I’m actually really excited for today’s episode since this is a topic that I feel like both hikers and non-hikers always love to bring to attention and chat about – and that’s bears.
The questions always start to fly like aren’t you afraid of bears, have you seen a bear what do you about bears ?!?!
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First let me say, that while bears are scary, and they are a risk, as long as we’re using precautions that I’ll talk about later on in this episode, I do believe that we all build them up to be much scarier in our minds than they really are on the trail.
In all my years of hiking and backpacking, all over the east coast and now mostly adventuring in Colorado in more recent years – I have only ever had ONE bear incident – and have lived to tell the tale!
And I’m going to share that with you today both so that you can have a good laugh at me, it’s ok, I laugh at myself all the time I won’t be offended, and also so that we can all learn from my mistakes.
Listen to Episode 5: Lessons Learned About Bears On The AT
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Let’s rewind to 2013, I already had a few good seasons of backpacking experience under my belt and felt pretty good about my gear and skills on the trail – so much so that I decided to go attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail.
I ended up hiking with another girl who was also out there hiking alone, so we decided to hike and camp together in the beginning, in Georgia.
Neither of us was super set on staying at shelters so decided to just camp on our own, on a random patch of dirt in between shelters to try and avoid the crowds, which was fine.
But it had been rain-hailing all day that day, it was actually really miserable, everyone was wet and cold, everything was coated in ice, other hikers in the class of 2013 dubbed that day ‘hell day’ because it was just so relentlessly crappy.
By the time we found a spot to camp we were just ready to get into some dry clothes, make some hot drinks, get into our sleeping bags, and call it a night.
But the girl I was hiking with said she found out too late that her tent wasn’t seam-sealed and had issues leaking, so with the rain, I offered that we could both sleep in my tent and at least both be dry.
Before getting into the tent though, I wanted to hang a line for our bear bag – I always always always either hang a bear bag, use a bear canister or use whatever bear boxes or cables if they’re provided.
On the Appalachian Trail, my chosen method was to hang a bear bag, using about a 50-foot length of pcord.
So I tied my pcord around a rock and wrapped it around several times then tried to throw the rock over a high branch – of course, you almost miss a couple or ten times before actually getting it over, but hey no judgment here…..
Except for this one instance when I threw my rock over a branch – it went over and then just endlessly wrapped itself over and over again around the branch like in a cartoon.
The rock and my pcord were irreparably stuck. There was no hope of getting it back.
I asked my hiking buddy if she had a rope or pcord to hang a bear bag but she said the pcord she brought was far too short to actually hang a bag high enough off the ground.
Soooooooo….. Let me also say, In preparation for my long-distance hike I spent most of the hours stuck at my old office job researching and reading as much as I could about hiking the AT – and was continuously shocked at how many people said that they never once secured their food from bears and never had an issue, they would just sleep with it in their tents.
I never planned to do that but apparently aaaaaall these other hikers never hung their food and never had an issue, so we decided we would both squeeze into my tent to sleep, and we would put all of our gear, packs, cook sets, and food inside her tent right next to mine in hopes that our gear would stay at least half dry in her tent.
So thats what we did.
I woke up in the middle of the night to footsteps outside the tent, my sleep self tried to say it was probably my friend going out to pee in the middle of the night….. Then I heard our pots banging and clanging – it was most definitely a bear.
So I start yelling bear bear bear go away bear – because that’s what you do to black bears, make noise and act big and they run away.
It did run away from us – but it literally took her entire tent with it – which had all of our packs, cook sets, random gear, food bags that we just resupplied the day before – the bear took it.
But it didn’t run far, which was the terrifying thing, it did move a little bit away from us but then promptly settled down and had itself a feast not that far away from our camp and we were still yelling and whistling – he was not budging or acting afraid at all.
Which then made me afraid of it! There was no way I was spending the rest of the night right there by this bear!
There was a hostel about 3 miles back so not knowing what else to do, we took our sleeping bags and headlamps and walked back to the hostel at 2 in the morning hoping for a sense of safety and maybe some sort of help or advice.
On the hike back, a dog started barking at us from the woods. Another hiker was also just camping out randomly there on his own and he called out – hello? We said hello and he asked if everything was alright, it wasn’t totally normal to be hiking around in the middle of the night especially when it’s so cold and wet.
We explained we were fine but that a bear got into our camp so we got spooked and were hiking back toward town.
He was like the same thing happened to me last night! I had to go back to town to resupply again!
We kept on walking back and once we got to the hostel I got out my cell phone, which I luckily had on my person this whole time, but I realized – the emergency GPS that I had been using to check in with my mom each morning and night was in my pack…. The pack that got dragged off by a bear.
So I texted my sister in the wee hours of the morning and prefaced it with the infamous don’t tell mom but…. And explained that a bear stole my stuff and I probably wouldn’t be able to check-in with the GPS that morning, could she cover for me
In case our mom started to get panicky since she was already so on edge about me being out there in the first place.
And I mean, my sisters the best, so of course, she helped me out.
We managed to get a couple of hours of sleep on the floor of the common room of the hostel that night but had to explain the next morning how we got there though and what had happened.
Really we were just waiting for daylight so we could go back out, and try to salvage any and everything that we could of our gear and clean up the mess that was made.
While we were out there cleaning up our things, hikers passing by could see us from the trail and in true hiker fashion – wanted to know what was going on. So we rehashed what had happened to several passersby.
But one hiker, who I’ll never forget, his trail name was Bear Bait – stopped and after we told him about how my pcord got stuck in a tree he immediately offered to show us a trick to make sure that never happens again when you hang your bag.
It was the smallest tweak but it really works, you can see more tips and tricks on hanging bear bags here, including the trick I learned from Bear Bait.
One other kicker to this whole thing, was after all was said and done, and we went to keep hiking north, we ran into another couple who we had met several days before, they were also hiking north – but they were going the wrong way, clearly walking south back towards town, so we asked them about it and they said yeah a bear stole all our food last night so we need to go resupply. Doh!
You guys – that has been my scariest, closest encounter with a bear. While in reality we didn’t actually get bitten or charged by the bear, the rumor mill on a long-distance hiking trail – it is like a professional version of whisper down the alley cause hikers have nothing to do all day but walk and gossip with each other – so for weeks after that I kept meeting new hikers and after some conversation, they’d be like you’re that girl who got attacked by the bear!
You’re one of those girls who fought a bear! Haha, it was so crazy and kind of hilarious after the initial panic wore off!
So what are some lessons we can all take away from this?
Never ever sleep with your food or keep food in your tent. Or your neighbor’s tent.
I have never done anything like that since then, and have also never had a bear incident since then!
Learn to store your food. Properly practice the shit out of hanging a bear bag if that’s your method of choice or use a bear canister if that’s your poison.
I can not emphasize the importance of properly storing your food enough because we literally saw a problem bear or habituated bear in action – that’s when – the campers before us made a mistake and a bear got their food, the next night, they think they’ll try again and see if there’s any food to be had, what do you know, we also made a mistake and that bear got our food.
The very next night, I’d lay money down that it was the same bear, got our friends food and they had to turn back to resupply and that bear is going to just keep harassing hikers in that area because he associates tents and humans with food.
That’s a problem and usually at that point the state steps in and either tries to relocate the bear, which is sometimes effective sometimes not, or they get euthanized.
So please just don’t take the chance.
There are more lessons to unpack here
If you remember I also mentioned my hiking buddy found out after she was already set out tryna hike the AT that her tent was not seam-sealed and it was leaking – that is the last thing you want to discover during an epic downpour or multiple days and nights in a row of rain – TEST your gear at home, set up your tent in your back yard and spray it down with a hose see what happens.
Two more big tips for you – have someone in your corner, backing you up when you dare to go on a great adventure. Have someone that you know you can call or text at 3 in the morning and say, hey, don’t tell mom, I’m ok – but a bear stole all my stuff and I’m kinda shook up.
And all they say is, ok is there anything else you need?
Last and possibly biggest lesson of this episode – be kind to each other. This bear incident happened on maybe my third night on the AT, I still felt very new, I didn’t know a lot of other people out there, I felt really stupid and embarrassed as if that was like the ultimate hiker walk of shame – having to backtrack and hike back into town to resupply because a bear got your food was such a rookie mistake – but people were kind. Bear bait stopped and showed us a better way to hang a bear bag.
We actually also ran into some day hikers who offered to give us a ride to Walmart to resupply. I’ll never forget how supportive the hiking community is, so let’s all keep spreading that support.
That’s it for today’s episode, here are those links again to some bear bag tips and tricks as well as a link to my complete backpacking gear list – that’s everything I love and carry after much trial and error, you can use it as wishlist if you’re just getting started and accumulating your gear still or use it as a checklist when you’re packing up for your next trip to make sure you don’t forget anything.
Until next time, happy hiking!