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Black Bears on the Trail

Last Updated on March 24, 2019 by mountainswithmegan

Black bear (image via appalachiantrail.com)
Black bear (image via appalachiantrail.com)

A few months ago, during a section hike in Georgia, my boyfriend and I were tenting at Low Gap shelter when we decided to go watch the sunset through the trees.  We walked back to the trail and found a spot in the trees, ignoring the shredded Mountain House packages on the ground.  As the sun was going down, I looked into the forest and saw a large black bear silently sneaking towards the shelter, oblivious to our presence.

I pointed the bear out to my boyfriend, but while we were talking, the bear perked his ears up, as if he heard us speaking.  I didn’t want the bear to come investigate, so I stood up and yelled “hey bear,” in the hopes that he would run away.  The bear just stood there looking at me while I looked at him.  Since the bear didn’t want to leave, I decided that I should.  My boyfriend, of course, wanted to stay and watch the bear, so we had to stand there and argue for a few minutes, with the curious bear as an audience, before I could make my escape.  Finally, I convinced him to come back with me, and we slowly walked back towards the trail until the bear was out of sight.

Bears like the one at Low Gap are referred to as “shelter bears.”  It’s a bear that lurks around areas where he knows hikers will be, in hopes of getting some of their food, hence the shredded Mountain House packages on the ground.

A few things about bears on the Appalachian Trail:

  • There are only black bears on the East coast.  You don’t have to worry about seeing any grizzlies.
  • Black bears are not aggressive.  Attacks on humans are extremely rare.
  • The highest black bear populations on the trail are in the Shenandoahs, the Smokies, and New Jersey.
  • Black bears eat berries, whatever they can steal from hikers, and occasionally mice.  They are not known for hunting large animals.

I heard a comparison once, that black bears are like over-sized raccoons.  They might try to sneak around and get your food, but they’ll run if they get caught.  The bear that I saw in Georgia, most likely, didn’t run away from me because I was very calm and he was used to seeing humans.  Every other wild black bear I’ve ever seen (about 6 others) has always ran away from me.

What do you do if you see a black bear?

  • Most likely, you won’t have to do anything.  It will just run away.
  • If the bear does stick around, you should just slowly walk away.
  • If the bears blocking your path, you can yelled at it and wave your arms in the air to appear larger (while keeping your distance, of course).

Are there any precautions you can take?

  • You can hang your food in a tree away from your tent.  A lot of shelter areas also have pulley systems or bear boxes to store your food.
  • If you’re really worried about it, you can bring a can bring a can of bear spray to protect yourself.  You really won’t need it though.  I’ve only ever met one hiker who carried a can of bear spray, and he had an extremely irrational fear of bears.  Bear spray is mostly used by people who are hiking in areas with grizzly bears.

What if you want to see a bear?

  • Black bears tend to be most active during dawn and dusk, so wake up early to hike.
  • Try hiking solo.  Bears tend to steer clear of loud noises.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings.  You’ll miss a lot of wildlife if you’re only looking at the trail in front of you.

Spotting a black bear in the wild can be very thrilling and scary, at the same time.  Just remember, they’re shy creatures that don’t want to hurt you.  They just want to snack on berries and mosey through the forest.

If you want to scare yourself even more, read my article about the Dangers of the Appalachian Trail and How to Avoid Them.

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