I Survived a Bear Attack on the Appalachian Trail

The following post is my account of my bear attack experience at a tent site outside Glasgow, Virginia.

This article is rather long. I erred on the side of too much information rather than too little so people can learn from this experience as much as possible. If you are only interested in the story and not the background, skip to the section titled “The Attack.”

First, I’m including some information about the term bear attack vs. bear encounter and information about the North American black bear.

Bear Attack vs. Bear Encounter Disclaimer

Some people might take issue with my decision to call this situation a bear attack instead of a bear encounter. But to me, and I think a lot of people on trail, those terms mean drastically different things. A bear attack makes you think of bloody gashes or chomped-on limbs. It means a call to the hospital, or worse, the morgue. A bear encounter makes me picture a hiker walking on trail and spotting a bear 100 yards in front of them before it dashes into the woods. Or, maybe a bear coming into camp and stealing a food bag. Well, my “bear experience” sits in the middle of those situations in terms of severity. Actually, more towards attack because of the aggression and atypical behavior of the bears. The two bears I encountered did everything worth considering an attack save drawing blood. So, in my eyes, this was an attack that myself and my partner, Town, narrowly escaped unscathed (physically).

Background on Black Bears

The American Black Bear is a species native to North America and is generally mid-sized. It is the most common bear in North America and is the only type of bear found on the Appalachian Trail (unlike the PCT or CDT, where grizzlies are found).

Their diet mainly consists of berries, roots, insects, grasses, and occasionally fish. Black bears can acquire a taste for human food if it’s left behind at campsites or garbage, which is why it’s important never to feed bears and practice leave no trace.

Adult black bears are 4-7 feet tall typically. Their weight ranges from 125 to 500 pounds for males and 90 to 300 pounds for females. Cubs are smaller but reach close to adult size around 2 years old, which is also when the mothers force their yearlings to stop traveling with them.

Black bears’ sense of smell is extremely good. Their nasal mucosa is 100 times larger than a human’s.

In April, black bears leave their winter dens. Food is scarce and many lose weight during this time of year. In May, the bears eat sprouting grass and leaves as the forest turns green with spring. It’s not until July that berries ripen and become a major food source for the species.

Black bears are sometimes comedically referred to as “big dogs” as they’re technically the least threatening of bear species. Hikers are instructed to make noise and make themselves big in order to threaten the black bear into backing off. A common rhyme to remember the difference between grizzlies and black bears is “If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back.” Thus, almost no one on the AT carries bear spray as loud clapping, yelling, and whistles should be all you need to stay safe. That is unless the bear has been fed human food and is conditioned to connect humans to sources of food. This is when the black bear can become dangerous to human life.

The Day of the Attack

This day wasn’t abnormal. We planned to do some decent mileage but, because of a lack of motivation, hadn’t really planned when or where we’d stop exactly.

So when we got to our last big hill of the day, right before it there was a road crossing with parked cars belonging to day hikers and a bulletin board we were inclined to pass by as we normally do as it’s normally just information about the area and “don’t feed the wildlife” signs.

Just before we reached the trailhead on the opposite side of the street, a day hiker said, “Hey, just so you know, Matts Creek Shelter is closed because of bear activity.” We turned and said, “Oh, okay thanks!” Because here’s the thing about thru-hiking, at least for me, I don’t know the name of things we pass. I barely know the name of the places I’m staying at each night. Usually, I just pick a destination based on how many miles it is from where I’m starting that day. So we noted the information half-heartedly, thinking it was probably a shelter we’d pass in the next mile but wouldn’t be sleeping near. Also, “bear activity” was common along the trail thus far. I remember passing plenty of signage in Georgia and closed shelters that reported food stolen out of trees. In our eyes, that’s the worst that could happen.

We continue hiking and climb some pretty steep terrain. Once we reached the top, it was around 3 or 4 p.m. and we were starting to think about where we might stop for the night. We planned to continue hiking until it was 7:30 p.m. to make as much progress as possible.

This is when we realized that we were nearing Matts Creek Shelter. We had two options: 1. Make it past Matts Creek and across the James River to the next shelter, or 2. Camp earlier than Matts Creek Shelter outside of the closed boundary.

We were gonna keep pushing but we passed a gorgeous campsite (the last before the closed boundary) at around 6:45 p.m. and were too tempted by its perfection to continue past it. It was a tent site with space for 1-2 tents looking over the James River. The space for the tent was covered in comfy pine needles.

We settled down and had our ramen dinner outside the tent. Town hung the food bags about 50 yards from our tent in a PCT hang because we were a little paranoid about the bears and thought this would deter them from attempting to steal our food.

We went to bed around 8:45 p.m. The sun was already down but the sky was still glowing slightly.

The Attack

At 9:20 p.m., I woke up to heavy breathing on my right side from just outside the tent. I jolted awake and listened in for more clarification on whether I actually heard that or imagined it. That’s when I heard the sniffing and heavy thud of stomping. Bears.

I shook Town awake and told him I heard bears. He woke up and started to yell, “Hey Bear! Hey Bear!” I joined in, “Heyyy Bear!” We did this for about a minute or so before pausing to listen for its movements. While we hoped to hear distant branches breaking from the bear running off into the woods, instead, we heard a big huff and stomp directly outside our tent. The bear was bluff-charging the tent.

“Call 911,” directed Town as he reached for his knife and the whistle attached to our backpacks. We had two bars of service, which is almost unheard of in the mountains. I hesitated. “Are you serious?”

“This isn’t a normal Bear. It’s not scared of us.” Town began blowing the whistle and banging on both sides of the tent.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“Hi, I’m an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker camping above the James River and there’s a bear outside our tent that we believe might be aggressive.”

For the next 1.5 hours, we sat in the tent with Town banging, whistling, and yelling while I talked to 911 dispatchers, Blue Ridge Parkway Deputies, and wildlife experts.

Why 1.5 hours? Good question.

First, the dispatchers struggled to get our location. I’m not sure why the normal GPS locator didn’t work, but it seemed like they had limited knowledge of the trail.

Second, I had to explain to them what an AT thru-hiker was. “What road did you drive to this campsite so we can find you?”

“Ma’am, as I said, we walked here from Georgia.”

“So where is your car parked?”

“We don’t own a car. We walked on the Appalachian trail from Georgia.” And so on.

Third, no one felt comfortable giving us advice about the bear itself.

“I would advise you stay in the tent. We’re on our way to you” – Blue Ridge Parkway Deputy

“We really don’t feel safe in the tent. Is it dangerous if we try to make it to the highway 3 miles down the mountain?” – me

“We’re 30 minutes from you. We’re getting the amenities together to come to you. I would not advise you leave the tent.” – same deputy

“Are they coming to get us?” asked Town in between shouting and whistling while still shaking the tent.

“They said they’re getting the amenities together to come get us.”

“What amenities?”

“What amenities?” I ask the deputy still on the phone.

“We’re trying to secure a four-wheeler.”

“Sir, the Appalachian trail is about 3 feet wide at its widest. It’s also an 867 ft elevation gain to us. I don’t think a four-wheeler will work.”

At this point, the bear was still outside the tent huffing and puffing almost an hour after we first heard it. Town and I were in the center of the tent, as far from the walls as we could be to avoid the possibility of a claw coming in contact with us during one of the bear’s bluff charges inches from us.

Eventually, I got a call from a wildlife expert.

“Hi, I’m nowhere near you, but I do know about bears. Can you tell me where all your food is?”

Relieved to have some helpful advice that could possibly lead to us escaping the tent, I ignored the calls back from the deputies supposedly on their way to us.

“It’s all 50 yards from us in a PCT hang.”

“Hmmm. Where did you cook last night?”

“That was closer. Maybe 10 yards.”

“Okay, most likely that’s what the bear is after. Can you cover that area with something?”

I imagined myself exiting the tent with my sleeping bag and inching over to exactly where the bear is standing and laying my sleeping bag down with a “don’t mind me” attitude. Nope.

“The bear is standing right there. I don’t feel safe doing that. Do you think we could leave? We feel really unsafe in the tent and want to try to make it down to the highway.”

“I understand. Well, the bear should only be interested in the food, so you should be fine to leave. Do you have anything to protect yourself? Like a gun?”

“No…Just a knife.”

“Oh…” long pause for processing cultural differences…” Take that and some stuff to throw at the bear. It shouldn’t be interested in you.”

On that note, we decided it was time to make an escape plan. Town’s phone was already dead and so was his headlamp so we were down to my low-battery phone and headlamp that was flashing as a warning. Time was extremely sensitive. After hanging up with the wildlife expert, I called back the dispatcher to let them know our plan.

“We’re gonna try to make it down to the highway. When we get there, we won’t have anything so we’ll need help.”

“Okay, let me write that down.”

“Well will anyone-“

“Still writing. One second.”

“Ma’am, this is really time sensitive. My headlamp and phone are low battery. We’re leaving the tent.”

Town and I didn’t wait for a response but kept them on the phone. We made a plan for Town to go out first and me to follow with my headlamp. I quickly gathered items to throw at the bear. Unfortunately, that was limited to a bottle of Aquaphor, the knife sheath, and my water bottle.

Town stepped out of the tent and said, “I don’t see it, come out.” I followed seconds behind with my headlamp on. “Oh my god, it’s right there.” About 15 feet from where we were standing, the bear was on all fours sniffing the ground on the other side of the tent. I immediately started throwing my belongings. The knife sheath got the closest but the bear didn’t run or even flinch. It only stared back intensely. It was time for us to retreat.

We backed away from the tent site through the low bushes to the trail. It was a short walk and it didn’t seem like the bear was following. “Good,” I thought, “it isn’t interested in us.” We stepped onto the trail moments later and instantly heard a rustling in the woods coming from the other side of the trail than our tent site. A second bear stumbled onto the trail about 20 feet up trail from us.

“Oh shit, there’s another one. There’s a second bear!” I told the dispatcher still on the phone.

“Proceed down the trail but remember not to turn and run. It will see you as prey.”

We proceeded to walk backwards down the trail. I had nothing with me besides my phone and dying headlamp. Town only has his knife and his nearly empty backpack that he grabbed last minute.

The bear matched our pace down the trail.

“It’s following us!” I told the dispatcher.

“Drop anything you have that could smell. It must think you have food.”

I directed Town to drop his pack. He did, and we continued down trail. The bear made it to the backpack and stopped to sniff it for a few seconds but quickly lost interest and continued to follow us.

At this point, my stomach sank. “It’s still following us. We have nothing! It wants us!” Then my service went out and the call failed. I remember feeling cheated and entirely helpless. Like we’d done everything we could, and it wasn’t fair that the bear would want anything to do with us. Town was in between myself and the bear clutching his knife. We were still stepping backwards, but the bear was gaining. We had never stopped screaming from the second we got out of the tent, but we tried to yell even louder as it approached us and make ourselves look bigger.

I hated our odds. I didn’t have anything left to throw, Town’s knife was the same size as one of his claws, and the bear was as close as 8 feet away. That’s when I realized the rocks on the ground. We could throw rocks. “We can throw rocks!” I yelled. Town and I reached down and started chucking the rocks at the bear.

This was the first time I’d seen either of the bears show fear. The bear turned its body on the defensive. We continued throwing and yelling. It retreated a few feet to a tree bordering the trail and climbed it. Finally, there was hope again. We used this break in his pursuit to make more progress down the trail. But then he crawled down and continued towards us again. We threw rocks. This time, I hit his torso with some pretty decent-sized rocks about the size of a baseball. Again, it turned its body away from us in defense. Again, we went backwards down the trail as fast as we could, yelling.

This time, we were making faster progress. Every three seconds, I’d direct my headlamp behind us to check that the trail was clear of his bright eyes following us. We still hadn’t stopped screaming, “Hey, bear!” After all, we had to pass through Matts Creek Shelter, the closed shelter, to make it to the highway for help.

After 3 miles, we made it to the highway. Instead of finding the deputies who had claimed they were en route to us an hour before, we were met with an empty highway and zero service. We’d have to hitch into the nearest town of Glasgow, VA. It was 11:15 p.m.

We start walking along the left side of the highway towards Glasgow. We heard a car coming, and I tried to wave it down with my phone’s flashlight. It drove right past, and I don’t blame it.

Then, a second car going in the wrong direction came around the bend of the highway towards us. I waved my flashlight around, mainly to warn the driver of our presence on the side of the road, but to our surprise, it slowed down and stopped. Town, aware that he’s a man and was holding an exposed knife, told me to approach the car and explain while he waited off to the side.

I approached the car and was greeted by the kindest older man. I explained our situation and how we needed phone service to call back the deputies and rangers that were probably wondering what had happened to us. He seemed hesitant at first, which is entirely understandable given he was going in the completely other direction and it was almost midnight, but eventually agreed to drive us, claiming “I can’t in good conscience leave you on the side of the road.” We thanked him profusely and hopped into his van.

We told him the whole story, obviously hopped up on adrenaline, and thanked him for saving us, still clueless as to why there wasn’t law enforcement waiting for us. He dropped us at a closed Stop N Go gas station near the edge of Glasgow. We thanked him for the billionth time and said our goodbyes.

Fortunately, I still had enough battery to call the dispatcher back. I told them we made it out and we needed assistance as we had no belongings or money. They told me rangers could be there in 45 minutes. So we settled down and waited.

Our Stanimal’s experience

The rangers came to meet us at the Stop N Go. They didn’t seem to be informed on the information beyond us having a run-in with bears, so we told them our story and explained we don’t have any belongings or money.

“Well, tomorrow when Ranger Wilson is back on duty, he’ll take you to retrieve your stuff. For now, we’ll find you a place to sleep.” We agreed to the plan and waited for them to ask the local fire department for advice. The firefighters recommend dropping us at the only hiker hostel in town: Stanimal’s.

“We don’t have any money and also, everyone at hiker hostels usually go to bed around 8 p.m.,” I pointed out.

“Don’t worry about that,” assured the ranger.

They drove us to Stanimal’s, which, as I had predicted, was completely dark with zero signs of life. They instructed us to wait in the driveway while they investigated. The rangers used their flashlights to look inside the windows, knocked on the doors, and checked the back entrance. I was mortified by their lack of courtesy for those sleeping.

Eventually, a man sleeping in a tent in the backyard crawled out of his tent and asked what was going on. The rangers filled him in, and he agreed to help us enter the hostel so we could sleep on an empty couch.

We thanked the rangers, and they instructed us to call in the morning so the ranger that knew the area (who was unfortunately off work that night) could retrieve us and escort us back to our tent site.

The next day

We woke up to the bustling hostel as hikers enjoyed pancakes and coffee steps from the couch we slept on. No one immediately noticed our presence, but eventually, a few hikers we knew came by to ask if what they heard was true. “Are you the ones attacked by bears?”

We waited for the hostel owners to be done with the breakfast festivities before finding them and explaining the situation. Fortunately, they were extremely understanding.

Around 8 a.m., a ranger named Brian Wilson arrived at Stanimal’s to bring us back to the tent site. On the drive there, he asked questions about the general details of the encounter. The whole night was a bit of a hazy memory, but we did our best to give him answers.

We got to the trailhead, and Ranger Wilson took a pump shotgun out of his truck. Oh, he’s not playing around. We start the hike across the James River Footbridge and up 3 miles. Around mile 2.5, we came across food wrappers in the middle of the trail. “Are these yours?” Ranger Wilson asked.

“Oh yeah, those are mine,” said Town. “I threw them out of my pockets because I forgot I had them and was worried that’s what it was smelling.”

This first mess was a sign we were approaching the tent site. The next sign was Town’s shoe, shown below with a tooth mark in the toe.

Town’s shoe with the bite mark

Then, we came up on Town’s backpack. While the bear showed minimal interest in the bag when he dropped it, it appeared that’s what he returned to after he stopped following us. The contents of his bag were strewn across the trail and the bag itself was torn in four separate places.

Town’s backpack

We continued up the trail and I kept thinking, “Wow, this is so much further than I remember the bear following us.” I had only remembered it following us for 5 minutes or so, but the evidence of us fighting the bear was as far as 0.5 miles down the trail meaning it followed us for approximately 15 minutes depending on the speed of our retreat.

When we got to the tent site, we couldn’t immediately tell if the bears had destroyed more of our stuff, but we did immediately notice our PCT-hung food was completely untouched. Ranger Wilson snapped a photo of our perfectly hung bear bags. “That’s a good hang. Maybe too good.” Mildly suggesting the bears went for us as an easier target than the bags 20 feet in the air.

Our PCT hang 50 yards from our tent (still intact the next day)

As we closed in on our tent, we noticed both of our sleeping pads were deflated and my toiletry bag was torn apart outside the tent. The sleeping bags had been slashed by claws, Towns more than mine, but otherwise, there was minimal damage inside the tent. The tent itself only had one area where the bear’s claw protruded.

Town’s sleeping pad with three claw marks through it
The bear’s claw in our Zpacks tent. Fun to sleep next to as a reminder.

While we were packing up our items, Ranger Wilson was snapping pictures of the affected items and found a paw print directly outside our tent. He snapped it and remarked on how large the bear was. “I wasn’t sure when you guys were initially telling me what happened, but this could’ve been really, really bad. That’s not a small bear.” I also remember him saying something along the lines of, “you were nearly a Netflix documentary.”

Location of paw print outside tent
Measurement of paw print. 5” across. Estimated height of bear: 6 ft

It was almost nice to hear him validate our fear the night before, but also introduced a new challenge of processing how close to serious injury or death we really were. The nights on trail ahead were sure to be an adjustment.

What we did right

  • PCT food hang. We hung our food in a PCT food hang far from our tent site.
  • No food in tent. There were no food items inside the tent or in the backpacks outside our tent.
  • Made loud noises. As soon as we heard the bear, we didn’t stop yelling until we reached the highway.
  • Called emergency services. Fortunately, we had service to call 911 who connected us with the best resources they could offer at that time.
  • Did not run. The majority of bear attacks that end in injury are those where the human runs from the bear, in turn becoming the prey. We never ran and instead only backed away while facing the bear.
  • Threw rocks. This was what saved us and later became my new trail name. Much of the trail is not covered in rocks, but this was and the harm we caused the bear ultimately saved us as it proved we were not entirely vulnerable.

What we did wrong

  • Hoped a 0.7-mile distance from a closed shelter was enough. In the future, I will give at least 5 miles between myself and a closed shelter, if not more, to avoid the bears tracking our scent.
  • Cooked and ate dinner near our tent. This is ultimately what drew the bear to us, but it could’ve also been the scent of our dinner on our clothes, hands, or faces. Regardless, cooking further from the tent could’ve helped.
  • Scented toiletries near tent. I left my toiletries, including toothpaste and icy hot, next to the tent. Both are scented and the bear can’t differentiate between food and smelly items.
  • Wrapper in pocket. Bears can’t tell whether something is empty or not. While not having this wrapper may not have protected us (the smell of food on our clothes or on our body would still be there), it doesn’t help the situation either and had we remembered it was there, we should have hung it with our trash. 
  • No bear spray. While this is the norm for most AT thru-hikers, we had no protection against the bear.
  • Low charge on devices. We planned to go to Buena Vista the next night so all of our devices were on low battery. This put us in an especially vulnerable position.

What happens next for us

  • We recover. Camping in the woods is uncomfortable for many reasons. Adding on a heightened fear of being attacked in your sleep doesn’t help. Since the attack, we often wake up multiple times a night to the smallest noises. Not to mention, our sleeping pads were beyond repair, so for the next two nights in our tent, we slept on the hard ground. We had a break coming up before this happened, so we ended up getting off trail a day early because this isn’t a death march, and a night in a hotel was beyond deserved.
  • We get new gear. Big Agnes and REI replaced our sleeping pads for free. We contacted Hyperlite Gear to replace Town’s backpack and they said it was “too far gone for repair” and offered us 50% off a new one instead. This is still out of our price range (the original purchase was a big investment) so we decided to tape and sew it up instead.
  • We get back on trail. This was hard. I knew the AT would challenge me, but this was beyond what I had imagined. I no longer looked forward to crawling into my tent to sleep. Without comfortable sleep, I felt like a zombie during the day. It took away my comfort zone. I’m working on building this back. Buying bear spray helped.

What happens next for the bears?

  • We reported the attack to the AT authorities through their online form and they’ve extended the closed camping boundary in the area.
  • Ranger Wilson is trying to spread this information as far as possible and to remind people not to sleep with their food or feed the bears.
  • Based on the information we and the site provided, they believe it was a mother bear circling our tent and a 2 year old cub that followed us.
  • Ranger Wilson hopes they won’t need to relocate the bears. The berries should be popping soon and he hopes the bears will go back to doing bear things. This was the second time the bears had attacked people in one weekend, so they are certainly on high alert.

Well, that’s my story. It seems to have traveled a bit up and down the trail with help from trail days. We get a lot of “Were you the couple that…” after introducing ourselves nowadays. I just hope it helps educate people on bear safety. After all, these are their woods, we’re just livin in ’em.

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Comments 110

  • Ryan : Jun 1st

    I’m going to guess the food wrappers he forgot in his pockets probably didn’t help, a bear can’t tell they only smell like food and are empty.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Exactly true. He didn’t realize until he was running. Another learning opportunity.

      • Rob Steen : Jun 4th

        Lily, Really appreciate the detail and equally glad you two weren’t harmed. As a failed thru-hiker (long story, not so long a trek), I can “feel your pain”. My wife and I were biking across France and were camping in Le Chambord in the Loire Valley. It was a park, but signs proclaimed “no camping”. Living on bikes, it’s pretty easy to “live rough” ie. camp wherever. Le Chambord is also named the president’s (of France) hunting ground. After the sun set, I put up the tent and we crashed out. Soon thereafter we began hearing loud growling/howling that was rather unsettling, especially to my wife. While it wasn’t close by, my wife insisted she felt something brush against our tent. The growling persisted and while I was guessing it was coming from where we’d picnicked a good distance away much earlier, the smart thing to do seemed to get the heck out of Dodge. Never loaded the bikes so fast and positioning Alice in front , we set off in the opposite direction from whence we’d come. (Figured if the “bear” appeared, I’d be the one to deal with it.) After a mile or two walking not pedaling our bikes, my wife halts and announces there’s a wall. Turns out the president’s hunting ground is surrounded by a six-hundred year old stone wall. I leaned NY bike against it, climbed atop and saw only more forest. Meanwhile the growling is non-stop and it’s impossible to determine how close or even what it is. My plan—think Humpty Dumpty. I helped Alice park atop the 9′ wall along with our panniers, then clambered up myself. The roaring persisted, but I never spied the source. As soon as the sun rose, I leapt from my precipice and bear or no bear, heated water for coffee. It was only in the 40s, but we were underdressed. We pedaled away and immediately saw some deer who didn’t seem bothered by the roaring. Not ’til we returned home and I corresponded witn the French tourism department did I learn that what the president hunts and what we were hearing was boars, not bears, which tend to be threatening only when they themselves feel threatened. Hope this lite tale makes you laugh. Best of luck on the way to Maine.

    • Jennifer : Jun 2nd

      I’ve had a bear encounter Luke this and still don’t believe the bear was aggressive, just curious and hungry. This was an encounter, not an attack and I have 12,000 miles of long distance miles in bear territory.

      • Lewis Sharman : Jun 2nd

        Agreed. Certainly not an “attack”. If it had been an attack, we’d have read a very different story. Curious, habituated, testing, and “pushy”. It’s what they do.

      • Lily : Jun 8th

        Hi Jennifer! First off, let me say that I’m sorry to hear you had a similar encounter and I hope everyone is okay! I think you hit on some good language details here. Firstly, “attack” vs. “encounter” and secondly, “curious” vs. “aggressive.”

        As I note in the first section of the article, I wasn’t positive whether to call this an encounter or attack because it felt like neither. If there was a rating system, I’d call it a 5/10. I decided on attack partially for the allure of the title (much like my last article’s title claimed my legs were eaten by goats which they were not), but also because I did fear for my life during this encounter. Whether the story disappoints those who were hoping the article ended with my leg being chewed off, that’s okay with me. They read the article and hopefully learned something about bear safety.

        As for the difference between “curious” and “aggressive” bears, they can be both. In this case, the rangers deemed them “aggressive” because they’d been rewarded with food by humans in the past and had exhibited aggressive behavior towards humans two days prior seeking another reward. Inherently, this is them just being curious and hungry, as you said. They are not aggressive creatures. But their curious behavior can be dangerous to humans when they have that humans=reward history. This is what I was aware of when I was fearing for my life during the encounter. Maybe it would’ve just sniffed me if I let it get closer? I guess I’ll never know.

        I hope this clears things up about my choice of language. Again, I’m sorry to hear something similar happened to you.

    • Nells : Jun 19th

      Thanks for sharing this! Glad you’re safe! Always informative and helpful for any east coast hiking since black bears can be common!
      I know this might be a silly suggestion but It’s for safety since I did read some facts that aren’t beneficial as we all thought through the years of misconception of bears- tooth and claw- since one of these gents works out in Yellowstone, they detail safety and survival tips- a lot of black bear content. And now something to listen to while hiking perhaps!

  • Michelle : Jun 1st

    Your lack of knowledge and advanced preparation put yourself, those bears, and future hikers at risk. Not reading advisory boards? Not planning to avoid the area or even bothering to look up where it was? Cooking at your campsite despite having been warned about bears? Keeping toiletries in your bag? Not carrying a battery pack?
    You’re walking through the bear’s home. Have some respect for other animals. If you’re not willing to learn what it takes to leave no trace, then wait until you’re more mature and willing to do so.

    • Teej : Jun 1st

      Indeed. This is what gets bears killed.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Thanks for your honesty. This is exactly why I wrote the article. What we did is not uncommon among other thru-hikers. Many, many of the people we came across after this said “maybe I should stop sleeping with my food in my tent”. Meaning many people are even less knowledgeable than us which is why it’s important to tell this story and educate people. Also, we pass signs that say bears are active in this area all the time. We always assume that bears are nearby which is why we did the PCT hang. Yes, we did cook near our tent but that is another extremely common practice we’ve observed on trail from other hikers. Another learning opportunity. Not to mention, we can’t know that just the smell of the food on our hands, mouth, or belongings wouldn’t be enough to attract them even if we hadn’t cooked nearby. Their sense of smell is that strong. We do practice leave no trace, it was likely the hikers in the area before us that hadn’t which is why the bears were conditioned to believe we had food for them which we did not. The toiletries bag was inside a bear proof bag that I had forgotten to hang. That’s a mistake I’m willing to admit. But humans unfortunately make mistakes which is why it’s important to remind them of the consequences (hence this article). I hope this clears some stuff up for you about the main takeaways.

      • Steve shea : Jun 2nd

        That there were two of you was a protective factor. Bears , both black and brown, view groups of people standing and acting together as harder targets ( they aren’ actually harder targets in my estimation, unless armed, but the bear perceives them that way). Chances as an individual in this situation I would estimate as much less survivable. Black bears, more than browns, are known for their potential for stalking, killing and eating people, vs the simple territorial/ startle attacks that brown bears are more known for.. This black bear stalking/hunting behavior towards humans is considered rare by most, but your mileage may vary as they can be easily conditioned into it. Anytime a black bear is pacing or following you it is stalking/hunting you. I’ve had it happen to me, to a much less serious degree..pacing me, but at a much greater distance, like 100, 150 feet off trail from me. Could have developed into something more serious if I hadn’t been within a half mile of a road and lots of people.

        • Lewis Sharman : Jun 2nd

          Um… sort of. First off, “survivable” is a loaded word. It’s very unlikely that survivability was the issue here, or even belongs in the conversation (as scary as it felt). Also, it doesn’t sound like these black bears were “stalking/hunting”. Words I’d use are “tenaciously curious” and “testing”. Clearly, somewhere along the line these bears have become habituated to humans – that is, they’ve come to associate humans and human things with a reward, almost certainly food-related. But just as “almost-certainly”, the food is not the humans themselves. They were likely hoping that the people would drop or throw a “reward” their way – they probably have succeeded with that behavior before. It’s very very unlikely that these black bears wanted to “stalk/kill/eat” the hikers. Words matter. I’m sure this was a frightening experience in every way, but overstating and using highly loaded words is not terribly helpful. Along these lines, I think the article was very informative and helpful, with the exception of the use of the words “attack” and “attacked”. This was a frightening encounter/interaction with bears, not an attack. Unfortunately, that trigger word “attack” pre-colors (inaccurately and inappropriately, in my opinion) the rest of the article. Still, the article is a very good one and serves a great purpose in educating other hikers.

        • Andrew : Jun 10th

          Steve I agree with you 100%. A stalking bear is a hunting bear. They are not friends or just shy indefensible sensitive creatures. Opportunity is a way of life as is killing. A stalking bear is a dead bear with me and why I carry a .44 mag Ruger in backcountry hikes.

          • Joyce : Jun 12th

            So you would have killed the bear?

      • Larry : Jun 3rd

        I think you did a good job of recognizing your mistakes. One hell of a lot better than the “I’ve been sleeping with my food for 20,000 miles and I ain’t carrying no canister or hanging my food” group. Hope you become more and more comfortable on the trail and have a great hike.

      • Ingrid : Jun 3rd

        Don’t be deterred or beat yourself up by unforgiven posts. The fact that you hung your bag like you did, shows you were being considerate. We all make mistakes especially when we’re tired and, mothers are especially protective or their young and in this case, she may have been persistent in Hope’s of feeding her cub, if the ranger was correct based on print size – yikes! I’d venture to say, the average hiker washes and dries their clothes in some sort of scented detergent before packing. Just the act of eating can scent the clothes you’re wearing. Thankful you all came out unscathed and it was a great read.

      • Martha Potocki : Jun 4th

        Lily you made it thru the bear encounter that’s all that matters!! We hiked in 1997. We had no cell phones,equipment was heavier,and thankfully had no bad bear encounters!!Although my daughter had a rattlesnake strike at her hiking pole on rattlesnake mtn. N J. Also we had no wild goats only ponies! Great story!😂Hike on and one step at a time!!🥾🥾Aunt Marti AT GA-ME 97

    • Kim : Jun 1st

      I’m not sure I understand the need for such a critical (snarky) comment – as I read the post, the main point was to encourage other people – including novice hikers – not to make the same mistakes (it clearly lists what they did right and what they didn’t). Who is your audience? If you jump on people willing to own up to their mistakes, then you’re discouraging people from speaking out in the future and helping to educate other hikers about best practices. Who do your comments help?

      • Anti-snark : Jun 9th


    • Dmitry Bilous : Jun 1st

      From what I just read Michelle, you clearly haven’t hiked a mile of the Appalachian trail. After a full day of hiking over 20 miles, hikers can’t spare an extra 10 miles of distance from the bear area, because idk, their feet will get injured, or they will be hiking in the dark, or in the simplest case, hiking with a pack full of equipment all day makes you just want to eat very fast and go to sleep. You’re outlining a utopian world, where everyone is expected to do things perfectly. As a through hiker I can guarantee that me and my fellow hikers have done much more egregious mistakes. Your know it all attitude isn’t helpful and next time, just be happy that no one got hurt!

      • Nicole McKinney : Jun 2nd

        Well said, sir!

    • Chip : Jun 1st

      Gee, Michelle and Teej: what helpful comments! If only we could all be as perfect as you guys, riding around on your high horses, sneering at us mortals. Must feel great to never make mistakes. Thanks, Lily, for a great post and for your honesty in admitting the few mistakes you made.

    • Talia : Jun 1st

      Hey Michelle and Teej,

      Even if Lily and Town didn’t follow bear etiquette perfectly, let’s at least adhere to internet etiquette. A good internet rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face, you probably shouldn’t say it online (especially in the comments section).

      Lily is creating a space on the internet to share her experiences and educate people, even if that means sharing what she did wrong (like she did in this post). While many of her readers are people who wouldn’t even dream of thru hiking and are living vicariously through her, a lot of us are curious about the experience and have a lot to learn about the potential risks and how to manage them. If we only heard from people who did everything right, we’d me missing out on the cautionary tales like this one that could actually prevent us from making the same mistakes ourselves.

      Let’s all help to keep the tone of this blog positive and constructive. While the points you make may be valid, there’s a way to communicate them that’s more sympathetic and could actually be a useful addition to the conversation (but unfortunately your tone kind of killed it). Hopefully from this experience you can learn from your mistake just like Lily is learning from her bear attack.

      P.S. Lily is a lifelong vegetarian and has started multiple animal rights advocacy groups in her (as you note, brief) lifetime. She is not out here in any way trying to cause more harm to animals — just the opposite, in fact. From sharing her story she can change human behavior on the AT, and other natural environments, for the better. She just needs our support! Go Lily and Town!

      • Grandpa Hodag : Jun 1st

        Great write up.

        As a backpacking emergency manager, ATC might host some online webinars for 911 dispatchers, Sheriff’s and other responders along the corridor before peak hiking season.

        I keep the NPS Harper’s Ferry EOC 800 number in all my phones. They can usually geolocate you and contact local responders.

        Glad your safe and thanks for sharing. Is hated your article out giant section hiking Flipboard magazine to several thousand others.

        Godspeed north!

      • CB : Jun 1st

        Me like Lily. Me like Talia. Me no like Michelle. Michelle act like entitled bear. Me no like entitled bear.

    • Bouncing Goddamn : Jun 1st

      I really don’t see how commentary like that is helpful, Michele? After a scare like that, I’m sure they will do things differently the next time.

      It is good Lily related this experience, it emphasizes the need for bear awareness far better than any “tut-tutting” from another human ever will.

    • Callum : Jun 2nd

      While I completely agree with the substance of your points, they are very clearly “willing to learn” how to be better and have openly admitted they made mistakes and have a plan to rectify them, so your aggression is unwarranted.

      It seems absolutely ridiculous to camp next to an aggressive bear warning with toiletries and food wrappers in your tent, but I’d wager the behaviour that causes this bear response is actually the significant proportion of hikers (sometimes it feels like a majority) who sleep with their food in their tents – not anything these hikers actually did. Many of them try to justify it to me by saying rubbish like “there’s only a few bear attacks a year, so I’m not worried about myself”. Unfortunately selfishness is ingrained in society nowadays so, even if they bothered to consider it at all, they don’t care that it increases the risk of tent attacks on the people actually storing food correctly as well.

    • Matt g : Jun 2nd

      Yes its exactly people like this who cause problems. Stay off the trails if you cant coexist with the wildlife. She was the one entering the bears habitat for christsakes.

    • M : Jun 3rd

      Agree. We are in their world when we are out there. And don’t expect someone to save you. Even when you think you’ve done everything right you can still have a problem due to a previous hikers carelessness. That aside it is good that they posted what they did right and what they did wrong. A good reminder. I thought they briefed thru hikers about these preventative measures at check in on the AT. There is another video stating the fact that there are too many hikers on the AT at shelters. And the people who leave unattended trail magic should be found out and fed to the bears. Just kidding!

    • Sue Ann Persick : Jun 9th

      Thank you so much for sharing your horror filled night I’m so glad you guys are okay. Just reminded me how careful to be with even the smallest of items, chap stuck etc and to maybe care ricks in my tent.

  • Teej. : Jun 1st

    You were told Max Creek Shelter was closed due to bear activity, and camped nearby anyway?


    • Lily : Jun 1st

      As I mentioned in the article, we camped outside the closed boundary of the bears. I will admit, it wasn’t far enough to make it safe. That’s why the AT extended the boundary after our report. But we were not camping in the restricted area.

      • Teej : Jun 1st

        “As I mentioned in the article, we camped outside the closed boundary of the bears.”

        As you mentioned in the article, you had no idea where Max Creek Shelter was.

        • Lily : Jun 1st

          Initially, we didn’t when we were still 10 miles from it. Then, we did. Here’s a quote from the article provided above your comments: “This is when we realized that we were nearing Max Creek Shelter. We had two options: 1. Make it past Max Creek and across the James River to the next shelter, or 2. Camp earlier than Max Creek Shelter outside of the closed boundary.”

          • City boy : Jun 6th

            Lily, your story was riveting. The “Good/Bad” section was very helpful. I love day hikes on AT. I’ve suddenly come upon black bears 3 times. It is terrifying to me. I back away, detour and no problems yet. I’m thinking about buying a (0.45) hand gun. Doesn’t this make sense? Thank you for posting.

            • Lily : Jun 8th

              Hi! I would recommend a bear spray canister. Hiking the trail with a gun is complicated given the different gun laws in the 14 states you visit along the way. Bear spray has also been proven to be more effective in deterring animals than guns. Hope this helps!

              • Lewis Sharman : Jun 9th

                Just to state simple statistical probabilities, it’s considerably more likely that you could accidentally kill yourself or someone else by carrying a firearm, than being killed by a bear. Even in Alaska where there are both brown and black bears in much higher densities. Plus, a handgun is heavy(!).

          • Muggsy : Aug 5th

            Thanks for the article. It’s Matts Creek, not Max Creek.

  • PBN : Jun 1st

    Excellent, high bear hang. I know getting lines over high tree branches can be challenging and take several attempts.
    The bear had probably been rewarded with food by less careful campers who preceded you. It’s not your fault that this bear was aggressive.
    Unfortunately, once bears are rewarded with campers’ food and become aggressive they likely will remain dangerous.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Thank you! That’s right and exactly what the ranger told us when he took us back to the site.

      • Nicole McKinney : Jun 2nd

        For this reason, I’m not so sure about the “too good hang” theory. Maybe the bears would have been satisfied with getting the goods, but that seems like a risky strategy at best!

        Thanks for a very informative account. The limitations of emergency services is particularly eye-opening!

        • Lewis Sharman : Jun 2nd

          Excellent point re. the “too good hang” part. Indeed, there’s no such thing as “too good” of a hang, and I really hope readers don’t come away with the idea that a better strategy (in ANY situation) is an ineffective hang. It’s not. It carries the suggestion that a less effective hang (resulting in the bears getting food) might be a useful strategy for others. It’s not. That it might somehow confer greater safety. It wouldn’t. Hopefully, Lily/Town (and Talia) will confirm and clarify.

          • Lily : Jun 3rd

            Hi Lewis & Nicole! This is a very good note and I’ve decided to edit the article to reflect it. The last thing I want is to imply false safety information, so I’ve taken out the “too good hang” bullet point. Its origin as a cause for our situation is from a comment the ranger made about bears going after the most calories for the least amount of effort. But that’s not something you can avoid by distracting them with a poor hang and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that. I hope you’re satisfied with the change. I swapped it for including a bullet point about the wrapper in Town’s pocket which I forgot to include in the original list. I’m not a professional writer (and certainly didn’t know this many people would be reading), but now that I have this kind of platform I want to make sure the safety advice is valuable and accurate. I’m sorry I couldn’t do it sooner. I’ve been hiking! Thanks again for your respectful comments!

            • Lewis Sharman : Jun 3rd

              Lily – I think you guys did what just about anybody else would’ve done. Better, actually, all things considered. I do know that “terrified” feeling, especially in the dark. This’ll probably never happen to you again, but along the lines of “next time”, I’ll offer the following: These bears didn’t want you (yes, really!) – they wanted a food reward (no, not human flesh). Failing that, they wanted some other kind of “curiosity/stimulation” reward (the lead-up to a food reward). Something to sniff/chew on at least. There’s a ton more to be said about how their evolution, their suite of senses, and their intelligence “feeds” (sorry!) into all this, but suffice it to say that these bears have learned to “push”. The trick is to never let them push you. Never. Stand your ground (as hard as that is). It will almost certainly not change the outcome. Stand back to back, make yourself big and loud, protect your gear, make the scene unpleasant for them. They’ll eventually get bored and leave (“Damn, these guys are a pain in the ass, plus that last rock hurt! Nothing for us here.”). In the EXTREMELY unlikely case that this was a stalking/predatory encounter, the outcome would be the same. Quite simply, if they’d wanted you, they’d have gotten you (or tried hard, which they clearly didn’t). Stepping aside off the trail for an approaching bear is one thing, but it’s best not to let one push you much beyond that. And dropping/throwing gear at them really does make the problem worse. In this I (and most bear human interaction experts) differ with some other advice you got. That just gives the bear a “curiosity/stimulation” reward and further encourages the “pushing” behavior. Stand your ground. Raise hell. Rocks. Big sticks. Loud, novel noise. Whip a big flappy jacket or tarp, etc. through the air. Whiz a rope around. Stand. Your. Ground. Yes, I KNOW it’s hard. If he makes contact (he won’t), fight back with everything you have. Backing away (even slowly and gradually) and letting them push does not change the outcome, even with a human-predatory black bear (and it’s highly likely that there’s currently not a single one of those in the entire continental U.S.). It does, however, reinforce “pushing” behavior. All the foregoing assumes no bear spray. Which has been definitively shown to be MORE EFFECTIVE THAN A FIREARM, and obviously much safer for us humans. So now that you have a bear spray (one is sufficient for the 2 of you, sleep with it between you), you should be able to sleep soundly. Relax, you’re gonna be fine. Also, you’re a fine writer, and your article did everyone a big service. Thanks for that. Glad you’re back hiking, and please hug a big ol’ mountain laurel for me (I thru-hiked NOBO like you back in 1975).

              • Gloria Sargent : Jun 4th

                Your advice concurs with much that I’ve read and heard over the years. I’ve met a bear backpacking in Colorado, we went one way and the bear went the other. When we camped up on the Blue Ridge, rangers told us to make ourselves large and lots of noise should we encounter a bear. I own two Pyrenean Mountain dogs (not advocating that folks hike with them, they would probably lay down after a mile or so…) who also “bully” the bear to protect a flock, their instincts know that wild animals in general do not want to fight for their food and risk harm to themselves (which can be deadly for a wild animal.)

  • Ken : Jun 1st

    Thanks for sharing your story Lily. Hopefully what you did right and what you did wrong will give other hikers the knowledge to prevent them from having to go through the same thing. I’m glad you didn’t end up on Netflix.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Thank you, Ken! Yes, that’s exactly my hope too.

  • Geoff : Jun 1st

    This is a very thorough recap, Lily. I am sorry you and your friend went through this experience. Putting this down in words will help you both process the experience. You showed a lot of courage in posting this, knowing that you would get a fair bit of coulda/shoulda in the comments.

    The bear precautions you noted in the article and reiterated by several folks in the comments point up a overarching point: you are in charge of your experience, and responsible for it. A 911 operator and nearby law enforcement aren’t super-focused on the Appalachian Trail experience, and the time (and phone battery) spent attempting to get them informed and engaged meant less time for you guys to own the problem and start to solve it. Which you did eventually, anyway. In a time-sensitive situation, best to get to it. It’s not a bad idea to keep authorities posted on your moves, but they didn’t really tell you anything you couldn’t figure out (or look up) on your own.

    Enjoy the rest of your adventure. I am sure you both are recovering, and that this experience has made you more curious about precautions for the various (bear and other) challenges that lie ahead. I hope these bears are now more interested in berries than bipedal interlopers.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Thanks for your comment, Geoff. I agree with everything you wrote. I would only add that there are many mixed messages on trail about the law enforcement’s ability to help. In this area, there were signs posted every five miles or so saying “call 911 in an emergency, you are on AT mile (blank)”. Plus, we weren’t far from the highway or Blue Ridge Parkway which has a high ranger presence. Looking back, I wish the deputies and dispatchers had been more upfront about their inability to help us and instead offered us advice on how to handle the bear ourselves. We kept asking if we could leave and they kept insisting we stay put because they were on their way which delayed everything. Town works in search and rescue and he was really upset that they would give a false ETA of 30 minutes. I think there should be protocol improvements on both ends. Hikers should be aware that help may not be possible and law enforcement should be more prepared to offer help over the phone. That’s just my take!

      • Geoff : Jun 1st

        Good points, Lily. Well, you are learning a ton. And surviving your learning experiences to press forward. Bravo, and thanks for sharing.

      • Chris : Jun 1st

        As an ex-dispatcher, you are asking far too much for them to be bear experts. They are trained for police response and medical emergencies and are often in a large call center that covers a huge geographical area. Most dispatchers do not spend time in the outdoors or know every landmark in the county, especially when getting info from someone in a panic screaming into a phone.

        Also, dispatch centers are not like what you see on TV where all of your info pops up on screen automatically (such as your cell phone GPS location). Rural dispatch is not as well funded and may be running on older computer systems.

        • Lily : Jun 1st

          That’s really helpful to know, Chris! I wonder then why they have the postings about calling 911 for help in emergencies on the trail? And thank you for your work as a dispatcher! That is a very difficult job and I know the dispatchers were doing their best. It was mainly the deputies giving false hope/ETAs that I had a problem with. It would have saved us an hour of battery if they had said “we can’t get to you, we’re gonna connect you to a wildlife expert.” Instead, they said to stay in the tent and they’d be there in 30 minutes. Also, that’s good to know about the GPS locators. I had no idea. Thank you!

        • Gloria Sargent : Jun 4th

          You make so many good points that folks may not be aware of. The % of people who have experience beyond a town with first responders is very small. There is a variety in the amount of assistance available in rural counties, many do not have the population to support “fancy” systems and help is not available in short time periods. Lily mentions the signs on the trail, perhaps they should be modified to manage expectations of what assistance 911 can offer.

      • James : Jun 8th

        Glad you all are safe! This got me thinking more about the What3Words location that is now incorporated in the FarOut App, and wondering if 911 is up on this technology.

  • Andrew Downs : Jun 1st

    Thanks for your honesty. Hopefully folks will learn from your experience.

    P.S. *Matt’s Creek Shelter.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      You’re so right, thank you!

  • Phil : Jun 1st

    I have no experience hiking but yelling “Hey Bear” seems like your going to ask it a question. Maybe like “f off bear” would have been less confusing.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Fantastic point! Hahaha — in all seriousness though, the bear safety instructions tell you to scream that. I have no idea what the origin is. Would be interesting to find out. By the end it sounded more like a delirious and croaky “hey, beer,” and “ha, ba..”

  • Jenny Frazier : Jun 1st

    Thank you for sharing! I took away some valuable information as I section hike often.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      That is so good to hear! It makes writing the article entirely worth it. This information can protect humans and the bears!

  • Morgan Sommerville : Jun 1st

    Thanks for the great article, Lily. I’m glad neither of you were hurt. I hope your account will help A.T. campers to focus on proper camping practices including proper food storage and eating and hygiene practices.
    FYI everyone, the USFS has issued a new food storage order for the A.T. covering USFS lands from Springer to Rockfish Gap, VA. It is now illegal to sleep with your food, anywhere, i.e., in your tent or in an A.T. shelter. Also, bear cans, user created food hangs (6′ below the branch, 6′ from the trunk and other trees/branches, and 12′ from the ground), electric fences, and A.T. mgr. provided food storage facilities are the only permitted way to store your food. Additionally, your food must be stored 200′ (70 adult paces) from your and other campers’ sleeping area, and you should also always cook and eat that distance from your sleeping area. Here is a link to where you can find the actual USFS food storage order, at the bottom of this ATC webpage: https://appalachiantrail.org/explore/plan-and-prepare/hiking-basics/safety/bears/
    It is the responsibility of all A.T. campers to actually leave no trace. I have thru-hiked the A.T., and hiked many miles and camped many nights in grizzly bear territory. I know how tired you get, etc., etc. but it is imperative that each A.T. camper store and prepare their food responsibly so they don’t endanger themselves or those campers that come after them. Lily’s was a close call, and one A.T. thru-hiker has been bitten by a bear this year. WE DO NOT WANT anyone to be harmed by bears or bears to be euthanized through habituation to human food. I trust that is your goal as well.

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Completely agree! Thank you for this information!

    • Lewis Sharman : Jun 2nd

      Best post in the string. Informative and actionable. Thanks.

  • Mountainbeach Girl : Jun 1st

    So frightening! You guys did the best you could and survived! Obviously, those bears were already conditioned to humans. Unfortunately, I see this all the time living in the NC Mountains. It is the main reason I no longer have the stamina to day hike in my area at my old age. My dog misses hiking too. We frequently see unafraid bears in our rural area. SAD! Wishing y’all best trekking ahead!

  • Eric Thomas : Jun 1st

    I think it’s time to become “gun people.”

    • Lily : Jun 1st

      Hahaha yes a lot of my southern friends agree with you..

  • Sarah : Jun 1st

    This is terrifying and I am SO glad you are okay. What a great reflective article, thank you for sharing your experience with candor!

  • John Z : Jun 1st

    That you so much for this write up. I am in the process of packing for a trip I will take starting this afternoon. At one point, I was trying to decide where to store my sunscreen. I think this answers my question.

    To me, the issue is that the Bears were hungry and that they had learned this was the best/easiest way to get food. Bears are going to get hungry. We cannot blame them for that. I have been hunting and I know that it is very difficult to get all smells/odors off of you. Yes we must try but in the end, their nose will find it. As in, put your toothpaste in your food bag/bear vault. But wait, I just brushed my teeth and I am breathing it out all night. The real issue is those that taught the bears that campers were a good source of food. It all starts with that. The best way to handle a bear encounter is not to have one at all. Store your food properly… for your self and the next person.

    Thanks again for the post.

  • Rzrbck : Jun 1st

    Good article and info. You need a patch or t-shirt from the 30 Seconds Out guys, either the “No one is coming, it’s up to us” or the “Expect to Self Rescue” (my favorite hiking t-shirt). Good luck on the rest of the hike!

  • zbeer : Jun 1st

    Great article/post. I appreciate the raw story with details you told. And yes, let’s call it what it was, a bear attack. This is a textbook lessons learned write up which helps educate and extend bear insights on the trail. Stay safe and great post!

  • Dottie Rust : Jun 1st

    Lily, first, I’m so sorry you had this experience…it’s so frightening! I section-hiked the AT, finished in 2016. A bear stalked our tent at Peachbowl Shelter but fortunately it left…we were terrified for 45 minutes.

    You & Town did everything you could, but I believe you were victims of prior hikers’ mistakes. I volunteer at ATC Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry…I ask hikers how they are storing their food…I cringe when they tell me they sleep with their food & have never been bothered. Hopefully hikers will read your post & mKe better choices.

    I’m at ATC Wednesdays, hope to get to meet you.


    • Lily : Jun 8th

      Hi .com! I wish we could’ve met you and said hi! We passed through Harpers Ferry on a Saturday 🙁 I hope you have a good summer!

  • Jeff M : Jun 1st

    Hi Lily. I thank God you are alive and alright. A few things to start. I am no expert. But for me never take wild animals for granted. Life and death is the world they live in. Most likely a bear will not hurt anyone, but they can and mostly when black bears attack. They can and do kill. If the cub with her is 2 years old, than you were lucky. If it had been young cubs she probably would have attacked you and probably killed you. When you started throwing rocks. She would have seen that more of threat to a young cub. She probably would have gotten pretty mean.

    Though you were near an area that was closed because of bears. Bears are still in areas where there are not warnings to bear sightings. So you could still encounter a bear or bears. In the wild you never know. I am a bow hunter. I have encountered rattlesnakes. I have had people tell me bears and snakes more scared of us then we are of them. May be some truth to that saying. But fear can cause someone to attack quicker, because they are scared. Especially wild animals. Heck a scared dog will bite quicker than a calm one.

    You I am sure bought top equipment. You say you are not gun person. But you carry plenty of tools to make sure hike and camping is safe and successful. Well a gun is a tool. You obviously are a sane competent person. Just what would you have done if the bear had attacked Town. Or the bear had attacked you. The black bears reputation is when they attack, they kill. You may never encounter this situation again. As you have experienced, it can happen. Like I said I have encountered rattlesnakes when hunting. Guys have called me a sissy for wearing snake boots. Who cares. I believe in being prepared. I am planning on hiking overnight this coming fall. I will be carrying my tool. I hate to say this not because of bears though I may encounter a bad one. But I know there are crazy people out there. I hope I never am in a situation where I would have to use my pistol. It will be there just in case. Hopefully it will keep aot of dust on it.
    To say it could never happen is foolish and pretty stupid.
    I just believe in being prepared in all areas.

    Just remember a gun is a tool. In your situation it could have been a lot worse and thankfully it wasn’t. It could have gone really bad and you could not have done anything to stop it. Just remember like a knife, an axe, a gun is a tool. It could save you or someone else in your situation.
    Research it and maybe prepare yourself just in case

    Happy hiking!

  • Kathy Anderson : Jun 1st

    Lily, thank you for being brave enough to post as you were probably well aware that, of course, you would get some back lash. I really found helpful the “things you did right/wrong”. And I admire you for “getting back in the saddle” and continuing your hike. I think this will change (I hope) behavior since from my 500 miles on the AT last year and talking to many thru hikers a good 80 to 90% of them sleep with their food.

    Good luck.

    • Lily : Jun 8th

      Hi! Thank you so much for your comment. Yes, it’s a real problem on the trail. Every other confession at the priest shelter was “I sleep with my food” to the point where it’s become normalized on trail. Unfortunately, that’s what puts the bears and humans in danger. I hope talking about the consequences more openly can change that!

  • Tom : Jun 2nd

    Be truthful, Is it still worth it NOT to carry bear spray just to save a few grams? I realize tons of people on the AT don’t carry it because of the weight and that it’s really not needed because bear attacks are super rare. The thing with that, bear attacks can happen and do happen as you well know now. Things could also have gone real bad for you two in a split second. Are the lives of you or other thru-hikers lives not worth the extra nominal weight of carrying bear spray? I hope it is. I just find it stupid and irresponsible that so many thru-hikers think that bear attacks will not happen to them. My final thoughts on bear spray: It is better to have it and not need it than to not have it and need it. After all, you only have one life…

    • Lily : Jun 2nd

      We bought bear spray the next day.

      • Morgan Sommerville : Jun 2nd

        FYI, in the incident that closed the Matt’s Creek shelter area to camping, before your incident, the camper did use bear spray which did not deter the bear and gassed the person that used the spray.
        It is extremely important to read the directions for bear spray and practice its use. Some people have allergic reactions to bear spray. Also, you should not spray your tent or other equipment with bear spray as a deterrent. After it dries it can actually become an attractant for bears. In the Great Smoky Mts. NP, the NPS typically closes campsites where bear spray has been used for a week or more to allow the bear spray to dissipate. Additionally, bear spray needs to be carefully stored on/in your pack so that it cannot inadvertently discharge when the pack is leaned against, etc., a not uncommon occurrence.

        • Lewis Sharman : Jun 8th

          Morgan, I’m very curious about that incident. Did the camper deploy the spray properly? Did they get a really good “hit” on the bear (close, full-face, right in the snoot)? If so, it would be VERY unusual for the bear not to be deterred. I suspect something didn’t happen properly here… Thanks.

          • Morgan Sommerville : Jun 8th

            Hi, Lewis. See the post below from the previous Matt’s Cr. camper in question that used bear spray: ERIS FOUTZ : JUN 2ND

  • Lisa Jones : Jun 2nd

    Thank you for sharing !!! So many people think of our East coast bears as giant puppies. How many times do we see the comments ridiculing people who carry bear spray ??? They are wild animals with different personalities. Some are easily spooked and others just aren’t. There have been attacks on people, that should be enough for anyone to carry bear spray. I get shaving weight but you might ultimately be shaving it in body parts. I think we need a new trend of carrying bear spray and stories like yours could save the lives of both humans and bears !!!

  • Trekker John : Jun 2nd

    Wow – what an incredible ordeal !! Very informative and to the point of what not to do and what additional safety items to carry.
    Your new trail name should be “Rock Chunker”. Prayers to you and yours for your future adventures.
    My only black bear encounter was in WV – but banging on a pot was enough to run him off. (now, I have a different perspective on that).
    Happy Trails,

  • marsh : Jun 2nd

    If yelling “Hey Bear” doesn’t work, try barking like a dog. One of my friends actually treed a black bear by barking at it. Bears may be losing their fear of humans but maybe they still fear dogs.

  • Derek : Jun 2nd

    Was a memory for sure! You made some mistakes. You learned from them. Good job.

    One comment I’d offer – and not as an insult. I am blown away that you seemed to expect a 911 call to solve any of this problem while it was happening. Or expected them to take care of you when you got to the road. That’s kind of the point of wilderness is to not have“ the call and have someone fix it option”. Law enforcement has no duty to protect you or know about the trail at all. When your scared I understand it may have offered comfort.

    And by the way. I am terrified of bears – just always have been. Haha. Every noise I hear is a bear. That would have been a truly terrifying experience. I am curious how you are coping afterward. Also. When was this? My wife and son are on trail!!

    • Ken : Jun 10th

      I felt the same way reading this. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to try 911.

    • Lily : Jun 10th

      Hi Derek! Sorry for my delay in responding, I’ve been hiking 🙂 This happened on May 14th. As for the 911 question, I think it occurred to Town because he was in the military and worked in search and rescue. Worst case, we’d get some advice about how to handle the situation over the phone from people who know the area better than us or had dealt with the situation before. We didn’t call hoping for a full rescue mission, just advice or help once we got to the highway and didn’t have anywhere to go. Hope this info helps and I hope your wife and son are having a good and safe experience on trail!
      We’re coping okay. We struggle to sleep in our tent (waking up to every noise and cradling the bear spray), but sleeping near other people helps. Thanks for asking!

  • kb : Jun 2nd

    Read every word, you guys were clutch. You stopped, planned and executed. I’m not sure I would have
    reacted nearly as well. In retrospect, I always cook close to my tent, stash my bag to close, and forget
    a snack or something in my pack side pockets. I hope I learned something….Oh yeah, and I have forgotten
    my trash bag with the food hang. You guys now have real experience and a great story; I have to clean
    up my act.

  • Mark : Jun 2nd

    Lily – thanks for writing this article. I have been a section hiker for a few years and maybe have gotten complacent with bear avoidance techniques. You inspire me to do better.

  • Kimberly Miller : Jun 2nd

    Lily, So glad you were able to get to safety!
    Me and my husband had a very similar experience 30 years ago while we were backpacking in Alaska…black bear woke us up in the middle of the night, demolished our tent/equipment, charged us over and over, followed us down a trail and eventually we had to cross a pretty significant river (which the bear also crossed), and eventually we climbed up high in a tree where we stayed all night. We like you did all the things for bear safety, yet despite that… this bear was after us. We also now carry bear spray when hiking (we are in the process of section hiking the AT). The experience definitely helped us develop a new respect for the wilderness and we are very diligent about how we camp, cook, and hang food. I always feel frustrated when hikers don’t follow safety rules when camping/backpacking because it can be dangerous for campers/hikers and wildlife.
    I hope you have a great rest of your hike this year and thanks for sharing your story !

    • TJ : Jun 2nd

      novice backpacker here and hopeful thru hiker someday…. what are some of you veteran hikers opinion of the Ursack.. I have an all mighty… supposedly bear and rodent proof. Is this true?? Can I just tie this to a tree if I have an odor proof liner in it??

      • Morgan Sommerville : Jun 3rd

        There are pluses and minuses to all food storage methods. I have used an Ursack Almitey and various bear canisters. Many hikers trying to save weight and have easier packing opt for Ursacks, i.e., they are lighter than bear cans, easier to stuff into a tight pack than bear canisters. Ursacks are heavier than the equipment for hanging a stuff sack with food, so fall in the middle of the weight spectrum. Minuses are they get heavier when wet, if attacked by a bear or rodent they can be pierced by their teeth, and a bear will smash the food rendering it essentially inedible. Worse, the bear will also get a taste of the food even if they can’t eat it which will contribute to habituation to human food. If a bear is able to get the Ursack free from what it is tied to it is much easier to carry away than a bear canister. Bear canisters are heavier, and stiff, so you have to be sure the bear canister you select will fit in (or on) your pack, or get a pack that fits your bear can. Some bears have learned to get in bear canisters. In Yosemite NP some bears have learned to pick up and drop bear cans on rocks repeatedly until they break, or throw them off a cliff to break them. However, bear cans are the most reliable and most flexible method of food storage – you don’t need a tree to use them, you save lots of time using them. I’d suggest you get something like an “Airtag” to place in your bear can in case a bear moves it so you can track it. Also useful to put your contact info in there in case somebody else finds it, and also useful to put reflective tape on all sides of the canister. If a bear moves it, the bear can will not be too far away because they can’t actually carry them. You should look within a few hundred feet for a moved canister. It is quite important to always fully close and lock a bear canister except to put in or take out its contents, even if it is sitting next to you it should be fully locked. Having used both the Almitey and a couple of bear canisters the size of a BearVault BV500, I now always carry the bear canister.

  • Phil : Jun 2nd

    I live vicariously through these posts on The Drek, and I must say I read this post twice! Because of its content authenticity and drama. I must say that they talk about trail magic or angel they must have had legit trail magic that day!

  • Eris Foutz : Jun 2nd

    Hi!!! Me and my mom are the ones that had an encounter with the bear that closed the shelter. Like you, the bear huffed and bluff charged the outside of our tent starting at around midnight. Luckily we had bear spray and tried to squirt some outside the mesh window of our tent but ultimately it did nothing and some residue got onto our arms and faces. We contacted authorities about an hour into the encounter, and were bounced around to different departments all night long. We heard the bear outside our tent until 6 am, where we stayed up all night long yelling “hey bear” and singing kumbuyah. At 7 am, it was light outside and me and my mom left and met search & rescue teams who had just entered the woods. our food sack was also still hung in the tree! very similar encounter. probably the same bear. so sorry to hear this happened to you & i wish you the best for the rest of your thru-hike.

    • Lily : Jun 8th

      Hi Eris! I’m so sorry that happened to you but I’m so glad you and your mom are okay! I believe it probably was the same bear/bears. As ranger Wilson told us, the bears likely had an experience before you that taught them that humans = food reward. That area is popular for day hiking which is why spreading bear safety etiquette is important! I hope you’re sleeping okay now! We have some trouble (waking up to every shuffle of leaves etc.), but cradling the bear spray helps haha

  • shemp : Jun 3rd

    we had some bear interaction at a large popular park. the ranger came, pulled out a small pack of firecrackers and said dont advertise this, but if you light one of these and toss it within 20 feet of the bear, when it goes off, the bear will quickly be on the next continent. i thought that was interesting.

  • Walter : Jun 3rd

    Im sure you are aware but the entire trail in Va is in very good and populated bear country. Ie there is bear activity along the trail at any time. Bear density in SNP among the highest anywhere. That said encounters are still infrequent. wish you smooth sailing here on out!

  • Joe Cleveland : Jun 3rd

    Thank you for taking the time to provide this very well written and informative post. It will certainly be helpful for people and the bears. Best of luck with the rest of your journey.

  • Martha Potocki : Jun 4th

    Lily you made it thru the bear encounter that’s all that matters!! We hiked in 1997. We had no cell phones,equipment was heavier,and thankfully had no bad bear encounters!!Although my daughter had a rattlesnake strike at her hiking pole on rattlesnake mtn. N J. Also we had no wild goats only ponies! Great story!😂Hike on and one step at a time!!🥾🥾Aunt Marti AT GA-ME 97

  • Greg C. : Jun 4th

    Thank you for sharing Lily. As a SASHer with quite a few black bear encounters, but none as intense… this is a helpful experience to myself and hopefully others as well. Appreciate you sharing and wishing you happy trails to come…


  • Bill Jensen : Jun 5th

    I can’t tell you how many times on the AT thru that a had a great bear hang only to discover I’d forgotten my toiletries and/or the wrappers in the hip pockets of my pack.

  • Kristen : Jun 5th

    One of my first backpacking trips ever in PA on the Appalachian Trail I made a very stupid rookie mistake. I boiled pasta and drained the water about 30 ft from where I slept… (I know, I know!)

    Later that night while sitting around our small fire we heard large sticks, cracking and snuffling and huffing right in the area where I poured the water. The bear circle my camp for the better part of an hour and a half and was not deterred by the loud noises, throwing of stones, smacking of tree branches for anything else we did to try to deter it. We just sat up with the fire hoping that the bear would be too nervous of the flames to come much closer… It was a very very very long night, but I learned a valuable lesson that day!

    I was hiking with somebody who had thru hiked the year before and slept with their food routinely. They changed that practice immediately after that night. Just goes to show you experience is a great teacher. I appreciate you using your experience to help keep others from making the same mistake!

  • David Pendleton : Jun 9th

    I can give all of you some cheap easy advice. This isn’t something I’ve read but experienced firsthand on my occasions. I live in Kingsport, TN which depending on whether you want to access the AT in TN, VA, or NC, I can be there in less than an hr. I’m also approx. 1 1/2 hrs from hiking in the Smokies which I’ve done my whole life. I’m 65, I’m an Eagle Scout and I’ve done plenty of backpacking & hiking with bears. So to get to the advice. I had taken my wife & 2 young daughters to Mt LeConte in the Smokies where you hike 1 or 6 trails to get to the top where the lodge is for an overnight stay. We would run into bears on almost 80% of our annual trips. We’ve all been taught as described in this story to make noise. Just like our food the bears get accustomed to our sound and they can begin to ignore it. So I devised a plan for my next trip up Mt Leconte. I went to the boating supplies isle at Walmart and bought the smallest airhorn they had. I tethered it to a lanyard and hooked it to my pack. On a return trip back down LeConte headed for our car we encountered one of the biggest black bears I’d ever seen. His head was the size of a laundry basket. He was coming up the trail & we where going down. So I got tall and yelled and charged at him like I had done many times and this big boy began to claw the ground and shake his head back & forth and continue towards. That’s when I pulled my new weapon out and & charged directly at him yelling and at the same time hit that airhorn about 4 times. He almost tumbled head over as he ran at top speed straight down an extremely steep ridge. It worked like a charm & I’ve used it several times since that encounter. I hope this helps somebody! PS- Bear Spray is insurance!

  • Taylor : Slaughterhouse : Jun 10th

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I love that you were open and brave enough to share not only what you did right, but what you did wrong – because (like you said) this is a great learning experience not only for you, but for others. I also want to congratulate you for how you have carried yourself in the comments, good on you! This is such an important topic for people to talk about and it’s important that people are not reprimanded for what we could improve on, but that they are congratulated for recognizing how to continue to learn and help others in the process. I’m so glad you made it through this experience without any physical harm to you and your hiking partner!

  • Carol Fielding : Jun 10th

    Thanks so much for writing about this! I’m about 100 miles behind you and will definitely be paying more attention to the food hang, what’s in my tent, and where I eat.

  • Robin : Jun 11th

    My granddaughter and I were north bound Friday afternoon (looks like your incident was Sunday night) arriving at Petites Gap while Ranger Larson was posting signs closing Matt’s Creek Shelter and area to camping. After getting more information about previous incidents, we decided since best option since we had 5 hikers to get shuttle to Stanimal’s, tent camp there and return next morning to hike through the “bear zone” without need to camp. Stanimal’s turned out to have wonderful shuttle service, so we slack-packed an additional day and were in the Monday morning pancake eating group. We let on early shuttle so didn’t hear you story until this posting. Every situation comes with hindsight of how someone might have done things better but it also provides a learning experience for others without the need of the extreme excitement. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • MikeE : Jun 13th

    Maybe they did nothing wrong? Maybe that nice campsite was dirty from previous backpackers. People have a tendancy to throw food/drink out on the ground or spit toothpaste on the ground when packing up to leave. Not thinking that the site will be used by others. Bears have a tendency to make the rounds from campsite to campsite where they have found/smelled food in the past. This has happened to me a couple of times. I now try to verify my camping spot is food free before setting up. Sometimes it is hard to tell. Check the foliage around the perimeter. Look for dark spots in the dirt. Toothpastes, hot chocolates, coffee, are big time bear attractives. And please keep your site clean for the next backpackers.

  • Jesse : Jun 17th

    I like how having a gun to protect yourself is a “cultural difference “

  • Galen : Jun 27th

    Hi, so happy you two are safe from the attack. This sent chills down my spine,. because this sounds like my bear from last year. I encountered this bear right before Matts Creek Shelter. Being a thru-hiker I was eager to get to Glasgow and had a fast pace and was making enough noise to make my presence aware. This bear poked his head around a tree saw me and got right on trail walking towards me. I stopped and started shouting and getting big. The bear kept coming towards me and picking up spreed. At this point he must’ve been 30 feet from me. I’m thinking to myself this isn’t a normal bear. So I got primal, I’ve never been so aggressive in my life but I had to make myself seem like the apex predator. Thankfully the bear started to slowed down and eventually stopped. I got louder and more violent before it could make up it’s mind if it wanted to charge. As soon as I saw the behavior change as some sort of fear and it started to withdrawal into the brush. I pushed after carefully chasing it off, leaving the bear in a full sprint retreat. Damn it felt good to face off and win, but the reality is this could’ve been a deadly situation. I heard defensive black bears will charge, huff, puff, stomp but most likely turn away last minute. This however seemed like a predatory bear who wants to see if we are prey. They show interest in us and deliberately approach. No signs woofing, jaw popping, or paw swatting (at least in not in my experience).

    You two handled the situation very well! Enjoy the rest of your journey and make it to katadhin!!!


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