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What Does Blair Bring to the Woods

In my recent post on camping while female, I mentioned I bring weapons that are legal and that I'm trained to use. Yesterday, out of curiosity, I asked what folks envisioned those weapons might be. Most of the answers involved firearms.


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."


( 37 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 22nd, 2015 02:56 am (UTC)
"I know how to score in a sparring match, therefore my punch will stop an attacker."

In high school, I won many competitions in Kodokan Judo.
Totally useless in the one fight I got into, when I was jumped in the locker room.
Oct. 22nd, 2015 03:42 am (UTC)
Totally understand, and I'm sorry you got jumped! :(

Oct. 22nd, 2015 03:05 am (UTC)
I have honestly never heard of bear spray. Now I want to research.

I can see you knowing how to use a gun because you're such a capable person. I have more difficulty actually imagining you using a gun. A knife, yes, makes much more sense.
Oct. 22nd, 2015 03:51 am (UTC)
(no subject) - queenoftheskies - Oct. 22nd, 2015 04:20 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 22nd, 2015 04:26 am (UTC)

I enjoyed reading this and interested in reading more of your posts. This post peeked my interest.

Oct. 22nd, 2015 05:07 am (UTC)
Glad you found it interesting! :)
Oct. 22nd, 2015 04:29 am (UTC)


I apologize if I did anything that in any way made you feel like you had to justify anything. I loathe that, and I don't want to do that, and if I did it was terribly wrong.
Oct. 22nd, 2015 04:58 am (UTC)
Oh, no! I didn't feel upset, or feel the need to justify, at all. :) I just thought it was interesting how we (in general) default to weapon = firearm, and wanted to talk a little about why I chose otherwise.

Nothing you said or didn't say troubled me, I swear. I'd tell you directly if it had. :)
(no subject) - harvey_rrit - Oct. 22nd, 2015 01:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blairmacg - Oct. 22nd, 2015 03:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 22nd, 2015 10:56 am (UTC)
I got eh bo right, but what a dummy, of course Gambit is a weapon if need be. And I should have thought of knife. (I didn't know bear spray exists.)
Oct. 22nd, 2015 03:35 pm (UTC)
Yep! I do so love my bo. I had to leave off it completely for a looooooong time after my elbow got torn up, and I'll never be able to put in hours and hours of weekly practice anymore, but it'll serve. :)
Oct. 22nd, 2015 03:47 pm (UTC)
Really interesting!

I didn't think of the knife -- I guess because I don't think of knives as weapons. I would always have a knife (or more than one) while camping. Heck, I carry one all the time.
Oct. 22nd, 2015 05:10 pm (UTC)
Everything can be a weapon. It's why I shake my head when TSA confiscates a two-inch Swiss Army Knife, but lets us all keep our Uniballs and belts. ;)

On the other hand, knives are a high-risk and messy fighting weapon for attacker and defender alike. Not at all ineffective, but using them comes with risk and cost.
Oct. 22nd, 2015 04:05 pm (UTC)
Another excellent discussion
SOOOPER multipurpose resources: dog, stick, knife, frying pan, fire, rocks...
Much more narrowly purposed resources: bear spray; firearms; "traditional" weapons (camping with a polearm, perhaps?)
What are your thoughts on "noise" as a defensive tool/tactic? Myself, I am a huge fan of the ability to BE LOUD when regarded as prey, and since my vocal cords are not really up to that task, I carry a teeny metal whistle that is very very loud. I'm not sure it fits the one-Mississippi-deployability standard, though, because it's on a key ring with assorted miscellany.
A lovely and insightful post as always. Thank You!
Oct. 22nd, 2015 05:18 pm (UTC)
Re: Another excellent discussion
Noise is a necessary component of hiking safety. Silence surprises animals; sound gives them the opportunity to leave. Hunters are, from what I've read, far more likely to be attacked than your average hiker, even if both are in the same area, because the hunter is doing everything possible to be quiet.

When I was camping, a hiker and her dog passed the campground, and the dog wore a small bell on his collar. At the time, I thought that was an odd accoutrement, but now realize it was a "bear bell," there to give off an unnatural sound to "warn" wildlife of their passing.

Noise is almost always a good defensive tactic. Whistles are good, but do need to be reachable. ;) Time yourself with it, if you're concerned.

I carry a whistle when hiking way out, mostly because I figure I'd need to give someone a homing beacon if I got lost. :)
Re: noises - medicmsh - Oct. 23rd, 2015 01:28 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: noises - blairmacg - Oct. 23rd, 2015 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Re: Another excellent discussion - blairmacg - Oct. 22nd, 2015 09:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 22nd, 2015 06:02 pm (UTC)

I'm interested in what the safe and simple actions are to protect against bear and mountain lion attacks that are often not taken. I'm guessing traveling with bear spray is one, but what are others?
Oct. 22nd, 2015 06:17 pm (UTC)
One is to make noise while hiking. As I mentioned in another comment, folks have actual "bear bells" that they and/or their pets wear while hiking. I didn't think of bells, but I do carry on little conversations with my pup, hum, or just speak my internal thoughts aloud. Bears don't want to see humans, so the noise gives them the opportunity to leave the area, or at least not be startled when a human shows up.

Another is to be aware of where, exactly, you're hiking. Forex, it's a bad idea to hang out in berry patches. :)

Food and trash storage while camping is a BIG thing, as bears following their noses can be a trigger for an in-tent attack. This I remember from camping in Yosemite, where each campground is equipped with a solid metal storage box for food. There are no such boxes in the campground I was at, alas. Packing my food stores back and forth between my car and the campsite was a pain in the butt, but you betcha I did it every single night. A late-night snack was not worth a bear encounter!

If the bear (or mountain lion) is sighted, the wisdom is to NOT run as that's the ultimate signal for, "I'm prey and should be eaten!" Many, many people have reported sighting a bear from a distance and choosing to back away while talking or singing, and coming away without an attack.

The success of any or all of these things can depend upon the time of year (sated summer bear or ravenous post-hibernation bear), general circumstances (are there cubs in the area?) and so forth. I know for a fact I'll be exceedingly cautious hiking in the spring for those reasons. :)
(no subject) - asakiyume - Oct. 22nd, 2015 06:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blairmacg - Oct. 22nd, 2015 09:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - blairmacg - Oct. 22nd, 2015 09:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elenbarathi - Oct. 23rd, 2015 05:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blairmacg - Oct. 23rd, 2015 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Oct. 28th, 2015 05:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elenbarathi - Oct. 29th, 2015 04:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 23rd, 2015 02:41 am (UTC)
"What has it got in its pocketses?"
User medicmsh referenced to your post from "What has it got in its pocketses?" saying: [...] really good! You should read it!) http://blairmacg.livejournal.com/155760.html?view=782704#t782704 [...]
Oct. 23rd, 2015 04:58 am (UTC)
I'm very happy to hear that you're not carrying firearms in the forest, for all the reasons you've listed plus a few more. That's not a discussion I'm usually willing to get into with people, because there's no point to it; those who only feel safe if they have a gun are not going to be dissuaded from packing one by anything anybody says.

In defense of firearms, one of my friends is a crusty old Sourdough, and one time up in the Yukon he shot a big grizzly that was trailing him (humans are definitely not the top of the Alaskan food chain.) He didn't wait till he had one-MissiAAAGGGHHH! as it charged; he settled in ambush with his rifle and killed it with one easy shot from a proper safe distance when it came along. But he was a very experienced hunter. Most people are not.

Pepper spray/bear spray is the stuff to carry. It'll effectively deter any creature it hits, yet leave no unsightly corpse. I'm very happy to hear you've got some.

As you say, if the cougar wants you, the cougar will have you before you even know it's there. But unless you're running, and thus set off the strike-instinct, the cougar has no reason to want you. Cougars will hunt dogs, though.

Our National park here has bear canisters, which are required in some areas. We haven't got grizzlies here, only black bears, and they're not very aggressive. We have mountain goats, and they can be aggressive - one of my housemate's friends was killed by one a couple years ago. Pepper spray and/or a stick could have saved his life.

As far as hostile humans go, a large dog is all the deterrent one needs. Nobody's going to try to creep into a tent that growls!

In my younger days, I used to be uneasy sometimes, sleeping out in my tube-tent in the middle of nowhere. But the cheering thought that occurred to me was, that even if (on a very long chance) any other person did come nigh my tent, they would not expect it to be occupied by a lone woman with a stick and a blade. They'd expect a man, probably with a gun, and thus would sensibly give it a wide berth.

EDIT: I just remembered it was bleodswean, not you, who posted about the cougar and bears on her property.

Edited at 2015-10-23 05:17 am (UTC)
Oct. 23rd, 2015 04:04 pm (UTC)
Pepper spray/bear spray is the stuff to carry. It'll effectively deter any creature it hits, yet leave no unsightly corpse. I'm very happy to hear you've got some.

One important note on the bear spray: I've read that folks who substitute pepper spray for bear spray have been nastily surprised to find the pepper spray doesn't really work against the bear!

(no subject) - elenbarathi - Oct. 23rd, 2015 10:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 23rd, 2015 11:11 am (UTC)
I am chuffed to have guessed close with 'hiking stick.' Staves are underrated weapons!

I read somewhere recently that the average person can cover 23 feet of ground before the average shooter can get out a gun, aim, and shoot them. (This is a defense of policemen shooting people 'at a distance'). 23 feet is... a lot. And animals are faster than people, usually. :,

Oct. 23rd, 2015 04:24 pm (UTC)
Big heavy sticks are indeed underrated, as are smaller sticks. If I put a little wrist action into striking the face with an escrima stick... ouch! :)

Understanding speed and distance are THE most important factors in staying safe. Compared to strikes and throws, it doesn't sound as exhilarating, but it's the understanding that makes everything else effective. I'd guess you find the same in fencing?
(no subject) - haikujaguar - Oct. 23rd, 2015 04:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blairmacg - Oct. 23rd, 2015 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 37 comments — Leave a comment )


Blair MacGregor

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