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Camping Fears: Eastern Black Bears and Safety

The best way to avoid black bear encounters is to make a lot of noise when hiking and keep a clean camp when sleeping
The best way to avoid black bear encounters is to make a lot of noise when hiking and keep a clean camp when sleeping. Fear is a natural response though and learning to cope with it can take time.

Had a reader contact me recently asking me how I managed to get any sleep when backpacking solo. He’d gone on their first overnight trip in Dolly Sods (WV) and been freaked out worrying about eastern bears at night and being attacked while he lay in his hammock.

My response:

“I am afraid sometimes too, but not at night. I sing songs when hiking through dense high berry bushes, for example. This last trip, I sang Shakedown Street and California Dreamin a lot. But at night, I sleep fine. Too exhausted. The Bears aren’t interested in you and they have no idea what a hammock is. I don’t worry about it.”

But there was a time when I worried about nighttime animal encounters too. Here’s are some of the things I did to ameliorate my fears.

Backpacking with other people

There’s something, probably instinctive, about safety in numbers. I backpacked with other people when I was starting out and my wife insisted on it. Mind you, I never shared a tent with someone else, but knowing that they were near by was comforting. The same holds for camping at group campsites, like shelters along the Appalachian Trail. There is comfort knowing that others are around, maybe even sleeping next to you in a lean-to. Of course, the opposite is often true. Bears come to well established AT campsites because they know food is available there, but sleeping near others still helps relieve the fear.

Hang my food at night

While some people dispute the effectiveness of hanging a bear bag, it just makes sense that storing your food and “smellables” (toiletries, cookpot, utensils)  outside your tent/hammock and at some distance, will help reduce your attractiveness as a food source. I used to hang my food until I discovered an Ursack, which is far easier to use than hanging a bear bag since you can just tie it to a tree trunk. The way I see it, bears are far more likely to investigate a food source that isn’t snoring and likely to fight back, than one that is. That said, I’ve NEVER noticed any sign of ursine tampering with a bear bag or Ursack in all my years of backpacking.

Keep a clean camp

I keep a very clean camp at night. I don’t burn my garbage and rarely even make a campfire, which is sure to alert bears to my presence from miles around. I try to avoid leaving crumbs on the ground when eating and pick up all garbage and stow it in my bear bag before going to sleep. Some people go as far as to cook dinner along the trail before they get to a campsite to avoid bringing food smells into camp with them. I haven’t done this, but I might if I ever decide to cook the fish I catch instead of releasing them.

Campsite selection

Bears, moose and other animals need to drink water, so I make a point not to locate my campsite any place blocking animals’ access to water. The same holds for camping in the middle of berry patches: probably not a good idea, since berries are a prime food source for bears. I also avoid camping at campsites that I know will be crowded, since I like going to sleep very early and hate noise at night. But crowded campsites, like lean-tos, are probably viewed as good food sources by bears since there’s bound to be someone who’s not as careful about their food storage and camp hygiene as me.

Exhaustion

I sleep great on backpacking trips because I’m usually so exhausted that I couldn’t stay awake if I tried. I eat dinner, clean up, and I’m usually asleep by the time the sun sets.

Trip wires

To this day, I occasionally set up obstacles at night near my tent or hammock that are designed to fluster a bear or moose who gets inquisitive when I’m asleep, in order to fluster them and scare them off. For example, I set up my hiking poles at the ends of my hammock so that a bear will knock them over if he tries to come in at the head end. The same goes with some of my hammock tarp guy lines. Weaving through the 10 guy lines on my tarp is hard enough for me…

Camp alarm

I once tented in the Serengeti in Africa and woke up at night to cries of “Simba, Simba” when our guides chased wild lions out of camp. (I promptly fell back asleep). To this day, I often hang my whistle, the loud one I carry attached to my pack’s shoulder strap, over my hammock ridgeline (inches from my face) at night so I can blow it loudly if I hear a bear near me to frighten it off.  Earlier in my backpacking career, my wife once gave me a mini-lantern with a built-in motion detector to frighten off inquisitive animals at night, but it never worked reliably and I discarded it.

Not to freak you out, but I used to have a recurring nightmare about hearing a bear investigating me while I slept. It happened very periodically: I think three times in total over the span of 10 years, and always when I was solo backpacking. In it, I want to yell at the bear but find that I cannot shout anything or utter a sound because I’m paralyzed in fear. That’s why I still drape the whistle over my hammock ridgeline.

Fear of Bears is Natural

Fear is a natural part of backpacking and hiking, especially when you’re alone and in the wilderness. I’m still afraid of unexpected animal encounters when hiking through dense bear and moose habitat (berry patches and head high grass/shrubbery) which is why I make a lot of noise when traveling through them. My advice: learn everything you can about bear and large animal behavior and habitat and use some of the techniques I outline above to help manage your fear level at night.

It takes time, but your fear of nighttime animal encounters will eventually recede when you come to appreciate the immensity of the biomass and natural processes at play in the wilderness around you. Think of it this way. How often do you take time off during the middle of the work day to go to the art museum? You have too much to do, right? Pardon the anthropomorphism, but bears would rather spend time gathering food and eating their natural food sources than checking you out. When you realize that you, as a human, are largely irrelevant to a bear’s day-to-day existence, you’ll sleep better at night.

Afterward: This post is about eastern black bears which are fairly docile, shy creatures, unless habituated to eat human food by careless campers. I don’t hike in the Western US or Alaska because I’d rather not deal with large predators like Grizzly Bears that I don’t know anything about. Hiking in Scotland (which has no bears) and the eastern US keep me fully occupied.

How do you manage your fear of bears on backpacking trips?

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76 comments

  1. Seen lots of bears in VA AT, wait for them to amble along. At night, good bag hang and if I hear noise, hey bear and clapping makes me secure. Usually I am solo.

  2. Sorry for duplicate posts. Phone is slow and I’m not good with it. Anyway don’t fret the bears.

  3. It is good to be careful about any critter that can do you serious harm, but the most dangerous part of any backpacking trip is surely the drive to the trailhead. I am sure, also, that such things as falls, hypothermia, and getting lost are way more dangerous to hikers than bears. Agree, make a noise when appropriate, keep a clean camp, carry spray out west.

  4. Many years ago one of the main attractions at Yosemite was watching the Bears feed in the evening. At the time, the Park Service piled the garbage In a central location the Bears found quite convenient. That practice was stopped many years ago. At that time bear were frequently encountered at any time. They were completely comfortable around people.
    In Big Sur raccoons will jump up on tables and steal food while you eat. When hiking there stay alert for rattlers, pigs and poison oak.
    In my years in the woods have never had a bear issue. Raccoons, chipmunks and mice more of a problem. Even the occasionally blue jay can be a pest at times.

  5. My experience on the AT has been that “park bears” (Shenandoah and Smokies) don’t seem afraid of you and you have to wait them out until they leave the trail before you can pass. “Wild bears” (outside of the parks) usually run when they see you. I’ve never encountered one in camp though. I’m very strict about hanging anything smellable, and don’t eat anything near where I set up my tarp for the night. First night out is always a little unnerving, but on subsequent nights you are too tired to try to be vigilant. Sleep comes easy.

    • Our family lived in the Washington, DC area off and on from 1966 to 1970 and we spent many nights camping in Shenandoah National Park back when bears freely roamed the campgrounds’ garbage buffets. One night, most of the family went to a Ranger talk while my littlest sister rested in a hammock, reading a book. When we returned, a small head with eyes the size of dinner plates slowly rose up from inside the hammock. A bear had practically camped out at our campsite the whole time we were gone making sufficient racket to drown out any heart thumping and whimpers coming from the seven year old slung between the trees.

    • All of the bears I have seen in the Smokies have run immediately. The ones I saw one the AT in NJ were completely uninterested in me and just kept doing their thing.

  6. “It is rare for a snake bite to result in death.”

    Though it’s rare, a bear attack is rarer. But that’s about arguing how many angels are atop a pin cusion, as neither is encountered as compared to a car wreck or something that’s actually to be worried about. I’ll save my skills and techniques for a realistic encounter than worry about an event that realistically rarer than my appearance on nightly TV, hey it’s happened.

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