Bears Up Close and Personal – This is Not a Theoretical Discussion

There are few topics that get people as worked up about on AT Facebook and other discussion boards as the topic of bears.  Honestly, discussions of subjects as inconsequential as Top Ramen vs. Maruchan Ramen can elicit some pretty antisocial behavior, so any topic has the potential to get nasty.  However, in my experience, bears and bear-resistant food storage are topics that are explosive. So with that acknowledged, I am going to share a recent experience I had on the AT and how I feel about using bear-resistant methods to avoid problems. Please, let’s not be explosive.  I am just sharing my experience and my reaction to that experience.  I am not telling anyone what to do.

Nuisance and Aggressive Bears are a Human Creation

Bears are naturally fearful of humans.  However, the desire of bears to follow the standard American diet of high calorie, low nutrient, carb- and fat-filled food is no different than what we find in ourselves.  Left to their own devices, many Americans opt for fast food and chips over a salad or fruit.  Bears seem to be no different.

So when bears learn to eat human food, and I am an admitted on-trial lover of Top Ramen, Breakfast Essentials, and Snickers bars, they are no different than we are.  Cheap food is addictive.  However, bears only learn about cheap food, or any human food, due to human error, right?

Bear Canisters: Which Fit in Which Packs, Where You Need Them, and How to Pack One.

Ground Hog Creek Shelter

In October, my friend Loren,  and I did a section hike from Standing Bear Hostel, just north of GSMNP, to Roan Mountain, TN.  On our first night on the trail, we slept at Ground Hog Creek Shelter (Mile 248.8).  Guthook had a couple of comments about aggressive bears but the most recent was from August, 2 months earlier, so I assumed that the bears had moved on. Since someone was already in the shelter, we set up our tents, social distancing in the age of COVID, and chatted up the 3 other guys who were sleeping in or near the shelter.

Around 10 PM, all hell broke loose with yelling and flashlights shining all over the shelter area.  Since I am totally deaf in one ear and use a cochlear implant, I really did not understand what was going on.  I assumed it was either teenagers with a case of beer descending on the shelter, that happens when shelters are close to roads, or bears had arrived.  In either case, I figured that was literally nothing I could do, so I put my hearing ear down against the stuff stack I use for a pillow and went back to sleep.  Silence is bliss!

Apparently, so I learned the next morning, there were four bears, two adults and two cubs, that stalked the shelter area from 10 PM to four AM, sniffing around and growling from time to time.  The incident started with the bears jumping on the shelter picnic table, just a few feet from the guy sleeping in the shelter,  and taking the stove and pot of two cousins who were out for a week-long section hike.  So big human error in leaving food scented things out and not hanging them on the shelter’s bear cables.

Loren, on his first night on the AT and second night of backpacking ever, told me in the morning that a bear had pressed against the side of his tent and growled.  Quite the introduction to the AT, huh?

From Guthook, these are some excerpts from comments made in November 2020, the month after our incident:

  • “Still a lot of bear activity,”
  • “Bear experience we don’t want to have again. Mama and three cubs began stalking us at five pm for food,”
  • “At least four aggressive bears that are not scared of any amount of people.”

Why I am Carrying a Ursack Major XL in 2021

Some shelters have bear cables or boxes, but many do not.  I have learned to be pretty good at hanging a bear bag.  I use the bear bag kit from ZPacks but really you can easily assemble your own.  The PCT Method is what is recommended as the best method to hang food.  You can find many YouTube videos and websites that explain this technique and, in my view, all backpackers should know it and use it.  Watch the video, it is simple as pie, right?  Well simple as long as you are able to locate that perfect tree that seems to be featured in every video.  Now, back to reality, try to find that perfect tree as you walk into camp, exhausted, as the sun is setting and every good branch is taken or, and this happens more than you might guess, there is no perfect or close to perfect limb.

This is my plan for my 2021 flip-flop thru-hike.  I will still bring my bear bag kit and plan to use any provided bear cables or other available methods to properly store my food, stove, and toiletries at those shelters than have them.  When there are no bear cables, poles, or boxes, I will hang my food using the PCT method unless I cannot do it.  In that case, I will use a Ursack Major XL.  Essentially it is my third option for food handling, but my experience has proven to me that this is a necessary precaution.  There will be many shelters or campsites with no cables and no limbs, perfect or otherwise, for hanging your stuff, I promise.  In addition, the use of bear-resistant containers is encouraged by the National Park Service, National Forest Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  They are experts at what is the right approach to bear management or at least know a whole lot more than I do.

I Want to Save My Food and Save the Bears – We all win!

It is very likely that the bears who seem to chronically stalk Ground Hog Creek Shelter will eventually be euthanized (that is polite talk for being killed).  What is sad about this is that bears are a natural part of the eastern forest.  Humans make bears aggressive through bad food handling practices.  We go out onto the tail for a nature experience, right? So why are we so resistant to carrying something to help maintain exactly the thing we are there for – a nature experience?

A Ursack Major (5 days of food) or Major XL (7 days of food) are just around ½ pound.  That seems like a small sacrifice for even a gram weenie like me.  OK, it raises my winter base weight to 11 pounds, but it is doing my part to coexist with nature and have a safe and enjoyable thru-hike.  It is a personal choice, but there are compelling reasons to protect yourself, your food, and the bears.  Think about it.

By the way, the feature picture for this post is a shot of Ground Hog Creek Shelter, I think.

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Comments 32

  • Avatar
    John : Jan 3rd

    Don’t feel you need to apologize or justify your decision. The question of whether or not to take a bear resistant container always invokes an almost existential (and inane) battle of words. From decades of hiking and backpacking in NJ (one of the hottest of the black bear hot spots on the AT), I’ll offer two observations. First, if you listen long enough (masochism, I know…) the most vehement argument against eventually comes down to added weight. And as long as you’re not asking an anti-canister/Ursak gram weenie to carry yours for you, they have no standing in your decision. Second, I’ve had a lot of black bear encounters, but never a problem. In NJ, the problematic bears aren’t the ones you’ll find on the trails, but at the stealth campsites and AT shelters. Bears come to associate these areas with food sources and stay in the area all season. The food sources are provided by hikers that tend to be too lazy to hang a bag (or even use the steel bear boxes conveniently placed at every shelter in NJ) or are of the “I sleep with my food” mindset. Would-be trail angels leaving unattended food drops are also an issue. The problem is that once a behavior is set, the bear will remain an issue all season long – and often into the next – unless removed. As the NJ State Park Service says, “a fed bear is a dead bear”.

    A great resource on bear safety is the book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero
    He covers both grizzly and black bears and takes a science-based rather than ripped-from-the-headlines approach on how avoid or failing that, survive an encounter.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 3rd

      I am not known for being overly diplomatic but more as opinionated and unfiltered. I purposely took this approach on this topic because I was doing exactly what I said. I am sharing my experience and my response to that experience. I am very much a HYOH / Libertarian type guy. it is an interesting thing that the type of outspoken behavior we see online is, thankfully, almost never seen on the trail.

      I liked your message. I do have to say that I slept at an AT shelter in NY where there was a giant bear trap within 500 feet of the shelter. It was like a giant canister with, apparently a door that was triggered when the bear took soom bait inside the canister. I have to say that was not a comforting thing to look at from the shelter.

      Thanks for you comments.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Richard Guenther : Jan 4th

    Your article mirrors my perspective. We have to remember that we are the visitors and we owe it to the bears to ensure we don’t endanger their lives by handling food poorly while in the wilderness. I have used a bear canister for years and recently got an Ursack. I recommend you pair that with Opsack bags to better keep the food smells contained. At the end of the day it comes down to whether we are willing to think of anything other than ourselves.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    David Smith : Jan 4th

    I do have the Opsack. The reviews I’ve read make them questionable for use on a thru-hike as they seem to last weeks, not months. However, I will be using them. Again, using Ursack is my last choice after cables, etc. followed you PCT method hanging.

    Thanks for your comment we are visitors.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      WD : Jan 4th

      If you want a good alternative, try the Odor-Barrier bags (I think now re-marketed as OdorNo on Amazon). In 2019, I started a thru-hike. In GA, they have installed bear boxes, and that’s the preferred method of storage now. BUT…. they are not mice-proof, just like some Ursacks. Anyway, I was just using the ZPacks hang kit, and one of those green Odor bags. One morning about we got up, and opened the bear boxes, and all the for bags had tiny holes chewed into them… except one. Mine. I was the only one using one of those green liners.

      I had previous tried OpSack, but I found (like you have questioned) that they don’t last. It’s not that they don’t work. But they are kind of rigid, and after I opened and closed them several times, I found that the zipper was ripping off the plastic. These bags work by wringing the top, doubling over, and placing on a plastic clip. It takes some practice, but it worked well, and lasted. I carried an extra clip, and had an extra large bag in a bounce box. I’m hiking 2021, and will use the same setup again.

      Also, side note, I often hang away from others when I can.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        David Smith : Jan 4th

        Thanks!

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Ross : Jan 4th

    My anecdotal observation is that bears in the Smokies are more aggressive than elsewhere on the AT. It is not because there are more bears there; Shenandoah has the same or greater bear density but fewer problem bears. The last 2 times I car-camped in a public campground in the Smokies there was an incident with a bear jumping on a picnic table while a family was fixing supper.

    Why are the Smokies different? Again this is my anecdotal observation but I think it has to do with the pervasive illegal bear hunting with dogs. I quit hiking in the Smokies because I am sick of coming across lost, starving, abused hounds with heavy radio collars. Heaven knows what those hunters to do entice bears to come near their dogs.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Mark : Jan 4th

      Its not entirely the fault of Humans that Bears learn to eat our food, nor is it a new phenomenon. Its been happening for thousands of years.
      Bears are more aggressive when they have learned that they can eat our food without risk of retaliation. Meaning they are not being hunted. Those bags are helpful, but a bear will still smell the food. They can smell the food on your face and clothes.
      The Dogs that you are talking about only want to hunt bears. Nobody has to entice them. Its what they live for. They are the result of thousands of generations of other bear hounds.
      I have had many bear encounters in my lifetime. Starting at age 14. I am now in my sixties.
      You all should carry bear spray.
      Please no hate replies.

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Mark Bixby : Jan 8th

      The bear that is prevalent in the S. E. is a Black bear. There has never been a single death reported since records have been kept. There have been very few injuries, these generally a result of abuse. Certainly because of increased human population there is more encounters, but even so the statistics have not changed.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        David Smith : Jan 8th

        I will not argue with that. Attacks are rare but do happen (https://www.nationalparkstraveler.org/2016/05/bear-bites-hiker-great-smoky-mountains-national-park) but rare enough they make the news. However, bears that have become unafraid of humans is a reality in GSMNP, SNP, and many areas along the AT. What happens to them? They are killed to protect humans from potential attacks. The measure of the impact of improper food handling is not limited to human deaths with bears taking a disproportionate amount of the bad outcomes that result from human behavior.

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Matt (Just Waling) : Jan 4th

    I carried an Ursack for 1600 miles of the AT in 2020 (GA thru MA). When cables or bear box were available, I used them but many times, I simply tied my Ursack to a tree. Never did I get awakened by a bear or have saliva left on my Ursack in the morning. The Ursack simply allowed me to sleep better, esp in my stage of later life when sleep tends to be lighter.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 5th

      Thanks for sharing your lives experience.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    thetentman : Jan 4th

    You need to realize that a Bear will eat any food it encounters. Free food is free food. It cares nothing about caloric content.
    All Shelters on the AT should have Bear Boxes and/or Cables available.
    They will not only modify Bear behavior but they will also cut down on the mouse populations in the shelter.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 4th

      Thanks for you message. I think that there is a strong case for cables or bear boxes at all shelters. There are issues with new building/development in any area that is a designated wilderness area, I believe.
      I never sleep in shelters because of the mice. They do carry diseases at times plus they are annoying.
      For now, all shelters on federal lands are closed although in October, they were closed but getting a lot of use.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        thetentman : Jan 4th

        I dislike Shelters because of the mice and snoring. Shelters that have Bear Boxes have less mice. The boxes worked wonders here in NJ.

        Reply
        • Avatar
          David Smith : Jan 21st

          I fully agree with your comment about bears loving all human food (bird seed too). Part of blogging is making things interesting. If you go back over my post, you will see a “or any human food” included. From my backpacking experience over the years, you are likely to see more snickers, top ramen, and salami than tofu or salads. Human preference is complicated. I think bears are just looking for easy food. I did read once that, given a choice, marmots in national parks will opt for human food over their natural diet when both are presented with no limit to access. And that those who are fed peanuts and Doritos and Cheetos will not survive the winter due to the metabolic changes associated wiht eaing human junk food. It is kind of how Americans are suffering an epidemic of type two diabetes from living on frozen and fast food.

          OK, more than you might have wanted to know. I tend to ramble. Thanks for reading my blog and raising a very important point. All human food is bad for animals.

          Reply
  • Avatar
    GroundHog : Jan 4th

    Almost 50 years ago I went through “bear boot camp” on a Boy Scout high Sierra trip. After that I stopped cooking where I sleep- I have a relaxing fun dinner between 4pm and 6pm then clean everything including me; and then hike somewhere else. In 49 years this method has never once failed & and I love the freedom of bedding down where I want to wake up and not just some place I stopped to cook, or where there is water, or where everyone else stopped before I arrived.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Todd B Stevens : Jan 4th

    I used an Ursack Almitey (Bear and rodent proof) on my 2020 attempt (made it to Enid Tennessee before leaving the trail on 3/31 due to the Covid problem) and will be using it on my Thru hike starting in February back at Springer.

    I tie it to a tree, use an Opsack (which the seal lasts about a month…), and have never had problems including a lot of section hikes in PA, NJ and Shenandoah.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 5th

      I think I did say “any food” and that part about junk food was my attempt at dry humor. Maybe I need to work on that.
      People constantly eat in shelters, enough to support entire tribes of very active mice. I don’t sleep in shelters – mice, snoring and other body noises, and people on very different schedules.
      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Erskine : Jan 4th

    I’ve just retired and planned to do a flip
    Flop as well in 2021. I’m a hammock guy so there is already a weight penalty there. Above all else, I’ve been leaning more towards wanting to use a BV500 as well, even more weight. Ease of use, better protection from the little as well as big critters. I don’t think that I have read of anyone actually starting and finishing with a canister of any type. So, the lack of people finishing with a canister is swaying me towards the Almighty Ursack. I appreciate reading all the articles and comments from people who have trail experiences with storing food, successful and otherwise.
    I do have a question, has anyone on here had a bear come into or under their tarp while they are hanging at night? I’ve read one instance of a bear grabbing someone out of his hammock one night, and his dad was able to rescue him. That story has probably made me more apprehensive of bears than is warranted, but it’s kept me up for longer than I care to admit on weekend abs week long hikes on the AT. Any comments or advice or stories would be appreciated. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 4th

      Teh Ursack Allmitey is mouse and bear proof but several ounces is 13 ounces and carries 5 days of food, so heavier and less capacity than the Major XL. However, bear boxes often allow mice to sneak in.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        BARBARA J RAUCH : Jan 4th

        Hiking in near Springer with bear boxes filled with a hiker’s garbage. Opening the box was disgusting. Instead of packing out wrappers, lazy hiker used the bear box as garbage can.
        We placed our food in box went to sleep. Early morning 3AM hear bear rattling bear box. Garbage attracted the bear. Bear was still looking and went to tents & decided to sniff the head of tent camper. Then snorted and was in its way. Thank God we were in shelter & my sister didn’t smell of food just dirty.

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Jim T : Jan 4th

    Nice article. I remember out first Bear encounter in the whites of NH. Hiked about 13 miles and found a great spot by the river. Within one minute a huge bear was right on top of us. Took my Nephew’s backpack and made mincemeat out of it. Sun was going down and we were not staying there so hiked all the way out with our then junky headlights .

    Fast forward to now and hiking the Adirondacks . Hate carrying those stupid 3lb bear containers. Wished I could carry my original Spectra Ursack instead. Such a pain….

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 21st

      I started backpacking in the 1980s. Much of my time was in Shenandoah NP which is filled with bears, many of which are fearless when it comes to humans. It has been that way for decades and has actually improved with better bear management by the NPS wiht things like bear proof trash can. Anyway, in the 80s, I was never concerned about bears. There were significantly fewer backpackers. Maybe I was ignorant but I can even begin to count the number of nights I slept wiht my food before hanging it was part of my understanding. Since I love nature (bears, copperheads, rattlers included), I would never sleep with my food. It is about me first, but I have a strong LNT ethic and ruining a bear for life leaves a lot more than a trace.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Liz Schimmel : Jan 5th

    Thank you for sharing your experiences in a thoughtful manner. Yes, I agree on all points 100% and was happy to learn more from you about the Ursack and the PCT Method. Thanks and stay safe!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Scott Bailey : Jan 6th

    On a 4th trip to the Brooks Range in 2001-starting above treeline- used an OP bag inside Ursak Mini to hold any nonburnable food packaging. The group’s 3 bear containers were at our destination lake full of vacuum sealed pouches in a water proof bag inside the bear container.

    I used some of my rock climbing gear(adjustabke cams) to place Ursack in the rock outcrops(as far as I could reach down the crack) above the creeks we were on travelling South. Worked fine there.

    Once at our lake destination we were still above “big tree” line. I had replaced the drawcord on the Ursack with a longer 1/8″ piece of Kevlar cord(from West Marine). I was able to tie a Figure 8 knot in the end of cord. Then loop around a small 2″ tree and lock off the loop with a locking carabiner.

    If any critter wanted the food trash bag they would really have to work for it. The main reason for tieing off the bag tightly at opening was to keep shrews and voles out.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Randall Smith : Jan 6th

    I live in Mesa and currently scheduled a thru hike for the A.T in March, 26th departure.
    Rather hang a bear bag the carry a heavy canister.
    People have to realize that it’s about the bears safety, and ultimately leads to our safety.
    Practice LNT principles and food storage.
    Hope to see/ meet ya on trail soon.
    Great article..

    Randy “winger-tops” S.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 21st

      The federal land management agencies along the AT, the NFS and NPS, have issues an agreed upon plan to require bear resistant containers on all federal lands on the AT. That is almost the entire south almost until you get to West Virginia plus Green Mountains and White Mountains NFs in New England. The last I knew, the go live date for that has not be announced. The was an article about that in AT Journeys within the past few years. I called the ATC and there still in not a go live date but clearly there is a plan in place to require bear resistance food storage on federal lands. This is already a requirement on much of the PCT.

      I am not taking a position on this plan but just reporting what I read.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    The Blade : Jan 7th

    I think we should all use bear canisters. They are a sure thing. I know they are bulky and heavy but we should just suck it up and protect both us and the bears. They can at least let you leave your Helinox Chair Zero at home

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 21st

      Ursacks are approved by IGBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee) which bases their standards on actual testing of container with grizzlies.

      See: http://igbconline.org/certified-products-list/

      BTW, I am not associated with Ursacks in any manner, just an FYI.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Piglet : Feb 15th

    I feel this is a timely topic.

    I personally struggle with the ethics, for myself, of not carrying a bear canister. As a veterinarian it is clear humans have created the problem. It only takes one event for a bear to come back. Intermittent reinforcement is stronger than a reward every time.

    I always carry an ursack almighty because of bears and I also know rodents spread disease to humans.

    If a canister is required I do it. I know the weight is a BUMMER. Real real bummer. But it is part of leave no trace which I feel strongly about.

    I think the only way to likely really solve the issue is to require canisters as much as that sucks. We can talk about proper hanging methods but at least half the time the “perfect” place to hang is not there.

    I also like the point made about eating in one location and sleeping in another. Big reason to avoid shelters.

    Good luck on the flip flop. Would love to discuss with you. If I thru hike the AT that would be my plan to avoid some crowds and have less environmental impact. Not sure my husband is ready for me to step away from the family for that long.

    Reply

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