Black bears inhabit almost all parts of the Appalachian Trail corridor. Usually, black bears are shy creatures that keep their distance, and seeing one can be an uncommon thrill. However, there are circumstances when they can be a nuisance or a threat. Learn more about how you (and the bears) can stay safe.
While attacks on humans are extremely rare, a startled bear or a bear who has received food rewards from humans may react aggressively.
Especially at overnight sites where hikers have been careless about storing food, bears may become habituated and may become aggressive in pursuit of human food. Be aware that bears have an exceptionally keen sense of smell.
While you are hiking the best way to avoid an encounter is letting a bear know you’re there.
- Make noise by whistling, talking, etc., to give the bear a chance to move away before you get close enough to make it feel threatened.
- If you encounter a bear and it does not move away, you should
- Back away.
- Speak calmly and firmly.
- Avoid making eye contact.
- Do not run or “play dead” even if a bear makes a “bluff charge.”
When you are in camp the best defense against a bear encounter is preparing and storing food properly:
- Cook and eat your meals 200 feet away from your tent or shelter, so food odors do not linger.
- Carry a bear-resistant personal food storage container to reduce negative human/bear interactions and keep you, your food, and bears safe; here is a list of certified personal food storage containers. There are a number of benefits to carrying a bear-resistant canister.
- Bear canisters seasonally required for camping between Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap in Georgia. See the Georgia section of our Trail Updates page for more information.
- Alternatively, carry all the items necessary for a proper bear hang when food storage devices are not provided. Allow 45 minutes at the end of the day to find a suitable tree that is 200 feet from your campsite and cooking area, and to successfully throw a rope over a limb. Your bag should hang 12 feet from the ground, 6 feet below the limb, and 6 feet from the tree’s trunk. Hang not only food but cookware, toothpaste, personal hygiene items, and even water bottles (if you use drink mixes in them).
- The PCT Method of hanging is recommended if you are hanging your food. Practice at home first!
- Where bear boxes, poles, or cable systems are provided, use them, but don’t count on them. Many overnight sites do not provide food storage, and they can be full or damaged. Never leave trash in bear boxes, feed bears, or leave food for them. Know the regulations for food storage before you go.
- 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 or leave them in fire pits, which may attract bears.
- Avoid becoming complacent when storing your food. 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.
- Improperly stored food may lead to a bear becoming habituated to human food.
- Aggressive behavior on the part of bears seeking easy food sources may result in damage to personal property, injuries to campers, and ultimately to removal or euthanization of bears.)
- Whether a bear is fed intentionally or unintentionally, a fed bear is a dead bear.
- A humorous look on the topic of safely storing food from bears in camp can be found in our video: Where to Store Your Food (so a bear doesn’t eat it)
Encountering a bear in your campsite:
- A bear that enters a campsite or cooking area should be considered potentially dangerous. Yelling, making loud noises and throwing rocks may make it go away; however, you should be prepared to fight back if necessary. If you are actually attacked by a bear, you should fight for all you are worth with anything at hand.
For more information, visit the Black Bear page of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.