Bears a threat in Shenandoah, VA?

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of August 22-28, 1996
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Bears a threat in Shenandoah, VA?

Bears a threat in Shenandoah, VA?
Question: I was wondering if you would offer some advice on camping in Shenandoah National Park. I have camped and hiked in bear country before without any problems, but that was some time ago. Now I have a three-year-old son and we are headed to Shenandoah for the first week of September. It's more of a subconscious insecurity but I feel more vulnerable having my son along. It's important to me that my son has as many outdoor experiences as possible and develop a true love of the outdoors.

I know some of the basics to avoid encountering bears, i.e. make noise when hiking, keep food and other odorous items out of tents, etc. What I want to know is what's the best thing to do if a bear is encountered. I've heard people say that the use of pepper spray, as a last resort, works but I'd be afraid of making the bear angry. Please respond!

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Be nice and it might
not hurt you.

Adventure Adviser: Even though Virginia's Shenandoah National Park sports a decent-sized black bear population--somewhere between 300 and 600--there's no need for alarm. Seriously. If you make enough noise while you're hiking--talking, whistling, or singing campy songs--you probably won't ever lay eyes on one. They'll hear you coming and amble off in search of peace and quiet. As a Shenandoah park ranger says, "They're more interested in doing their own thing, away from annoying, human-generated noises."

Every now and then, though, they'll be too busy feeding to bother and that's when you might run into one on the trail. In this scenario, standard bear-avoidance strategy is to stop walking and slowly back away from the bear. Whatever you do, don't run. "To a bear, anything that runs looks like food." Good point.

As for pepper spray, that's really a matter of personal preference. If you decide to pack it along, keep in mind the age-old adage: "If you're aggressive to them, they'll be more aggressive to you." Use it only as a last resort. And, at the risk of telling you more than you want to know, here's another tip from the ursine-savvy department: If a bear's going to approach you at all, chances are it'll pull a false charge-maneuver, which means it'll run and stop just short of you to gauge your reaction before backing away. Again, by all means, resist the urge to run. If it looks like it's a full-blown, honest-to-josh charge, assume the fetal position immediately by curling up on the ground with your hands behind your head and play dead. It'll probably lose interest and go back to their own business. If not, now might be a good time to break out the pepper spray.

As for camping strategies, a good bet is to figure out which way the wind's blowing before you find a backcountry site and then hang your food and do your cooking about 150 feet downwind of your tent. That way, anything that smells remotely appetizing to a bear will lead him away from you. And remember, stash all food, wrappers, and scented items (sunblock, Chapstick, etc.) in the hanging bag--bears have frighteningly good noses. Whatever you do, don't let these gory details deter you, since chances are you probably won't see anything but squirrels and chipmunks.

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