A few summers ago I read a delightful book called A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. The author annals his hike on the Appalachian Trail with a childhood friend. Some of his stories are a real hoot, like when his friend was disappointed that their packs couldn’t hold the boxes of Little Debbies he had brought for snacks.
Bryson shared that his greatest fear about hiking the AT was the potential of encountering a bear. I must admit that I share his bear-o-phobia, or whatever the scientific term would be. As much as I envision myself enjoying a thru-hike in the wild beauty of Pennsylvania, I am really, really, really afraid of meeting up with Smoky’s ornery cousins.
There are approximately 20,000 bears in the commonwealth, making that meeting less likely than my imagination would have me believe. But, it’s not impossible. So, what do you do if you meet a bear while hiking?
Try Not To Meet a Bear
The best way to stay safe from close encounters of the furry kind is to make noise while hiking. Talking, whistling, singing, clapping, and generally making a racket announces your presence. Bears don’t want to encounter you either. So, if they know you’re coming, they will avoid you.
Hiking with kids makes noise-making a cinch. We love to have lively conversations, make observations about the scenery, and sing songs while we walk. I’m confident that the bears will hear us coming.
Bear Encounter Strategies
If you meet a bear, there are a few strategies for coming away from the situation unscathed.
Back away slowly. I must emphasize the word slowly. Running is a sure-fire way to entice the bear to chase you. One reason bears engage with humans is when they feel threatened. Slowly backing away shows the bear that you are not a threat.
While there are a few reasons that you may make contact with a bear, crossing paths is the most likely reason when you are on a family hike. Vacating the area gets you out of the bear’s way and lets it go about its business.
Carry bear spray. Making noise and backing away may not be enough to put off a bear. If you have to defend yourself, have a good-quality bear spray handy.
Don’t play dead. This is the age-old advice that just won’t die. But if you follow it, you might! I’ve looked over many authoritative websites and guides. They all say the same thing. Do not play dead.
Practice Bear Encounters
In the same way you have a fire drill with your kids, have a bear encounter drill. Practice walking in a close group as if you are in an area where bears might be present. Yell, “Bear!” Kids should freeze for a second and then slowly back up until they are behind you. Then back up slowly as a group. Practice often enough that it comes naturally.
Admittedly, you have to force yourself to overcome every instinct your brain will try to employ. You’ll want to run away, screaming at high pitch after looking the bear straight in the eye! I know that if I ever meet a bear in the wild, “calm” will not be the adjective to describe my feelings about it.
I found lots of great information at bearsmart.com. For more detailed explanations of different bear encounters, check out this website.