Allison Remski prepares for a hike just like thousands of others across the Northwest. She packs snacks—vegan ones. She clips a leash on her German shepherd, Ares. She dons waterproof, performance, high-tech gear. And then she packs a gun.
That means checking the chamber of her nine-millimeter Ruger: magazine loaded but no round ready to fire. She inspects the safe mode to ensure it’s engaged. Then she slips her concealed carry permit into her pack and slides her firearm into her waistband or, on a long trip, her backpack.
Washington keeps no record of how many hikers carry firearms. There are more than half a million active concealed-carry permits in the state—on par with Tennessee—but, depending on which law enforcement agency you ask, you may not need one on trails. Guns have been allowed in our national parks since 2010.
Why? Everyone has their own reason. For Tacoma resident Remski, five foot three and at most 120 pounds, “There are some crazy people out there, and that’s really specifically why I do it when I’m solo.” The threat of wildlife—bear, cougar—is secondary but still key. “I know at the end of the day I have a way of defending myself,” she says; when she talks about guns she’s matter of fact, rarely emotional. She points to the story of a woman attacked while jogging a forest trail near Port Angeles in April.
To call guns on the trail a controversial topic is an understatement. In the 91,000-member Washington Hikers and Climbers Facebook page, a local clearinghouse for trail talk, nothing shuts a conversation down faster than the g-u-n word.
“Our membership cannot normally discuss the issue civilly,” says group founder Lee Jacobson. “The comment section usually turns into a bickering and name-calling and acrimonious debate,” leading Jacobson to shut down comment sections or delete posts. It’s among the biggest controversies in Washington hiking, along with dog poop (to bag or not to bag?) and artfully stacking rocks (whether it violates environmental principles).
In protest, more than 1,500 people formed a shadow Washington Hikers and Climbers with Guns group. Members share photos of Glocks in the wild or cougar scat they found on the trail and share recommendations for carrying holsters.
The thing is, beyond a few vocal figures online, it’s hard to say who has a gun. “It’s a minority,” says Jacobson, “but I don’t think it’s a very small minority.” He notes that while his massive club has been described as “antifirearm,” several of his 20 group moderators own guns.
Remski separated from the Marine Corps in 2009 and has done firearm training with the outfit once known as Blackwater. It’s why she considers herself pro-gun but supports mandatory regulation that would make a gun control activist’s head spin: background checks, proficiency exams, annual registrations.
She doesn’t know anyone else who carries on the trail; she doesn’t advertise the fact. But she’s thankful for the Ruger every time she gets an uneasy feeling on a remote mile of trail. “I think if every single person carried, we’d have fewer problems.”
Updated May 24, 2018. This article has been modified to correct the spelling of Lee Jacobson.