Q. Dear Bear,
What do you do when a bear charges? We are about to hike the AT and I have always been taught to stop, drop and play dead, but the veteran hikers say this isn't the case. —Kate, via Facebook
Congrats on your AT hike! The Green Tunnel should be on anyone’s life list, and as you know, you might spot my cousins, especially in the Smokies or in Maine. (Look out for Lefty – he’s a ham for the camera.)
Since you’ll be tracing the eastern U.S., all my bruin brethren will be of the black variety (though some may be brown, cinnamon, or even blond). There’s a lot of advice out there, and I’m afraid that this bit of advice is outdated, a bit confusing, and even potentially dangerous around black bears.
Your first order of business is to get yourself some deterrent – bear spray, in this case. Brigham Young University biologist Tom Smith knows more about bears than almost any other biped, and his number-one rule
is to carry bear spray in bear country, and know when and how to use it
. With the amount of time you’ll spend on the trail, it’s worth having backup in case I get up to aggressive shenanigans. The likelihood that you’ll have to use it is exceedingly small, but with the amount of trail miles you’ll log, it’s worth it.
But there’s one trick you can use to ensure you almost never have to use it: Be yourself! By which I mean alert me to your presence by using human sounds. Talking in your normal voice is usually good enough, but clap or yell an occasional “hey, bear!” if you come to blind spots, windy areas, or noisy rivers where you are might encounter me. In most cases, I don’t want to be near you, and I’ll skedaddle at my first chance. If I’m off in the distance and don’t notice you, there’s no need to shout at me or disturb me. But if I do, let me know who and what you are, and I’ll get the info I need to move on to some delicious berries and away from stinky humans.
Finally, I’ll answer the darkest scenario – what to do if I actually charge. A defensive black bear charge is quite rare: If a black bear attempts to initiate contact, it could be predatory. Haze me: Shout, yell, throw sticks or rocks, and ready your bear spray. Use it if I get within 50 feet. Let me know you are not a prey item in any way you can – fight back if I attack. Playing dead would be very bad, because I might be trying to eat you. Sorry.
OK, so that was scary. But if you follow the advice before – and properly store all your food and scented items -- the chances of us meeting this way are almost nil. And in case you want to hear it from a human, here's more with Tom Smith on how to handle yourself in bear country