Self-Defense in The Great Outdoors

Every so often, we hear stories of folks who had to defend themselves against the four-legged predators most of us do not think about for our everyday carry gun options. People often have a skewed thought process of what is acceptable for defense against an angry animal, like a bear, moose, elk, and others.

My personal experience:

Before we move on, I want to tell you a true story of a time when I was closer to a big black bear than I should have been about 17 years ago.

I had just gotten out of my beloved Marine Corps and was still relatively in shape. I spent my last year in Okinawa, and the stories you've heard about there only being many things to do are valid. Everyone either turns into a bodybuilder, a drunk, or a diver.

I found myself at the gym twice a day, and I ran there from the barracks. Working out in the gym afforded me massive muscles with enough stamina to pass the physical fitness test and its 3-mile run. I don't remember most of my measurements, but the 54″ chest stands out in my memory for bragging rights.

The point to me telling you all of this is because after I got out and made it back home to crusty old New Jersey, I still wanted to be in shape.

When I say “New Jersey,” I'm not talking about what everyone thinks about with skyscrapers and traffic. I grew up in the middle of the woods in NW Jersey on a dirt road. There was wildlife everywhere, including big black bears.

pepper spray

If you're wondering, bear spray is a much more potent variant of pepper spray.

They got enormous because, when I lived there, you couldn't hunt them, and there were no natural predators and plenty of food.

One day I went on a run on a local trail we called the railroad bed. After exiting the woods and coming up to the main road from the trailhead, I saw a big black bear standing in the middle of the road.

I saw the bear and froze.

The bear was probably 350-400 pounds, and on all four feet. He was facing away from me to the other side of the road and heading into the woods.

It turned around and looked at me as I stood there trying to work out what I would do to protect myself if needed. I had nothing on me. Being stronger and faster than most people was great, but perhaps not enough against an angry bear.

self defense hollow point bullet

I didn't have a handgun with me. But if I did, I would want it loaded with the most effective rounds.

Thankfully I didn't see any cubs, and he was NOT angry, or this would have ended a little different. We made eye contact for what seemed an eternity (likely just a few seconds, but I had tunnel vision). Suddenly the bear let out a loud puff of air, turned its head back in line with its body pointed away from me, and lumbered up into the woods on the other side of the road.

Standing there for what seemed like a few minutes, I collected my thoughts. In case the bear was still watching me, I was careful not to run again. I was still about a mile from where I lived.

Even after reaching home, I was still in flight or fight mode. I'm not sure what I did first, but I suspect it included checking the cleanliness of my underpants.

While a black bear is generally not aggressive toward people unless it feels threatened, these things can happen, and black bears are just one of the big animals capable of ruining your day.

Of course, you may not need to worry about animals in your area, but you'll want to be able to defend yourself properly if you do.

Here's a podcast about defending yourself against a bear:

Animal Defense Options —

You'll want to give this much thought if you find yourself outside in an area where there are big animals who might want to eat you or at least protect their young or territory.

Bear Spray:

Bear spray is an option for those of you who value the animal's life more than your own.

I'm not a big fan of bear spray for a couple of reasons. While I think it can stop an angry bear, I think it can also do the exact opposite. It could piss the bear off, even more, ensuring your exit from this life.

To make matters worse, you could also take yourself out of the fight if things escalate even more and any of that stuff lingers, or the wind changes direction.

effects of pepper spray

If I could describe the sensation of being sprayed with pepper spray, it would be summed up in this photo.

I've never felt the effects of bear spray. However, I have gone through the gas chamber in the Marine Corps. Additionally, exposure to pepper spray is something I've experienced. I'd take the gas chamber over the pepper spray any day, and if the bear spray is going to work on a bear, it has to be strong.

Because it has to be strong, if it does end up on your face, it's going to suck—big time.

So, I'd rather have a gun. Shocker, I know, considering I work for this fine publication that has to do with guns.


This choice is tricky, however. I am a fan of big caliber, fast-moving, hard-cast bullets meant to get deep into whatever wants to eat me. It's tough because most people don't have this type of gun on hand.

The key here is that any handgun in whatever caliber, and whatever cartridge, may work. But some work better than others.

I mean, don't give up or anything, but don't expect victory at this point, either.

If an angry animal is charging you, you want to stop it as far away from you as possible, within reason (I mean, you want to be able to hit the thing).


Additional handgun considerations:

The number one thing to remember here is that using hollow points as we recommend on two-legged predators is not the best idea. You don't want to use hollow points against a bear because, while they might work, they don't penetrate deep enough into the animal-like ball ammo does, and preferably hard cast.

Don't get me wrong, here. If my only options were to shoot the bear with the 13 hollow points in my 365XL or poke it with my walking stick, I'd take my chance with the gun.

However, what if you have to defend yourself against a human OR a bear in the woods?

There are a couple of options here. The first is to carry two guns when you go on a hike. I do this depending on a few other circumstances that aren't important to discuss right now. I'll carry one of the handguns in a chest or shoulder rig and the other on my hip.

I dedicate one of the guns, filled with hollow points, to human attackers. The other is for black bears with hard casts. One is a 9mm, and the other is a 357 or 44 magnum.

I live in bear country in the Blue Ridge mountains, and the bear population here is massive. When hiking, you have just as much opportunity to see a bear as you do other humans.

My idea is to be prepared to address both situations.

Another option is to carry a gun with ammo you hope will take care of both. You have to weigh your circumstances here. Do you think you're more likely to encounter a bad guy or an angry animal?

If you're more likely to encounter one over the other, carry the one you think will work best.

I like the two-gun option better because you never know.

Other people I know will alternate rounds. The first shot will be a hollow point, and the next will be a hard cast, so on and so forth.

I don't have many thoughts about this, only that this can become quite confusing in a high-stress situation. If you have anything more to add, the comments section is where to do it.

Alaska Self-Defense

Multi-Layered Approach:

Of course, it's possible to carry both bear spray and a gun. Having both gives you multiple options. It may be more appropriate to use one or the other, but certainly, there are situations where using both made a difference.

Finally, if you happen to be an undercover superhero, use a pocket-knife like this guy! Just kidding, while this incident turned out okay, it is not the recommended response.


Only you know the circumstances you're likely to encounter. If you want to carry bear spray, it's ultimately your choice. I don't use it, personally, but to each their own.

What is your setup for when you're in the woods? Let us know in the comments below.

About Joshua Gillem

Josh is a lifelong practitioner and student of the gun. He grew up shooting/hunting with his dad, and was given his first gun, a 12 gauge shotgun, when just a small boy. After high school, he joined the Marines where his love for firearms blossomed as he qualified with an M16A2, an M9, and a 240G. Josh has been writing about firearms and tactics for several years, owns the blog Gunners Den, is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, and believes that each individual person has the right to self-defense by any means necessary. Currently residing in gun-friendly NC, he carries a concealed gun on a daily basis, even in his own house.


  1. Jared on September 8, 2020 at 5:12 pm

    If you are equally likely to run into 2 or 4 legged animals my suggestion would be to run a quality hunting bullet. It will still expand some but retains its weight and is designed for greater penetration than typical defensive rounds. Out in the woods over penetration is a lower risk than in an urban setting so if your hunting bullet routinely penetrates 24 inches or more in ballistics gel it is lower worry. To be honest the Critical duty bullet from Hornady, run at full power 10mm loadings would be an excellent choice. Hornady down loads it to minimize overpenetration issues. 180 grain bullets at 1250fps are easily attainable in the 10 mm. Where Hornady only loads the 175 to 1070.
    If I knew it was bears and not humans 44 mag would be the gun of choice for a pistol but to be honest I would be carrying a short rifle in a large caliber shooting 250 plus grain bullets

  2. Tyrone Slothrop on September 8, 2020 at 11:25 pm

    My carry gun for defense against Alaska brownies, grizzlies and black bears, Winchester Defender topped with a SIG Romeo 5, loaded with Fiocchi Brenneke slugs.

  3. Matthew Carberry on September 9, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    Black bears and cougars aren’t heavy bodied or boned enough to require hardcast. Any round with suitable penetration for a person will do just fine.

    For brown bears you’ll want the extra pen of hardcast, but even they are regularly killed defensively with “inadequate” ammo.

    Here in Anchorage, where we have local populations of moose, and brown and black bear, I already carry both OC spray and my pistol. If I am planning to recreate on the “wilder” local trails I add a bear fogger and put in a mag of hardcast. When I go into the backcountry is when I actually upgun.

  4. Michael Banton on September 9, 2020 at 1:09 pm

    When I hike in Kern county California I don’t carry my fn 9-9mm with self dense rounds, I carry my Ruger 45 ACP also with self defense rounds however after reading this article I will change my ammo to hard cased. Thanks for the tip from a former Marine.

  5. Mike on September 14, 2020 at 4:08 am

    Here in the Colorado Rockies, I carry a 357 with JHP loads. We have black bears, cougars, and coyotes to contend with. I also have a Winchester 98 carbine in 357 that I carry if I’m on wheels instead of my feet. The only animal I’ve had to use my guns on so far has been a pack of dogs running loose. They threatened one of our group and most quickly left after the first one died.

  6. Jim Boorman on September 14, 2020 at 6:59 am

    I carry two bear spray canisters … one going out and one coming back. I also carry a Glock 20 with a 5 1/2” barrel made for hardcast. It is loaded alternately with Lehigh 220 gr. TC hardcast at 1250 FPS and Lehigh Extreme Penetrators 140 gr. at 1480 FPS. I figure a charging bear can cross a football field in about 2 1/2 seconds … I want the most impact I can get in about 2 shots … that’s about all I’m going to get in. I also carry an air horn to try to change their mind if they seem in doubt.

  7. Steve on September 14, 2020 at 7:23 am

    One other consideration is revolver vs semi-auto. If you end up with any type of animal on you, and are forced to do a barrel pressed to body shot, a semi-auto slide will lock up after the first shot. A revolver can still cycle. A 45 long colt configuration can be loaded alternating cylinders with 410 shotgun and 45 long colt ammo. Placed against a body cavity, a 410 shotgun shell explosive gasses entry would be devastating.

  8. Charles Closz on September 14, 2020 at 8:39 am

    I live in east TN. and black bear and wild boar are the largest thing I might run into. I carry a 1911 in 45 acp with JHP . I also have a 45 long colt revolver and after reading your article I may start carrying both. Black bear are thin skinned but boar are tough as nails and hard cast bullets in the revolver might be best for them.

  9. Gregory C Wagner on September 14, 2020 at 11:51 pm

    We have enough of a Black Bear population Here in Missouri that a “Black Bear” hunt is being planned for the 2021 season.
    I have personally interacted with one by blocking traffic so it could safely cross a highway.
    I carry a SA Hellcat with Hornady Critical Defense 9mm for EDC. I also carry an AR pistol in .223/5.56 in my vehicle. I don’t walk around out here in the country much, but I do on my farm, and I carry BOTH.
    The AR pistol has Winchester Ballistic Silvertip .223. I don’t know how the Silvertip would perform against a black bear, but we have Coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, and wild boar, so that is what and why I carry.
    BUT I never want to have to protect myself against a BEAR, hunting one is one thing, crapping my pants as I have to trust a varmint round against one is another.

  10. TGP389 on May 10, 2023 at 8:22 pm

    From what I’ve read, I conclude that bear might be inhibited from attacking by bear spray IF you spray it while it’s still perusing the menu and deciding if you’re a bigger threat or a bigger treat. From stories I’ve read, it sounds like once he decides you’re tonight’s take out, you’d better have something formidable. I’ve also read that black bear will actually hunt humans. I read one account of one chasing a lone, unarmed woman across a foot bridge and attacking her. She survived, but I can’t remember how.

    I carry a small(ish) .45 acp everywhere I go. Being retired law enforcement, I’m afforded the luxury (which should be a right for anyone without a record) of carrying in all 50 states. However, if I were to spend much time in the deep woods, especially north of here (Florida), I’d carry a 10mm minimum.

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