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Predators On the Hiking Trail

Dr. Siddall is an outdoor enthusiast, author, and activist. He has traveled widely and enjoys sharing his adventures with the public.

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Risks of Animal and Human Predation

Tales of grizzly bear attacks and encounters with violent criminals have become a popular subject in the media. These dramatic depictions of life threatening confrontations lead many members of the public, including some hikers, to believe that animal and human predators pose dangerous risks to wilderness hikers. In turn, many of these same individuals encourage hikers to carry lethal weapons for self defense.

Panish, Shea and Boyle LLP in a legal study titled "An Analysis of deaths in the U.S, National Parks" (2020) provided a rank ordering of hiking risks. These researchers found that the top four risks of dying in the parks were related to: (1) drowning, (2) falls, (3) motor vehicle accidents, and (4) health problems. Surprisingly, animal and human predation were among the lowest causes of death.

There is a debate raging on the subject of self defense for hikers. There are those who believe that dangerous human and animal predators pose an imminent risk to hikers. They argue that skills in self defense, including the use of firearms makes common sense. Other hikers disagree and believe that predatory threats are exaggerated and focusing on low frequency risks spoils the tranquility of hiking adventures. In the middle ground are those that believe situational awareness and an attitude of caution provide hikers with adequate protection for the dangers they are likely to encounter. In any case, the risk posed by animal and human predators must be considered in order to make an informed decision regarding self defense.

Self Defense

predators-on-the-hiking-trail

Self defense as used in this article is the use of force to protect oneself when confronted by an aggressive predator. In most jurisdictions, the force used in self defense is justified if the individual reasonably believes his/her actions were necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. Be advised that the legal criteria for carrying a lethal weapon such as a firearm and using it in self defense varies among states and should be carefully reviewed and understood. Even when self defense is justified, you may face costly legal expenses for criminal and civil liability. In addition being involved in a violent encounter often results in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often requiring psychological intervention.

Many members of the hiking community are in good physical condition and some have experience with firearms and self defense. A predatory assault by an aggressive animal or a vicious human is likely to be a very violent blitz attack on an under prepared victim. Such an encounter requires a skill set more akin to the chaos of real combat than the mock drills utilized by most training programs in self defense and marksmanship. The conclusion is clear. The great majority of hikers are not likely to be adequately prepared for unarmed and armed combat.

Being aware of your strengths and limitations is the first step in preparation for self-defense while hiking. My motto is keep it simple and review a few principles and tactics in order to form well learned self defense response patterns.

Six Fundamentals of Self Defense

Five fundamental methods of self defense for hikers include: situational awareness, unarmed self defense, hiking staff defense, bear spray, knives, and fire arms.

(1) Situational Awareness

Maintaining situational awareness is simply training yourself to observe your environment and the people you encounter. Preventing problems is always the best solution. Be cautious of potentially troublesome places such as trail heads, parking lots, shelters, and high traffic campsites. Also avoid people who are loud, aggressive, irrational, intoxicated or overly friendly. Don’t disclose your specific hiking plan or hiking mates, Be polite and de-escalate aggressive behavior with a non-confrontational style. Project self confidence by maintaining eye contact but keep moving and be sure your self defense tools are easily accessible.

(2) Unarmed Self Defense

When confronted with an unarmed aggressor, respond assertively. Maintain just enough space to remain out of striking distance. Assume a fighter’s ready position. If you are right handed, place your left foot forward, right foot back, knees slightly bent and body turned angled to the right. Your hands or hiking staff should be raised to meet an aggressive move toward you. If the individual continues to advance, command him to “stop” or “stand back!” From this position you can strike and parry or block your assailant's punches and kicks. Using an open handed palm, elbows and kicks, strike vulnerable targets such as the eyes, throat, solar plexus’ and knees until your assailant is subdued. Practice with a friend who can simulate an attacker. Execute two and three defensive and offensive combinations quickly and accurately until they become automatic.

(3) Hiking Staff

The hiking staff has been used for centuries as a practical tool to assist hiking and as a credible defensive weapon. A hard staff with an extended reach offers a clear advantage in an aggressive confrontation. Hiking staffs made for defense are typically about five feet long, made of a light weight, hard wood, polymer, or alloy adorned with a weighted metal cap on top and a sharp spike on the bottom. The staff can be used to thrust, parry, and strike with surprising force and velocity. Usually a thrust is followed by a sweeping strike to the head, trunk, arms or legs while the opposite end of the staff is primed for a blocking move or follow up strikes. Rapid striking is accomplished as the staff is pivoted by holding it near the middle. Assailants who provoke a punishing, high speed counter attack with a hiking staff, are likely to be quickly disabled or make a rapid escape.

(4) Bear Spray

Bear spray is a powerful deterrent made of capsaicin derived from hot peppers which, when used correctly, can deter bear and human attacks. Bear spray inflames the eyes and upper respiratory system, causing intense burning and giving you the opportunity to escape. Bear spray emerges from the canister at a velocity of over 70 mph, making it effective even under windy conditions.

A study of the efficacy of bear spray in Alaska by Smith, Herrero, and Wilder was reported in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2010. They found that bear spray effectively deterred undesirable behavior more than 90% of the time. In 72 incidents involving 175 people, only three people were harmed, none seriously. Between 2007-2013, 1.9 billion people visited the parks and only four people were killed by bears.

When bear spray is needed, stand still, remove the safety, hold the can with both hands at the ready position. If the bear approaches within 20-30 feet, spray just below the bears head. Spray again if the bear continues to approach. Attempt to spray downwind to avoid the spray. Continue observing the bear. Never run or turn your back. Remain alert and slowly retreat with your bear spray at the ready until the bear is at a safe distance.

(5) Knife

A hiking knife can double as a useful tool and as a self defense weapon. The best knives for hiking and self-defense are 4-7” long , fixed blades with a full tang and a versatile drop point design. Avoid extra large and cumbersome survival knives and those with less durable construction such as fixed blades with a partial tang and folding knives. Select a high quality, durable blade which is rust resistant and maintains a sharp edge such as 440 A or C stainless.

I consider using a knife for self defense as the last choice after a hiking staff, bear spray, and a firearm. Knife fighting is brutal and gory close combat, requiring specialized skill and extensive practice. The outcome of a knife attack is often determined by strength and fighting skill. The novice knife fighter is advised to keep it simple by using the point or tip of the knife to maintain distance from the attacker and thrust or jab, into vulnerable targets such as the face, eyes and throat providing maximum potential for preventing or stopping an aggressor.

(6) Firearms

Firearms offer effective self defense against deadly human and animal attacks. For example, a study by Wingarten in 2018 reported in Ammoland Shooting Sports News reported handguns were 98% effective when used to repel bear attacks. However, firearms require a high level of skill and training to be used effectively. Hikers who are trained and prefer the option of using firearms in self defense emergencies argue that although the probability of animal attacks is low, the consequences of not being armed can be fatal. It can be argued that a similar fate could result if an unprepared hiker heads for the wilderness without a compass, map, or basic first aid and survival gear.

Firearms are arguably the most effective self defense tools in the hands of a skilled user. Generally, handguns are legally regulated and typically require a concealed carry permit (CCW), a background check, and screening tests covering laws pertaining to gun use, and marksmanship. Some qualified hikers opt to carry small to medium caliber( 22 LR-9 mm) handguns on all hikes and higher caliber (357 magnum and larger) handguns in bear country.

Summary and Recommendations

Hiking is generally a safe and enjoyable activity. Dangers posed by animal and human predators are at the low end of the risk scale. However, the consequences of being unprepared for an aggressive encounter can result in serious injury or death. It can be argued that a similar fate could result if an unprepared hiker heads for the wilderness without a compass, map, or basic first aid and survival gear.

Self defense as used in this article refers to the use of force to protect yourself when confronted by an aggressive predator. In most jurisdictions, self defense is justified if the individual reasonably believes that their actions were necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. Be advised that the legal criteria for carrying a firearm and using it in self defense varies among states and should be carefully reviewed and understood.

In my opinion, the best non-lethal method of self defense for hikers is the hiking staff. The hiking staff is inexpensive, easy to utilize, and provides a very effective tool to disable an aggressor. If you face a potentially lethal threat, then a firearm is preferred. In general I do not recommend knives for self defense as they require specialized fighting skill associated with close personal combat. Having said that, in an emergency, any form of self defense is a necessity.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 James W Siddall

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