Tips for Staying Safe on the Hiking Trails


Staying safe on the trails comes down to minimizing threats through preparation, avoidance and defense if necessary. (Photo: Sean Curtis)

Enjoying the great outdoors is one of the best summertime activities with these soul-feeding trips helping us reconnect with nature while leaving behind the digital world. While most sojourns are rather safe ventures, it’s always best to err on the side of caution with a little preparation.

As a deputy sheriff in the mountains of southwest Colorado for 15 years, I’ve coordinated search and rescue efforts for one of the busiest counties in the state. I’ve witnessed amazing tales of survival and seen hauntingly fatal mistakes. With decades of outdoor recreation, search and rescue, and law enforcement experience I’ve got a few tips to ready you for risks on the trails.

Trailhead Security

One of the most prolific threats you’ll face on your trip is thieves. You’ll likely never see them, but the things you do before your trip will have a direct effect on how this particular encounter pans out. There’s nothing like coming back from a long trip to your ravaged vehicle, especially when you don’t have cellphone service to call the police.

If you’re leaving a vehicle at the trailhead for a while, prepare for it. They will likely move on to better targets. Secure any valuables you aren’t carrying with you – like electronics, firearms, and information such as IDs, insurance, and other paperwork that can be used for identity theft — at home. Keep the interior of the vehicle clean to show perspective thieves there is nothing worthy of stealing inside. Also, consider removing identifying stickers and magnets from the vehicle’s exterior. That Magpul sticker might intimidate someone in traffic, but when you’re 10-miles up the trail, it’s an encouragement to burglars on the prowl for guns. The same goes with military affiliations, NRA stickers and the like.


Here’s a great example of a well-travelled trailhead parking lot that will serve as a deterrent to thieves during the day. (Photo: Sean Curtis)

Depending on the length of the hike, cars could be parked at the trailhead for days at a time. Alternatively, shorter trips, or those popular with day hikers, are likely a bit safer with the frequency of people coming and going curtailing at least some thievery. Park in areas that leave good visibility and offer plenty of foot traffic for the best defense against thieves.

Trail Threats

The majority of threats you’ll face in the wild are two-legged, not four, but animal attacks do happen. I’ve spent many an hour hiking in the mountains of Colorado and have come across plenty of deer, elk, moose, badgers, skunks and black bears. Most often these critters are more frightened of you than you are of them and will usually run from people rapidly. There are exceptions though.

Before hitting the trails, take some time and learn about the wildlife in the area. In particular, learn about animals’ warning signs and how best to proceed if they become threatening. Be a student of the animals in your region so you know if you are truly being threatened or can slip away without engaging.


Mountain lions are ambush predators, wise hikers remember to look up in the big cat’s habitat. (Photo: Sean Curtis)

Know your rules of engagement. You cannot shoot an animal because it’s in your vicinity, it has to be a clear threat. Work to get around the animal without risking an encounter in which no one wins. Be aware that animals with young are more protective so it is best to give them a wide berth. This applies to grass and meat eaters.

Consider that people may also pose a threat on the trail. Some of the best cures for sketchy people on the trail also apply to wildlife. Hike in numbers — if you take a few people with you on your trip, chances are, you won’t have too many issues. Predators of two and four-legged variety still measure risks versus rewards. If your party is too large to risk an encounter, they will pass by.

Safety Planning

What are you going to do should you encounter a threat? Deal with threats in this order: mitigate, avoid, defend. Some issues you should be able to mitigate. Clear out your vehicle, leave no tell-tale markers for thieves, hike in numbers and give a friend or family member a detailed itinerary of your hike. Make sure to include relevant information about where you’re hiking and when you’ll be back.

Next, consider avoidance as your next best step for dealing with dangerous encounters. I would much rather walk a long way around a bear and cubs than have to either a) run for my life or b) orphan the cubs. The same goes if you see a drunken party raging alongside a bonfire.

Lastly, we come to the final resort – defense. Know your local laws, as you are responsible for understanding the ordinances that govern your area. In most areas, you cannot shoot an animal simply because it is on the trail or in the way. That being said, you should be prepared to defend your life and the lives of those with you on the trail should the need arise. For many, this means taking a firearm on the trail.

Hiking with a Gun


With a practiced draw from the Recon Kit Bag from Hill People Gear, you can get out and on target in seconds without telegraphing your concealed carry. (Photo: Sean Curtis)

To determine the best gun for the hike, there are a few considerations to mull over. Factors that must go into gun selection for the trail include weight, capacity and caliber. When choosing caliber, consider the biggest animal you might encounter during your trip and if it will be a threat in any way. I lean toward bigger calibers, like 10mm, for larger animals, but you should always choose a caliber you feel comfortable shooting.

The other thing to consider is method of carry. A decent hiking pack with padded belt often precludes the mounting of a firearm on the belt. Sticking a gun in the pack removes access and when you need a gun on the trail, the situation rarely affords time to unsling your pack and dig around.

A good solution is to choose gear specifically made for hikers and campers. Hill People Gear, for example, was founded by folks who love guns and hiking and create packs and chest rigs for those that also love the great outdoors. Their Recon chest rig is one of my favorite solutions for carrying with a backpack. This bag straps to the chest and has a couple of slots for critical gear like mini survival kits. Inside the main compartment, a pistol can be staged for drawing either left or right. It presents as yet another bag so as not to alarm other hikers but can be accessed quickly should the need arise.


The Henry H024, chambered in .38-55, is a side-loader brush gun that should stop nearly anything. (Photo: Sean Curtis)

Finally, if you are hiking in an area where really large animals are a likely threat, you may want to consider a brush gun. The term is somewhat generic and can apply to a few types of rifles, though some characteristics are common: they are often shorter for carrying and maneuverability, and higher in caliber. One of the classic configurations is a lever-action rifle which allows you to fire quickly in case a dangerous animal is charging you. A rifle like this is definitely going to keep you safe from most things in North America, though they are heavier and a bit more difficult to carry, often over a shoulder with a sling.

Getting home safe

Starting out at the trailhead you can set yourself up for a successful trip. Leave anything of value at home or plan on taking it with you. Park in well-traveled areas and don’t leave any clues to your fondness for the Second Amendment. Mitigate issues by planning in advance. Tell someone your route and when to call for help. Avoid confrontations when possible, human or wildlife, and if you have to engage, defend yourself with a strong knowledge of area laws using a handgun or rifle you can accurately and safely shoot.

I’m not preaching gloom and doom. Chances are, if you prepare, you’ll never need most of these precautions. Woe be to the hiker who doesn’t heed precautions though.

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