Should You Be Worried About Black Bears when Hiking in New York?

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get when taking clients hiking in the Catskills is “will we see bears?!” And I usually give them the same answer – technically, we could, but statistically (for me at least), its fairly unlikely, but still possible. Sometimes, when some humor is needed, I’ll first start off with saying that the bears always chase – and as such, you don’t need to be the fastest, just not the slowest in the group. Of course, this is just a bit of comedic relief before I quickly go over what to really do when you encounter a black bear in Upstate New York (or anywhere for that matter).

According to estimates from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, there are somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 black bears residing in New York State. With 30-35% of those estimated to be in the Catskills, that means there are probably somewhere around 2,500 bears in the Catskill State Park. While incidents are few and far between, the recent increase in trash on trails and roads in the Catskills (due to Covid crowds) may lead to more bear sightings and interactions.

A young black bear spotted just outside of the Catskills park in mid September.

With the Catskill State Park covering 700,000 acres in New York State, according to my rough calculations, thats about 1 bear per every 280 acres. Thats a sparse enough population that I’m not going to let myself worry too much – rather – just being aware of the possibility and knowing what to do is enough in most cases. I literally mean, most cases – there have only been 25 fatal black bear attacks in the last 20 years – in all of North America.

That’s about 1.25 deaths caused by black bears per year. We will round down here to 1 a year, since I’m not sure how a 1/4 death goes. According to this, here’s some things that are more likely to kill you than a black bear:

Being Left HandedApprox. 2,500 annual deaths
CoconutsApprox. 150 annual deaths
Venomous AnimalsApprox. 85 annual deaths
Vending MachinesApprox. 35 annual deaths
Champagne CorksApprox. 24 annual deaths
CowsApprox. 20 annual deaths
LaddersApprox. 250 annual deaths
Falling IciclesApprox. 15 annual deaths

As you can see, you shouldn’t worry yourself about ‘death by bear’, even if your level of outdoorsy-ness isn’t up to that of Leo’s in The Revenant. Rather, just give the rest of this article a read, and maybe consider some bear spray, and you will be just fine.

Facts About Black Bears

  • There are 16 American Black Bear subspecies
  • The average adult male black bear can weigh about 300 lbs, with females around 170 lbs.
  • Bears are omnivores – but will eat nearly anything – from nuts, berries, grubs, insects, hazelnuts, fruits, fish and small deer – to human trash, pet food, deodorant, soap, and just about anything else they can get their claws and paws on. Including, beets. If you know that reference, you know.
  • Their noses are up to 7 times better than a dog’s
  • They are usually solitary, and prefer to avoid confrontations with humans
  • The majority of incidents happen around areas where bears have become accustomed to finding food – particularly in national parks
  • They live on average around 18 years, but can get as old as 23 in the wild
  • They have great dexterity in their paws – and have been known to open jars, door latches and more. Google ‘bears doing human things’ – you won’t be disappointed.
  • They hibernate several months a year, during which time their heart rate can drop to as low as 8 beats per minute

For more bear facts and videos, you can go down the wormhole of wikipedia, or Reddit’s forum dedicated to all things bears. Godspeed.

image from

Things You Can do To Avoid Black Bears on the Trail

Stay inside! Just kidding – here are some tips to help you avoid bumping into a bear on the trail:

  • Try not to be a trail ninja by tiptoeing – make some noise when you hike. Some people hang their keys from a shoulder strap or small bells, or converse a bit on the trail. This helps announce your presence to bears, who naturally want to keep away from you.
  • Avoid scented sunscreens, lotions, hair gels, deodorants, perfumes, etc. when you are on the trail – even those scents can catch the attention of a curious bear
  • Keep food in scent proof containers, or a bear canister if you are camping.
  • Store all food away from where you are sleeping – either suspended in a bear canister or a locked vehicle

What to do if you See a Bear

Most bear sightings end there – with the bear casually going on its way after either noticing or perhaps investigating a little more. If a bear starts to get close, stand your ground and begin speaking loudly, and slowly backing away.

If the bear continues to get closer, change your voice from loud speaking, to yelling, and waving your arms to appear bigger to the bear. In most cases, this will do enough to scare off the bear. Do not ever throw food towards the bear (or anything else for that matter), or run (as this can invoke their chasing instinct).

What to Do if a Black Bear Moves Closer or Charges

DO NOT RUN. A black bear is far faster than you can ever be, both uphill and downhill, and can also climb trees incredibly quick. Running may make the bear chase. Hold your ground, or move sideways, while continuing to make noise.

DO NOT PLAY DEAD. This is a common misconception with black bears. Be prepared to fight back with anything that you have at the ready – rock, stick, pots, pans, knives, or even just your fists.

If the bear continues to advance or charge, make as much noise as you possibly can, and either do one of the following:

  • Do not run, climb a tree, or attempt to flee in any other manner. Bears can do all of those things far better and faster than you can.
  • Use any means you have to fight back
  • If you have bear spray, deploy
  • Aim for the nose, eyes and snout

When a black bear sees that something is willing to fight to the death, they will most likely give up. As you read previously, there are few black bear attacks annually, and those resulting in death are very rare.

So, there you have it – you should become well versed in some general knowledge about black bears, but you shouldn’t have any irrational fear of them. In all but the most rare cases, some simple noise should drive off most bears. Carrying some bear spray can essentially make you bear proof on the trail – we will have a blog post up with some tips and tricks for how to use your bear spray soon!


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