The following post is my account of my bear attack experience at a tent site outside Glasgow, Virginia.
This article is rather long. I erred on the side of too much information rather than too little so people can learn from this experience as much as possible. If you are only interested in the story and not the background, skip to the section titled “The Attack”.
First, I’m including some information about the term bear attack vs. bear encounter and information about the North American black bear.
Bear attack vs. bear encounter disclaimer
Some people might take issue with my decision to call this situation a bear attack instead of a bear encounter. But to me, and I think a lot of people on trail, those terms mean drastically different things. A bear attack makes you think of bloody gashes or chomped-on limbs. It means a call to the hospital, or worse, the morgue. A bear encounter, makes me picture a hiker walking on trail and spotting a bear 100 yards in front of them before it dashes into the woods. Or, maybe a bear coming into camp and stealing a food bag. Well, my “bear experience” sits in the middle of those situations in terms of severity. Actually, more towards attack because of the aggression and atypical behavior of the bears. The two bears I encountered did everything worth considering an attack save drawing blood. So, in my eyes, this was an attack that myself and my partner, Town, narrowly escaped unscathed (physically).
Background on Black Bears
The American Black Bear is a species native to North America and generally mid-sized. It is the most common bear in North America and is the only type of bear found on the Appalachian Trail (unlike the PCT or CDT where grizzlies are found).
Their diet mainly consists of berries, roots, insects, and grasses and occasionally fish. Black bears can acquire a taste for human food if it’s left behind at campsites or garbage which is why it’s important never to feed bears and practice leave no trace.
Adult black bears are 4-7 feet tall typically. Their weight ranges from 125 to 500 pounds for males and 90 to 300 pounds for females. Cubs are smaller but reach close to adult size around 2 years old which is also when the mothers force their yearlings to stop traveling with them.
Black bears’ sense of smell is extremely good. Their nasal mucosa is 100 times larger than a humans.
In April, Black Bears leave their winter dens. Food is scarce and many lose weight during this time of year. In May, the bears eat sprouting grass and leaves as the forest turns green with spring. It’s not until July that berries ripen and become a major food source for the species.
Black bears are sometimes comedically referred to as “big dogs” as they’re technically the least threatening of bear species. Hikers are instructed to make noise and make themselves big in order to threaten the black bear into backing off. A common rhyme to remember the difference between grizzlies and black bears is “If it’s brown, lay down. If it’s black, fight back”. Thus, almost no one on the AT carries bear spray as loud clapping, yelling, and whistles should be all you need to stay safe. That is unless the bear has been fed human food and is conditioned to connect humans to sources of food. This is when the black bear can become dangerous to human life.
The day of the attack
This day wasn’t abnormal. We planned to do some decent mileage but because of a lack of motivation, hadn’t really planned when or where we’d stop exactly.
So when we got to our last big hill of the day, right before there was a road crossing with parked cars belonging to day hikers and a bulletin board we were inclined to pass by as we normally do as it’s normally just information about the area and “don’t feed the wildlife” signs.
Just before we reached the trailhead on the opposite side of the street, a day hiker said “Hey, just so you know, Max Creek Shelter is closed because of bear activity.” We turned and said, “Oh, okay thanks!” Because here’s the thing about thru-hiking, at least for me, I don’t know the name of things we pass. I barely know the name of the places I’m staying at each night. Usually, I just pick a destination based on how many miles it is from where I’m starting that day. So we noted the information half-heartedly thinking it was probably a shelter we’d pass in the next mile but wouldn’t be sleeping near. Also, “bear activity” was common along the trail thus far. I remember passing plenty of signage in Georgia and closed shelters that reported food stolen out of trees. In our eyes, that’s the worst that could happen.
We continue hiking and climb some pretty steep terrain. Once we reached the top, it was around 3 or 4 pm and we were starting to think about where we might stop for the night. We planned to continue hiking until it was 7:30 pm to make as much progress as possible.
This is when we realized that we were nearing Max Creek Shelter. We had two options: 1. Make it past Max Creek and across the James River to the next shelter, or 2. Camp earlier than Max Creek Shelter outside of the closed boundary.
We were gonna keep pushing but we passed a gorgeous campsite (the last before the closed boundary) at around 6:45 pm and were too tempted by its perfection to continue past it. It was a tent site with space for 1-2 tents looking over the James River. The space for the tent was covered in comfy pine needles.
We settled down and had our ramen dinner outside the tent. Town hung the food bags about 50 yards from our tent in a PCT hang because we were a little paranoid about the bears and thought this would deter them from attempting to steal our food.
We went to bed around 8:45 pm. The sun was already down but the sky was still glowing slightly.
At 9:20 PM I woke up to heavy breathing on my right side from just outside the tent. I jolted awake and listened in for more clarification on whether I actually heard that or imagined it. That’s when I heard the sniffing and heavy thud of stomping. Bears.
I shook Town awake and told him I heard bears. He woke up and started to yell “Hey Bear! Hey Bear!” I joined in, “Heyyy Bear!” We did this for about a minute or so, before pausing to listen for its movements. While we hoped to hear distant branches breaking from the bear running off into the woods, instead we hear a big huff and stomp directly outside our tent. The bear was bluff-charging the tent.
“Call 911” directs Town as he reaches for his knife and the whistle attached to our backpacks. We had two bars of service which is almost unheard of in the mountains. I hesitated. “Are you serious?”
“This isn’t a normal Bear. It’s not scared of us.” Town begins blowing the whistle and banging on both sides of the tent.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi, I’m an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker camping above the James River and there’s a bear outside our tent that we believe might be aggressive.”
For the next 1.5 hours we sat in the tent with Town banging, whistling, and yelling while I talked to 911 dispatchers, Blue Ridge Parkway Deputies, and wildlife experts.
Why 1.5 hours? Good question.
First, the dispatches struggled to get our location. I’m not sure why the normal GPS locator didn’t work, but it seemed like they had zero knowledge of the trail.
Second, I had to explain to them what an AT thru-hiker was. “What road did you drive to this campsite so we can find you?”
“Ma’am, as I said, we walked here from Georgia.”
“So where is your car parked?”
“We don’t own a car. We walked on the Appalachian trail from Georgia.” And so on.
Third, no one felt comfortable giving us advice about the bear itself.
“I would advise you stay in the tent. We’re on our way to you” – Blue Ridge Parkway Deputy
“We really don’t feel safe in the tent. Is it dangerous if we try to make it to the highway 3 miles down the mountain?” – me
“We’re 30 minutes from you. We’re getting the amenities together to come to you. I would not advise you leave the tent.” – same deputy
“Are they coming to get us?” Asks Town in between shouting and whistling while still shaking the tent.
“They said they’re getting the amenities together to come get us.”
“What amenities?” I ask the deputy still on the phone.
“We’re trying to secure a four-wheeler”
“Sir, the Appalachian trail is about 3 feet wide at its widest. It’s also an 867 ft elevation gain to us. I don’t think a four wheeler will work.”
At this point, the bear was still outside the tent huffing and puffing almost an hour after we first heard it. Town and I were in the center of the tent, as far from the walls as we could be to avoid the possibility of a claw coming in contact with us during one of the bear’s bluff charges inches from us.
Eventually, I get a call from a wildlife expert.
“Hi, I’m no where near you but I do know about bears. Can you tell me where all your food is?”
Relieved to have some helpful advice that could possibly lead to us escaping the tent, I ignore the calls back from the deputies supposedly on their way to us.
“It’s all 50 yards from us in a PCT hang.”
“Hmmm. Where did you cook last night?”
“That was closer. Maybe 10 yards.”
“Okay, most likely that’s what the bear is after. Can you cover that area with something?”
I imagine myself exiting the tent with my sleeping bag and inching over to exactly where the bear is standing and laying my sleeping bag down with a “dont mind me attitude”. Nope.
“The bear is standing right there. I don’t feel safe doing that. Do you think we could leave? We feel really unsafe in the tent and want to try to make it down to the highway.”
“I understand. Well, the bear should only be interested in the food, so you should be fine to leave. Do you have anything to protect yourself? Like a gun?”
“We’re not gun people. Just a knife.”
“Oh…” long pause for processing cultural differences…”Take that and some stuff to throw at the bear. It shouldn’t be interested in you.”
On that note, we decided it was time to make an escape plan. Town’s phone was already dead and so was his headlamp so we were down to my low battery phone and headlamp that was flashing as a warning. Time was extremely sensitive. After hanging up with the wildlife expert, I called back the dispatcher to let them know our plan.
“We’re gonna try to make it down to the highway. When we get there, we won’t have anything so we’ll need help.”
“Okay, let me write that down.”
“Well will anyone-“
“Still writing. One second.”
“Ma’am this is really time sensitive. My headlamp and phone are low battery. We’re leaving the tent.”
Town and I didn’t wait for a response but kept them on the phone. We made a plan for town to go out first and me to follow with my headlamp. I quickly gather items to throw at the bear. Unfortunately, that was limited to a bottle of aquaphor, the knife sheath, and my water bottle.
Town stepped out of the tent and said “I don’t see it, come out” I followed seconds behind with my headlamp on. “Oh my god it’s right there.” About 15 feet from where we were standing, the bear was on all fours sniffing the ground on the other side of the tent. I immediately started throwing my belongings. The knife sheath got the closest but the bear didn’t run or even flinch. It only stared back intensely. It was time for us to retreat.
We back away from the tent site through the low bushes to the trail. It was a short walk and it didn’t seem like the bear was following. “Good,” I thought “it isn’t interested in us.” We step onto the trail moments later and instantly hear a rustling in the woods coming from the other side of the trail than our tent site. A second bear stumbles onto the trail about 20 feet up trail from us.
“Oh shit, there’s another one. There’s a second bear!” I tell the dispatcher still on the phone.
“Proceed down the trail but remember not to turn and run. It will see you as prey.”
We proceed to walk backwards down the trail. I have nothing with me besides my phone and dying headlamp. Town only has his knife and his nearly empty backpack that he grabbed last minute.
The bear matches our pace down the trail.
“It’s following us!” I tell the dispatcher.
“Drop anything you have that could smell. It must think you have food.”
I direct town to drop his pack. He does and we continue down trail. The bear makes it to the backpack and stops to sniff it for a few seconds but quickly loses interest and continues to follow us.
At this point, my stomach sank. “It’s still following us. We have nothing! It wants us!” Then my service went out and the call failed. I remember feeling cheated and entirely helpless. Like we’d done everything we could and it wasn’t fair that the bear would want anything to do with us. Town is in between myself and the bear clutching his knife. We’re still stepping backwards but the bear was gaining. We never stopped screaming from the second we got out of the tent, but we try to yell even louder as it approaches us and make ourselves look bigger.
I hated our odds. I didn’t have anything left to throw, Town’s knife was the same size as one of his claws, and the bear was as close as 8 feet away. That’s when I realized the rocks on the ground. We can throw rocks. “We can throw rocks!” I yell. Town and I reach down and starting chucking the rocks at the bear.
This was the first time I’d seen either of the bears show fear. The bear turned its body on the defensive. We continued throwing and yelling. It retreated a few feet to a tree bordering the trail and climbed it. Finally, there was hope again. We used this break in his pursuit to make more progress down the trail. But then he crawled down and continued towards us again. We throw rocks. This time, I hit his torso with some pretty decent sized rocks about the size of a baseball. Again, it turned its body away from us in defense. Again, we went backwards down the trail as fast as we could, yelling.
This time, we were making faster progress. Every three seconds I’d direct my headlamp behind us to check that the trail was clear of his bright eyes following us. We still hadn’t stopped screaming “Hey, bear!” After all, we had to pass through Max Creek Shelter, the closed shelter, to make it to the highway for help.
After 3 miles, we make it to the highway. Instead of finding the deputies who had claimed they were en route to us an hour before, we were met with an empty highway and zero service. We’d have to hitch into the nearest town of Glasgow, VA. It was 11:15 pm.
We start walking along the left side of the highway towards Glasgow. We hear a car coming and I try to wave it down with my phone’s flashlight. It drives right past and I don’t blame it.
Then, a second car going in the wrong direction comes around the bend of the highway towards us. I wave my flashlight around, mainly to warn the driver of our presence on the side of the road, but to our surprise it slows down and stops. Town, aware that he’s a man and holding an exposed knife tells me to approach the car and explain while he waits off to the side.
I approach the car and am greeted by the kindest older man. I explain our situation and how we need phone service to call back the deputies and rangers that were probably wondering what happened to us. He seems hesitant at first which is entirely understandable given he’s going in the completely other direction and it’s almost midnight, but eventually agrees to drive us claiming “I can’t in good conscience leave you on the side of the road.” We thank him profusely and hop into his van.
We tell him the whole story, obviously hopped up on adrenaline, and thank him for saving us, still clueless as to why there wasn’t law enforcement waiting for us. He drops us at a closed stop n go gas station near the edge of Glasgow. We thank him for the billionth time and say our goodbyes.
Fortunately, I still have enough battery to call the dispatcher back. I tell them we made it out and we need assistance as we have no belongings or money. They tell me rangers can be there in 45 minutes. So we settle down and wait.
Our Stanimal’s experience
The rangers come meet us at the Stop N Go. They don’t seem to be informed on the information beyond us having a run in with bears, so we tell them our story and explain we don’t have any belongings or money.
“Well, tomorrow when Ranger Wilson is back on duty, he’ll take you to retrieve your stuff. For now, we’ll find you a place to sleep.” We agree to the plan and wait for them to ask the local fire department for advice. The fire fighters recommend dropping us at the only hiker hostel in town: Stanimal’s.
“We don’t have any money and also, everyone at hiker hostels usually go to bed around 8 pm.” I point out.
“Don’t worry about that,” assures the ranger.
They drive us to Stanimal’s which, as I predicted, is completely dark with zero signs of life. They instruct us to wait in the driveway while they investigate. The rangers use their flashlights to look inside the windows, knock on the doors and check the back entrance. I’m mortified by their lack of courtesy for those sleeping.
Eventually, a man sleeping in a tent in the backyard crawls out of his tent and asks what’s going on. The rangers fill him in and he agrees to help us enter the hostel so we can sleep on an empty couch.
We thank the rangers and they instruct us to call in the morning so the ranger that knows the area (who was unfortunately off work that night) can retrieve us and escort us back to our tent site.
The next day
We wake up to the bustling hostel as hikers enjoy pancakes and coffee steps from the couch we slept on. No one immediately notices our presence, but eventually a few hikers we knew came by to ask if what they heard was true “are you the ones attacked by bears?”
We wait for the hostel owners to be done with the breakfast festivities before finding them and explaining the situation. Fortunately, they were extremely understanding.
Around 8 AM, a ranger named Brian Wilson arrives to Stanimal’s to bring us back to the tent site. On the drive there, he asked questions about the general details of the encounter. The whole night was a bit of a hazy memory, but we did our best to give him answers.
We get to the trailhead and Ranger Wilson takes a pump shotgun out of his truck. Oh, he’s not playing around. We start the hike across the James river footbridge and up 3 miles. Around mile 2.5 we come across food wrappers in the middle of the trail. “Are these yours?” Ranger Wilson asks.
“Oh yeah, those are mine” says Town. “I threw them out of my pockets because I forgot I had them and was worried that’s what it was smelling.”
This first mess was a sign we were approaching the tent site. The next sign was Town’s shoe shown below with a tooth mark in the toe.
Then, we came up on Town’s backpack. While the bear showed minimal interest in the bag when he dropped it, it appeared that’s what he returned to after he stopped following us. The contents of his bag were strewn across the trail and the bag itself was torn in four separate places.
We continued up the trail and I kept thinking “wow, this is so much further than I remember the bear following us”. I had only remembered it following us for 5 minutes or so, but the evidence of us fighting the bear was as far as 0.5 miles down trail meaning it followed us for approximately 15 minutes depending on the speed of our retreat.
When we got to the tent site, we couldn’t immediately tell if the bears had destroyed more of our stuff, but we did immediately notice our PCT hung food was completely untouched. Ranger Wilson snaps a photo of our perfectly hung bear bags. “That’s a good hang. Maybe too good.” Mildly suggesting the bears went for us as an easier target than the bags 20 feet in the air.
As we close in on our tent, we notice both of our sleeping pads are deflated and my toiletry bag is torn apart outside the tent. The sleeping bags had been slashed by claws, Towns more than mine, but otherwise there was minimal damage inside the tent. The tent itself only had one area where the bear’s claw protruded.
While we were packing up our items, Ranger Wilson is snapping pictures of the affected items and finds a paw print directly outside our tent. He snaps it and remarks on how large the bear was. “I wasn’t sure when you guys were initially telling me what happened, but this could’ve been really, really bad. That’s not a small bear.” I also remember him saying something along the lines of “you were nearly a Netflix documentary”.
It was almost nice to hear him validate our fear the night before, but also introduced a new challenge of processing how close to serious injury or death we really were. The nights on trail ahead were sure to be an adjustment.
What we did right
- PCT food hang. We hung our food in a PCT food hang far from our tent site.
- No food in tent. There were no food items inside the tent or in the backpacks outside our tent.
- Made loud noises. As soon as we heard the bear, we didn’t stop yelling until we reached the highway.
- Called emergency services. Fortunately, we had service to call 911 who connected us with the best resources they could offer at that time.
- Did not run. The majority of bear attacks that end in injury are those where the human runs from the bear, in turn becoming the prey. We never ran and instead only backed away while facing the bear.
- Threw rocks. This was what saved us and later became my new trail name. Much of the trail is not covered in rocks, but this was and the harm we caused the bear ultimately saved us as it proved we were not entirely vulnerable.
What we did wrong
- Hoped a .7 mile distance from a closed shelter was a enough. In the future, I will give at least 5 miles between myself and a closed shelter if not more to avoid the bears tracking our scent.
- Cooked and ate dinner near our tent. This is ultimately what drew the bear to us, but it could’ve also been the scent of our dinner on our clothes, hands, or faces. Regardless, cooking further from the tent could’ve helped.
- Scented toiletries near tent. I left my toiletries including toothpaste and icy hot next to the tent. Both are scented and the bear can’t differentiate between food and smelly items.
- Maybe our food hang was too good. This wasn’t confirmed by authorities, but we became the easier option for the bears when we hung the bear bags so far out of reach.
- No bear spray. While this is the norm for most AT thru-hikers, we had no protection against the bear.
- Low charge on devices. We planned to go to Buena Vista the next night so all of our devices were on low battery. This put us in an especially vulnerable position.
What happens next for us
- We recover. Camping in the woods is uncomfortable for many reasons. Adding on a heightened fear of being attacked in your sleep doesn’t help. Since the attack, we often wake up multiple times a night to the smallest noises. Not to mention, our sleeping pads were beyond repair so for the next two nights in our tent we slept on the hard ground. We had a break coming up before this happened, so we ended up getting off trail a day early because this isn’t a death march and a night in a hotel was beyond deserved.
- We get new gear. Big Agnes and REI replaced our sleeping pads for free. We contacted Hyperlite Gear to replace Town’s backpack and they said it was “too far gone for repair” and offered us 50% off a new one instead. This is still out of our price range (the original purchase was a big investment) so we decided to tape and sew it up instead.
- We get back on trail. This was hard. I knew the AT would challenge me, but this was beyond what I had imagined. I no longer looked forward to crawling into my tent to sleep. Without comfortable sleep, I felt like a zombie during the day. It took away my comfort zone. I’m working on building this back. Buying bear spray helped.
What happens next for the bears?
- We reported the attack to the AT authorities through their online form and they’ve extended the closed camping boundary in the area.
- Ranger Wilson is trying to spread this information as far as possible and to remind people not to sleep with their food or feed the bears.
- Based on the information we and the site provided, they believe it was a mother bear circling our tent and a 2 year old cub that followed us.
- Ranger Wilson hopes they won’t need to relocate the bears. The berries should be popping soon and he hopes the bears will go back to doing bear things. This was the second time the bears had attacked people in one weekend, so they are certainly on high alert.
Well, that’s my story. It seems to have traveled a bit up and down the trail with help from trail days. We get a lot of “Were you the couple that…” after introducing ourselves nowadays. I just hope it helps educate people on bear safety. After all, these are their woods, we’re just livin in em.