Black bears inhabit almost all parts of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) corridor. Usually, black bears are shy creatures that keep their distance, and seeing one on your hike can be an uncommon thrill. However, there are circumstances when bears can become involved in human-bear conflict, and dangerous situations for humans and bears can arise. Learn more about how you (and the bears) can stay safe.
Please Report Any Bear Encounters
Your report will help reduce human/bear conflicts on the A.T. Reported bear incidents will be shared with our land management partners and listed on our Trail Updates page. Please submit a report if a bear:
- Entered a campsite or shelter area.
- Attempted to (or did) steal food.
- Was aggressive toward you, another hiker, or a pet.
- Damaged property.
- Was following you while you were hiking.
- Was acting strangely (e.g. was not scared by loud noises, was persistent in its pursuit of food and/or humans, followed you or another hiker while fixating intently, did not show fear of humans, seemed sick or diseased).
Before You Go: Preparing to Hike in Bear Country
Much of the A.T. is prime black bear habitat. Bear populations are increasing in all A.T. states and bear encounters are on the rise on the Trail. Properly preparing before you hit the Trail will not only help you worry less and have more fun, but it will also help protect other hikers and bears.
Before you start your hike, here are ways to properly prepare to hike in bear country:
- Research the regulations for the section of the Trail that you plan to visit. The A.T. winds through many different land management areas like national parks, state parks, national forests, etc., especially north of West Virginia. Visit our camping regulations table for more information or contact us with questions.
- Educate yourself on bear behavior and bear safety. Reading this page is a great first step for learning A.T.-specific information. Learning bear behavior can help you identify threatening bear body language. For more in-depth information, visit BearWise.org.
- Get the gear you need and know how to use it. Hard-sided bear canisters are the most reliable and flexible method for safely storing food on the A.T. Make sure to also bring everything you need to properly pack out trash and food waste and to properly keep food and scented items away from your clothes and the rest of your gear. Extra plastic bags are a big help!
- Visit our Trail Updates page to learn what areas have had recent bear activity.
If you choose not to carry a hard-sided bear canister, be prepared to hang your food using a proper PCT-style bear hang. But beware: lack of adequate trees, the complexity of this method, and end-of-day fatigue cause frequent user error (plan for this to take at least 45 minutes once in camp). Bears have learned to defeat even the best PCT hangs in a variety of ways along the A.T.
Food storage requirements are in place on over half the A.T. Some to be aware of:
- Hard-sided bear canisters are required for camping between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap in Georgia from March 1 to June 1 each year.
- Backcountry campers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are required to hang food, trash, and scented items from provided food storage cables. You can hang your bear canister in your pack on the provided cables. Never tie ropes to your bear canister – this may allow bears to carry it away. Learn more.
- The U.S. Forest Service recently released new regulations for storing food on the A.T. on national forest lands south of Shenandoah National Park. These regulations do not allow sleeping with your food, anywhere. Learn more.
Proper Food Storage and Keeping a Clean Camp Helps Protect Bears
Improperly stored food and trash or food scraps left in camp may lead to a bear becoming habituated to human food. Once habituated, bears often lose their fear of humans and can become aggressive in pursuit of human food.
Aggressive bears that threaten or injure campers are euthanized. Whether a bear is fed intentionally or unintentionally, a fed bear is a dead bear.
On the Trail: Avoiding Bear Encounters While Hiking
While attacks on humans are extremely rare, a startled bear or a bear who has received food rewards from humans may react aggressively. Mother bears with cubs may also act defensively.
While you are hiking, here are the best ways to avoid a bear encounter:
- Let bears know you’re there by making noise. Whistle, talk, click your hiking poles together, etc., to give the bear a chance to move away before you get close enough to make it feel threatened.
- Never leave your food or pack unattended. If you’re more than an arm’s reach away, your food should be stored. Even if you’re just making a quick run to the privy, either bring your pack or have someone else in your group stay with your pack and food.
- Use extra caution when stopping where there have been recent bear reports. Check our Trail Updates page for the latest reports.
- Keep your dog on a leash. Dogs may startle bears and should never be allowed to chase wildlife.
If you encounter a bear and it does not move away:
- Back away.
- Speak calmly and firmly.
- Avoid making eye contact.
- Do not run or “play dead” even if a bear makes a “bluff charge.”
- If you are bluff charged (the bear charges but stops short of making contact), stand your ground and continue speaking calmly and firmly to the bear. Back away slowly to give the bear space – do not run. Continue reading for what to do if a bear actually makes contact.
Bear Canister Lending Program – Georgia and Vermont Section Hikers
Bear canisters are the food storage method that provides the most flexibility and surety for camping anywhere along the A.T. – no trees required. If you are planning a backpacking trip in Georgia or Vermont, you can try a bear canister for free through these simple lending programs.
Camping on the A.T.: Backcountry Food Storage Best Practices
When you are in camp the best defense against a bear encounter is preparing and storing food properly and keeping a clean camp.
- Store all food, food waste and trash, and scented items in a bear canister. Learn more about why you should use a bear canister on the A.T.
- If there is a food storage device (bear box, bear cables, or bear pole) provided, use it.
- If you choose not to carry a canister and there is no food storage device provided, be prepared to do a proper PCT-style bear hang.
- Keep your bear canister closed and locked at all times except when adding or removing items, even when it is near you.
- Cook and eat your meals 200 feet away from your tent or shelter.
- Be careful not to get food or scented items on your gear or clothes.
- Do not leave food unattended unless stored in a way that a bear cannot get to it. In other words, do not leave your food at your campsite or on a picnic table while you fetch water, visit the privy, etc.
- Do not burn food wrappers or leftovers. This can attract bears and these things often do not fully burn, leaving a mess for other hikers or volunteers to clean up.
- Pack out all trash and food waste. Do not leave trash or food waste in bear boxes or on cables or bear poles. Do not put trash or food waste in the privy. Doing so can attract bears and leaves a mess for other hikers and volunteers to clean up.
- Avoid becoming complacent. Just because there have been no reports of bear activity in the area does not mean that bears are not present. All it takes is one food bag that is not hung properly to change a bear’s habits.
- NEVER sleep with your food. Not only is this dangerous, but it is also prohibited on over half of the A.T.
Food storage regulations are in place on over half of the A.T.
A bear that enters a campsite or cooking area should be considered potentially dangerous.
- Yell, make loud noises and throw rocks to try and scare the bear away. Bang on pots and pans, blow whistles, etc.
- Try to appear larger by holding up your arms and jacket, and/or standing on a rock or stump.
- Stay with others if they are around – a group is more intimidating than a single person.
- If you are actually attacked by a bear, you should fight back with all your strength with anything at hand.
For more information, visit BearWise.org.
Frequently Asked A.T. Bear Safety Questions
What is considered a scented item or “smellable”?
Anything with an added scent or discernible, not naturally occurring smell, and cookware, should be considered a “smellable” and properly stored in your bear canister at night. This includes:
- Sunscreen and lotion (even “unscented” formulas)
- Toothpaste and your toothbrush
- Cookware and utensils
- Bug spray
- Soap and hand sanitizer
- You water bottle/hydration pack if you use flavored drink additives or powders
- Check your first aid kit: some components such as flavored medications and some glues and adhesives may smell tasty to a bear
I’ve hung my food for years and never had a problem with bears on the A.T. Why should I use a canister?
The A.T. is changing. There are more people on the Trail than ever before. That, combined with increasing bear populations, means that we have to adapt our hiking practices to respond to changing conditions to protect hikers, bears, and the Trail.
Where do I put my bear canister at night?
Plan out your camp using the 70 Big Steps (Bearmuda) Triangle method: where you sleep should be 70 big steps (200 feet) from where you cook and eat, and your bear canister should be 70 big steps away from where you sleep and where you cook and eat.
Make sure your canister is securely closed and locked and walk it 70 big steps away, and that’s it! Some important tips:
- Do not place your canister near the edge of a ledge or cliff where it can be rolled off.
- Do not place your canister near a stream or other body of water that it can be rolled into (and float away).
- If you are camping on the side of a hill, place your canister where it can’t be easily rolled downhill.
- Placing a small bluetooth device inside (that you can track with your smartphone) and putting reflective tape on the outside of your canister can make it easier to find.
Can I use an Ursack?
Ursacks are certified as bear-resistant containers by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). However, the ATC has received reports of bears shredding Ursacks in North Carolina and Tennessee. On national forest land south of Shenandoah National Park and in Shenandoah National Park, Ursacks must be properly hung just like other non-bear resistant stuff sacks or in bear boxes or on bear cables or poles where provided. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they must be hung from the provided bear cables.
What about bear spray?
If you decide to carry bear spray on the A.T. it is critical to know how to use it. Practice with it in a safe location before you get on the Trail. Bear spray should be treated like a loaded handgun and can cause serious injury to humans when used incorrectly. Practicing will help you be best prepared should you need to use it. Learn more about bear spray here.
ATC Recommends A.T. Visitors Carry Bear-Resistant Food Storage Containers
The ATC has adopted a new policy recommending all overnight Appalachian Trail visitors carry a bear-resistant food storage container as a vital part of their backpacking gear.
U.S. Forest Service Implements New Food Storage Order
The U.S. Forest Service has announced new food storage requirements for the A.T. on national forest lands south of Shenandoah National Park.