|I photographed this bear in a tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|And this bear up a tree in Shenandoah|
Most bears are skiddish when encountered on the trail, but a mother with her cubs can and will attack to defend her young if she detects a threat. It's prudent, therefore, to know the basics of bear safety when out hiking. And it's wise also to be aware of their scent to let you know they are nearby. I was taught the scent of a bear from a hiker/former ranger, and she said it smells like a wet dog. Once you recognize a bear's scent, it will alert you to their presence and avoid surprise encounters.
Below are some general bear safety tips taken from the Shenandoah National Park website. If you are out west in grizzly country, that's a more dangerous area, and bear spray, bear bells, and other protection are needed, as well as bear canisters in many places (such as Yosemite National park which requires it).
Avoiding Bears While Hiking
- Stay alert to your surroundings and the presence of wildlife while hiking.
- Make your presence known by keeping the wind to your back (your scent will alert bears), if possible hike in groups, and make noise.
- When you spot a bear, stay 300 feet or more away and never linger or take photographs for long periods.
- Slowly back away and leave the area or take a detour. Making noise during your retreat is appropriate. Keep children close to the group. Do not turn your back on a bear. Do not make eye contact.
- Do not pursue and NEVER surround a bear. Give it room to escape.
- DO NOT run from a bear. Bears will pursue prey and flight is a signal to them to start pursuit.
If an encounter occurs …
Remain calm and don’t run. Like dogs, bears will often chase fleeing animals. You can't outrun a bear. They have been clocked at speeds up to 35 mph! Climbing a tree is futile since black bears excel at climbing trees. Jaw popping by the bear is a signal to you that it is uncomfortable.If a bear charges…
Let the bear know you are human. Talk to it in a normal voice and wave your arms. If a bear cannot tell what you are, it may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious – not threatening.
Move away slowly, but don’t turn your back. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Black bears may approach at a measured pace and attack the human as prey. The calm appearance of the black bear may have lure some of their victims into a false sense of security. If leaving the area is not an option or if the bear gets too close you should make yourself appear as large as possible. Lifting your arms and a pack over head, moving to higher ground or, if in a group, huddling together will help discourage the bear. Make louder noise by banging pots and pans or using other noisemakers, but never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal. Throwing objects at the bear may be appropriate but only when you are “cornered”. A black bear calmly and steadily approaching who is not bothered by yelling or thrown objects should be considered extremely dangerous.
Avoid eye contact with the animal.
Don’t run! Bears often make bluff charges, sometimes to within 10 feet of their adversary, without making contact. Usually if you hold your ground they will back off.If a bear actually makes contact…
Fight back! In rare instances black bears perceive humans as prey – if you are attacked by a black bear fight back. Try to focus your attack on the bear’s eyes and nose.
Eat away from your sleeping area. Never store food in a tent or vestibule. Use bear poles or bear cables or hoist your food in a tree ten feet off the ground and four feet out in a bear bag. Cookware and trash should be similarly secured as well as anything scented such as toothpaste, toothbrush, medications, bug repellent, soap, etc.
In some places where bears are known to be aggressive on the Appalachian Trail, especially with food in areas such as Georgia near the Blood Mountain region or in New Jersey, carry a bear canister to store your food. Canisters are also required in the Adirondack region of New York State. Check your local areas for updates on aggressive bear activity.
Feel free to share your trailside bear stories and what you learned.