Some of the most common questions, and anxieties, about the Appalachian Trail are about bears.
I can’t count how many times I was asked, “What about bears?” “Aren’t you afraid of bears?” “Are bears dangerous out there?” And so on.
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Yes, there are definitely bears on the AT! I haven’t met too many hikers who haven’t seen a black bear on the trail. But encountering a bear doesn’t have to be scary or dangerous… as long as you don’t do anything stupid and always hang a proper bear bag.
Read on, and learn from my mistakes people.
Why it’s so important to hang a bear bag
I headed out confidently to solo-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2013. I had several personal backpacking and camping trips under my belt, and actually used to get paid to lead backpacking trips and teach back-country skills to teens and youth. I knew and understood the importance of hanging your food and smellables in a bear bag faaaaar away from your sleeping spot to prevent midnight bear encounters. And I knew how to hang a bear bag, no problem, and never, ever slacked on this particular camp chore.
Except that one time…
April 4, 2013 became known as ‘hell day’ by pretty much every AT hiker who was out that year. Including me. April 4th is still pretty early on in the season, people are still finding their groove and their trail legs. I had been out for about 5 days and just over 30 miles in.
I was hiking with another girl who was fairly new to hiking, and we decided to hike just a little out of Neel Gap together and stay at a campsite instead of splurging on a hostel or cabin like so many others.
The weather that day, the reason for ‘hell day’ was awful. It just hailed, rained, and sleeted all day long. Everyone and everything was soaked through and freezing. Every branch, twig and plant was coated in every direction with thick shiny ice.
On our way out of Neel Gap we passed other NoBo’s who were backtracking, so of course we asked why – where were they going?
A bear had gotten their food the night before, they had to go back to town to resupply. Begrudgingly, after literally just resupplying! *Sucks to be them*
We finally get to camp, set up our tents for a dry place to sit and start our stoves to make some hot drinks and hot food.
The hiker I was with had a slightly leaky tent, which was bad news on a day like that day! So I offered in the least creepy way possible that if she wanted to squeeze in my tent, at least we would both be dry.
After dinner, we went to hang a bear bag, as usual. We tried to use the line she brought, but it was too short. So I used my p-cord instead. I tied the end around a fist-sized rock and threw it at a branch. Success! The rock went over the branch! It’s a big deal for me when it goes over on the first throw.
But then it promptly kept swinging around and around the branch until my rope was irreversibly stuck around a way-too-high to reach branch. Because, you know, I wanted to make sure bears couldn’t reach it either.
Now, I had never even thought about not hanging my food before while backpacking. But I remembered all the Appalachian Trail forum discussions I read before starting this hike – loads of hikers never hang their food and never had any bear incidents. So, my hiking partner and I reason that it must be OK here.
Since my 1+ person tent was a little squishy with both of us in there, we decided to put all of our gear, backpacks, stoves, clothes, food, everything except our sleeping bags and pads, in her tent which was set up directly next to mine. Then at least our stuff would stay sort of kind of dry. And we went to bed.
I heard footsteps around the tent in the middle of the night but thought it was my friend going out for a pee. Then I was thoroughly woke up by the sound of our gear and pots rustling around.
Panic sets in and I started to yell, “Bear! Bear! Go Away Bear!!” While shaking my friend awake.
I heard our pots rustle away and we jumped out of the tent. I had come across bears before, but firmly shouting at them scared them off easily. This bear ran about 30 feet from our campsite, dragging the whole tent, with all of our gear in it with him, and then just continued to gnaw away at it. We could hear it licking and chewing and continued to scream and yell and whistle but it wouldn’t budge. It was not giving up it’s booty this time.
Since the bear didn’t leave, I didn’t feel safe sleeping there. I never came across a bear that wasn’t afraid of me. So we literally just grabbed our sleeping bags and walked back to Neel Gap at 2am.
A dog started to bark in our general direction from off the trail a little bit. Then a voice called out, “Hello??” We said hello, to make it known it’s just us, not a crazy animal. The voice asked, “Are you OK?” We had to explain, we were OK, just spooked because a bear took our stuff and were headed back towards the hostel. The voice called out again, “No way! A bear got my food last night, too!”
Womp, womp. Epic bear bag fail.
That was one fat and happy bear.
Luckily I had my cell phone on me, and texted my sister in the middle of the night from the hostel – “Don’t freak out! I’m safe. I’m ok. But a bear took all my stuff! Including the SPOT GPS – don’t tell mom!”
We hiked back out the next morning to salvage what was left of our gear and pick up any trash and scraps the bear left. The ultimate hiker walk of shame.
A nosy, ultralight hiker stopped to ask us what we were up to. I explained the whole situation and he taught me a simple trick to ensure my line wouldn’t get caught around a branch like that when I hang my bear bags and he went on his way.
I have hung my food every single night spent outside since then! But that’s all it took, just one time. And I became known as ‘that girl’ who got her stuff stolen by a bear which then of course got morphed into that girl who got attacked by a bear thanks to the flourishing rumor mill on the AT.
But seriously, just hang your food. Every time. Learn the PCT style method to hang a bear bag, it’s not hard. It does take some practice, but your fellow hikers and the wildlife will thank you!
Check out these backpacking tips and how-to posts to learn more:
- How To Pick A Good Campsite
- How To Poop In The Woods
- How To Plan Ahead And Prepare, Leave No Trace Style
- Best Yoga Poses for Hiking and Backpacking
Feel free to share your epic hiking fails in the comments below! Come on, I know you have at least one 😉