11 Tips to Coexist with Bears in the Adirondacks and Elsewhere

Across the Northeast, black bear populations and encounters are on the rise. In fact, the number of bears has more than doubled in New England since the turn of the century. As a result, conflicts between people and bears are becoming more commonplace, especially when humans head into the bear’s environment: The woods.

While black bears get a bad rap from their interactions from humans, they are typically only in search of food, and tend to be solitary, shy creatures more afraid of humans than we are of them. So how do we limit our interactions with, keep ourselves safe, and keep the bears safe?

Courtesy: Eric Kilby
Courtesy: Eric Kilby

1. Take a Bear Canister

Erin Hanczyk of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recommends taking a bear canister on your next backpacking or camping trip. “Bear hangs aren’t working like they used to,” she says. Hanczyk recommends canisters similar to the COUNTER ASSAULT Bear Resistant Food Keg as other models have been ineffective against bears, particularly in the High Peaks.

Bears have a powerful nose and are motivated by food, so any products with a strong scent, including food, toiletries, bug spray, garbage, food waste, and more should be kept in the canister. In order to fit everything in, minimize the food you’re bringing, remove extra packaging material when possible, and leave space for waste and garbage. Pack the canister ahead of time to assure it all fits and you know how it properly locks!

2. A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear

Don’t feed bears, intentionally or inadvertently. For one, intentional feeding of black bears is illegal. But bears are quick learners and have strong memory; Males will often travel dozens of miles to past feeding areas and they will repeat maneuvers that have led to food in the past (i.e., if people feed them). Don’t help them habituate to easily preventable behavior, because euthanasia is a dramatic last resort.

3. Know the Lay of the Land

A little research and preparation will go a long way as you plan for your trip. Just as you seek trail conditions for your destination, knowing whether there are bear advisories or bear-proof food storage lockers at the campsite is important information. The visitors center of the park or the state wildlife department (which generally is responsible for bear management) will often have the details you are looking for.

4. Consider the Bear’s Calendar

Bears will travel further and take bolder actions when food is sparser, such as in early spring, or in late summer and fall, particularly during years of poor berry and nut yields and during draughts.

Bears tend to arouse from a long slumber between March and April, and during their hibernation they lose between 20 and 40 percent of their weight, so you can imagine they are quite hungry at this time of year. Pay particular caution to newborn cubs around May as the highly protective (and hungry) mother is likely close by. Mating season typically occurs between mid-June and mid-July, when males can be more aggressive.

5. Hike During Daylight Hours

Bears are most active at dawn and dusk. They may be around during the daylight hours too, though they are rarely active at night (except during breeding season, between mid-June and mid-July). Take this into account as you come around bends in the sidelong light or greet the first rays of the day.

6. Cook Earlier in the Evening

For the same reason as above, you don’t want all those lovely dinner smells wafting in the air just as bears are rousing into their most active time of day. Hanczyk urges campers to cook between 4 or 5 p.m. and to be cleaned up before dark.

“We’ve had examples of bears circling campers while they are cooking [later in the evening],” notes Hanczyk.

7. Use the Camp Triangle

The idea is to keep a distance of at least 100 feet between the three points of your camp: the sleeping area, cooking site, and where you store your bear canister overnight. This will help separate those savory smells and drippings, as well as your food stores, from your sleepy bed head. Hanczyk recommends putting the bear canister behind the bathroom facility, which reduces visibility for a passing bear.

8. Cook Only What You Need

Be conservative with your ingredients so as to avoid leftovers, only take out the food you plan on cooking with, and keep everything else in your bear canister. Make sure not to leave your meal unattended as a watching bear may use that as an uninvited opening to steal your meal.

9. Keep a Clean Campsite

Again, bears are attracted to the scent of food, so you want to keep your sleeping area clean of smelly smells. Don’t keep food or scented items (such as toiletry products) in your tent and avoid wearing the clothing you prepared your meals in to bed. After cooking, clean your pots and pans, and strain your water to filter out food particles—Put the bits in your trash bag to be kept in your bear canister. Disperse the leftover waste water away from your cooking station. If you are at a campground, take all garbage and recyclables to on-site receptacles each evening. Lastly, don’t put grease, food scraps, garbage, or other refuse into the fireplace as the items will not properly burn and may attract bears with their odor.

Courtesy: NYSDEC
Courtesy: NYSDEC

10. Keep an Eye Out

While you hike, pay attention to bear signs such as tracks and prints, tree markings, and scat. Bears have broad footprints about 4 to 7 inches wide with all 5 toes and claws typically showing. Claw marks can be found on tree trunks with parallel lines that gouge the bark or look for saplings that are broken partway up the trunk. Their scat is typically dark brown, tubular, and contains seeds or grass.

11. Don’t Leave Packs Unattended

Want to check out that vista 0.3 miles down the side trail? You will want to think twice about leaving your pack behind if you do, and no, it’s not because humans might get to it. Bears have been known to take stashed packs. Easy pickings.

What To Do If You Encounter A Black Bear

Black bears may react aggressively if they feel threatened, so avoid startling, approaching or surrounding them. In an area with known encounters, make noise such as clapping or talking loudly as you hike to try and alert bears of your presence. If hiking in a group, stay together.

If you do encounter a bear don’t run. Running can trigger their predator instinct, and they can reach speeds up to 32 miles an hour. That is not a footrace you will win. If the bear doesn’t see you, slowly back away, keeping your eyes on the bear.

Bears tend to be more curious than aggressive so if a bear does see you, your first action should be to stop, stay composed, raise your arms to make yourself look bigger, speak in a loud and calm voice, then slowly back away. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is most likely trying to get a better view, it is not typically a combative posture. If the bear approaches you, again, don’t run, and avoid throwing your backpack or food at an approaching bear. That may condition bears to approach future hikers in the hopes of acquiring food.

If a bear charges you, stand your ground and dispense bear spray if you have it. If the bear makes contact with you, your best bet is to fight back with whatever you have at hand. But, especially in the East, those situations are exceedingly rare and it’s easiest to try and avoid that situation in the first place.