How to Answer the “Bear Question” or: Planning for the (Eventually) Inevitable
In the months leading up to my 2016 AT thru-hike, the number one question asked by friends and family was simple and straight-forward – “But what about bears?” Bears weren’t even on my mind when I began planning my AT thru-hike attempt. I was more concerned about storage units (I’m living in Seattle having moved from Atlanta), gear (what’s up REI flagship!), cell phone coverage (what’s up Verizon!) and working a 60-plus hour work-week (what’s up savings accounts!) to be concerned with something as trivial as bears.
But the more I was asked the bear question, the more I realized I truly had no idea what to do. I started hiking north from Springer with a partial idea at best.
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I was one of the last thru-hikers I knew to encounter a bear. And I was getting resentful. I thought for sure I’d see a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – other hikers were. But for me, it was nothing but a bunch of stupid deer.
I hiked through a small wildfire near Watauga Dam, TN, eagerly anticipating my first bear encounter – hell, the Watauga Lake Shelter had just been closed due to nuisance bears. I ended up hiking a little further than the rest of my buddies, deciding to tent solo at Vandeventer Shelter that night. As I was in my tent, laying down to sleep, I got a frantic text from Savage. She was night-hiking about a mile south and had just come face-to-face with a bear on the AT! Naturally, I ran down the trail, found her and the two of us hiked back to Vandeventer that night – but I still didn’t see a bear. We later found out Trooper’s tent had been slashed by a nuisance bear only six miles south of us – and it snagged their food bags as well!
I thought for sure I’d see a bear in southern Virginia – I mean everyone was seeing bears. Moon Boots had seen a mother with cubs, Canuck ran into a bear near a water source in the middle of the day – all I saw was a stupid woodchuck.
I was bearless. I hopped off-trail at Buena Vista, VA to head to Trail Days as the only hiker I knew who had yet to see a bear. But that would soon change.
Shenandoah National Park is pretty much a freaking bear sanctuary. And pretty much everyone just kept seeing bears. Fellow hikers took pity on me, ever reminding me that my time would soon come. And then it happened. On Monday, May 24th, 2016, on my 75th day on the AT, at the last shelter I’d stay at in the Shenandoahs, I finally got my bear.
I was tenting behind Byrds Nest #3 Hut, cooking dinner with Black Santa and McDoubles, when I heard Bombadil shout, “Bear!! Bear!!” I bolted towards the front of the shelter and there she was – my first bear. She actually had cubs in tow and stayed at a cautiously-safe distance from the growing group of hikers gathered in silent observance near the fire ring. I was not cautious. I grabbed my camera (yes, I was still hiking with a camera at this point) and made a stealthy approach.
I wasn’t trying to get myself mauled or show off – I was simply acting on pure adrenaline. You see, I had just seen my first bear – now I was going to get an awesome picture of my first bear. I crouched in the bushes at the edge of camp and snapped a few shots. Eventually the bear noticed me and scurried off into the woods with her cubs bumbling after her. It wasn’t until I returned to the shelter that I realized how foolish I had just been acting. It was nearly unanimously agreed – I had gotten too close. Only Black Santa had my back – to him, bears were nothing but “big mice”.
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The point is, if you’re thru-hiking the AT, you’re gonna see a bear. And if you’re in the planning stages of hiking the AT, everyone you know is going to ask, “But what about bears?” Even though I thought I knew how to handle bears on the AT, I obviously had no idea.
The bear who visited Byrds Nest #3 Hut had been doing so frequently – I heard about her intrepid visits while I was still two days away. With almost absolute certainty, I can say the only reason that particular bear was frequenting Byrds Nest was because she had been trained to. And who did the training? Us. Backpackers. She had more than likely been fed, or had easy access to food, at or near the shelter.
And this is dangerous for two reasons: 1) Jackasses like myself can get mauled for getting too close to a “safe-looking” bear. 2) If the bear gets too comfortable and, therefore, too bold around humans, chances are it’ll be either relocated or killed. Period.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the best defense against bears while in camp is a good defense. If you know you’re camping in an area prone to bear visits, cook and eat your meals away from camp or shelter. And if camp or shelter happens to have bear boxes, poles or cable systems – use them. Don’t sleep with your food. And don’t feed the bears or leave food out in hopes they’ll visit.
Should a bear enter your camp and refuse to leave, band together with other hikers and make as much noise as possible! Bang pots, throw rocks. Sing. Do anything you can think of to drive the bear away from where you’re (now frightfully) planning on sleeping.
And get in the habit of hanging your food.
Leave No Trace recommends hanging your food bag at least 12 feet from the ground and six feet from the trunk of the tree. And not just food – be sure to include your cook pot, long spoon, toothpaste, soap, and other personal hygiene items as well.
The best way to hang your food bag? It’s pretty easy – even Savage nailed some pretty awesome hangs by the time we reached Virginia.
- Tie a rock to the end of your paracord. Okay, ultralighters – yes, there is a lighter and equally durable alternative to paracord. Just use paracord – everyone else does.
- Hurl said rock (with paracord attached) over a sturdy limb.
- Untie the rock and replace it with a carabiner.
- Clip your food bag(s) to said carabiner.
- Hoist bags high into the air. (With two hikers pulling, we were often able to hoist all of the food for everyone in our hiking group.)
- Securely tie off the loose end.
And blammo – your food bags are now hung. There’s a ton of YouTube videos floating around touting the benefits of the “PCT Method”. I personally never took the time to figure it out – as did no one else I met while hiking.
Tip: The first thing I did when I got to camp was pre-hang my food bags. I’d throw my line over a limb and attach the carabiner while it was still daylight – then I’d clip in my food bags, hoist and tie-off right before going to bed. Trying to find a solid branch or limb in the dark sucks.
Full Disclosure: I stopped hanging my food in Massachusetts. But I was also the guy who crept up on bears to get good photos so… Honestly, if (when) I ever hike the AT again, I’ll be hanging every night – there’s no point in putting other people in danger just because I’m feeling lazy.
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After seeing my first bear in the Shenandoahs, bear sightings quickly became a near-regular occurrence – I actually lost count. And I never found myself as close to a bear as that first one I photographed at Byrds Nest. Okay, almost as close.
Upon leaving the Jim and Molly Denton Shelter in northern Virginia less than a week after my first encounter, I was struck with an absolutely crazy idea. By noon, I decided that I was going to hike through the night and all the way to Harper’s Ferry, WV – the unofficial half-way point of the AT. I remember checking the AT Guide – the terrain looked easy enough. Doing so, however, would make this stretch of trail a 48.8 mile “day” and send me up and over (and up and over) the dreaded Roller Coaster in the dark. The Roller Coaster is 13.5 miles of trail densely packed with at least 12 rapid ascents and descents – needless to say, the hellish grade certainly made for rough going.
I entered the Roller Coaster at 4:00pm having already hiked 19 miles on the day. After a quick dinner with Black Santa on the first summit (he crashed), I set off into the dark alone. After a few slow ups and downs, I noticed my headlamp was starting to fade. Crap, I didn’t have any backup batteries. No worries – my iPhone “flashlight” tucked into the front pocket of my Mammut hiking shirt did the trick (sort of).
It was close to midnight and I was somewhere in the middle of the Roller Coaster. And yes, I was getting tired. I heard a branch snap in front of me and jerked my head up – two beady little eyes were glowing back at me, not twenty feet ahead. I froze. A bear.
I could see its outline in the faint reaches of my impromptu light. It was standing in the middle of the trail – and not moving. That’s not entirely accurate – it was actually shuffling towards me. Oh crap, I thought (Full disclosure: I wasn’t saying “crap”). Now what did that website tell me to do, the one I read two days before starting my hike? My mind was blank. I slowly backed up, keeping pace with the approaching bear. I clacked my trekking poles together a few times – nothing.
I guess I went on auto-pilot or something, because what I did next surprised even me. I stood as tall as I could (I’m 5’ 7” so…yeah) and yelled, from the top of my lungs and in the deepest voice I could muster, “Get away from me you stupid effing bear!!” (Full disclosure: I didn’t say “effing”.) And to my surprise, the bear turned and raced north, barreling through the woods.
Yes! Victory! I finished that night hike with a new sense of freedom – there was now nothing in the woods that frightened me (until Greyhound and I stumbled across a big cat in Vermont, but that’s another story).
I ended up making it to Harper’s Ferry by 3:00pm the next day. I hadn’t slept. I felt like crap.
* * *
Bears are most prevalent on the AT in Georgia and North Carolina (including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park), Virginia (especially including the Shenandoah National Park), and in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I wish I knew this before I started.
And should you encounter a bear on the AT, stay calm and confident. The ATC recommends you have something attached to your pack that makes noise while you hike – I ran across several outfitters who sold “bear bells”. I relied on the Power Duo (my titanium cup clanging against my long spoon clipped to the side of my pack) to help alert bears to my presence.
So let’s say you’re in the middle of some stupid-long marathon hike and sleepily stumble across a bear. What then? It’s best to slowly back off, trying your best to avoid eye contact – while doing so, talk to the bear in a calm, but firm, voice. I found that Black Santa’s mostly right – bears really are nothing but big mice. They’re only after your snacks and tend to scurry when frightened.
But what if this particular bear is aggressive, or at the very least, continuing to shuffle towards you? And what if screaming your head off doesn’t work?
Be prepared to fight. Fight hard and never “play dead”. Do not – I repeat – DO NOT turn and run. Stand your ground, even if the bear makes a “bluff charge”. The ATC makes this point very clear and I agree wholeheartedly. You’ve (hopefully) got trekking poles – use them!
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I hope the above helps placate your friends and family – and gives you a little confidence during your next backpacking trip. And, while I wrote this based on professional advice coupled with my own experiences gained from thru-hiking the AT, please feel free to comment, especially if I left something out! This is serious stuff folks. Many thanks and happy hiking!
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Great article, thanks for the advice that came wrapped in an interesting story.