engage in conversation, and don’t agree to help them out (see: Ted Bundy and the canoe). I once had a young man from our local homeless camp come crashing out of the bushes and rush up to me saying his friend was badly hurt and could I come help them. I said oh sure in fact I could do better than that, and reached for my Garmin. “My husband is our chief of police. He can have a team of medics here in fifteen minutes.” I pretended to start dialing and lo and behold he mumbled something and crashed right back into the bushes the way he came. I couldn’t believe I kept my cool enough to bluff (I’m not even married, let alone to a cop) but I did cut my hike short and high-tail it home.
- If someone attacks you, make as much noise as possible with your voice or a whistle, fight them off with everything you’ve got, grab a rock and clock them in the head, get to other people, call 911.
Here are the two scenarios I’d worry about the most:
- Pre-dawn, cougar, especially female with cubs
- Parking lot, random weirdo asking for something (jumper cables, phone)
From there you could “what if” your way through stray dogs and people leaping out of caves and all sorts of things that likely will never happen, but those two are both realistic and frightening, and you should react accordingly. Feel free to over, not under, react. Use that bear spray, let it fly. I would much rather spray or taze Mr. Hey Have You Seen My Buddy and apologize later, than be the one-in-a-million that gets dragged off into the woods by a stranger.
Again though, these things never happen.
Most of everything that we’ve just gone over will never happen.
But if it does, you’ll be prepared.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.