What to do if you see a black bear: These 3 tips might surprise you

Baby black bear hides under its mother bear

Never approach a black bear in the wild, especially if she has bear cubs (stock photo)

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There is a lot of wildlife to see in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina – and it can be exciting for visitors to see animals in their natural habitat.

But it’s important to remember that these beautiful creatures are wild. You are a guest in their home.

Are there black bears in the Smoky Mountains?

Yes! If the Smoky Mountains had an official mascot, it would probably be a black bear.

Biologists estimate that there are about 1,500 bears that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In fact, it’s one of the largest protected areas for black bears in the eastern United States.

Do 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 fatal attacks between 1900 to 2009.

To give that in perspective, that puts the risk of strangling yourself in your own bedsheets roughly 160 times more dangerous.  

That being said, it’s 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.

And since bears can sometimes be unpredictable, it’s smart to brush up on some safety tips before planning your trip to the Smoky Mountains and know what to do if you see a bear.

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.

They are, in fact, fast runners, good swimmers, excellent climbers and have very keen senses. 

Read Also: How fast can a black bear run? The answer might surprise you

Understanding bear behavior is essential for bears and humans.

According to the National Park Service, to avoid a bear encounter or black bear attacks, you should:

Keep your distance

If you do see a black bear, keep a safe distance.

Again, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park prohibits approaching any wildlife within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs the wildlife.

Getting too close to a bear may cause the bear to see you as a threat. Make sure the bear has a clear escape route.

It is also a good idea to not hike or travel alone.

Do not feed them (or offer access to food)

Feeding the bears and leaving trash behind will encourage them to be close to humans, and it is dangerous for both humans and bears.

Also, feeding them is also prohibited by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Bears that are no longer afraid of humans have a higher chance of being euthanized by park services.

Hence, feeding them is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. 

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.

So, even if a cub looks orphaned, the mother bear is likely to be nearby.   

Read Also: Bear cubs discovered in Sevier County home after gas leak reported

Leave pets at home

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.

Bears can easily detect pets and pet food.

Carry spray

If it offers peace of mind, you may carry bear pepper spray in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the strict purpose of protecting yourself from bodily harm against aggressive wildlife.

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 enjoying the sun on a cabin porch
It’s not uncommon to see a black bear on your cabin porch in the Smoky Mountains (stock photo)

2. Stay calm

If you notice that a bear seems to have taken an interest in you, remember to stay calm and do not approach it.

A black bear may snap its jaws or swat the ground as a warning.

The bear is unlikely to attack unless provoked. If the bear is in a standing position, it’s a sign that they are simply curious. 

Read Also: Why black bears don’t really ‘hibernate’ in the Smokies

Speak calmly

Speaking calmly in a low voice can “remind” the bear that you are not prey.

Pick up any small children

You do not want the bear to mistake small children for prey.

Move away slowly

If possible, walk sideways to remain non-threatening.

Attempt to scare it away. In addition, if possible, make loud noises by banging pots or pans.

Keep eye contact with the bear. Do not attempt to run or climb a tree. Move to higher ground if possible to make yourself look bigger. You can also slowly spread your arms to make yourself appear large.

3. Know what to do in an (unlikely) attack

In the improbable event that a black bear does stalk you or attack your tent, do NOT play dead. (This tip only works for brown bears and grizzly bears).

Attempt to scare it away. Also, use bear spray if it is available.

You can also fight back by using sticks, rocks, fists, etc., aiming for its eyes and snout.

If you fight back, most black bears will simply give up.  

Remember, these tips are meant to be informative. Certainly, the best defense with a black bear is not to have an encounter at all.

Never attempt to provoke a bear to fight, and respect their space when you are visiting their home. Most black bears are typically not interested in humans. 

In summary, if you’re planning a trip to the Smokies and want to know what to do if you see a black bear – just follow the simple instructions mentioned in this article.

Try to avoid confrontation, stay calm, keep your eye on the bear as you back away (sideways if possible). Fight back in the unlikely event of an attack.

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

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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3 thoughts on “What to do if you see a black bear: These 3 tips might surprise you”

  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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