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Paranoid Hiker's Guide to New England

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Black Bear

common name Black Bear
Also called N/A
scientific name Ursus Americanus
classification Animalia - Chordata - Mammalia - Carnivora - Ursidae
hazard type Man-eater; large animal - may charge; food thief
range & frequency Present throughout rural New England. Locally concentrated in certain parks where they have learned to raid campsites for food. Rarely actually seen - until it's too late.


Which species of bear is most likely to kill you? If you guessed grizzly or polar bear, you'd be wrong. Most serious bear attacks are caused by black bears.

bear attacks in the press

Black bears normally weigh from 135 to 350 pounds but can reach 600. Bears are omnivores: they eat almost anything, and that includes meat. Their tremendous speed and strength, sharp claws, and huge canine teeth enable them to ambush and kill deer or most anything else - including humans. They can outrun you, they can climb trees faster and farther than you, they can swim, and they can smell your aftershave a mile away.

However, black bears get most of their food from easier sources (berries, insects, carrion), and attacks on humans usually come about because the human gets in the bear's way. Startling a black bear is not a good idea, nor is it wise to get close to a cub. You may not see the mother nearby, but the more important question is whether she can see you. Or smell you. There's an Indian saying that a bear can smell a leaf falling.

The other way bears and humans come into close proximity is when humans set up camp in the woods, bringing all kinds of tasty food with them. Bears are intelligent and strong and will manage to open all kinds of containers (including cars), and getting in their way is not advised.

Black bears prefer woods, though they will cross open ground if necessary. They may be active both day and night, and especially at dusk. They are solitary, with ranges up to 60 square miles, except that the cubs will stay with the mother for up to two years. They hibernate (or something close to it, if you want to be technical) for up to seven months, in caves or whatever shelter can be found.


1. Avoidance

Do not startle a bear. Make noises (as un-deerlike as possible- try talking or whistling) when travelling through dense foliage.
Do not approach a bear.
Do not explore caves or other possible bear dens.

Do not feed the bears. If you bring food into the woods, store it in a bear-proof cannister and keep it far away from, and downwind of, your sleeping area. Do not keep it in your car. Never interrupt a bear who is eating your food.

A technique that should work is to hang your food at least fifteen feet in the air in a spot that a bear cannot reach by climbing, but this is surprisingly difficult to arrange. It is best to rely on cannisters such as BearVault or Garcia Backpackers' Cache.

2. If in proximity to a black bear

Make yourself seem as large as possible - clump together if with a group, wave your arms above your head, make some noise. Back away slowly. (Experts are divided on whether to maintain or avoid eye contact, but are agreed that turning away is a bad idea, and so is running.) Bears will usually avoid a confrontation. Do not panic if the bear rears up or approaches - it may just be sniffing you. A bear may also engage in "bluff charges" to scare you away.

3. If attacked

Experts are somewhat divided over whether it is best to assume a submissive fetal position or to fight desperately for your life using whatever weapon is at hand, but the majority opinion seems to be that a black bear who actually attacks (as opposed to rearing, posturing, or bluff charging) has decided that you are edible, and you should fight. Some people carry pepper spray for this purpose - check with the landowner or park authority to see whether this is allowed where you plan to hike.


Paranoid hikers can enjoy a bitter tingle of vindication: there's no denying that black bears can, and sometimes do, hunt and eat humans. But since a bear is much more woodcrafty than you will ever be, you can forget about trying to avoid an ambush, and you should assume that any bear you actually get the chance to see (instead of just feeling its jaws on the back of your neck) is out for a stroll, just like you are.

Reference Materials

New Hampshire Wildlife Profiles: Black Bear

Connecticut Environmental Protection Dept.: Black Bears

U. Michigan Animal Diversity: Black Bears

Wikipedia: Black Bear