When I announced my plan to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail to friends and family, I heard this one a lot – ‘what if a bear attacks?’ ‘what if you get eaten by a bear?’
Always asked genuinely, with fear and a little bit of panic behind their voices.
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This is definitely something crosses every hikers mind, and creates plenty of fear when hiking solo in bear country…. but is this fear rational?
Why being afraid of black bears is silly
Being afraid of bears is mostly irrational, here’s why:
- Bears like to eat berries! Yes sometimes they eat insects, sometimes fish, and even less than all those things, they might munch on some dead defenseless animal, like a deer.
- They don’t just go around hunting other mammals – they hunt berries, remember?
- They are afraid of you! They might be curious at first, trying to pick up your scent and see what you are, but once you show them how loud and lively you are, they won’t want anything to do with you.
- Chances are, especially if you’re in a group, you won’t even see a bear because they’ll hear you coming from a mile away and then run away.
- The number of people who have had negative encounters with bears, compared to the number of hikers who hit the AT each year – is minuscule!
Buuuut… being afraid, is also not so silly.
Even though black bear attacks are few and far between, they are increasing over the years because bears become accustomed to getting food from humans in high impact, frequently used areas, like campgrounds or on the Appalachian Trail during peak season.
Bears are super smart and learn and adapt quickly. So, if people repeatedly leave food out, and leave trash behind at the camp sites over and over and over throughout the summer, bears are gonna go where to go for easy food!
Not only that, but they also learn to associate people, tents, and/or packs with food, which is when things get scary. Because even if you don’t have food on you, or in your tent, an accustomed bear might be convinced you do!
But don’t worry too much – there is a very easy fix to this!
Be bear aware
- Do your research and check if there’s been any recent bear activity or incidents where you’ll be hiking. Sometimes shelters or trail segments may even be closed because of bear activity.
- Never, ever sleep with your food or anything else smelly. I also try to avoid sleeping next to other hikers who might choose to sleep with their food.
- Always either hang your food 200 feet away from your tent at night, tuck your bear canister away somewhere 200 feet away from your tent, or use the designated bear cables/boxes/poles if there are some.
- Stay aware of your surroundings while hiking, so you don’t accidentally ‘approach’ a bear or bear cub.
- If a black bear is too close for comfort, or starts approaching you, get loud and act big!
- If the bear still charges you after yelling and waving your arms, use bear spray if you have it. If you don’t, continue to yell and act big, and be prepared to fight the bear if it attacks (which is extremely rare by the way!)
- Always fight a black bear if it attacks you, once it learns you are not easy prey, it will move on.
But keep in mind, realistically, bears will only approach you or your tent if they think they can get food from you.
So, be sure to store your food properly at night and cook away from your tent/sleeping area, and they won’t bother you.
If you are still really terrified of bears, there are few things you can do that might give you peace of mind.
- Attach a bear bell to your pack, so you don’t accidentally sneak up on a bear. I do carry one of these, but more so to let the moose know I’m coming!
- Carry bear mace, and keep it accessible. I also carry bear mace, I know some think it’s silly or overkill, but if nothing else, it does give me peace of mind having it. I also keep it in my tent at night, right next to me. (And study after study show that bear mace is more effective than a gun against a charging bear.)
- Carry a whistle and keep it accessible, either around your neck or on the front of your pack strap. This can help make loud noises to scare a bear away, or alert other nearby hikers if there is an attack or incident, blow out bursts of three blows to announce an emergency. I also keep my whistle in my tent with me at night, it makes me feel better.
- Lastly, I keep my knife handy at all times, and accessible at night, in my tent too. I really don’t know what, if anything, my knife would do against a bear! But it really does make me feel better and I can’t fall asleep without it!
Now you know what to do if a black bear attacks you on the trail and how to silence (or at least quiet down!) that nagging fear about bear encounters.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or epic bear stories! I want to hear them!
For more backpacking tips and how-to’s, check out:
- Wilderness backpacking essentials: everything you need to know
- The straight forward backpacking gear list
- 35 Backpacking tips and tricks
- 14 things to do while camping alone