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7 Surprising Safety Tips When You Spot a Black Bear in the Smoky Mountains

baby black bear cub

Never approach a black bear in the wild, especially if she has bear cubs (photo by jadimages/stock.adobe.com)

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Tennessee native offers tips on black bear safety from Bear Wise

There is a lot of wildlife to see in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. I grew up in East Tennessee, and I’ve come across black bears on several occasions. To be honest, I’m never sure that it gets old. However, it also makes me sad to read headlines about black bears having to be put down because they have become too familiar with humans and pose a danger to us and themselves. So, I thought it’d be useful to put together a handy guide of basic black bear safety tips.

Will black bears attack humans?

It is rare for a black bear to attack a human, but it can happen. A study by The Wildlife Society documented 59 fatalities from black bears between 1900 to 2009. While it’s unlikely to be provoked, it’s still extremely important to keep your distance from a wild black bear. It is the safest thing to do for both humans and bears. Specifically, it is illegal to willfully approach a bear within 150 feet or any distance that disturbs the bear. As a rule of thumb, if you see a bear, fully extend your arm in front of you and stick your thumb up. If the bear is not covered completely by your thumb, you are too close. Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind, according to BearWise.org:


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black bear standing up
A standing black bear is usually curious (photo by Constance Mahoney/shutterstock.com)

1. Avoid a confrontation

While I am likely one of many people who consider black bears to be “cute”, it’s important to remember that they can be dangerous, and they are wild animals. They are fast runners, good swimmers, excellent climbers and have very keen senses. Always avoid putting yourself in a precarious position.

mama bear with cubs in tree
Bears are excellent climbers and fast runners (photo by Debbie Steinhausser/shutterstock.com)

2. Keep your distance and stay calm

If you do see a black bear, keep a safe distance. There is certainly no reason that you should ever be within 150 feet of a bear. Getting too close to a bear may cause the bear to see you as a threat. If you spot a bear in the wild, make sure the bear has a clear escape route so it does not feel threatened. It is also a good idea to not hike or travel alone whenever possible.

A baby bear chewing on a plastic bottle
Having access to human food and trash can drastically decrease a bear’s lifetime (photo by DCrane/shutterstock.com)

3. Do not feed them (or offer access to food)

Feeding the bears and leaving trash, garbage and food scraps behind will encourage them to be close to humans, and it is dangerous for both humans and bears. Campsites can be particularly vulnerable as bears have become accustomed to looking for human food. Bears that are no longer afraid of humans have a higher chance of being euthanized by park services. In other words, feeding them is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. 

mama bear with bear cub
Cubs stay near their moms for about two years (photo by Steven/stock.adobe.com)

4. Never go near a cub

Females are protective of their cubs, and the chance of an attack increases greatly if a bear thinks her cub is in danger. Cubs typically stay with their mothers for about two years from birth. Remember, even if a cub looks orphaned, the mother bear is likely to be nearby.

Male Hiker with Labrador on a Trail
If you’re bringing your dog, stick to the two dog-friendly trails in the park and keep them on a leash (photo by Orion Productions/shutterstock.com)

5. Leave pets at home, pick up small children

Dogs and other pets (except for service animals) are prohibited on any park trail in the Smoky Mountains National Park, except for the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. In bear country, it’s best to leave your pets at home since bears can easily detect pets and pet food. Also, if you come across a bear, pick up any small children you have with you. You do not want the bear to mistake small children for prey.

can of bear spray
You can carry bear spray for the strict purpose of protecting yourself against bodily harm (photo by Lost_in_the_Midwest/shutterstock.com)

6. Carry spray

If it offers peace of mind, using bear spray in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the strict purpose of protecting yourself from bodily harm against aggressive wildlife is allowed. Spray should, however, be a last line of defense. According to the NPS, you can discharge the spray or other deterrent if the bear approaches you within 20 yards.

Black bear eating berries
In the unlikely event of an incident, fight back (photo by Jillian/stock.adobe.com)

7. If all else fails, fight back

In the improbable event that a black bear does stalk you or attack your tent, you can fight back as a last resort. Don’t try to “play possum”. Instead, use bear spray if it is available. You can also use sticks, rocks, fists, etc., aiming for its eyes and snout. Most black bears will simply give up. But remember, you should never attempt to provoke a bear, and respect their space when you are visiting its home.

Have you ever seen a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains? Let me know in the comments!

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at editor@thesmokies.com (preferred) or call 865-505-0648.

3 thoughts on “7 Surprising Safety Tips When You Spot a Black Bear in the Smoky Mountains”

  1. We have seen many bears in the mountains, have smelled More and have seen where they have torn off bark to get to grubs, etc. Usually they are seen from our Car, but have seen some just out in the open and downtown Gatlinburg. I have talked to rangers about bears, and their stories about bear encounters Versus people is amazing, if not downright unreal. Way to many people do not realize the Danger of bears. A Hotel we stayed at had people FEEDING them from the balconies, and that is just WRONG! We carry whistles and a stadium horn since talking to rangers too.

  2. I hope people are conscience they are putting bears’ life in danger. As the article explains the park & service will euthanize bears who get frequently near human lodgings. Do not feed them, please.

  3. Three bears walked down the driveway of our rental cabin. The first we were pulling in and it came down the drive and across the road. We were getting out of the car after that and another started down the driveway just as the kids were getting out of the car. My wife though I was pranking her and took her sweet time until she realized we were all gone and looked up and saw it. The third was about 1p minutes after that. We were trying to bring in groceries and saw the last one meandering towards the drive from the woods. Amazing sight and amazing photos. We all were really excited but a great reminder to how quiet they are. Be safe and practice situational awareness.


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