Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Firearms for backcountry personal safety: Balancing caliber, form, and weight

Back in September 2013, the trail up from Sabrina Lake ended about 2,000 feet higher here in the late afternoon. This is Hungry Packer Lake, 11,071 feet in the Eastern Sierras west of Bishop. I backtracked to find a camp site and then ... 
 ... did some exploring and made it up to the top of the talus at the left, looking for a way to the pass.
 I did not make it to the pass which would have required a Class four climb and I did not bring proper gear. I returned to camp and pitched my tent to the right of the foreground below as night fell.
I had hardly finished staking my tent when some guy,  concealed about 40 feet above me on a wide, tree-covered ledge began howling at the moon.

It was just annoying at first. One of my motivations for camping at high altitudes -- other than seeing stars and galaxies lost at lower elevations -- is to find solitude.

Then the howling got creepy, then stopped. "I'm John from Humboldt and this belongs to me."

Humboldt County is a well-know magnet for back-to-nature lovers, hippies, vast illegal cannabis grows, and off-kilter people who have not taken their meds. It's also a favorite of Mexican drug cartels drawn by the wilderness and available water.

As it got darker, John from Humboldt grew increasingly incoherent in a threatening sort of way. Then he grew even more hostile as darkness settled in deeply.

I was camped near the dead end of a treacherous and poorly marked trail that had taken the best part of five hours to make the 2,000-foot climb. That would have been suicide to hike at night even without John.

Eventually, I grabbed my sleeping bag, Spot GPS tracker, and my Smith & Wesson M&P .45 ACP and crept away from my tent. I found a slightly elevated and well-defensible position in a cleft at the base of the cliff to the right in the photo.

This was the personal protection moment that had motivated me never to backpack in isolated areas without a firearm.

If help had been needed, the Spot would have been no help at all. Hours would elapse before (and if) anyone arrived. The only benefit of Spot  a case like that is that Search and Rescue would be able to locate the body quickly.

So I settled down and waited for dawn. In the near distance, John from Humboldt eventually stopped howling at the moon and segued into angry curses. Later hysterical screams. And a bit later, silence.

The current personal protection decision.

Because of laws and regulations, prohibiting firearms, I never backpack in national or California state parks.

But that leaves open many the less-crowded BLM and national forests. I am usually headed for a wilderness area requiring a permit, so I spend the time to talk to the BLM or Forest Service staff to confirm the legality of my carry and their preferences: open or concealed,

Most appreciate open carry, but that has been an increasing problem for them. They now get a lot of complaints from gun-fearing hikers freaked out by the sight of a legal weapon. I go to the mountains to relax, not to hassle with hyperventilating civilians.

As a result, I usually carry my sidearm -- unloaded -- in an easily accessible, zippered pocket in  my backpack. The magazine goes in a small belt pouch.

Weight now becomes an issue

Thanks to an epic mountain bike accident, major surgery and extended rehab and recovery, I've been away from the trails for almost four years now. See: Why have I been absent here for so long?  for more details.

Plus, at 69, it's a LOT harder to get back into shape.

That's why, as I head out for the Sierras this summer, every ounce in my pack counts. I've shaved the pack from 42 pounds to 35 and I'm aiming for 32.

My sidearm choices boil down to an antique Colt 1908, the S&W M&P .45 and a Cobra .38 Police Special derringer.

According to the serial number, this Colt .380 - 1908 model was made in 1932. It's been well cared for and smithed and accompanied me up until I acquired the M&P about 10 years ago.  It's 8.375 pounds lighter than the M&P (below). But it pretty much stays in the safe because it has served long and well and deserves retirement.
Relatively heavy and was a comfortable carry until events forced me to cut every ounce.

Just under a pound, and gets me halfway to the remaining 3 pounds I need to eliminate.This is a bitch to fire with a half-ton trigger pull, and not accurate beyond five or 10 feet max. It does, however, fit nicely in a side pocket of the backpack. I've spent the past two months agonizing about this and working the arguments for the M&P back and forth.. I'm more conformable and familiar with the M&P which is far more versatile and capable. But I think back to the encounter with "John from Humboldt" and have decided that the derringer would have been sufficient in that scenario. So, the derringer is what I carry until/unless I get back to my former fitness.

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