Black Bears and Thru-Hiking: Your Questions Answered

On a recent hike through Glacier National Park, my wife, Michelle, and I encountered multiple bears. Michelle had a more than healthy respect for the animals. I, on the other hand, was complaining that I still had not gotten a really good picture of one. Just then, she whispered, “Bear!” and quickly started moving away from the cute ball of fur (black bear) that had run right past us. My mind registered only, “Hey, a cub!” as I pulled out the camera.

Seconds later, I heard a shout of “Keep walking!” from my wife in the distance. I then realized my folly and started laughing at my own stupidity. From an even greater distance, I then heard, “You’re not taking this very seriously.”

I thought to myself, “No, I guess I’m not,” then finally began to leave the area.

As with most bear encounters, we lived to tell the tale, but were we really in any danger? Should backpackers and thru-hikers be worried about bears while on the trail? I resolved to find out.

Yes, some black bears are brown. Photo by Jim Rahtz

Black Bear or Grizzly?

For starters, there are two very different species of bears living in the continental United States. Most of them are black bears (Ursus americanus).

Black bears are spread throughout the US with populations in 41 of the 50 states. The total population is estimated to be around 750,000 in North America. An adult typically weighs between 125 and 500 pounds, though there’s a captive male living at the North American Bear Center that tips the scales at close to 1,000 pounds.

Much less prevalent and with a smaller range is the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis). Grizzlies are found in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone area and north) as well as the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana. These notoriously aggressive animals (compared to black bears) are best identified by their large and distinctive shoulder humps.

CDT hikers may encounter grizzlies on the northern leg of their hikes, but AT and PCT hikers needn’t worry. While grizzlies could theoretically be at the very northern edge of the PCT, there has only been one verified sighting in the northern Cascades this century.

It’s a safe bet that any bear you see on the AT or PCT will be a black bear. That being the case, let’s concentrate on black bears.

If you’re hiking the AT or the PCT, chances are you will see one at some point. There are an estimated 30,000 of them living in California and an estimated 1,500 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When on these trails, you are a guest in the bear’s home. Some of my most exciting moments on the trail involved bear sightings, but is it dangerous to share the woods with them?

Are Black Bears Dangerous?

Statistically and relatively speaking, the answer is a resounding no.

From 2000 to 2019 there have been nine deaths by black bear attacks in the lower 48 states. Of those, three involved either feeding a bear or joining one in a cage. Counting just those in that occurred the wild, it works out to roughly one death every three years. By contrast:

Heck, according to the Washington Post, in a six-year period through 2017, over 250 people had died while taking selfies. (If someone died while taking a selfie with a bear, I’m not sure which list they ended up on.)

The Greatest Misconception

To get some specifics, I spoke with Lynn Rogers, the founder and board chair of the North American Bear Center. He has been studying and working with bears since 1967. It may come as a bit of a surprise to those that have grown up reading about bear attacks in outdoor magazines, but black bears are actually a rather docile species under most circumstances. In fact, Rogers stated that black bears are reluctant to even defend their cubs from people.

“The greatest misconception about black bears is that they are likely to attack people in defense of cubs. They are highly unlikely to do this. In fact, there’s never been a documented case of anyone being killed by a black bear defending her cubs.” —Lynn Rogers

Most likely, if the mother senses danger, she will get the cub up a tree. She’ll either stand at the base or join it in the tree.

Black bear. Wikimedia Commons.

Most bear safety information does not differentiate between grizzlies and black bears. The two species react differently to threats, resulting in unwarranted confusion and fear (and a lot of misconceptions).

A black bear’s typical reaction to meeting a hiker on the trail is to turn and run. Even those that act more aggressively with vocalizing or slamming their paw to the ground are doing so out of nervousness. Slowly backing away will give the bear the space it wants.

So, If You See a Black Bear on the Trail, What Should You Do?

Per Rogers, “Basically, enjoy it. We like to make ourselves inconspicuous to watch them longer before they discover us and run….We have seen a lot of advice to avoid eye contact and avoid running away, but we have been unable to find any instance where doing these things has precipitated an attack. Fearful people usually tell us ‘I ran one way and the bear ran the other.’”

All that being said, there is still the rare black bear that is aggressive and will attack a human. Rogers estimates that these bears are literally one in a million. In addition, bears that are exposed to people (like those that live near trails) are even less likely to be aggressive than those that live where they rarely see a person. Despite the “one in a million” odds, attacks happen.

What About That One-in-a-Million Aggressive Black Bear?

If a black bear appears aggressive, the National Park Service recommends the following:

If a bear persistently follows or approaches you without vocalizing or paw swatting:

  • Change your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground.
  • Act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Talk loudly or shout at it. Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground).
  • Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear.
  • Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.

If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked:

  • Separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.

If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey:

  • Fight back aggressively with any available object!
  • Do not play dead!

What About Pepper Spray?

Rogers recommends carrying pepper spray. The small containers designed for dog protection are plenty strong. He has tested the spray extensively on black bears. If a bear does act aggressively it should solve the problem quickly and safely. When hit with the spray, the bear “doesn’t go away mad, it just goes away.”

Studies have shown pepper spray has a higher success rate at stopping aggressive bears than even a gun. For one thing, you don’t need to try to take an accurate shot under duress. Just keep spraying. If you accidentally hit your fellow hiker, no permanent damage is done. Plus, the bear is not killed or wounded. Instead, it should learn a valuable lesson to fear humans.

One note of caution: pepper spray is a chemical irritant to be used on the bear. It is not a repellent to be sprayed on yourself or your gear. Apparently bears actually like the smell and have been known to come into camp to roll on tents that have been sprayed.

Protecting Yourself and the Bear

Bear are omnivores and will eat almost anything. Most of their diet is vegetation, but they also eat berries, insects, and small animals such as frogs, snakes, or mice. They do not need supplemental food from humans, but are happy to take it if they can get it.  That’s why it’s very important to protect your food from black bears. Use a bear canister, a bear locker or cables where available, or a bear bag hung from a tree to store everything that smells like it could be food.

Doing so protects the bear as well as yourself. Bears are smart, resourceful animals that learn from experience. If a bear successfully gets food from a person once, it will try it again, quickly raising the odds of a conflict between the bear and people that it now sees as a food source.

Bears that have been rewarded for interacting with people quickly become “problem” bears. The relocation of problem bears is expensive and has a low success rate. Quite often, the decision is made to eradicate the problem bear. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear.

Creating problem bears “in the old days” Credit NPS/R Robinson

Some Additional Rumors to Put to Rest

  • There is no evidence that menstruating draws any additional interest from bears.
  • Black bears are not always black. They can be brown, cinnamon, and rarely, even white.
  • There have been no studies conducted to show that, if attacked by a bear, crapping oneself will deter the bear.

Black bears are not the roving monsters they are often portrayed to be. At the same time, they’re not cute teddy bears to approach, feed, or take a selfie with either. They are wild animals trying to survive and mostly avoid humans. If we treat them as they are, we can safely coexist.

This article will hopefully be the first in a series that addresses the fears that new, and sometimes not so new, backpackers face when preparing for their hike. What is your greatest backpacking fear? Let us know in the comments below.

Featured image courtesy of the North American Bear Center.

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Comments 6

  • Dave Smith : Sep 14th

    If you take the trouble to actually read Steve Hererro’s 1998 study of Field Use of Capsicum Spray As A Bear Deterrent, you’ll see that in 4 incidents involving “aggressive” black bears, bear spray performed poorly. A tiny sample size, but the results were not encouraging. The limited data, and tiny sample size, do not inspire confidence in bear spray vs. a predatory black bear. A 2010 study on bear spray vs black bears in Kings Canyon Sequoia NP showed that shotguns (loaded with rubber slugs) were far more effective than bear spray. Slingshots were just as effective as bear spray.

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Sep 15th

      Here’s a little more detail for those interested: While they included multiple species (grizzly, polar and black) of bear in Alaska, T. Smith and Herrero were involved with multiple research papers that studied bear/human encounters involving hundreds of incidents over decades of time. Dealing with huge variations of people, unpredictable wild animals and differing situations certainly complicates matters. Bears don’t always read the rule book, but the research papers did come to some conclusions. “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska” published in the Journal of Wildlife Management stated that pepper spray stopped the undesirable behavior 90% of the time (black bear). A conclusion of that study was, “Bear spray represents an effective alternative to lethal force and should be considered as an option for personal safety for those recreating and working in bear country.”

      The study “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska,” showed a success rate of 77% for those with a firearm. That study had a conclusion of, “We encourage all persons, with or without a firearm, to consider carrying a non-lethal deterrent such as bear spray because its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater (i.e., 90% successful for all 3 North American species of bear; Smith et al. 2008) than those we observed for firearms.”

      Getting back to black bear specifically, researchers in the Ely, Minnesota area did some of the early testing of pepper spray (such as Halt spray for dogs) on black bears and polar bears. Based on this research, the North American Bear Center website states, “The weaker types of pepper spray like Halt and Dog Shield have proven to be plenty potent against black bears seeking food….Ely researchers believe anything more potent is overkill in black bear country…Predatory black bears are not angry, defensive, or highly motivated to attack. They just want to eat you. The odds of meeting a predatory black bear are extremely low, but if you’d rather be safe than sorry, any of the three brands of pepper spray at the Bear Center (Counter Assault, Halt, or Dog Shield) should deter it from eating you as easily as these products deter black bears from eating other foods.”

      Reply
  • Vince : Sep 15th

    I was bluff charged on the Kittatinny ridge in New Jersey 2 years ago. It was interesting.Stood my ground held my poles out, then yelled at him. It was male and then he did a 180 a degree turn after charging me about 20′ away,back in the woods before I could take a picture. Such is life. They can be aggressive, you’re right. Good article. Thanks
    Vince aka the Dude
    SOBO, A/T, 2016-

    Reply
  • Lois : Sep 16th

    Thank you for getting this information out. I volunteer for the North American Bear Center and there are so many misconceptions about black bears. They are food driven animals (well maybe not during mating season) and their goal each day is to eat and for mama bears to eat and teach her cubs how to eat and survive. Many people think a bear is about to attack when they bluff charge- that is the paw slapping and little huffs and tiny forward movements they make toward something that concerns them. They are trying to scare you away- please leave- walking backwards if a bear does this to you. Jim- I also would be thinking I need a picture but removing yourself from the bears area is the best option. Doc Rogers has learned more about black bears through his observations in the wild and through den cams to see a previously unknown part of bear life. You can get tons of into on their website bear.org. Happy hiking everyone.

    Reply
  • Robert : Sep 17th

    Interesting Post! Thanks.

    Reply
  • TwoDogs&ACat : Sep 19th

    Excellent article. Have followed Dr. Rodgers for years and learned a wealth of information that makes for appreciating not only bears but all wildlife sanely and w/o the terrors that other dramatic writers portray. You did distinguish between Grizzly and Black bears… excellent. Your style of writing is sensitive in that you don’t sensationalize terror of bears but that they are just as happy with peace in their life as are we. Kindness you express is so productive as a point of view for all of us to know and appreciate when we have an opportunity to interact with bears on the trail. Thank you.

    Reply

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