If you go hiking or camping in Western New Jersey often enough, you’ll probably see a bear. New Jersey is home to approximately 3500 American Black Bears, mostly living in the Kittatinny region. This area provides bears with an abundance of convenient food, including unprotected dumpsters in camps and population centers. New Jersey also has one of the strictest hunting policies in the nation, making it an ideal ursa habitat.
My Bear Story
My closest encounter with a black bear occurred in the summer of 2013 while section hiking the New Jersey Appalachian Trail. I had seen bears in the wild before, but always at a good distance.
On the third night of our hike, we were camping at Rutherford Shelter, a few miles south of High Point. The well kept shelter is located in a low, marshy area about 1/2 mile from the AT. Like most of the shelters in New Jersey, it is equipped with a clean privy and a bear box. There is also a nice lake about 1/4 mile from the shelter. We had a lot of company that night. We shared the site with a older man through hiking on his own, a father/daughter pair doing the NJ section, and 5 or 6 veterans from Warrior Hike. Everyone elected to sleep in tents or hammocks and everyone put their food in the bear box. About an hour before nightfall, two of the veterans spotted a large black bear in the woods, just outside of the site. Everyone was extra careful with their food and other scented items, but this bear was on a mission. Because of the frequency with which food is left out at campsites, bears regularly patrol these areas, hoping to find something.
A short time after I fell asleep, I woke to the sound of panting. I opened my eyes to see a huge black bear staring me right in the face, sniffing me. Its breath smelled like garbage! I lay perfectly still in my bivy for what seemed like an eternity. I could hardly breath, and I dare not move a muscle. My only hope was that I didn’t smell like food and the bear would leave me alone. Eventually the bear decided I wasn’t a good snack, and left me alone. I think it wandered over to the bear box, because I heard several loud crashes like something large hitting metal. It took me a while, but I eventually fell asleep. The next morning, a few other campers said they had also had the bear brush up against their tents.
This encounter teaches us a few rules about bear safety:
- Keep your campsite clean and never leave any food or garbage behind. Make sure all of your food is out of reach. Leaving food where bears can get it habituates them to spending time in campsites.
- Try to avoid cooking in your campsite. The smell is very attractive. Stop for dinner on the trail an hour before you get to the site, then walk an hour before breakfast the next day.
- Never go to bed with food or other scented items on or near you. You’re not food and you don’t want a bear to mistake you for a snack.
- If a bear does approach you in your sleep, be perfectly still. It’s just checking to see if you’re delicious or not. If you make any sudden moves, you may startle it.
Tell us about your close bear encounters. What did you do? Would you have handled my situation differently if you were me?