Bear Activity and How to Mitigate Encounters on the A.T.

In recent events, thru-hikers in southern Appalachia are reporting elevated bear activity. Several comments on FarOut suggest some bears are food-conditioned. 

Officials from Great Smoky Mountains National Park have announced the temporary closure of the Russell Field Shelter (NOBO mi. 181.1). Reports include food-conditioned bears and damaged tents. 

Black Bears are commonly seen throughout the Appalachian Trail.

Additionally, a bear warning for Mollies Ridge Shelter (NOBO mi. 178) is in effect.

Until further notice, hikers are not permitted to stay at Russell Field Shelter overnight and it is requested they avoid the area altogether. When traversing The Smokies, food and scented items must be properly stored using the campground’s cable systems, especially overnight. Ridgerunners are generally in the area to assist hikers unfamiliar with food-storage cable equipment. 

Further north on the trail, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued another bear warning at Clyde Smith Shelter (NOBO mi 1370.8) noting a bear was sniffing around tents and returned to the campground after being scared off. 

In these areas, the ATC urges hikers to exercise extreme caution and be aware of their surroundings. Food, trash, and scented items must be properly stored, regardless of location. Heightened awareness is essential in food-conditioned bear-prone areas. Food items should never be left unattended, even for short periods, like when using the privy or checking out an overlook. Hikers should never sleep near or with their food or trash bags.

How do we mitigate the number of these animal encounters?

Easier said than done, especially considering there are thousands of thru-hikers every year. Especially on a section of trail so close to Springer, it’s no surprise how big of an impact we have on the local wildlife. Rodents, bears, birds, and insects are all wildlife directly affected by our thru-hiking experience and we must follow Leave No Trace principles to lessen our impact. 

Packing out your trash and not throwing it into the firepit is essential. Burnt food scraps will leave an odor, often undetectable to humans, but not to bears, coyotes, and rodents. 

My method for reducing food odors is to make dinner at a different location than my intended campsite. Generally, I will find a spot a few miles before the shelter, make dinner, clean up, and keep hiking. When I decide to make dinner at my campsite, I always follow the general 100-yard “triangle” rule, meaning my sleeping area is 100 yards from my cooking area, which is also 100 yards from my food storage area. 

A bear box for food storage at a designated campground.

Bear hangs are not recommended to the general public. 

Already this season, I’ve seen some terrible bear-hangs (hanging a food bag from a tree branch). Sometimes it falls on the hiker, simply too tired at the end of the day to give a proper effort, other times it’s environmental; not enough good trees with branches of the correct dimensions.  If you are doing a traditional bear-hang from a tree branch, your food should be 10 feet out from the trunk and 15 feet off the ground to ensure it is out of the reach of animals.

The most recommended way to avoid having your food cache stolen by wildlife is using a bear canister combined with the food storage bear boxes at designated shelters.

A BearVault brand food canister.

Even if your bear hang fails, cannisters are designed to survive crushing, tearing, gnawing, and scratching. The important part of these devices is that bears cannot get food from the inside, tricking them into thinking the campground is not a food source. Animals may smell the contents inside the container, however, they will be unable to eat the contents and will generally move along after giving up. These containers come in different sizes depending on your needs and are the standard recommendation for food storage for many agencies and trial clubs across the country. Other gear like odor-proof bags help reduce food odors and prevent animals from ever finding your food stash. 

Regardless of your method, we must reduce the frequency of these animal encounters. Lowering food odors, storing smellables properly, and packing out all trash are essential habits in the backcountry. The expression “A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear” rings too true as bear-involved medical emergencies will generally result in the euthanasia of the attacking animal. Please, be respectful of wildlife and Leave No Trace.

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Comments 1

  • Kelli Ramey : May 21st

    Beautifully stated.

    Some days reading about the AT feels like reading about tourons in Yellowstone. It’s very discouraging for local inhabitants.

    Thank you for this article.


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