How to carry a gun while hiking in California

How to carry a gun while hiking in California

Students in recent years have consistently asked me about carrying a handgun while camping, hiking and the like.  At one time their main concern was fending off mountain lions and dealing with venomous snakes.  However, more recently students have expressed concerns about drug cartels and smugglers.  You might say that the wild beasts have been supplanted by even wilder and sometimes more dangerous two legged pests, at least in the minds of most students anyway.

While it may seem silly to some, my student’s concerns in this area are for good reason.  Living in San Diego California, most of my students live and travel in and around the pacific south west where drug smuggling and human trafficking are a constant problem and where those who practice these illegal activities have become more brazen and increasingly more violent in recent years. As one who hunts and hikes often, I understand the desire to carry a firearm while enjoying the outdoors in areas where cartels and smugglers might be active.  But the question is, how do you carry a gun legally in such circumstances?

Assuming that carrying a firearm while hunting is something you can do legally (not always a safe assumption, so you should check before carrying), there are many options when it comes to what gun to carry and how to carry it.  For example: I hunt every year and have for years.  This requires me to do a lot of scouting during the off season. Sometimes I hike secluded areas alone in order to scout for game. I’d rather do it with a buddy, but there isn’t always one available.  Since it’s legal for me to carry a firearm, I always take a handgun with me. The gun is not for game, but rather for the two legged pests described earlier.  Some of the areas I hunt have been known to be used by “coyotes” as human smuggling routes, as well as by drug runners.  It did not used to be so, but it is a fact of life in these modern times.

While bumping into other people is not common in those areas, I do occasionally run into critters of the human variety.  Sometimes I meet hikers.  Sometimes I meet other hunters who are doing the same thing I’m doing.  Sometimes I spend a day or so in those areas and don’t see a living soul. In most cases the folks I meet are just honest people out for a day’s activity in the back country. But every once in a while I run across someone who seems a bit sketchy.  At those times, I’m comforted by the presence of my sidearm and the awareness that usually helps me spot them before they spot me.

For scouting in remote areas I generally carry a full sized handgun (my Colt 1911 in .45 ACP or a full sized S&W .357 Magnum revolver) in a strong side hip holster.  I use a good holster that protects the gun but gives me easy and quick access, attached to an old nylon gun belt from law enforcement work.  This works best for me because it is comfortable to carry while hiking in the back country and my holster protects the firearm well and keeps dirt and debris away from the gun.  The holster also keeps the gun security strapped in so that I don’t lose it.  Using that mode of carry, I can often hike as much as eight or ten miles in a day in perfect comfort.  However, due to the mode of carry, it is very difficult for me to conceal the gun.  So I don’t bother trying.

When I am simply hiking, which I absolutely love to do, there are often many other folks hiking the same area.  In those cases, I’m not particularly worried about drug smugglers or cartels since the hiking trails a often popular and there are many more people in the area.  However, for the very same reason I find myself in greater need of concealing the pistol, should I elect to carry one.  I don’t want the other hikers to freak out when they see a gun.  So, in those situations I generally opt for a slightly smaller gun and carry it in a purpose built fanny pack.  I usually carry one of three handguns in the fanny pack: a Ruger SP-101 .357 Magnum, a Taurus Model 85 snub nose revolver in .38 Special, or a Springfield XD-40 sub-compact.

There are many other carry options that include shoulder holsters, pocket holsters and so on.  But don’t forget that the mode of carry is going to be a comfort issue if you hike any distance.  I have hunted for many years and had many friends carry side arms in holsters that work fine while sitting in the car, at the desk or walking around the mall.  However, they have been extremely unhappy and uncomfortable after getting four or five miles back into rough country in the heat, cold or whatever.  This has largely been an issue of the gun belt or lack of same.

By way of illustration, one of my hunting buddies once gave me a good natured ribbing when starting out on a hunt because I was wearing a gun belt rather than simply strapping a holster to my pants belt.  Something he elected to do.  Both of us were carrying full sized defensive handguns.  By the end of the day, we had covered over eight miles in Mountain County.  This fellow doesn’t complain much about anything.  Still, he complained several times about his pistol causing pain and discomfort by digging into his hip and side.  By the end of the day he was committed to purchasing a good quality gun belt.  Enough said.

Like the gun belt and holster I use with a full sized handgun, the fanny pack I use when hiking is very comfortable, protects the firearm and still permits me easy and quick access to the gun if I need it.  If you use a fanny pack, it is important to use one that is designed as a holster rather than just any old fanny pack you can buy at the department store.  Likewise, if you use a strong side hip holster, you should select one that will be comfortable, protect the firearm, and allow you quick and easy access to the gun if you need it.  Remember, guns can get beat up pretty badly in the back country, as well as covered with dirt and other debris if not protected.

You can find a million videos on YouTube that demonstrate various pistols and revolvers firing when full of dirt.  Don’t you believe it, and more importantly don’t bet your life on it.  I once tested my Colt 1911 by putting grass and toothpaste in the action and on every round in the  magazine.  The gun functioned flawlessly firing each and every round while slinging toothpaste and grass all over me.  While that gave me increased confidence in the reliability of the gun, I refuse to take the risk of having a jam by mistreating the pistol or allowing it to get full of debris due to my lack of diligence in my selection of carry holsters and equipment.  All guns will jam at some point if not kept clear of debris.

While most of us give considerable thought to our selection of a defensive carry handgun, we often forget that carrying a gun can be a royal pain in the rump if we don’t give equal attention to our selection of a carry option.  I’ve tried several options before settling on what works for me when hiking and hunting.  Your ultimate selections may be (and probably will be) different.  What matters is that the gun you carry is 100% reliable and that your carry option is comfortable over the long hall, effective in retaining and protecting the gun and will still give you quick and easy access when you need it.


  1. I have been up against coyotes, and rattlers while out on the trails on my horse. As our summer approaches i am wary of the possible dangers. I have a revolver New England r-92 that is meant only for snakes, rabbits etc.. this is not a firearm meant for aggressive defense situations. I want to carry it off the side of my saddle primarily for protection of my horse and me. What steps need to be taken to support my purpose to carry this firearm. Please advise.

  2. What if it’s unloaded. Can you carry the clip in your pocket and the hand gun unloaded on a backpack. Today I ran into 3 coyotes in the woods and they tried to attack my dogs

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