Tips for Bear Safety in the Smokies

June is one of the busiest months at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for both visitors and the park’s 1,500 black bear residents, which is why basic bear safety is so important to learn before you visit. Spotting a bear in the Smokies can be a wonderful experience, but it’s important to remember that these majestic creatures can also be dangerous - and we can be dangerous to them.

bear safety around cubs
Willfully approaching a bear within 150 feet is illegal in the park.

Bear Safety: Rule #1

Keep your distance. Rangers often remind visitors that though these animals are cute and fluffy, they can be aggressive and behave unpredictably - especially when there are cubs to protect. When it comes to dealing with bears in the Smokies, common sense is key. Even by taking all the right precautions, you could still encounter a bear in the Smokies. It's essential to keep your distance for your own safety, the safety of those around you, and the bear itself.

WARNING: Willfully approaching a black bear within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear, is illegal in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view the animals. [NPS]

Photo courtesy of Britney Beasley
Photo courtesy of Britney Beasley

Do Not Feed The Bears

While this might seem obvious, a visit to Cades Cove or the Cherokee Orchard area will quickly prove that our visitors are guilty of this countless times every year. Feeding the bears teaches them to forage for food from and around humans. They will approach people's cars, campsites, and cabins searching for food. Not only do these bears have a shorter lifespan from eating human food; they are much more likely to be euthanized for attacking humans.

Black bear chewing on trash

Leave No Trace Of Food/Trash

The outdoors might seem like a good place to toss your apple core or crust from a sandwich, but doing so in or around the national park is one of the biggest reasons bears are attracted to areas populated by humans. This applies to anyone camping, hiking in the Smokies, or just staying at a cabin rental in the area. Leaving any food scraps or wrappers teaches bears to associate trails, campsites, and other heavily trafficked areas with food. Remember, "a fed bear is a dead bear".

If you know you are going to be exploring the outdoors ahead of time, plan on bringing something appropriate to contain your trash. Hikers should double bag their food in their backpack. Campers should not burn food scraps or trash at any fire pit or grill. If you brought it with you, then pack it out!

Bear Safety

Picnic & Camping Precautions

Do not invite bears into your campsite by storing food in or around your tent. Bears have a keen sense of smell and can be very curious. Keep them away from your area by hanging food and other fragranced items (like toothpaste, bug repellent or soap) in trees and out of reach. Consider hanging items at least 10 feet up or investing in a bear-proof cooler or storage container. Backcountry regulations require that all food and odorous items be stored with the bear cable system at each campsite or shelter.

Bear Safety

If You Encounter A Bear

If you see a bear before it sees you, don't approach. At a safe distance of at least 150 feet this is a good opportunity to enjoy the sight before quietly moving away. If a bear sees you, back away slowly. Do not run away from black bears as this may trigger a chase response. If a bear approaches, stand your ground, clap loudly, wave your arms around and yell. The idea is to "make yourself big" and scare the bear away. While it is rare, if the bear makes contact with you - fight back. Do not play dead.

Trail & Backcountry Precautions

  1. Make your presence known. In many cases, a startled bear is an aggressive bear. Consider traveling with a group, as groups can be noisier and easier to detect.
  2. Bears are generally most active at dawn and dusk. Keep this fact in mind when planning your hikes and activities.
  3. There are hundreds of miles of marked trails in the Great Smoky Mountains; stay on them and be aware of your surroundings. Keep an eye out for tracks, scat, digs, and trees that bears have rubbed.
  4. Pets are not prohibited in the national park. Leave Fido at home.

If You Encounter A Bear

  1. Stay calm. Don’t make sudden movements that could startle or disturb the bear.
  2. Be sure to give animal plenty of room and continue its activities as if you weren’t there. Remember: if it changes its behavior, you’re too close.
  3. If you spot a bear and he doesn’t see you, keep it that way. Back away slowly and quietly without disturbing the creature.
  4. A standing bear isn’t necessarily showing signs of aggression. A bear might stand on its hind legs to get a better view and survey its surroundings.
  5. If a bear starts pursuing you, consider throwing an item – like a camera or purse – away from you. This could distract the animal and give you time to make a clean get away.
  6. Make yourself look bigger to the bear. If you're with a group, use your strength in numbers to increase your visual size; avoid looking like prey.
  7. Again, never feed or throw food to the bears. It’s a local saying: a fed bear is a dead bear.

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