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Appalachian Trail Conservancy Says Hikers Should Carry Bear Canisters

Voluntary policy change follows increase in reports of human-bear incidents along trail.

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Backpackers and thru-hikers should carry bear canisters on the Appalachian Trail, according to a new policy the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) released this week.

In a blog post announcing this recommendation, the ATC noted that conflicts between humans and hungry bears have increased along the trail over the past few years, and many incidents that led to trail restrictions and closures resulted from campers improperly storing their food. In addition, the organization wrote, bruins in many areas have learned ways around hikers’ tricks.

“Black bears along multiple sections of the Appalachian Trail have become increasingly adept at defeating traditional food hangs, where a hiker stores their food over a tree branch using a rope and storage bag,” wrote Hawk Metheny, the organization’s vice president of regional and trail operations. “This is even when food hangs are done completely right, and sometimes that just isn’t possible depending on where you are camping. By using a bear-resistant container, hikers are minimizing their chances of a negative bear encounter on the trail and helping prevent more bears from becoming habituated to humans as a source of food.”

While thru-hikers on other long trails like the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail have to carry bear canisters for parts of their trips to comply with government rules, with a few exceptions, land managers along the AT haven’t traditionally required them. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hikers and other visitors have to hang their food from permanently installed cables to thwart populations of bears that have long since figured out how to tear down even properly placed bear bags. According to the ATC, roughly 60 percent of land-manager-provided campsites along the trail have permanently installed food storage systems, such as cables, poles, or boxes.

Over the past few years, however, encounters between bears and AT corridor visitors have prompted warnings and restrictions along several sections of the trail. In 2021, the USDA Forest Service closed 13 miles of the trail to camping after a string of visitors reported encounters with unusually bold, possibly food-habituated animals in the area.

As the ATC noted, some of its state-level affiliates already lend out bear canisters to hikers. In Vermont, the Green Mountain Club has a lending program, as does the Georgia chapter of the ATC.

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