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What about bears?

A variation of this article first appeared on TheTrek.co

Hiking through Glacier National Park, my wife Michelle and I had already seen multiple bears that day. Michelle had a more than healthy respect for the animals. I, on the other hand, was complaining that I still had not gotten a really good picture of one. Just then, she whispered, “Bear!” and quickly started moving away from the cute ball of fur (black bear) that had run right past us. My mind registered only, “Hey, a cub!” as I pulled out the camera.

Seconds later, from a distance I heard a shout of, “Keep walking!”

I then realized my folly and started laughing at my own stupidity. From an even greater distance I then heard, “You’re not taking this very seriously!”

I thought to myself, “No, I guess I’m not,” then finally began to leave the area.

As with most bear encounters, we lived to tell the tale, but were we really in any danger? Should backpackers and thru-hikers be worried about bears while on the trail? I resolved to find out.

Black Bear or Grizzly?

For starters, there are two very different species of bears living in the Continental United States. Much less prevalent and with a smaller range is the grizzly bear (U. a. horribilis). Grizzlies are found in the northern Rocky Mountains (Yellowstone area and north) as well as the Bitteroot Mountains. Most U.S. bears are black bears (Ursus americanus). Any bear you see on the AT will be a black bear. While in theory, Grizzlies could be at the very northern edge of the PCT, there has only been one verified sighting in the northern Cascades this century. So, it’s a safe bet that if you see a bear on the PCT, it will also be a black bear. That being the case, let’s concentrate on black bears.

Not all black bears are black

Black bears are spread throughout the U. S. with populations in 41 of the 50 states. The total population is estimated to be around 750,000 in North America. An adult typically weighs between 125 and 500 pounds, though there’s a captive male living at the North American Bear Center that tips the scales at close to 1,000 pounds.

If you’re hiking the AT or the PCT, chances are you will see a black bear at some point. There are an estimated 30,000 bears living in California and an estimated 1,500 just in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. When on these trails, you are in the bear’s home. Some of my most exciting moments on the trail involved bear sightings but, is it dangerous to share the woods with them?

Dangerous?

Statistically and relatively speaking, the answer is a resounding no. From 2000 to 2019 there have been 9 deaths by black bear attacks in the lower 48. Of those, 3 involved either feeding a bear or joining one in a cage. Counting those in the wild, it works out to roughly one death every three years.  By contrast, just last year there were 20 people killed by lightning (a low year) in the U.S.

In an average year, over 3,000 people drown.

Over 36,000 die annually in motor vehicle accidents

In 2017, 89 people were killed in the U.S. by bees, wasps and hornets.

Typically, between 30 and 50 people are killed each year by dogs. (Also known as “man’s best friend.)

Heck, according to the Washington Post, in a six year period through 2017, over 250 people had died while taking selfies. (if someone died while taking a selfie with a bear, I’m not sure which list they ended up on.)

To get some specifics, I spoke with Lynn Rogers, the Founder and Board Chair of the North American Bear Center. He has been studying and working with bears since 1967. It may come as a bit of a surprise to those that have grown up reading about bear attacks in outdoor magazines, but black bears are actually a rather docile species under most circumstances. In fact, Rogers stated that black bears are reluctant to even defend their cubs from people. “The greatest misconception about black bears is that they are likely to attack people in defense of cubs.  They are highly unlikely to do this. In fact, there’s never been a documented case of anyone being killed by a black bear defending her cubs”

Momma with cub waaay up a tree.

Grizzly bears react completely different to threats to their cubs and are the cause of this, and other misconceptions. The fact is that few people differentiate between the two species, but lumping them together results in unwarranted confusion and fear.

A black bear’s typical reaction to meeting a hiker on the trail is to turn and run. Even those that act more aggressively with vocalizing or slamming their paw to the ground are doing so out of nervousness. Slowly backing away will give the bear the space it wants.

So, if you see a black bear on the trail, what should you do? Per Rogers, “Basically, enjoy it.  We like to make ourselves inconspicuous to watch them longer before they discover us and run….We have seen a lot of advice to avoid eye contact and avoid running away, but we have been unable to find any instance where doing these things has precipitated an attack.  Fearful people usually tell us ‘I ran one way and the bear ran the other.’”

All that being said, there is still the rare black bear that is aggressive and will attack a human. Rogers estimates that these bears are literally one in a million. In addition, bears that are exposed to people (like those that live near trails) are even less likely to be aggressive than those that live where they rarely see a person. Despite the “one in a million” odds, attacks happen.

Dealing with that “rare” bear

If a black bear appears aggressive, the National Park Service recommends the following:

If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, Change your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. Act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Talk loudly or shout at it. Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Don’t run and don’t turn away from the bear. Don’t leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.

If the bear’s behavior indicates that it is after your food and you are physically attacked, Separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.

If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey, Fight back aggressively with any available object! Do not play dead!

Rogers recommends carrying pepper spray, (The small containers designed for dog protection are plenty strong.) He has tested the spray extensively on black bears. If a bear does act aggressive around you or your food, pepper spray solves the problem quickly and safely. When hit with the spray, the bear “doesn’t go away mad, it just goes away.”

Studies have shown pepper spray has a higher success rate at stopping aggressive bears than even a gun. In addition, no one needs to make an accurate shot under duress. Just keep spraying. If you accidentally hit your fellow hiker, no permanent damage. Plus, the bear is not killed, but has learned a valuable lesson to fear humans. One note of caution, pepper spray is a chemical irritant to be used on the bear. It is not a repellent to be sprayed on yourself or your gear. Apparently bears like the smell and have been known to come into camp to roll on tents that have been sprayed.

Despite the extremely low odds of attack, it is still very important to continue to protect your food from black bears, whether through use of a bear canister, a bear locker or cables where available, or bear bagging everything that smells like it could be food. Doing so protects the bear as well as yourself. Bears are smart, resourceful animals that learn from experience. If a bear successfully gets food from a person once, it will try it again, quickly raising the odds of a conflict between the bear and people that it now sees as a food source. Bears that have been rewarded for interacting with people quickly become “problem” bears. Relocation of problem bears is expensive and has a low success rate. Quite often, the decision is made to eradicate the problem bear. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear.

NPS photo   Creating problem bears in the “old days.”

Some additional rumors to put to rest:

There is no evidence that menstruating draws any additional interest from bears.

Black bears are not always black. They can be brown, cinnamon, and rarely, even white.

There have been no studies to show that, if attacked by a bear, crapping oneself will deter the bear.

Bears will go anywhere they can find food. Don’t help them become problem bears.

Black Bears are neither the roving monsters they are often portrayed to be, nor are they cute teddy bears to attempt to feed or take a selfie with. They are wild animals trying to survive and mostly avoid humans. If we treat them as they are, both us and them can safely coexist.

Featured image courtesy of the North American Bear Center.

Trail Report: The Foothills Trail

With the COVID-19 issue making a long thru-hike impossible at this time, I thought it might be nice to look at a possible, shorter option to consider once restrictions are lifted. The scenery is reminiscent of the southern AT, but with the lower elevations, the hike is possible at any time of the year. Between the climate, a distance that doesn’t require a resupply and no shelters to congregate in, this trail would be a good, possibly “safer” choice, no matter when life starts getting back to normal.

The Foothills Trail runs from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park, both in South Carolina. In between, the path meanders through Sumter National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, land protected by Duke Energy Corporation, and Gorges State Park in North Carolina. While the “hills” aren’t as high as some of the Appalachian Mountains, they are often just as steep. The elevations encountered run from just over 1,000 feet to the highest point in South Carolina, the peak of Mount Sassafras at 3,554 feet.

Every year thousands of people start hiking north from Springer Mountain with every intention of walking to Maine. Sadly, most do not make it. Amazingly, a significant portion quit the trail in the first 100 miles. Some were woefully unprepared and some didn’t realize that thru-hiker life just wasn’t for them. For these folks, a solid “shakedown” hike may have saved their AT attempt or, at least given them the knowledge to not disrupt their life for a walk in the woods that only lasted a week or so.

Part of my background involves being certified as both a personal trainer and a running coach. One of the more useful concepts I took away from that education was the Specificity Principle. Basically, the concept is that the most useful training is directly tied to your goals. Do you want to be a marathon runner? Your base training should be mostly running long. Want to be a better hitter in baseball? Worry less about lifting weights and spend more time in the batting cage. It’s a pretty simple concept but one that best prepares both your body and mind for your goal task.

Based on this principle, what would be the best training for a long backpacking trip on the AT? Why that would be a not quite so long backpacking trip. Specifically, what type of backpacking trip? Why one that in many ways mimics the AT. To that end, I would suggest trying the Foothills Trail that runs mostly in South Carolina with some time spent in North Carolina.

Why Hike the Foothills Trail?

The Foothills Trail is a great hike for a number of reasons. The southern Appalachians are scenic, with plenty of rivers, waterfalls, and some great views. In many regards, much of the hiking is indeed reminiscent of the southern AT. This shorter hike can very much help prepare you for the conditions to come on the AT and let you see what the challenges are, before making that life changing commitment to thru-hike. The 77-mile length is a great test that took me five days to complete, hiking in late February/early March.

Terrain

Do not let the lower elevations fool you; this trail is not easy. Per my GPS watch, I covered a total of 78.8 miles between the trail, a short detour, and wandering around campsites. Walking from Oconee to Table Rock State Parks, elevation gain was 15,433 feet and loss was 14,913. This worked out to an average change in elevation of 385 feet/mile. The AT, as a whole, averages a change of 237 feet/mile. At one point “Heartbreak Hill” climbed at a rate of 1,600 feet/mile. For me, the real heartbreak was giving all that climb back over the next half mile, then doing it all again. That is some great training for the PUDS (pointless up and downs) on the AT.

The footpath itself is well constructed and well maintained. The occasional flattish stretches are a joy to walk, but there is no getting around the power of gravity on the hills.

Even in the damp spring, I was able to rock hop any creek that wasn’t already bridged.

Getting There

The trail can be hiked in either direction, though starting at Oconee State Park puts off the biggest and steepest hills until the food bag has lost much of its weight.

Oconee State Park from Atlanta: take I-85N to US 76W to US 28W to State Park Road.

Table Rock State Park from Ashville: take I-26S to US 25S to SC-11S to park entrance.

Shuttles can be arranged through both local outfitters and a list of volunteer drivers. Both can be found at the Foothills Trail website. Overnight parking is available at either end by paying a $5/night parking fee.

Water

Like much of the southern AT, water is plentiful. There are numerous streams, impressive waterfalls and a large lake along the route. The Foothills Trail Guidebook points out all water options and I rarely carried more than a liter at a time. As always, filter any water before drinking it.

Climate and Weather

First wildflower of the season – March 2.

The Foothills Trail is not significantly farther north and generally stays 1,000 feet or more lower than the AT does through Georgia. Nearby Pickens, South Carolina, averages a low of 30 and high of 52 in January. By watching the weather, the trail can be hiked in late fall, early spring and even through the winter; perfect for that decision-making tune-up hike. Rainfall totals 53 inches annually and is spread evenly through the year. Snow is rare and typically doesn’t last. Even on Mount Sassafras, less than 9 inches of snow falls in a typical winter.

During my hike, there was a cold snap that brought nighttime temperatures down near 20. Even with that, the days were pleasant.

On the other hand, summer hiking can be hot, humid, and buggy.

Camping

Overlooking the upper reaches of Lake Jocassee.

This is one area where the Foothills Trail and the AT differ significantly. There are 262 shelters on the AT. Other than one small “emergency” cave, there are none on the Foothills Trail. Bring the tent or hammock. There are a number of great spots to camp, though, many designed and built as Eagle Scout projects. Nearly all have flat spots for tents, a fire ring, and a nearby water source. Quite a few have benches and provisions to bear bag your food. I hit the jackpot camping along Lake Jocassee. Gorges State Park maintains campsites with sand tent pads, grills, and picnic tables. Within the national forests, camping is permitted throughout and there were no fees at any of the locations I camped.

The other main difference is that in early spring the Foothills Trail is not crowded with campers. I camped alone at 3 of 4 locations and actually went two full days without seeing another person.

Resupply Options

As a training hike, be prepared to carry all the food needed for the trip. It is possible to cache supplies near a road crossing, but it complicates logistics significantly. Think of the trail as a “short” 100-Mile Wilderness.

Summary

If you’re not sure if you really want to hike the AT, consider the Foothills Trail as a test. If you want to train for an upcoming AT attempt, keep the principle of specificity in mind and try a training hike on the Foothills Trail. Or, if you just want to get out in a beautiful natural area for an early or late season hike you can complete in a week, try the Foothills Trail.

Plan on spending 4-7 days on a well-designed, well-maintained, well-marked trail through some gorgeous, yet challenging terrain. The hike is not unlike the southern AT. The difficulty is similar. The surrounding forests and streams will seem familiar. The white blazes are typically easy to follow. The main difference I found was the lack of other hikers. If you finish this trail wanting more, there’s a good chance a successful AT thru-hike could be in your future.

Of course, for me, the best part of the trail was the seclusion and lack of shelters, so I’ll continue to hold off on the AT for now.

For additional planning information, check out the Foothills Trail Conservancy. In addition to a helpful website, they have created the official map of the Foothills Trail and a Foothills guidebook. At 7 ounces, the guidebook is a tad heavy, but includes maps and turn-by-turn directions in both directions.

Feeling Safe Again While Backpacking

The recent murder on the Appalachian Trail of Ronald Sanchez has shattered many people’s confidence in their personal safety while on the trail. Unfortunately, the problems in society sometimes violently intrude even on special places such as the AT. As stated by Suzanne Dixon, President of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “The Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe environment, a refuge that welcomes more than three million users a year. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the trail is not absolutely safe.” 

Statistically speaking, the trail is still very safe. With the millions of trail users per year, there have been 12 homicides over the last 50 years. The US as a whole has a murder rate of five per 100,000 annually. Many major cities have homicide rates up to ten times that overall average. Admittedly, this is an apples/oranges comparison, but the reason the recent terrible incident received so much news coverage was precisely because it was so rare.

Regardless of how safe the trail is for hikers, it can always be safer. In the 40 years since my first solo trip, I’ve considered and practiced a number of techniques to improve my safety. In addition, I’ve recently spoke on the subject with Howard Rahtz, a retired Cincinnati Police Captain. He’s written multiple books on community policing/safety, was the head of the city’s Police Academy and served as a Defensive Tactics Instructor and SWAT Negotiator. He’s also my brother. Hopefully, our joint experience can provide some advice on staying safer on the trail which then can provide some additional peace of mind for hikers, their friends and family.

Before sharing our conversation, I need to say the following: It is not my intention to second guess the actions of those victimized during the recent attack and should not be the interpretation of this article. I was not there and in circumstances such as these, decisions have to made quickly, under extreme duress. My intention is to provide my general thoughts based upon years of backpacking, often alone, and the advice of an expert in the field of community safety.

Keep in mind that these are general recommendations and not guarantees of safety. Each situation is different and there are countless variables that have to be considered as a situation unfolds, whether on the trail or at the local mall parking lot.

Jim: The AT is safer than most American neighborhoods, but reading about this attack was unsettlingly, to say the least. Also, if you are a victim, statistics don’t matter at all. Given that these kinds of incidents are statistically unlikely, what are your thoughts on what hikers can do to reduce the odds of being attacked. And if we are attacked, are there some steps to help us not only survive but to better get through the encounter?

Howard: Criminal acts on the AT are indeed rare, and it is discouraging to even have to discuss this. There are two important factors in avoiding victimization, and they are no different on the AT than they are on the streets of Chicago.

The first is to look and act like a difficult target. Criminals are looking for easy victims. When we look as though we’d be a “handful” for any attacker, the odds of being targeted go down. We can stand tall, speak loudly and look confident. Facial expression, voice control and a calm demeanor carry more weight than physical size. Potential attackers are sizing you up. You want them to look, and decide to move on.

Second, listen to that little voice inside that tells you when things are not right. Author Gavin DeBecker refers to this as the “gift of fear,” our intuition warning us of danger. I’ve spoken to a multitude of crime victims who say, “I knew something was not right.” When the hair on our neck stands up, the hollow in our stomach opens, the beginnings of panic floods our senses — we ignore those warnings at our peril.

Jim: Absolutely, listen to that inner voice. If a situation doesn’t seem right, get yourself out of it. Make up a reason, be rude, whatever it takes to separate yourself from that person or situation.

What about weapons? I get asked all the time if I carry a gun on the trail.

Howard: While it is a personal choice, carrying a gun can be a complicated matter. The requirements for concealed carry vary widely from state to state and not all states recognize another’s permit. In addition, most of us are good people who would find it extremely difficult to shoot another human being, even if the action was necessary for our own safety.

Jim: And there’s the extra weight of the gun itself and the weight of responsibility of bringing a deadly weapon on the trail where it can’t be locked away. You’d have to keep control if it every minute on the trail, a tall order. It just never seemed like a good idea to me.

Howard: On the other hand, I think pepper spray is great tool. It works really well on almost everybody. It is easy to use, causes no permanent damage and some brands even leave an ultraviolent trail that can assist in identification of a suspect. It can be used from a distance of 10-15 feet.

The key factors are to keep the spray readily accessible. Also, practice spraying a few times to avoid dosing yourself. When you need it is not the time to be reading the instructions.

Jim: I agree with that. I’ve backpacked, often solo, for decades now and have never had a problem. I’m also 6’ 3”, weigh 180 and, to put it politely, don’t look like a victim. However, I always carry a small container of pepper spray. It weighs 2 ounces, is legal (per the Pepper Spray Store) to carry anywhere on the AT and will work on a threatening black bear, dog or human. I think of it like a seatbelt. I’ll probably never need it, but if I do, I’ll be very glad I have it.

Anything else you can suggest?

Howard: Studies show people will fight harder for family members and those they care about than they will to save their own lives. We had police officers keep pictures of family members and those they loved in their hats or attached to the dash of the patrol car. When someone tries to hurt you, they are attacking the people who love you. Those pictures are a reminder of what is at stake.

Lastly, mental rehearsal. Think of situations that may arise. Picture yourself responding forcefully and effectively. Imagine it in as much detail as possible. When a crisis situation arrives, you’ll have the benefit of mental planning to help you overcome.

Jim: There are also a number of things hikers can do on a daily basis to increase their safety. For example, keep a charge in your phone. No matter how great the episode is, don’t use the last 10% of battery power listening to Backpacker Radio. If nothing else, you might need the battery power to order a pizza.

Howard: Also with phones, don’t hike with both ear buds in. Keep one ear available to hear what’s going on around you; situational awareness. Plus, to a predator, both ear buds in signal that you can’t hear, making you look like an easier target.

Jim: Concerning electronics; I also carry a Spot Satellite Tracker when I hike alone. There’s not always a cell signal on the trail so it’s great to send messages back home for peace of mind. And, if something ever happens such as a broken leg, I can let first responders know my exact location. That way, the search part of “search and rescue” is eliminated. At 5 ounces, it seems like cheap insurance to me.

There’s also non-electronics; the shelter register. If anything strange is happening in the area, odds are good someone wrote about it in the register. It’s a good idea to look over recent entries.

Howard: Getting on and off the trail is another area where it pays to be cautious. I’m not a big fan of hitchhiking. I’d look to use shuttle services and established trail angels whenever possible.

Jim: True, but sometimes the only feasible way to resupply is to hitch. For some hikers, meeting these new people is a positive part of the thru-hike experience that they don’t want to give up. Keeping a few items in mind can make hitchhiking safer though.
• Hitch with another hiker, or as part of a group.
• If you are hiking alone, don’t share that information.
• Keep your phone out and visible while in the car.
• As mentioned before, trust your gut. If you walk up to a ride and something just doesn’t seem right, don’t get in the car. Have an excuse in mind (I forgot my food bag.) to easily decline the ride and wait for one that seems better.

As a reminder, Report any incidents by calling 911 for emergencies, as well as the National Park Service 24-hour dispatch at 1-866-677-6677

All in all, hiking the AT is a nearly always a positive experience that can change your life for the better. A little preparation and awareness of the (unlikely) problems that can occur will improve your safety, your confidence as you hike and the peace of mind of the folks back home.