In Vermont, we share wild spaces with black bears. The estimated 4,500 to 6,000 black bears living in Vermont are concentrated in the spine of the Green Mountains, and their habitat overlaps with the Long Trail and other trail systems. Black bears are typically skittish — unlike their grizzly cousins — which makes it unlikely to see one. However, temptations such as food draw can draw a bear into human-designated zones like campsites. In the 2021 hiking season, we’ve already had reports of bears accessing or attempting to access hiker food at shelters in the south, including Clarendon, Story Spring, Kent Pond, and Boyce shelters.
While seeing a black bear is a special treat — especially as they’re likely to hear or smell you and move out of the way — it’s important to keep a safe distance. Black bears are wild animals, and human-bear interactions can become dangerous for both parties. It’s possible to accidently sneak up on a bear or get too close. Sometimes, the bear notices you and takes an interest, while sometimes a bear breaks into your food stash. None of these are ideal situations. Keep reading for tips to keep you, your hiking party, and the bears safe.
Avoiding Bears on the Trail
Prevention is key. Keep your distance, and try not to surprise a bear:
- Make noise. Sing, talk, hike in groups, and/or wear a bell. Bears will hear you coming and move away.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. Know if there has been bear activity in the area before your hike and be smart.
- Use proper food storage. When bears access human food, it encourages future interactions.
How to Protect Yourself
Scared black bears will almost always run off. If you encounter a curious or unafraid bear, or if you accidentally surprise a bear, here’s how to exit the situation safely:
- Identify yourself as human. Talk calmly to the bear to identify yourself as a non-threat. “Hey, Bear” in a low tone works well.
- Back away slowly. Do not approach the bear.
- Make yourself look large. Slowly wave your arms, or stretch out with hiking poles.
- Do not run or panic.
If the bear remains stationary:
- Move away slowly and sideways, if possible. This will help you keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping.
- Always allow the bear an exit route, and wait for it to move away if possible.
If the bear follows you:
- Stop and hold your ground. Raise your arms or hiking poles.
- Never run or climb a tree. Bears will chase, and they can run 40 mph. They also climb.
- Stay calm so as not to startle the bear. Keep talking in calm, low tones.
- Pick up small children. (More on dogs later.)
- Do not drop your pack. It can provide protection for you, and prevents bears from accessing human food.
If you see a female bear with cubs:
- Never attempt to approach them.
- Never place yourself between mama bear and the cubs. Attacks are more likely if you seem dangerous.
If you are attacked:
- Try to escape to a safe place (car, building).
- If you can’t escape, fight back. Aim blows for the bear’s face and muzzle.
- Never play dead during a black bear attack.
Bear Safety with Dogs
- Dogs can be threatening to bears, especially with fast movements.
- Only unleash dogs that are well-trained and responsive to voice command.
- Otherwise, leash your dog or leave it at home.
- When a dog is chased, it typically returns to the owner. You do not want your dog to lead an agitated bear to you.
Food Storage Do’s & Don’ts
While run-in’s with bears on trail can be uncertain, one certain way to keep bears from human areas –like shelters and privies—is to use proper food storage. In the Green Mountain National Forest, it is mandated that you must use bear proof storage, like a bear box, bear canister, or food hang.
Food Storage Do’s
- Use bear boxes where available. (See list here.) This bear-proof food storage is available at designated shelters all along the Long Trail. Boxes do fill up, so have a backup plan for your food storage. Be sure to pack out trash instead of leaving it behind in the boxes.
- Store food outside of shelters. Even four-walled shelters are not immune to mice and other critters. Bears are also known to break through windows and doors, so store your food away from campsites.
- Correctly hang food bags. Hanged food bags should be 200’ from campsites, water sources, and trails; 12’ from the ground; and 6’ from the tree trunk and nearby branches. This can be hard to get right, especially with the types of trees that grow in Vermont. Reference GMC tutorials and practice at home.
- Give enough space. There should be 200’ (or 70 big steps) between bear canisters/food hangs, camp sites, and cooking sites. This way odors won’t draw critters into your tent or food stash.
- Store smellables. All smellable items – including food, trash, toiletries, and cookware – should go in critter-proof storage. That includes deodorant, lip balm, hand sanitizer, period products, utensils, gum, snacks, and wrappers.
Food Storage Don’ts
- Don’t eat, cook, or store food in camp. Mice and other critters love your crumbs and wrappers. Sweep shelters before you set camp or leave.
- Don’t leave trash in privies. Bears and other critters will frequent these sites for food (and have previously torn apart a privy for some moldy bread). Pack out your food waste, wrappers, and period products. Plus: volunteers will thank you; they’ll end up digging your trash out of the compost when managing privies.
- Don’t hang food from shelter ceilings. Food in shelters encourages animal activity in human spaces. Don’t be fooled by that tin can or pie plate hanging from the shelter ceiling – that won’t keep acrobatic mice from chewing through your food sack.
How To: A Correct Bear Hang or Food Hang
We’ve had a lot of bear activity along the trail and a lot of ineffective food storage. Why does that matter? When bears become accustomed to human food, they get really comfortable entering camps and human-designated areas. Possible interactions put bears and humans at increased risk. Here’s what you need to know about a proper bear hang:
- Keep a bear hang kit, complete with stuff sack, carabiner, and a long rope (at least 24′). You’ll also need to find a sturdy stick and a rock you can throw from the nearby environment.
- Identify a branch that is at least 15′ high, and can support a bear hang that is 6′ from the tree trunk or branches.
- Use the rock and stuff sack to throw the rock over the branch.
- Have your food bag ready with anything smellable: food, trash, toiletries, cookware, and utensils.
- Clip your food bag and rope inside the carabiner and hoist your food up all the way to the branch. (Don’t worry, it won’t stay that close to the tree.)
- Make a Clove Hitch, as demonstrated in video, and feed the stick through the center of the knot. Lower the bag, and it’ll stop by the stick.
- If successful, your bear should be 12′ high, 6′ from the tree trunk, and 6′ from any nearby branches.
- Retrieve by removing stick and lowering food hang.
Case Study: How to Keep Bears from Your Food Hang
On June 20, hikers reported three bears at Clarendon Shelter who got into a hiker’s Ursack food storage bag and tore it up. The bears did not show fear around humans. While GMC has since installed a bear box at the site, please ensure you use proper food storage methods any time you are hiking or camping. Please call or email GMC with any reports of unusual bear encounters in this area.
Bear hangs can be tricky to get right, and the Green Mountains don’t always have lots of tree options conducive to an appropriate hang. In this case,
- Although the bear hang is up high enough, it is too close to the trunk of the tree, which allows the bear to climb up and reach it. It should be at least 12’ from the ground and 6’ from the trunk and surrounding branches.
- The bear hang is too close to the tent. Food should be stored at least 200’ from any sleeping areas, or areas of congregation like the shelter, cooking areas, picnic tables, etc.
- More should have been done to intimidate the bear and make it feel unwelcome — such as shouting, clapping, and making other loud noises. By no means should you approach a bear or other wild animal. As the bear was not leaving, the hikers should’ve prioritized safety and cautiously packed their stuff and moved on.
Bear Canister Lending Program
Bear canisters are the recommended food storage when overnighting in the backcountry. However, canisters can be expensive. To make sure you can access sufficient gear and stay safe during your trip, the Green Mountain Club has partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and BearVault. Our free lending program makes renting a bear canister simple and effective. Learn more about borrowing a canister here.
When & How to Report a Bear Encounter
The Green Mountain Club, Vermont Fish & Wildlife, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy cooperate to manage bear interactions. In the case that a bear enters a campsite, shelter, or gets into a food bag along the Long Trail, Appalachian Trail in Vermont, Northeast Kingdom Trails, or any of the LT’s side trails, please contact us immediately with details: [email protected]. You can also contact Fish & Wildlife and ATC.
- Report a bear incident to Vermont Fish & Wildlife when there is property damage by bears; visits to birdfeeders, compost bins or garbage; bears on porches or decks; damage to beehives, corn or other crops; and/or bears in campgrounds or campsites.
- Report a bear incident on the Appalachian Trail here. This includes bears in food bags, in shelters, or on campsites.