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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.

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86 comments

  1. How do I manage my fear of bears on a backpacking trip?

    I just smear bacon grease all over my hiking partner and hang a pork chop around his neck when he’s sleeping and I don’t worry about it… at least until he wakes up in the morning!

    Actually, in all my decades of hiking in bear country, I’ve never seen one while on the trail. I know they’ve seen me because hikers coming the other way have mentioned bears moving ahead of us on the trail.

    I keep a clean camp and don’t keep smellables in the tent. All food and trash goes in a bear box if it’s there or Ursack if not. I used to hang a bear bag but now use the Ursack.

    The grandkuds are way more worried about bears at night than I am and I like the whistle and tripwire ideas and will incorporate those. They also feel better if there’s some sort of night light, which is easily handled with an LED light.

    • Ah, yes, the old “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you” strategy. Works every time…

      Most of our multi-night trips are in the Sierras and we see bears frequently (we saw eight bears on one five day trip in Kings Canyon https://goo.gl/photos/PurkcebVEUyg7BmG7 ), and traces almost every day on the trail. I have never had any fear of bears or other critters (maybe I’m just too dumb to be afraid), but we always practice good camp hygiene as you mention and use bear canisters even in areas where they are not required, but bears might be present.

      I really need to get an Ursack and drop a couple of pounds for our hikes in places where the canister isn’t a requirement…

      • Ah yes,the old I don’t have to out run you, just stand still and watch you run method. Works every time.

    • Hanging “Bear Bags” also keeps the raccoons and mice away. Raccoons do much more damage and seem to braver. I think you gave excellent advice in this article. Lately I’m much more concerned about bugs.

  2. In 16+ years of backpacking, I’ve seen exactly one bear, on my very first AT section hike in the Berkshires. Still, my hiking buddy and I always hang our food, even if others in shelters or nearby tent sites do not. As for camping in the backcountry alone, been there, done that, didn’t like it much. Even though I knew there’s very little to fear, I heard every sound and had trouble sleeping. So now, I always backpack with someone or camp where there’s company.

  3. I too keep a clean camp, with all that entails, including use of a bear vault. As for worrying, I finally just got over it.

  4. It’s not the Eastern black bear that scares me at all and they tend to be much more timid than the Brown/Grizzly bear. Although I still carry bear spray and keep it easily accessible should a bear get too curious for my liking, especially at night. I also keep a trekking pole near by should I need to thrust a persistent bear trying to enter shelter (last resort – keep it compressed so it’s small and sleep with it – the added security may reduce your anxiety level).

  5. My husband and I have been hiking in Glacier for ten years and it is always a highlight of the trip to see a bear, either black or grizzly – at a distance. But for the first 20 years of backpacking I would not go anywhere where there were grizzlies I was so afraid. Now through experience and knowledge I am no longer afraid and have lots of funny bear stories. Last year across a lake, through the binoculars, we saw a sow nursing her cub.

    We always make a lot of noise when we hike – singing and doing the talking we don’t have time to do all year. One year when we got lax I saw a beautiful rusty bolder up ahead that I had not remembered on that trail. And you have already guessed, it suddenly had a head and then stood up to full height. I was mesmerized by his beauty. He was obviously not afraid of us and was just investigating – I am guessing he/she was about 75 – 100 yards away but still very impressive. They train you well at Glacier and we knew exactly what to do; talk softly, don’t make eye contact, back up slowly. And when we were about 200 yards away he ambled off. I would not trade that experience for anything.

    I will tell you my favorite bear story. We had come out of the backcountry, had a good nights sleep, and wanted one more little tiny taste of nature before heading back. After being grubby for weeks I showered and put on a skirt and dressy shoes. It was 7 a.m., too early for the other tourists, and we went to a parking lot in Waterton Park in Canada and there was a little ‘trail’ along a 75 foot deep ‘canyon’ right by the parking lot, . The trail, that was paved went along the canyon and then it crossed on a little bridge over the canyon to the other side. We were in the middle of the bridge looking over the side. My husband was taking pictures. I looked up and at the end of the bridge in the direction we were going I saw a bear step on the bridge. I said, “Richard, do you have the bear spray?”. “No”. I looked up at him and at the other end of the bridge was the cub!!! Luckily for us we could hop over the railing and there was a narrow place to stand hovering over the canyon, me in my skirt and low heels. We made it out o.k. I would bet those bears make that trip every morning and never expect to see anyone. We headed off for a good breakfast with a good story.

    We have also in two different places in the Southwest had a mountain lions pass by our tent at night. Their prints were clear in the soft sand the next morning but otherwise we would never have known they were there. The animals are not out to get you, so just take precautions and enjoy!

  6. I’ve always found it remarkable that people fear bears when the far greater risk is the drive to the trailhead!

  7. Me and a buddy ran into Jasper in the Adirondack’s twice (starting at Heart Lake 31/VII ’90 Indian Pass, Calamity – Avalanche Marcy Dam). He must have been pretty close and using the trail we were on. It’s track was quite clear and being a very humid day we could smell it. It was like walking into a Bear Sauna. He never bothered us. We stealth camped, hung our food, ate away from our tent. (I use 4mm static climbing rope and hung my cooking pots under my suspended food sack) He never bothered us that night. The next night in a busy established camp site we did the same. He came around of course and tried to get ours as we could hear our pots clanging. He did get into someone else’s though. It was a mess. Ours was secure. You just have to be clean, respectful and observant/careful. Today though…. I’d carry my bear spray.

  8. I have hiked in Alaska and the mountainous Western US and have actually run across Grizzly, Black Bear and Ratllers, or at least have known that they were around and/or close-by. My initial fear of how I would behave in an encounter nearly killed my desire to be out there. The only way how I found I could cope with it was to continually read and inform myself about encounter prevention and encounter dealing, over and over and … Because I can’t hold a tune I speak loudly in certain intervals. If I see bear scat or clawing I beg loudly to get out of my way and I always call them beari-beari. I always watch the terrain on or off-trail. I double plastic bag everything smelly, and I move steadily but not hastily. Don’t have too much experience with backpacking but assume that taking all precautions I would be fine with it too,….after a while.

  9. 30+ years ago, in the Adirondack High Peaks Region, a bear stole our food, ripping out the bottom of a bag my dad had hung 10′ in the air.

    On 1 occasion, a black bear literally broke into our house seeking comestibles. The dog barking and the sight of my dad in his underwear with a .44 scared it off. In addition to those incidents, I have seen bears while hiking on at least 4 occasions, but never once have I felt menaced or threatened.

    One of them watched me while I watched him for about 20 minutes. We just stared at each other across a narrow canyon. It was a beautiful experience.

    As Philip notes, most of them are retiring creatures who just want to be left alone.

  10. I have always camped backpacked in bear country and have seen many bears and I am talking 45 years of walking through the woods and have never had a problem at night as long as you do the right thing in camp .
    The chipmunks sound like a bear when you wake in the middle of the night don’t sweat it !!!

  11. When hiking and camping I carry two forms of bear repellents from the following…whistle. bells..air horn..bear spray…bear banger…and of course my raspy singing voice.
    My favourites are the banger and the air horn.
    The spray is too dangerous in scared hands and the wind never comes from the right direction (if you want a small test just get some jalapeño juice in your eyes at a restraunt).
    The banger can be a weapon but is small and easily attached to a pocket like a pen. The air horn scares everything in a mile!
    Like the others….make some noise…keep food away from the camp….and…hike with someone just a little slower than you.

  12. The other thing I tell people early in their backpacking careers is that “first night syndrome” is a real thing–sleeping in a new place, the first night generally doesn’t yield good sleep whether you’re in a tent or a hotel. By the second night, it eases up as your brain relaxes. So, for many backpackers who do only single overnights most of the time (myself included), it helps to remember that it’s natural not to sleep all that soundly. Doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for backpacking!

  13. I use an odor proof bag (are they really?) in an ursack minor (yellow), then hang that. This is in the NC mountains, my only experience. I do that because critters have gotten to my food bag hanging from a SMNP cable before (flying squirrels?) but I’ve never had bear issues. I’ve read that the ursack major (white) is not critter proof.

  14. 130 decibel rape alarm tied to heavy fish line surrounding my tent (I don’t do hammocks – too heavy a setup for canadian weather). That perimeter alarm system was inspired by the tins and ropes warning survivors about wandering zombies in the Walking Dead. Anyway that was my setup when I was afraid of a bear attack at night. Now I just crash (with the same precautions you described, clean camp, ursack hanging, no fish smell!). I have the rape alarm within reach. For all the talk about bear spray, I can’t imagine a bear wouldn’t be spooked by 130db in the silent night, and there’s no need to aim it just right!

  15. Frankly I’m more worried about ticks, shelter mice, and party animals. Avoiding shelters helps with the last two. Going through the Smokies I saw 14 bears, and I almost always see at least one in Shenandoah NP. Guess I’m too quiet while hiking. The only incident I’ve had was on a ridgeline in NJ with lots of ripe blueberry bushes along the trail. I’m rounding a tight corner and one of hiking poles clinks off a rock and startles a bear on the other side of the corner. Fortunately he took off the other direction. In camp I always hang my homemade ursack and haven’t had any problems, even with a few episodes of wildlife sniffing around.

    I’ve always like the old joke about the differences between the scat of black bears and grizzlies. Black bear scat is smaller and contains a lot of berry seeds and squirrel fur.
    Grizzly bear scat has little bells in it and smells like pepper spray.

  16. I hike primarily in the SE and mostly in north GA, NC, and eastern TN. Since I started in 2008 I have averaged about six black bear sightings and encounters a year. I have to say when I first started backpacking solo, I had similar dreams of being attacked in the night and not being able to scream. Only to suddenly wake and find myself very loudly screaming. And as I went into the woods more often I saw these dreams drift away and I now no longer have them.

    I have had a few heart racing moments where my path intersected that of a mother bear and her cubs. One in particular where she stood on her haunches and warned me of her presence by slapping a tree trunk and “huffing” at me. Her cub raced straight up the ridge and darted up a tree. Another close encounter involved again a mother and her cub. I spent that long night dueling with the two over my bear bag that I had hung 50 yards or so away from camp. My dog with his superior sense of hearing alerted me of their presence and I can picture clearly the reflection of my hang rope jerking in the light of my headlamp. After much shouting they ran away and I rehung my bag in what I thought was a better location, only to wake again several hours later to find my food bag raided.

    All of my other encounters, whether slight glimpses of black fur darting up a ridge, or even the mild look of curiosity as a bear and I ponder each other from a distance, are now marked with wonder and a careful respect of space. I honestly can’t think of the point at which my fear left me. And don’t get me wrong I still take every precaution, and many of the ones mentioned above. And I now get a bit disappointed if within a few months passing I don’t cross paths with them.

  17. On my first solo backpacking trip I had a bear baptism by fire. I was on the AT in NJ & had just finished hanging my bear bag when I heard some noises about 150 yards away. Sure enough, 2 bears were enjoying an evening snack near my campsite. I alerted them to my presence & they didn’t bother me. I didn’t sleep well that night, but since that night I’ve never been too bothered by bears. In the last 6 years I’ve seen between 17 and 20 bears, almost all while backpacking solo. I’m a visitor in their home, so I take appropriate precautions and give them the distance and respect they deserve. 95% of the time, the bear will take a quick glance at you & trot away into the forest.

  18. Here in Alaska, we have lots of bears, in a variety of flavors. I always enjoy seeing them … from an appropriate distance. In terms of hazard, they are a ways down on my list of things to worry about, not at the top.

    I keep a clean camp, store food appropriately, and maintain good situational awareness. When hiking in thick cover, I loudly sing various blues songs, which with my voice about guarantees I won’t see any wildlife! Take the time to learn about bear behavior. Read Stephen Herrero’s book “Bear Attacks: Their Causes And Avoidance. Avoid obvious dangerous situations (like camping next to a salmon stream when the fish are running).

    I also routinely carry bear spray, which has been shown to be quite effective. (Note that bear spray comes out of the nozzle at about 70 MPH, and is effective even in a strong breeze.)

    The bottom line for me is that bears are a manageable risk if I exercise reasonable caution and good behavior.

  19. For years I carried a small Radio and let it run low all night long in Bear Territory playing heavy Metal and now I tune into a Rap station if I can find it which appears to be more effective than heavy Metal… I also carry Bear Spray and when legal a 44 Mag. to be on the safe side in known hostile Bear area’s. Trip wires are Ok, if you put them knee high an circle your camp about 40 feet out meaning you’ll need about two hundred feet of Rope. We used them a lot in the Marine Corps.. I also use braided and waxed 350 pound test fishing line designed and sold for Big Catfish fishing which makes a small bundle. 30 Lb test works as well but the Braided line has a number of uses aside from being a trip wire.. Metal pots & cups or tin cans left by lazy campers with some small round stones in them attached to the string makes a lot of noise. For years I carried a type of firework which when the strings are pulled on either side of the one inch device created a loud Snap like a Cap Gun but because of Fire Danger I no longer use them…All these are good for also making you aware of those two legged invaders who sneak about at night to steal gear… Never fight a Bear over Food, let him have what he/she wants….

  20. Perimeter wire with old hanging (used) soup cans clanging together. Otherwise, a spring wound clacker that goes off when a toggle is pulled from the perimeter wire being jerked. Hang piss cloths on the perimeter wire across game trails, and that also gets their attention, as a “land claim.” or can make those multiple matches with striker strip and firecracker on the perimeter wire. I have my DIY MYOG cooker containers, that at night (with wood burning and flames inside, with an inside reflective metal mirror surface) looks like an “oil can night light.” Hang them on overhead tree branches tied into the perimeter wire. Wire is pulled, lights are pulled and swing all over. With a clacker or firecracker, looks like night time ak-ak searchlights and guns going off everywhere.

    • Also JoAnn Fabrics big metal bells. Put 2 on both hiking poles. Can detach these and also put on perimeter wire. Light, cheap bells, still make a lot of ruckus.

    • While I never used one, I do know some folk tout the use of bear electric perimeter fence in Alaska where there are large Grizzlies.

  21. Ursack tied to the base of a tree is a no,no! I’ve used a Ursack for a couple years now and always hang. The only time I hear of people complaining is when they tie the bag to the base of tree which then allows the bear to smash the contents to smetherins.

    I do have a protective aluminum sheet of sill flashing lining the interior that doubles as a windscreen when cooking but still hang the bag

  22. Tying a Usack to the base of a tree is inviting trouble. Hanging a food-bag, Ursack or not, is inviting trouble. Sleeping with a Ursack is not inviting trouble as there’s no evidence that bears are attracted to you or the Ursack. Been hiking in the lower half of the AT for many years, done the AT in 2011 and section hiked on the PCT. Seen many of bears grab others food bags that they carefully hanged. I’ll just say, “A hanging food bag, is a hung bear.” Your call, but when they removed the wire from the shelters in the Smokies the incidents went down dramaticly. If there’s bear cable or poles use them, but please don’t hang your food in the trees as that’s a problem. The reason I use a Ursack is that the mice (squirrels, chipmunks and others) are aggressive and will only be deterred by a Ursack. A bear isn’t interested in tangling with you for food. So until a bear decides your on his (I understand females are potentially dangerous, but there’s no data to show this) dinner plate your not in danger, and the dive to the camp site (or Trail head) was several orderS of magnitude higher. So keep a clean camp and don’t leave your food unattended and enjoy the experience outdoors. Oh, and don’t forget to laugh at your neighbors when when the bears get their properly hung food bag, but be nice and offer them some food if they need it as they did provide the entertainment.

  23. I take a small but powerful flashlight. Will shine for about 150 yards. Gives me piece of mind knowing that I can shine it in the woods if necessary and look for the reflection of eyes.

  24. One point no one’s mentioned yet is that black bears (especially in the southeast) probably won’t be hibernating in the winter because it doesn’t get real cold long enough down here. I’ve seen bear tracks in the snow in January along the TN – NC border.

    As for deterrence/protection, castigate me if you want, but I don’t go into the woods without my .45. I’m more concerned about people than bears. Some real bad folks hang out in the woods regardless of the part of the country you’re in.

  25. I have an battery powered alarm that I purchased at Home Depot some years back. It has an electric eye, that when movement is detected flashes a light and loud electronic alarm sound. It is something that you would attach with velcro to a door or closet. I either sit it on my bear can or use a my pack bungee cord and attach it to a tree, stake, etc. It is tiny and very light weight, supper cheap. It works great but I noticed it is unable to determine the difference between animals and falling leaves.

  26. I have encountered bears on the trail a number of times, and there is only one time that I felt like the situation was dangerous. I was grouse hunting in northern Ontario and because I was being quiet I snuck up on a black bear that was hunkered down in some thick bushes. In this instance the bear did everything it could to alert me that I was way too close and that I should back off, which is exactly what I did.

    On the other hand, I have had a couple of dangerous encounters with moose, especially during the fall rut. The most alarming was having a bull moose thrash around our camp grunting and pushing over trees twice in one night. At least moose can’t climb trees.

    • I worry about moose a lot more than I do bears. Especially during the rut. They have very bad eye sight, so you can’t trust that their passivity from a distance will have any correlation to what they do when they get close to you.

      • I was chased by a moose after making a series of bad assumptions. Once they hit land they are fast. I am not sure what I did that made it change directions (well I was hiding behind a tree) but I felt extremely stupid – and lucky – after he left.

  27. Thanks for the article Phil. Your experiences as well as those who have replied have been very educational and helpful. I now have a better perspective on black bears and safety and am looking forward to returning to Dolly Sods in late August… with a friend. Not ready to go it alone again, yet.

  28. Some years ago in the middle of winter, I solo backpacked to South Rim in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. There was fresh snow on the ground but none in the forecast so I didn’t take a tent and just spread my sleeping bag on a ground sheet. During that beautifully still night, I could hear animals rustling in the trees and some sniffing around my camp. All my food items were in the bear box. It was a combination of exhilarating and sobering to know all those critters were nearby and there were plenty of fresh tracks around in the morning, although I couldn’t find any I identified as mountain lion or bear, which are found up there.

    That morning, I sat on the edge of a 500′ cliff, a vertical mile above the Rio Grande river, with views a hundred miles into Mexico, and did my daily Bible reading. I considered Psalms 104 and 105. Psalm 104 talks about mountains ascending and valleys descending, springs in those valleys, darkness coming and wild animals of the forest roaming about at night and when the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens and then man goes to work and labors until evening. As I read that, I reflected, “Wow! I’m really living this!” It was a special spiritual experience.

    Friends at times tell me they are afraid to hike and camp in bear country. I’ve done more damage to myself by my own clumsiness than any animal has ever done. I’ve stumbled back to trailheads with sprains, fractures, a puncture wound, scratched cornea, and a bronchitis attack but nary a mark from a furry woodland creature. I do plan to take a Wilderness First Aid course to protect me not from bears, but myself!

    • Grandpa, I thank you, your comments are always both amusing and educational.

      Many thanks are also due to PW for this wonderful site: what a fabulous resource for learners like me.

      • I neglected to add: what an amazing spiritual experience that must have been.

      • I sat on the same spot doing my Bible reading the following year as I hiked that trail again. I’d finished a trip through the Bible and had gotten to the end of Deuteronomy by then. My reading for that day described when Jehovah God gave Moses a visual tour of the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo. It was pretty cool being on the same mountain top and both times reading about mountains.

  29. I hike and backpack solo in the western United States, Canada and Alaska. The brown (Grizzlies) in Canada and Alaska demand respect. I give it to them immensely. Hiking closely together in numbers decreases exponentially one’s chances of sustaining a bear attack. Conversely, hiking “solo” increases one’s chances to the maximum of sustaining a bear attack and it is for this reason I studied and learn “bear avoidance techniques.”

    The author did an excellent job describing exercising caution when hiking in tall alders, dense foliage or approaching loud rushing creek water. I yell “hey bear,” sing, or blow my whistle.

    We all know that bear attacks are imminent if we come between a sow and her cubs or if we happen upon a nearby bear cache of which we are not aware exists. Bears will protect their food as vigorously as they protect their young. So, as I walk along the trail I always am scanning the skyline for soaring buzzards or hawks since their sighting may indicate a nearby bear cache lies ahead.

    I try never to get within 100 yards of a brown. I carry two protectorates: a canister of bear spray and a large air-horn canister used by boaters in dense fog.

    You never will hear a ranger advocate use of the air horn even though confidentially, many recognize its “defensive” capability. I surmise their reasoning is concern that folk will abuse the use of the large canister air-horns that sound as loud as the air-horns on tractor-trailer rigs and emits a sound blast that can be heard upwards to a mile away in the wild.

    I use the air-horn as back-up. Bear spray is meaningless if hiking upwind. If the encounter takes place and the potential bear charge comes from upwind then the bear spray mist only blows back into me, and not at the charging bear. That is where the air-horn comes into play as my alternate defensive weapon.

    Guns are meaningless! Most victims of bear attacks never got the chance to fire their weapons, or if they did, they only wounded the bear making the attack ever more vicious. Also, carrying a loaded weapon is dangerous to the backpacker and others in the group. Besides, the environment can limit or even negate the use of a gun as a weapon with rain, moisture, sand, debris, alder branches that can cause bullets to ricochet, etc. So, it is for this reason I recommend bear spray and an air-horn.

    • I have used and all ways carry from now on a air horn. Camping on grandfather mountain in n.c. brought upon my airhorn use in a tent at 2 am, something that you can use in a tent , bear spray does no good inside your tent. Scared the bear away and I didn’t sleep till 6 am

  30. A friend of mine in Jackson, Wyoming left his beat spray on the dash while he fly fished. I know, it doesn’t do any good there, kind of like the two most useless things in flying are altitude above you and fuel back at the airport. Anyway, the can exploded right when he started to drive home. No bears were repelled but my friend bailed on his vehicle in record time.

  31. Snakes freak me out way more than bears. I saw 4 bear in one day along the AT on the northern end of Skyline Drive 3 yrs ago; though I did hold my breath pretty deep while the male we saw at dinner time walked by my tent that night (gravel springs hut I think it was).

    I’ll take solo cowboy camping with the known coyotes (absoultely walking around me ‘talking to each other’ in the middle of the night) rather than sleep in a shelter where snakes come out of the walls (also AT Southern Va, cant recall that shelter name) last year.

    Agree learning everything you can about something (for me snakes and bears) the more comfortable you get with the topic in various situations. Both are extreemley beautiful and should look to see them and enjoy them at a distance in the wild!

    My strategy is keep your eyes open and use common sense.

    The only thing to fear is fear itself!

    • @Retro: I grew up around snakes. Interestingly, on backpacking and hiking trips in Alaska where I had apprehension over Grizzlies, Alaskans with whom I talked had apprehension over snakes down under in the lower 48 from where I come. I told them that snakes were as afraid of humans as humans were afraid of snakes. In Louisiana swamps it is common for moccasins to fall from trees into your boat or even “on you” while kayaking. In the southwest rattlers are going to alert you in advance, if you come too close. Snakes know you are approaching through “ground vibrations,” so it is important to walk solidly so the snakes know you are coming and can slither away before you arrive; same as a bear hearing you coming and getting out of your way before you arrive.

      Never sit down on a log before kicking the log, moving it a little bit to ensure no snake is underneath. Never, ever put your hand down into a crevice or hole. Also, most snake bites are “dry bites,” meaning that snakes prefer not to release their venom leaving them defenseless to other prey until new venom is manufactured in their systems.

      I have sustained four snake bites over my life-time. Three were “dry-bites” and one was venomous. Two of the dry-bites I thought were cacti needle pricks or thorns, but later in the evening when checking the skin area that continued to sting, I notice the fang marks. The venous bite made me chilled, shivering, sick, sleepy; but I recovered by the next day. It is rare that a snake bite will kill you.

      A bear will kill you; and if not kill you, then can maul you significantly. A friend of mine working for the BLM decades ago doing line-of-sight surveying on the Kenai Peninsula was mauled by a brown that charged her ripping her scalp off, losing an eye from the right socket, and with the bear standing her up like a rag doll, proceeded to rip off her rib-cage area with one swipe of its razor-sharp claws causing her to lose both breasts. She later was medi-vac to Anchorage, survived, and underwent two years of rehabilitation therapy.

      While I recognize bear attacks are few and far between; in comparison with snakes, I would welcome a snake bite any day over a bear mauling.

      • @Jerry
        Wow-pride in snake bites…nice…I’m sure not in isolation where you have to hike a bit leg out 20+ mile; maybe you are a practicing snake charmer…3x’s was it…?

        When I say “learn everything you can about something” I mean all you say (eg elementary kicking logs) and more…not a novice here…

        I’ll stand by my concept of being ‘learned’ and ‘cognizant’ of the situation(s) and scenarios – which will guide safety and prevail…and hey may get to see some cool stuff in the process as God intended.

        I’ve read the recent news and seen the Reverent; but I for one, being bit by a snake once-would change my course…may want to consider where you put your feet.

        To me snakes still are my main concern over a bear attack.

      • @Retro: to each his own. I respect your preference of snake bites over bear mauling. A brown bear attack in grizzly country easily can result in death. It is rare for a snake bite to result in death.

        A bear mauling in grizzly country can be devastating, physically. You said in your comments “… I’m sure not in isolation where you have to hike a bit leg out 20+ mile….”. It would be painful indeed if you sustained the full venom bite, but it can be done. Conversely, a devastating bear mauling never will leave the victim capable of hiking 20+ mile back to the trailhead. While the Reverent was based on a true story, it is extremely rare for an individual to sustained the bear mauling depicted in the movie and hike back to civilization. A friend of my sustained a brown bear attack on the Alaska Kenai Peninsula. The attack happen extremely fast. The brown ripped off her complete skull skin covering as he gnawed her skull, causing her to lose her right eye that popped out the socket. The bear than stood her up,like a rag doll and with one swipe of his razor sharp claws ripped opened her rib cage causing her to lose both breasts. She collapsed. She couldn’t crawl 20 feet let alone 20 miles. The team of surveyors with her called for helped and she was medic-vac to Anchorage where she survived. Later she underwent two years of rehabilitation therapy, physical therapy, multiple medical procedures, and plastic surgery. No snake bite is going to come anywhere close to a vicious bear mauling Retro.

    • Interesting comments about the perimeter wire alarm system….I note those sexual assault alarms on ebay….how does one get the proper wire tension?
      I was going to try one in my corn patch….got 2 legged potential thieves looking at it….they don’t anything about working the soil seeding fertilizing weeding or watering….but they know when it’s ripe!

      I use to do SAR…have a night vision camera and a flir heat unit…interesting active critters in the night….they see you a long way off and usually make a wide circle….the little ones come straight in looking for crumbs….I use them still when I get the scope out and star gaze…do a scan every once in a while to check for surprise visitors.

      I guess the moral is…. take a night and watch them.. if you know what is out there you may not be afraid..2 legged creatures walking around in the night does scare me

  32. Forgot to mention:
    Read the shelter log books before you sleep and talk to folks passing you about shelter conditions…thats how you know snakes will drop from the ceiling or come out of the walls BEFORE you find out first hand ;-)

    Pass Mtn shelter was the other shelter with this awesomeness, and another place I saw a bear…

    Guess you can tell Skyline Drive has a few bears – think I’ve seen @10 bear, most of which are in that Park.

  33. I have hiked that area (Dolly Sods WV) for years. About 40 of them, most of the time solo. Only time I ever heard of anyone up there having issues with black bears, was because they were sloppy campers, and ignored the basic common sense advice you gave in your article. Also for that area, there are local bear hunters that run their dog packs every weekend. I’ve had more problems with the hounds charging through camp than with any bear. In that area, there are plenty of ’em, but they are really people shy because of the hunters. I hike solo 95% of the time. never (yet) had any problems with bears. I keep a clean camp, most of the time I don’t eat where I sleep, hang my food, NO smelly anything with me when I hike and it works out. They’re normally not aggressive creatures. Curious yes, protective of their cubs absolutely; just common sense practices and shouldn’t have any problems with them.
    And your good advice about not camping in areas with lots of berries, that pretty much describes that whole wilderness area. A lot of it is one giant huckleberry/blueberry patch so no avoiding that scenario!

    Another post here mentioned Skyline Drive (Shenandoah NP). Now that’s a different story. You DO have to be very careful about bears in that park. They are used to people, know they have food, and will come looking for it. Same practices you mentioned apply. but there, you need to hang ANYTHING that may have an odor- food, toiletries everything that may smell tasty to a bear. Not a bad practice anyway. I used to hang both my food bag and my pack out of reach when hiking there. Always sleep like a baby when in the woods!

    • Shoulda been a bit more specific here – I’m talking about east coast black bear when I just say ‘bears’ in my reply, and my comments apply to those two specific areas from personal experience.

  34. I keep hoping to see a black bear, or even tracks, in Missouri. They have been re-introduced, and the DNR estimates that there are 300 to 400 in the state. They are pretty shy. I assume that if one picks a good site, keeps it clean, and makes some effort to hang food or put it in a keg away from your sleeping site, the likelihood of being bothered is small. I want to see one, but from a distance.

  35. I bring bear spray and a whistle but have never had a significant bear encounter in 40 years of Canadian camping, canoeing and hiking. Occasionally you see them but they move off. To be sure just check the bear scat. If it has bear bells in it then the bear has already eaten and there is no worry. I just use Zpacks bear bags and put those a good distance from camp or hang them if easy using dyname string and a little throw bag.

  36. Thanks for the interesting and important topic Mr. Werner. I know this is on Eastern black bears but living in far Northern California bear sightings are quite common. The precautions that I use are cleaning my Ursack and odor proof bag after every trip, and or use my bear canister. Also, bear spray is attached to my shoulder strap on my ULA pack by using the water bottle holder. Works great! Whistle is also on me if needed. The main thing is to keep your camp spotless. Since backpacking is a means to fly fishing, you must remove all fish scent on yourself and your equipment. Eating trout has never been a highlight for me. I love to catch trout, just don’t like dining on them. The closest encounter with a bear was while fishing on a local river. I climbed a steep bank to get back on the main trail and there was a huge black bear not more than fifteen feet away from me. Of course I froze as the bear peered over his right shoulder and slowly lumbered away. The bear knew this was his trail and he was the master of the forest and river. Lucked out that day! Thanks

  37. I want to comment on the use of “bear bells” as a bear avoidance technique. I’m not a bear biologist, but I probably have over a thousand hours reading and studying bears and analyzing what experts from Stephen Herrero have written to my own personal discussions with professional park rangers, wildlife fisheries professionals, etc. No one, I mean no one, ever has given me a “definitive” answer on the “efficacy” of using bear bells as a bear avoidance technique. I believe, though, from my practical experience that bear bells do have a positive affect in alerting bears, even though I do get odd looks sometimes from folk, etc. who believe otherwise. Let me give you just one memorable example that has happened to me several times on trails in the backcountry while wearing one dozen bear bells attached to my backpack while hiking.

    The memorable example involved riders on pack-horse teams. On each occasion, the lead rider hollered for me to “halt,” not to move because the bear bells attached to my backpack were frightening their horses, causing the horses to even rear-up, pull sideways, wanting to run-off. On each occasion I did as the lead horseman commanded and froze in my tracks, until the team of horses passed and were well down the trail before I started moving again.

    My question to readers is this: if bear bells are not effective as some folk say, then why would bear bells cause such a disturbance among horses? The bear bells alerted those behemoth of an animal, so I assume the bear bells also would alert bears. I welcome others’ comments.

    • I want to add that I use bear bells attached to my pack only in grizzly country, in Alaska and in BC, AB and YT of Canada.

    • Tom Smith (one of Herrero’s colleagues) has on lecture posted on line which includes a section on silly advice people get about bears. On his list he is pretty definitive that bear bells are useless.

      • @todd: thanks for the response Todd. Would you post the Internet site for me to read the lecture? Stephen Herrero in his original book and subsequent editions of that infamous study never took to my knowledge a definitive position one way or the other on the issue. Mr. Herrero alluded to the fact that some folk tout bear bells efficacy, others do not do so and he himself had no stated position one way or the other. So, it would be most interesting to read the lecture by Tom Smith, a colleague of Stephen Herrero to learn his views. Please post the site for me, and perhaps others also would go to it to learn more on the efficacy of bear bells use as a bear avoidance technique. Thanks in advance.

      • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PExlT-5VU-Y

        This was at a NOLS training session from 2012. It’s a long video (I haven’t gotten to the end yet), but there is a brief comment about bells around the 16 minute mark and more around 29 minutes in. He says that he published data on bells, but I didn’t hear a reference. I checked Smith’s CV on-line but couldn’t find the reference. I did search on Google Scholar and found a link to a Google Books page in “Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters” by Dave Smith, page 91, where he describes Smith published research.

        https://books.google.com/books/about/Backcountry_Bear_Basics.html?id=YE4_FENLfRsC

        I have had e-mail exchanges with Dr. Smith in the past when I had bear questions. He was very accommodating.

      • Thanks for this reference Todd. I will view the tape. If Dr. Smith would not find it an imposition, I welcome the opportunity to email him on the subject if you would convey to him my desire to hear his views and read any reported scientific studies of which he is aware on the subject. If in the absence of my communicating directly with him perhaps he can direct us to his blog, if he has one for us to submit the question, or to respond here in this forum.

        Thanks for all the information. This is exciting for me because I would love to hear definitively if such studies exists, and if they do, where I may go to read them.

      • I found there is a much more extensive discussion of bear bells at 46 minutes into the video. He describes the test and conclusions in detail. I still can’t find the publication reference.

      • It comes as no surprise that you found no referenced publication on research as to the efficacy of testing bear bells in the wild as a possible bear avoidance deterrent. I never have come across such research. What one finds instead is “subjective” comments, individualized, with held opinions by the commenter.

        You say that you found that there is a much more extensive discussion of bear bells at 46 minutes into the video, but were unable to come up with the referenced publication. OK, but in the absence of a “referenced” publication, then provide us the “referenced” video of which you denote. There must be information on the video for us to track it down or to order it, etc. Who published the video? What is the title of the video, the copyright information, the date of publication? Who distributed the video, etc. that we can use to get our hands on it?

        I go back to what I claimed previously. In hundreds of hours of reading and studying that I have done on “bear bells,” bear biologists never have taken a definitive position (to my knowledge) based on research findings on the efficacy of bear bells as an effective bear avoidance technique or as an ineffective measure in alerting bears. In other words, bear biologists have not stated bear bells to be an effective deterrent to use in bear country nor have they “disclaimed” bear bells as an effective deterrent to alert bears’ attention of one’s close proximity so that the bear knows of the human’ approach.

        I believe the use of bear bells as an avoidance technique is an “individualized” approach based on individuals’ practical experiences instead of scientific research studies by bear biologists.
        My practical experience has shown me that bear bells under appropriate environmental conditions do alert animals in the wild, such as the team of pack horses I alluded to above.

        Even in the absence of research findings or in the review of literature it is logical to assume the use of bear bells would have some value. Would a hunter seeking prey wear bear bells on his or her person? The answer is obviously “no.” The answer is no because the sound from the bear bells would alert prey of the hunter’s position and the prey would avoid the hunter. The same logical assumption can be deduced relative to bears in the vicinity under appropriate environmental conditions. The reason I say “appropriate environmental conditions” is because bear bells would be useless approaching a creek of streaming water because of the loud water sound from the creek; the same with a large waterfall, or heading upwind into a blowing wind.

      • @todd: please note I wrote the above before finding your comments on the referenced YouTube and referenced Google.com sites. I will go there to learn information on this subject. Again, thanks for all you have done. This is why I enjoy Phillip Werner’s site so much is because of the information he provides and because of how commenters have opportunities to learn from one another.

    • I bought a bear bell when I started taking my then four year old grandson backpacking. I soon realized we didn’t need one because we were NOISY! On a hike to South Rim in the Chisos Mountains when he had just turned five, many hikers coming the other way asked if we’d seen the bears. There was a sow and two cubs that we’d evidently been herding along by our racket. We never laid eyes on them, however, we enabled many others to have a nice experience.

  38. Several comments in article and redposes about storing smelly items (food and toiletries). But no comments about the importance of not using scented toiletries. If your toiletries are that smelly, you shouldn’t be using them. Plain unscented soap (like ivory) and baking powder toothpaste is all you need. Camping is not a time to be fresh and clean. Smelling like a human is one of your best defenses.

  39. Seen lots of bears in VA AT, wait for them to gamble along. At night, good bag hang and lots of hey bear and clapping makes me secure. Usually solo.

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

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. “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.

  45. A clean camp was impressed upon us in Alaska, Lake Clark NP where we had no problems with Brown or Black bears while walking or camping, they all ran away from our group of 5, until we hit Twin Lakes, Dick Pronneke’s cabin. A nuisance black bear around camp was giving the Ranger fits, we were cautioned & checked daily. We had a bear safe & our tents food was bagged & Opsacked in the safe while the other tent only used grocery sacks. The safe was rocked & overturned, the fish poles that were left out had the cork handle chewed off & a water bucket had it’s straps (fish smell) chewed off. Unbeknownst to his grandparents in the tent, the 12 year old boy left peanuts in his pocket to munch on during the night. We scared the bear off once & he came back to the peanuts in the pocket, pushing the tent in until Pops hit the bear in the nose & yelled to move him away. They developed clean camp habits immediately & all food went to the safe. No problems after that. Opsacks hanging in a bear bag have worked well in Michigan, but an Ursack is on my wish list!

  46. Obviously we all know that bear attacks are rare, but that doesn’t really help with our fears — it’s the job of our fears to think broadly and creatively.

    Nonetheless, this statistic was helpful for my wife to get back into camping after a bear rummaged through our food bag: in the last 100 years, there have been exactly seven bear fatalities in the US east of the Mississippi. Somehow that fact did help to give a sense of proportion.

    So how did a bear get into our food? I still can’t believe it. A raccoon climbed the tree with our food bag, untied the knot (no rips in the bag!) and dropped it to the ground. A bobcat came along and chased off the raccoon, and a bear came and chased off the bobcat. My wife and I watched it all from our tent, terrified that our 5 and 7 year old boys would wake, start screaming, and cause the bear to panic.

    It took a few years to recover from the shock, but we are back to hiking through the beautiful forests of Michigan :-)

  47. I completely understand the fear at night, especially solo. It’s what has kept me from solo backpacking for years. If I can’t get others to go with me, I cancel the trip or adjust plans to do day hikes. I totally understand the logic, and sitting here at home convince myself of the statistics and habits of black bears. But once the sun goes down and I’m miles from another human, the fear sets it. I tried forcing myself to face it, but found myself hiking miles in the dark alone back to the car to find a motel. It sucks because it’s so stupid and makes no logical sense and causes you to miss a great backpacking experience. But, at the moment it’s so terrifying that you just can’t face it. No talking of logic, no statistics, no proper preparation will convince you staying the night alone will work.

    • Yep, that’s me too Charlie. Fortunately I’ve been back to Dolly Sods with no bear encounters. Going up there this wknd with some guys. What a difference hiking with a group makes.

  48. How safe would this be for a 60 year old female alone? I love to hike and I am wanting to give the Mount Rogers area a try. I would have to hike and tent alone.

    • I expect its perfectly safe if you keep a clean camp and hang your food. The bears are not interested in you and aren’t brave enough to take it away from you (in person). But work up to it. Hike/backpack elsewhere with people if you can, and build up your confidence.

  49. hentaihaven.website

    To be on the safe side, wash food from your face and hands before going to bed and hang clothing beyond reach of bears if it has food or cooking grease on it. Perfume may mask human odor, preventing bears from knowing a person is in the tent.

  50. Worst bear encounter I ever had was coming over a rise and seeing 3 cubs playing in the trail about 40 yards ahead. Just the cubs. Head on a swivel, I backed out of there very quietly. Went back down the trail about 100 yards and then started yelling at a tree. Started back up the trail whistling. Came over the rise again and no sign of bears. I think the hair on the back of my neck settled down about 1/2 mile further on.

  51. Closest I ever came to bear in the Allagash region, close to my home in Fort Kent were fresh droppings. Bear are far more fearful of us than we should be of them. Hang food in a bear bag high and away. All should be fine.

    Bonne nuit and sweet dreams.

  52. Great read. While I never had any fears hiking solo, it’s the overnight fear of bears that has kept me from solo backpacking. Strength in numbers does something to our psyche that makes us feel safer at night. As long as I’m backpacking with friends or sleeping at an established camp I know other hikers will be at, I’m ok. All the logic in the world sounds good at home reading. But when the moment comes, logic flies out the window and human fear and instinct rules. Maybe it’s just more and more exposure to make that fear go away.

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