ATC Recommends Bear-Resistant Food Storage Along Entire Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy yesterday announced the adoption of a new policy strongly recommending that all backpackers store their food in an approved storage container overnight. The organization says “food hangs” are no longer sufficient to protect food after several years of increasing human-bear conflict.
According to the ATC, “acceptable options for hiker food storage include (sic) the following land-manager provided systems available at some camping sites: cable systems, metal pole with arms and bearproof metal boxes; and personal bear-resistant containers carried by the backpacker.”
Bear-resistant containers are necessary for when other bear-proofing infrastructure may be broken, full, or nonexistent. Per the new policy, “by carrying a personal food storage container, A.T. visitors will be prepared should these more permanent systems be unavailable, full or damaged.”
IGBC Certified Bear-Resistant Containers
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certifies certain food-storage systems as “bear resistant.” Most of these products are hard-shell canisters, but it also includes soft-sided Ursack storage bags, including the Major and AllMitey. While the canisters can weigh 2-5 lbs, Ursacks generally weigh in at around or under half a pound. These products are “bear-resistant” rather than “bear-proof,” as truly intelligent and habituated bears have sometimes been known to break into bear canisters. For these products to effectively prevent bears from being habituated, ALL food and scented items MUST be kept in bear-resistant containers.
Proper bear storage can be expensive, so the ATC has several programs that loan out bear canisters for free. The ATC is pioneering a program to loan BearVault bear canisters to hikers in Georgia. They only have 50 canisters total, so availability will depend on the number of borrowers. They are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Thru-hikers may also borrow bear canisters, but they must be picked up from the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center and returned (or shipped back to) Georgia.
According to Morgan Sommerville, the ATC’s Director of Visitor Use Management, thru-hikers can use these bear canisters for the entire trail as long as they return them afterward. Hard-sided bear canisters are required if camping along the five miles between “Jarrard Gap and Neel Gap, between March 1 and June 1 each year,” according to the Georgia AT club. There is currently no cost associated with this program.
There is also a bear canister loaning program operated by the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. BearVault bear canisters are available for free at several locations across Vermont. As in Georgia, canisters are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The Problem with “Food/Bear Hangs”
In short: most of the time, they are incorrectly executed or the trees are not suitable, and habituated bears have been finding clever ways to access hikers’ food. Andrew Skurka has an informative, entertaining article illustrating the problem. A proper bear hang is “12 feet above the ground, 6 feet below the tree branch, and 6 feet from the tree trunk,” according to the ATC.
Often, there are no branches or trees that will allow campers to hang bags that meet these qualifications. Other times, hikers don’t properly hang their food, allowing bears and other animals to access it. When bears begin associating people and campsites with accessible food, they become habituated, lose their fear of people, and may even pose a threat. Habituated bears that are deemed a threat must be relocated or killed. As they say, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Over the past few years, there has been a notable increase in negative human/bear interactions along the AT, spurred in part by increasing numbers of bears along the East Coast. While only a few of these encounters lead directly to hiker or bear injury, many more result in bears taking hikers’ food.
“Years of legal protection, better habitat, and a reintroduction program have helped boost the population from as few as 200 animals to some 750 or more” in Louisiana since 1992, according to National Geographic.
In addition, reforestation encourages bears to return to their historic habitats that were once cleared for logging or farmland.
According to NPS, you can reduce the chances of a bear encounter by keeping your distance. Generally, if you see a black bear, it will be more scared of you than you of it. If the bear notices you:
- Keep calm
- Talk so the bear is aware of your presence, and knows you’re human
- Pick up small children and pets
- Keep all food and packs close to you
- If a bear accesses your food, it is more likely to become habituated
- Try to look bigger
- Do not run or climb a tree (the bear will out-run and out-climb you)
- Try to leave (while leaving the bear an escape route)
- If you are attacked by a black bear and cannot escape, fight back by any means necessary
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