Your vacation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park might include hiking, camping, fishing, picnicking, bird watching, or some other outdoor activity.
All of this fun will be carried out in the great outdoors, where you will share space with a multitude of wild animals!
While planning your vacation to the Smokies, you probably will book a campsite, cabin, or hotel, choose which live shows you want to see in nearby cities, and determine which zip line or riding stable has the best deals.
You also need to plan what you will do if, and when, you encounter a black bear.
RELATED: The Best Place to Spot Black Bears in the Smoky Mountains
As of 2016, more than 11 million people and 1,600 black bears share the park each year. For the most part, they coexist without incident. We do not want to contribute to an unhealthy fear of bears, but apparently this is not the problem.
The low number of black bear attacks may be contributing to an unsafe lackadaisical attitude toward bears. Far too many people see bears as cute, approachable animals who wouldn’t mind participating in a selfie. This relaxed mind-set is very dangerous.
Vacationers get so excited about seeing a bear that they forget that these creatures can, and will, kill if they feel threatened. In a bear’s mind, just getting close to them may be considered aggressive behavior.
Remember, black bears are WILD ANIMALS and will attack if they think it is necessary. After all, they believe you are encroaching on their environment, not the other way around. The key to staying safe is knowing ahead of time what to do if, and when, you see a bear.
Bears do injure people, but only one person died because of a black bear attack inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Black bear attacks in the park are extremely rare, but they do happen. Every bear encounter must be met with caution.
From 1900 to 2015, only 64 people were killed by black bears in all of North America, mostly in Canada and Alaska. According to one bear researcher, you are more likely to be killed by a domestic dog, bees, or lightning than you are a black bear.
Since the founding of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early 1900’s, only one death is attributed to a black bear inside the park.
Even so, the Boy Scouts’ motto, “Be Prepared”, is timeless advice. Our goal is to provide valuable, proven information for you and your safety. We want your Smokies vacation to be the best ever!
Let’s begin by stating that federal law forbids anyone from “willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear.” The fine is a hefty $5,000 and six months in jail. In addition, state laws may apply.
You may not know you are approaching a bear until it is too late. If so, you may find the following suggestions helpful if you are ever confronted by a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Scenario: A bear is looking at you, making loud noises, and/or swatting the ground.
Meaning: This behavior communicates that the bear believes you are too close and it feels threatened and afraid. It is demanding more space from you.
Response: Slowly back away while facing the bear. Talk to the bear in a calm voice. As you increase your distance, the bear will most likely do the same. Do not turn and run.
Scenario: A bear is following you or it is approaching you slowly. It is not making any noise or swatting the ground with its paws.
Meaning: It is curious and wants to find out what you are doing. While this behavior is not threatening, it could lead to it.
Response: Walk in a different direction and see if the bear continues to follow you. If it follows you or gets closer, get aggressive and begin shouting, blowing your whistle, and throwing rocks and sticks at it (anything other than food). Use your hiking stick to intimidate the bear and move to higher ground by backing away. DO NOT play dead, run, climb a tree, or leave food behind. If it gets too close, use your pepper spray*.
Scenario: You have food out and a bear approaches.
Meaning: It is obvious; the bear wants your food.
Response: Back away slowly from the food and give the bear plenty of room. It is now the bear’s food. Move to a safe position away from the bear. Clap your hands. Make noise; a lot of noise. Blow your sound horn or whistle.
Scenario: A bear begins charging and shows no signs of stopping; you are under attack.
Meaning: The bear has determined that you are a threat and needs to defend itself or it sees you as prey.
Response: DO NOT play dead! Use the pepper spray, blow your whistle. Fight back with every resource you have; use rocks, sticks, a hiking pole, anything. Make as much noise as possible and fight like crazy. More often than not, they will give up and leave.
IMPORTANT: Black bears are wild animals and their behavior can be unpredictable. The above suggestions DO NOT guarantee your safety during a bear encounter. ALWAYS be aware of your surroundings and NEVER get within 50 yards of a bear.
Choosing the Right Safety Tools
Any Smoky Mountains outdoor adventure should include safety equipment. Whether you are a seasoned backpacker, an avid hiker, a wildlife photographer, or an afternoon picnicker, you never consider leaving home without the supplies you need.
“Being prepared” means you need the proper safety tools. “Being safe” is knowing how and when to use them. Here are several small tools we believe may make a difference in your safety.
Loud noises scare most animals, causing them to run for cover. This holds true for black bears. It is your first line of defense, along with throwing rocks and sticks. If that doesn’t work, a specially formulated pepper spray for bears will likely do the trick.
- Falcon Safety Super Sound Horn: These horns are normally sold to owners of marine vessels, but they work on land or sea. The manufacturer claims it is loud enough to be heard a half mile away on land and a mile away over water. It is lightweight and small enough to carry in a backpack.
- Fox 40 Sonik Blast CMG with Lanyard: At the very least, you should carry a good safety whistle. Whistles can make enough noise to scare off a variety of animals. This maker of this particular whistle claims it can be heard up to a mile away.
- *Bear Pepper Spray: If noise doesn’t work, you may need to take accelerated measures. More specifically, you may need a pepper spray made for deterring bears. Several bear pepper sprays are on the market. Federal law restricts which types of sprays can be used in a national park, so we recommend the following brands approved by the EPA for use in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
UDAP 18HP Super Magnum Bear Spray 13.4 oz
Frontiersman Bear Spray w/Hip Holster-Max Strength & Range-35 ft-9.2 oz
Counter Assault CA-12HVP/sb Bear Spray
The above links take you to Amazon.com where you may purchase these items if you are so inclined. We are required by law to tell you that we receive a small referral commission if you buy something. It does not change your price at all.
We at My Smoky Mountain Guide want you to have a wonderful vacation right here in our backyard, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Millions of people come from throughout the world for the outdoor vacation of a lifetime, and they get it. The black bear is a wonderful part of their experience. Enjoy them; safely!