An absence of orange (and other sins against safety)

Two hunters (Photo by NYS DEC)

The young man’s hunting outfit consisted of dark wool pants, a camouflage vest, and a brown knit hat just a couple shades lighter than winter deer hair. (Strike One: It was rifle season and he wasn’t wearing a stitch of blaze orange.)

His lever-action rifle, aimed downward, was pointed at the laces of his left boot. (Strike Two: He was apt to blow a hole through his own foot.)

In two minutes of conversation, I learned that he had never hunted this area before. (Strike Three: He had no idea where the nearest homes and driveways were, no idea which directions were and were not safe to fire in.)

I pointed across a wooded gully to our right and told him that our house was about a hundred yards away, beyond the safety-zone sign tacked to that maple. Then I pointed across the small beaver pond in front of us, indicating that our neighbors’ house was right there, beyond that single row of softwoods.

That was three months ago, and I still find my thoughts wandering back to that young man. In particular, I find them wandering back to Strike One.

In Vermont, as in a number of other states, it’s legal to hunt without wearing any blaze orange, even in rifle season.

But should it be?

If my libertarian-minded father was alive today, I reckon he would argue that folks should be allowed to wear whatever they want to. A New Hampshire resident, he always supported the state’s refusal to instate a motorcycle-helmet law, saying “If you’ve got a $10 head, wear a $10 helmet.” Though helmetless riders made me think that the state motto should be changed to “Live Free and Die,” I grant that my father had a point.

I grant, too, that red-and-black-checked wool jackets—the Vermont hunter’s traditional garb—have far more aesthetic charm than my neon orange vest.

And I grant that a human does not look like a deer, no matter what jacket or vest they’re wearing. No one will ever be mistaken for game by a hunter who makes absolutely certain of what he or she is shooting at.

On the other hand, not every hunter makes absolutely certain. Rare though it is, humans do sometimes get mistaken for animals. Statistically, blaze orange does a very good job of preventing such horrors. (The New York Department of Environmental Conservation, for instance, reports that 15 big game hunters were mistaken for deer or bear and killed in the state in the past decade. Not one of them was wearing orange.)

And even for the very careful hunter, I find it easy to imagine scenarios like this one: A hunter sees a deer in the woods, thirty yards off. She raises her rifle. What she does not know is that another hunter—a young man, perhaps—is stalking through woods seventy yards beyond the deer.

Does she catch a glimpse of blaze orange among the tree trunks, before squeezing the trigger? If not—and if her bullet travels a hundred yards—what becomes of him, of her, and of both their families?

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Arthur says:


    During firearm season, especially with the sheer number of Michigan gun hunters in the woods, I’m a big advocate of hunter orange; it’s just one more level of safety to help protect us all while we’re in the woods.

    Also, here in Michigan it’s required by law, and I have absolutely no problem with that.

    Of course, I’d wear my seat belt even if it wasn’t law, too.

  2. You’ve made an excellent case for the prudence of wearing orange while hunting.

    This is not the same thing as a case for forcing our neighbors to do what we think is prudent.

    People have a right to do stupid things, and to take risks we might choose not to take. Make it a legal presumption that, when a hunter in low-viz clothing is shot accidentally, the negligence and liability are entirely his, and move on. We already have quite enough laws telling free adults what to do for their own good, thank you.

    • fearsclave says:

      Funny meeting you here.

      I really loathe Ontario’s safety orange requirements and were they not the law wouldn’t bother with it hunting in my area; further north, I might, but around here there just plain aren’t enough hunters for me to be too concerned about getting shot.

      Were I in an heavily-hunted-over area I’d probably feel differently, but as it is I’ll wear orange only when required. I really prefer being well-camouflaged.

      • Tovar says:

        Nice to see you here, Fearsclave.

        In his book Heartsblood, David Petersen has an interesting section on why he mostly bowhunts. Among many other reasons, he talks about how he feels so unnatural and conspicuous in orange. He, too, would rather blend in.

        In a truly remote, low-hunter-density area, I probably wouldn’t want to wear orange either. In Vermont, hunters aren’t everywhere, but they aren’t rare either. It’s nothing like the kind of hunting Richard Nelson describes doing on an island off southeast Alaska, where he carries deer back to his boat on his back, something I would never risk in New England — unless I had a big orange poncho to wrap the deer in.

  3. Al Cambronne says:

    Sounds like the guy was wearing a risky wardrobe–especially the tan cap. Here in Wisconsin, orange is required during the gun deer season, but not for bow season.

    A couple years ago I heard about an incident in which the victim was wearing all orange except for a camo hat. As he approached from beyond a hillside, only the top of his head was visible. Another hunter fired at movement.

    (Just before clicking Submit, I made a small revision to this comment. I wrote “incident” after deciding that “accident” was not quite the right word.)

    • Chris says:

      Great point Al. I don’t use the word “accident” for these types of shootings. An accident is something that could not be reasonably prevented. A shooting like this is an incident… an idiotic incident.

  4. Tammy says:

    Great writing and I love the way you incorporated your father’s viewpoint. I have heard and seen about enough accidents that if I was hunting (and I’m not), I’d exercise my right to wear orange.

  5. James says:

    Personally blaze orange is the poster child for all that’s wrong with rifle season, too many people running around with firearms willing to shoot first and identify latter.

  6. Tovar says:

    Arthur: Here in Vermont, the woods aren’t half as crowded as what you experience in Michigan. But I’m still glad to see folks wearing orange.

    Elmo: As I said in the post, I sympathize with your view to a certain extent. Yet I can see other perspectives, too, and — like Arthur — would have no objection to a blaze requirement during firearms seasons.

    Al: Yeah, a lot of bowhunters go for full-camo here, which is pretty low-risk, with the exception of the occasional trigger-happy grouse hunter or fall turkey hunter. “Firing at movement” is criminal negligence in my book. I think PA started requiring blaze caps for the same reason: a head of hair can too easily be mistaken for a woodchuck. (Yes, I think “incident” is a better word.)

    Tammy: Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post — and that would wear orange if you took to the woods!

    James: I can see why you say that. Though incidents are rare, the some-folks-shooting-first problem is a real one. Unless the problem disappears, I would rather the poster child be more hunters in blaze orange than more hunters dead.

  7. Lieing wolf says:

    As my wife & I start our hunter’s safety courses , I like to hold up a moose shed antler and offer it to the first attendee, to name the three reasons you should where hunter orange. The kids wave desperately and say “so you won’t get shot!” Yep! that”s one, people will know your a hunter! And now things slow down and even dads starts scratching under their hats. If I’m lucky, somebody will stumble on to “rescue!” Yes that’s # 2! Your easier to find if things go wrong! Great ! #3 usually never comes and I get to keep my antler. The fact that you feel conspicuios and everyone knows what your up to, dressed like a hunter, changes your behavior. You’ll act more responsibly ,your not sneaking around on posted land or walking through someones yard, because dressed in orange even non-hunters know your a “Hunter” . We feel it should NOT be the responsiblity of a victim to be wearing orange, it lies with the gun holder! Unfortunately, orange laws could make some fools think ‘If I don’t see orange then it must be game” Up comes the scope! Yikes! Your rarely, if ever alone and I’m wearing orange, and the hunter 2 feet or 2 miles away may or may not still even see me! but if I’m ever the victim the doctor will have to pull the orange out of the hole! 5 feet is the closest another person has come to me in open hardwoods, with snow while wearing an orange vest & hat in plain veiw! The fella didn’t have a heart attack, but it took a second for him to catch his breath ! You never Know! Putting on a vest is easier then growing new body parts!

    • fearsclave says:

      Because after getting all camouflaged up and having gone through your odour management routine, it annoys the expletive deleted out of me to blow the visual camouflage out of the water. It’s rather like getting all dressed up for dinner at a fancy restaurant and being forced to wear a clown nose and dunce cap.

  8. Lieing wolf says:

    people don’t like to be told what to do, I guess. This is the land of the free, supposidly. I’m not big on trusting others judgement or eye witness accounts. Vermonter’s will tell you catamount stories and sightings over & over yet not a single dead cat in over a hundred years! How many times did they mistake a brown stump for a deer they wanted to see. Interestingly, most accidents or incidents, are made by seasoned hunters who “know” what they saw. Mistaken for game or self inflicked. The weekend hunter, full time deer and a deep desire to succeed often overrides common sense . NBC’s 20/20 did a great show about the subject, switching people during a conversation and they just kept on talking not even noticing! Wow! I’m sure Eric could have some good thoughts on this to.

  9. Swamp Thing says:

    Sure, theoretically, it’s an infringement of some freedom, I guess. Then again, so is being sued for $25 million in emotional damages for shooting a guy crawling around a public forest at dawn, in brown camo in firearm season.

    I am a big fan of the blaze orange. It saves lives because too many people in the woods during deer season are tired, hungry, or just dazed enough to get amped about a strange brown shape in the distance. Yes, blaze orange treats the symptom and not the problem. That sucks. But everybody gets to go home that day.

  10. Swamp,

    As I said, legally assume liability is with the unoranged party in the case of mistaken shootings.

    I really don’t understand your dismissive scorn for other free adults’ rights to make their own decisions. Yes, it’s an extremely minor thing in the scheme of, say, routine Fourth Amendment violations. But come the heck on: you think another free citizen would be better off acting differently, so your first resort is to call in government force? I think there are unacceptable risks involved in smoking cigarettes, wilderness rock climbing, and driving tiny hippie cars on the freeways, but people who make those choices own their own lives, and it’s not my decision.

    Be a big fan of blaze orange. Encourage others to use it. Tell them outright that you think it’s foolish not to. But for goodness’ sake, remember that you’re dealing with free adults, and stick to persuasion, not force.

    • Swamp Thing says:

      That’s literally incorrect. It should be correct. But sadly, it’s not. If you shoot someone, they (or their insurance carrier) are going to sue you. You are going to get charged with a firearms violation, and you will be arrested. That same insurance carrier is going to sue the landowner, be it the state or a private landowner. That is why every gun club has liability waivers and liability insurance.

      That is reality. I would love to assume that everyone out there are responsible adults. If there’s a way to do that more effectively than required orange and safety classes, then let’s find it and do it.

      How many hunting deaths (by shooting) are too many? How many are necessary?

      • “That’s literally incorrect. It should be correct. But sadly, it’s not. If you shoot someone, they (or their insurance carrier) are going to sue you.”

        We have a misunderstanding here. I’m saying “if this is a big problem, pass a law putting legal liability with the person taking the risk, not a law forbidding him from taking the risk”.

        It stinks that people are shot accidentally in the field, but frankly, freedom is messy. If people are weighing the risks, taking their chances, and ending up drawing the short straw, I’m going to feel bad for them. But honestly “people are _dying_!” isn’t an unacceptable, unthinkable thing when the risk is theirs to minimize and they make the choice not to.

        Sorry to hear about your dog, buddy. We lost a family dog a couple months ago, too. It;s one of those things that never gets any easier.

        • Swamp Thing says:

          I’m all for changing the way insurance and litigation work hand-in-hand, so I’m inclined to agree with you there.

          And it makes a lot more sense to me when the “individual responsibility” schpiel it’s stated as you just did, “Protect you and your family – take the initiative – wear reflective or bright clothing when moving during a hunt.”

  11. Phillip says:

    In North Carolina when I started hunting, there was no hunter orange law. The law was enacted later. Did it save lives? Some folks would argue that it did, and I’m not a good enough statistician to challenge it… but I can’t help wondering. Along with hunter orange requirements came the hunter safety training requirement. Hard to isolate the results of one without taking the other into account. Yet states with hunter orange requirements still have accidents, but accidents are down everywhere.

    In CA, where I hunt now, there is no statewide hunter orange requirement and I don’t wear orange when I’m hunting (except when required). Based on the latest available stats from 2006, there were about 18 accidental shootings in CA. Only two of these involved big game hunters, despite the fact that we have a 365 day open season on hogs.

    Point being, I believe the danger of not wearing orange is over-rated, especially with most hunters having received other safety training.

    On the other hand, I find that there’s a lot to be said for being “invisible” in the field. I’ve found far too often that drawing attention to yourself out here in the canyons is a good way to get “scoped” by idiots using their riflescopes instead of binoculars. It’s happened to me many times, and I’ve seen it happen to other hunters (and hikers).

    I know that’s just my take, and it’s based on nothing more valid than my own experiences, but it’s enough for me. I have plenty of orange, and could wear it voluntarily. If I really thought it would make me safer, I’d do it.

    When it all comes down to it, I believe it should be an individual choice. Of course, I believe the same about seatbelts and motorcycle helmets too.

    • Swamp Thing says:

      Those are all valid points, and worth a lot of consideration, except “scoping.” Looking through a scope to identify a target with a chambered round and closed bolt?

      Yes, I know people do it. And it is freaking bush league. What’s the NRA rule, “Never point a weapon at something you do not intend to destroy.”

      In all honesty, the dude who’s looking at you (in orange) in a canyon through the scope of a loaded, chambered (safety off, finger on the trigger) rifle, is ABSOLUTELY the same guy who’s going to shoot you at half that range because you are brown and moving in the brush.

    • Tovar says:

      As always, you provide good food for thought, Phillip.

      I’ve never been in a situation where I felt less safe wearing orange. That kind of experience might shift my perspective.

      When we’re talking statistics, I think it’s important we compare apples to apples. The numbers I quoted from NY, for instance, are “mistaken for big-game” fatalities. Other injuries and fatalities occurred in NY in that decade, including accidental discharge of firearms, etc — incidents that blaze orange could not have prevented. But in that particular “mistaken” category, none of the hunters shot was wearing orange.

  12. Lieing wolf says:

    My hand slipped gently away from the forhead of my aging, four legged golden, as I start typing and I know, full well,, what one day we both must.. experience, and I agree with all when saying goodby pulls on the heart so much. Many thoughtful hearts are bending your way , Phillip. The good Lord really did bless man with animals, the ultimate gift. Life.

    One of my favorite reasons for teaching gun handling, range and hunter safety, women in the outdoors, let’s go fishing, is that I may never know the number of accidents I helped prevent. As you hand out the safety cards and know that this new person to the outdoors is going into the big world fairly nieve about most of what’s ahead, one can only hope that your first stab at learning and inspirational motivation to learn more …will have taken full roots. 12 or 40 hrs. courses cannot hardly scratch the experience of a vet. hunter. No matter what , they are still people ,, The students must be tested in life. I’m proud of our states hunter ed and outdoor programs. If they collect a number of good habit building blocks,,,, muzzle controll,,,, finger off the trigger,,, action open,,, safety on, and are impressed to follow a constructive lead, and realize it takes a life time to learn everything ( some longer!) they might listen and survive. If everyone new it all, who would we look up to? Where would one find balance? My neighbor, up there in age, once told me, teach and inspire those who will learn, and the rest will just envie you.

  13. Erik Jensen says:

    Unbelievable blaze orange is not the law during gun seasons in certain New England states. I had no idea. It has been he law for many years here in Minnesota, as well as in Wisconsin where I have hunted, as well as in Colorado where I’m going elk hunting this fall. It’s hard to know which has had the greater effect, but blaze orange and the mandated hunter safety courses have brought accidents way down. It is important to remember the effect that blaze orange has on the non-hunting public, many of them believe hunting is a much more dangerous activity than it is, and telling them about the blaze orange and how it can’t be mistaken for anything really changes their thinking. Plus, it’s true. I use camoflage during bow season, it probably helps a little, but I can say that during rifle season I’ve had deer looking right at me, 15 yards away, and the blaze didn’t scare them because I didn’t move.

  14. I think Lieing Wolf makes a good point about hunter orange — one I hadn’t thought of. That you feel like a hunter, conspicuous, and that it might make you behave differently is something to think about. (I find that the gun does that, but people with more experience with guns might feel differently).

    Elmo & Swamp, the reason I favor (some) laws that protect people from themselves is that the repurcussions are borne by all of us. If the incidence and severity of accidents go up, insurance and taxes go up commensurately.

    And, Swamp, I’m very sorry about your dog. May your next one earn your love and trust.

    • This conversation has gone on forever now, but I want to address the direct statement:

      Elmo & Swamp, the reason I favor (some) laws that protect people from themselves is that the repurcussions are borne by all of us. If the incidence and severity of accidents go up, insurance and taxes go up commensurately.

      Honestly, none of us can take any meaningful action that doesn’t affect another person in some indirect way. I know you don’t mean it this way, but this is how we end up with obsessive legal management of every aspect of our lives: when you start justifying an intrusion into another person’s rights because it could increase your insurance rates, there’s no paternalistic regulation that doesn’t justify.

      Eating a cheeseburger, by some accounts, increases your insurance rates. Driving a light car, engaging in controversial political advocacy, using alternative medicine, hell, wearing the wrong shoes–all of those increase my odds of getting injured or sick, and some of them probably have a much greater correlation with insurance rates and taxes than wearing orange does. It’s the nature of living in a society that others’ actions will indirectly affect us. It’s the nature of living in a _free_ society that we accept that affect rather than trying to control everybody to make all those affects positive.

      Let’s be honest. A negligent shooting in the woods has a direct, significant effect on two people: a person who chose to dress inconspicuously on land stalked by hunters, and a hunter who chose not to verify his target before firing a deadly weapon at it. As a non-hunting gun owner, I can’t imagine ever shooting my gun at a movement I hadn’t positively identified as a legitimate target; is there really such an overriding need to control the wardrobe choices of all hunters “for their own good”, or to shield dangerously reckless shooters from the consequences of their attitudes?

  15. Lieing wolf says:

    Sorry ,I read to fast and thought it was Phillip’s dog, Swamp, the hearts are bending your way. And now Phillip’s too! My appologies.

    It’s a tough spot to be in when your part of a minority, (Hunters) that need’s the majority’s blessings,, to continue, yet a few of your “own” who seem to need the “extra guidance” of law could ruin it for all. Nature’ web sure can be a trampoline , no wonder my crosshairs are broke!

  16. doug thorburn says:

    To paraphrase the Duchess of Windsor, “you can’t be too rich, too thin or too safe!”

    My own habits concerning protective clothing are a bit non-sensicle. When I’m working (in the bush) during hunting season I always have on a high-vis vest, and orange hat. When I go hunting, or just walking in the same areas I just wear my usual hiking clothes. Somehow, being a Forestry worker, I associate safety clothing with being “on duty”.

    Just so I don’t seem totally foolish, I generally hunt in areas where I have yet to see another soul. Most valleys around here have a single access road, and one would see if other vehicles are parked nearby.

    • Swamp Thing says:

      I tend to be the same way. While doing wetland work on a forested island parcel (state owned, no hunting allowed) parcel in Delaware, I’ve been shot AT once by a poacher who didn’t know who or what I was (as I bumbled through a 10′ tall blackberry patch), and shot OVER twice by poachers who saw me and were thrilled that I scared up a deer within gun range (in all three cases, I didn’t see the treestand until AFTER the shot).

      And trust me, I had on orange. Most places I’ve worked, it’s company/organization policy to wear it between 9/1 and 2/15.

      Didn’t bring this into the fray before because these were poachers – totally separate issue than the blaze orange.

      Safety is a huge reason I rarely hunt public land anymore, or fish on public land in hunting season. Even on private land, I favor the reversible camo/orange gear so on the way out of the field/marsh/woods, when I’m tired and not attentive, I maybe have a tiny bit better chance of surviving a sleepy deer hunter.

  17. Lieing wolf says:

    Remote areas , especially forested, are the toughest to find a lost or injured person in and after working on several search and rescue missions with wardens and state police crews , I know that you can walk right by someone sleeping or hurt, you can easily see an orange hat from the air. Aircraft would be drawn to me as I helped ground search , because I was so visible. On the water, even on a busy lake often boaters are not paying attention as they drive and I dress visible . I know they won’t hear you screaming till the last second. Just bass fishing and people have nearly collided with me while I’m casting and the orange hat saved me. The tough terrain & more remote the area, that color could mean life or death. It doesn’t have to be worn, all the time. but you can put it on when it applies! I was fishing the reef in the lakes middle, (champlain) and I know that some clown will surely come flying by doing 50 mph in his new boat , thinking he’s the only one on the water, distracted, and it often keeps me from having to move out of his ignorant trajectory, because I’m not going to predict a collision and then watch it happen! People are people full of mistakes, problems, and poor judgements.

  18. somsai says:

    I like to hunt the Zirkel Wilderness in Northern Colorado. The area I go to doesn’t have human tracks for the past few months at least. Yet I gladly wear orange. A bullet from my 30/06 can go miles, I like to know if there’s another human in the drainage that I’m in. Hunting is about more than fashion and feeling “one” with the woods.

    Orange should be the rule everywhere, private or public, Rhode Island or Alaska, it saves lives.

    • Erik Jensen says:

      Right on, Somsai ! Also, me and my hunting partner are going to the Zirkel wilderness for our first elk hunt this fall, muzzleloader and/or bow. I’m going to get in touch with you !

    • Erik Jensen says:

      Somsai – I thought I’d be able to click on your comment and you’d have a website or something, but it appears I can’t. If you’re willing to help e a little with the Zirkel hunt, email me at progressiveoutdoorsman (at) gmail (dot) com Erik

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