Bears!

One common fear among hikers is encountering a bear. I can’t tell you how many bear sprays I’ve pulled out of people’s packs during a pack shakedown. On the Appalachian Trail, bears are not threatening. This post will tell you a little bit about the bears that reside in these mountains and how you can protect yourself, and the bears while on the trail.

Black-Bear

Black Bears
The Black Bear is the only bear found in the Appalachian Mountains. The American black bear is the smallest of the three bears species found in North America, and are found only in North America. Black bears have short, non-retractable claws that give them an excellent tree-climbing ability. They are omnivorous: plants, fruits, nuts, insects, honey, salmon, small mammals and carrion. They are extremely adaptable and show a great variation in habitat types, though they are primarily found in forested areas with thick ground vegetation and an abundance of fruits, nuts, and vegetation. Black bears tend to be solitary animals, with the exception of mothers and cubs. The bears usually forage alone, but will tolerate each other and forage in groups if there is an abundance of food in one area. Black bears are not aggressive. If you see them approaching, it is merely out of curiosity or to see if you have food. Another common fear is getting between a mother and her cubs. There is no record of anyone being killed by a mother black bear defending her cubs, and attacks are very rare. Startled black bears run away, often to a tree. By contrast, a startled Grizzly may charge and occasionally attack, making grizzlies over 20 times more dangerous than black bears.

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Human interaction on the trail
I have personally seen around twenty bears while on the trail. For the  majority of these sightings I was by myself and saw them from a distance. Most would run off when they heard me. There were a few that were engrossed in their eating, or they were by their cubs, and would not run off right away. To let them know you are nearby, clap your hands and call out, “Hey bear!” or just talk loudly to them. When they hear you, they will then run off. If they start to approach you, stand your ground and make yourself look large. You can even throw rocks or sticks towards them. Do not run away from the bear or turn your back
on it, but maybe change your direction. Some bears have become more accustomed to people because they know they have food. This is where the issues lie. There are some areas on the trail where bears are becoming more frequent, and sometimes even aggressive. This is the direct result of improper food storage, and carelessness by hikers. Eating in shelters and other camping areas causes bears to approach those areas searching for crumbs and bigger scraps. While sleeping, food storage is super important. If you have even a granola bar wrapper, or scented lotion in your tent or pack, the bear can smell it. A bear’s sense of smell is 7 times better than a blood hound’s or 2,100 times better than a human. So yeah, they can smell whatever you have. There have been incidents with bears throughout the trail. The most common examples are the bears in the Smoky Mountains. The Smokies have a high concentration of bears, but also a large amount of humans in the park each year. Shelters have been closed down at times because a bear was frequenting the area and dragging hikers packs from the walls in search for food. Even when the humans tried to shoo it away, it just came back later. One bear bit a man through his tent because it could smell scented lotion he was keeping in his tent. The man had a big wound but was ok. The bear responsible for this was euthanized.

This is threatening to the bears. Rules are put in place in certain areas to avoid these incidents from occurring. In the Smokies, hikers must have a permit and stay in the shelter or at least really close. The man who was bit, was not close to the shelter despite the rules. He could have had help from fellow hikers to get the bear away if he was by the shelter. Bears are not trying to harm humans they just want to eat! Respecting the rules in certain areas will help regulate the bear encounters. There is a five-mile section South of Mountain Crossings from Jarrard Gap, to Neel Gap where a bear canister is required for camping. This is not meant to be an inconvenience to hikers, but to protect them, and the bears from more encounters.

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Proper food storage
I talked a little bit about food storage in the last blog post, but it is super important not only to protect you and your food, but the animals that could get a hold of it. Once an animal tastes human food, they want more. It is the official recommendation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to carry a bear canister from Springer Mountain to Damascus, Virginia. I have personally used a bear canister while I was Ridge Running and I will say it is pretty convenient. I didn’t have to worry about hanging my food I just had to stick the canister away from my camping area. A bear got to my canister once and rolled it down the hill a bit, but the canister was not penetrated and both my food, and the bear were safe. I understand that bear canisters are heavier and bulky, so hanging your food is another great option. Hang food from tree limbs 12 feet off the ground, 6 feet from the tree’s trunk, and 6 feet below the supporting limb. It does take practice to hang the line, but it is an important skill and you know your food, and the animals will be safe. Some people have a small bag at the end of their line that they put a rock or handful of heavier material in so they can throw the line with ease. I tie a rock to the end to throw it over the limb. Don’t be embarrassed if it takes you a few tries because it is tricky! Not only food goes in the food bag. Hang your toiletries and any smelly items such as hand sanitizer and lotion.

Let’s do our best to protect the Black Bear so we can continue to enjoy them in the wild!

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5 thoughts on “Bears!

  1. What are your thoughts on the bear bag instead of the bear canister? Will it meet the requirements for the smokies? It seems to be more lightweight and malleable making me want to use that instead of the cannister. Decision time is soon though to pick one!

    • The bear bag is great as well as long as you follow the hanging requirements. 10ft from the ground and 6ft from the trunk! The only bear canister regulation in place is a five mile section over Blood Mountain, other than that, you can use a bear bag everywhere else.

  2. Pingback: Bears on the trail! – Barley's Hiking Life!

  3. Excellent article, Leigh. I forwarded the email to Pete’s email to help with answering GATC directed questions from new hikers about bears on the AT. Sue “Mother Nature” Buak

  4. Thank you for this, hiking the AT is definitely in my future by my biggest concern was the bears. I am beginning to realize that it is a lack of education on my part. You blog has helped a lot in educating me in what lies ahead.

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