What To Do if You See a Black Bear, 8 Important Safety Tips

baby black bear under mom

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

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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.


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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 1,900 bears that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s about two bears per square mile.

In fact, the park is one of the largest protected areas for black bears in the eastern United States. Therefore, the location is an ideal bear habitat.

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.

black bear eating berries
If you see a black bear in the wild, remain watchful and keep a safe distance (photo by Tom Middleton/shutterstock.com)

Should you scream at a black bear?

Not right away. If you see a bear, remain watchful and keep your distance. If a bear is following you or approaching you, the National Park Service says you can talk loudly or shout at it.

When a bear is changing its behavior because of you, you are too close.

What to do if a black bear walks up to you?

If you notice that a bear seems to have taken an interest in you, remember to stay calm. Try changing your direction. If it continues, stand your ground.

You can try to act aggressively to intimidate the bear. Move to higher ground if possible to make yourself look bigger. You can also slowly spread your arms to make yourself appear large.

Do not run away or climb a tree. You can also make loud noises by banging pots or pans.

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

What does it mean when a black bear stands up?

A standing bear is usually a curious bear. But a bear who is swatting the ground or running toward you is likely demanding more space. A black bear may snap its jaws or swat the ground as a warning.

Remember, if you are causing the bear to change its behavior, you’re too close.

What do I do if I see a black bear?

Since aggressive bears could possibly be encountered, 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.

Understanding bear behavior is essential for bears and humans.

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

young black bear with bag of trash
Put up food and garbage properly so you do not attract bears (photo by WideAwake/stock.adobe.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.

They are, in fact, fast runners, good swimmers, excellent climbers and have very keen senses. They tend to be most active at dawn and dusk but may be out during the day or night as well.

Always avoid putting yourself in a precarious position.

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

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

2. Keep your distance

If you do see a black bear, keep a safe distance. There is 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. Make sure the bear has a clear escape route. You do not want to make the bear 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. Hikers and campers should follow all precautions on how to store food and remove all traces.

Also, feeding bears is 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. 

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

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. Bears can easily detect pets and pet food.

6. Pick up small children

If you come across a bear, 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)

7. 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.

7. Stay calm

A bear does not typically want to have an encounter with you. Respecting their space will let them know that you are not a threat to them. Also, speaking calmly in a low voice can “remind” the bear that you are not prey.

Again, if the bear seems to have taken an interest in you, you can try making loud noises and try to make yourself appear larger.

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

8. If all else fails, fight back

In the improbable event that a black bear does stalk you or attack your tent, you should fight back as a last resort. Don’t try to “play possum” as this is only for grizzly bears.

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. 

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

Never attempt to provoke a bear, and respect their space when you are visiting its home. At the end of the day, 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.

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

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Photo of author


Alaina O'Neal

Alaina is the owner and founder of Alaina Media LLC, a freelance graphic design agency, the owner and founder of BoardGameChick.com, and the co-founder of TheSmokies.com LLC – a media company that specializes in regional travel sites.

3 thoughts on “What To Do if You See a Black Bear, 8 Important Safety Tips”

  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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