Bears are one the great topics of discussion when considering a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Personally, I’m looking forward to a bear encounter, as many hikers do. We all want to take that great camera shot or watch from a safe, but close-ish distance, the wild bear in its natural habitat just being a bear. There’s definitely an adrenaline rush when you encounter a large mammal in the wilderness without the zoo fence or glass barriers protecting you from a possible predator.
To date, I have only had two bear encounters outside of the zoo. The first was when I was about 16 years old and a gentleman at an auction house had a 2-3 month old black bear cub on a leash that he let me play with for about an hour (a great experience) and the other was a black bear my daughter and I scared up while driving around the Gila Mountains of western New Mexico on a fall turkey hunt. The New Mexico bear is the only bear I’ve ever seen in the wild. My grandfather used to tell me stories of how there were more bears around in his younger days in south-central Pennsylvania and from the stories I hear today, it sounds like the bears are back, but I have only heard the stories and seen the pictures.
And let’s not forget, it will be early springtime when we start our march northward. The bears and their babies will be emerging from their winter dens looking for food to replenish their bellies after a dismal winter diet. We all know Yogi loves to swipe a good pic-a-nic basket. Wouldn’t a hiker’s backpack fit the bill nicely? Or maybe, skip the backpack; what about the hiker? There’s a big hunk of meat to be had, right? And those cubs; gosh darn it, aren’t they just the cutest! But, of course, there’s Mama Bear and you had best be watching out for her, because we all know you don’t mess with Mama’s kids!
Yep, the chances that you are going to encounter a bear somewhere on the Appalachian Trail, and especially in places like northeastern PA, northwestern NJ and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the population of black bears is estimated to be 1,500 or an average of 2 bears for every square mile, is relatively high. Although you may encounter a bear, the odds that you will have a negative encounter are actually quite low. For example, in 2009, a reported 288 bear incidents were reported in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; only one involved injury, most were property damage reports; damage that occurred in search of food.
Food; we all need it and the long distance backpacker needs more than the average human on a daily basis. The average daily caloric intake for adults is between 1,600-2,800 calories with women running on the lower end of the scale and men to the higher end. Activity levels are probably the number one variant in the amount of calories that a person should consume each day. Now imagine for a moment that you are hiking up and down mountains for 8-12 hours per day with 25-40 lbs. on your back. Those daily averages increase to 3500-5000 calories per day. For those of us who are gourmands, this is great news! Basically, you can eat all you wish and not have to worry about gaining weight because you’ll be hiking off those calories faster than you can swallow them.
But this also poses a problem. How does one carry enough calories without dramatically increasing the your load? Hikers have developed a couple different methods to accomplish these calorie requirements. One is to eat foods that are high in caloric value per weight, with the goal being 100 calories/ounce. Namely, this means junk food, so candy bars, summer sausage and other high fat foods are a staple in backpacks for caloric intake. Another is to gorge on food when making resupply stops to make up for leaner days on the trail, therefore, All-You-Can-Eat establishments are a favorite place for hikers to chow down, as are pizza joints. It’s not uncommon for a single hiker to eat an entire medium, or even large, pizza by themselves.
This requirement for high calories and the in-town gorging of backpackers have combined to create some interesting food challenges and traditions along the trail. The most famous is possibly the ½ gallon ice cream challenge at Pine Grove Furnace, PA which is very near the ½ way point on the trail. In celebration of reaching the ½ way point, the campground store challenges hikers to eat a ½ gallon of ice cream in one sitting. If you should choose Chocolate Moose Tracks, you could rack up 2,520 calories, based on the Hershey’s brand. Years ago, if the hiker accomplished this feat, the ice cream was free, but that is no longer the case, as most hikers are quite able to accomplish this with their trail appetites in place. But, then again, maybe the challenge should be renamed as well since I don’t think anyone makes ½ gallons of ice cream anymore; it’s all 1.5 quarts now.
Pizza Hut claims 2,000 calories per 12” medium pepperoni pan pizza and you can get one
delivered to the Partnership Shelter
in Virginia. In Waynesboro, VA is a
place called Weasie’s that offers all-you-can-eat pancakes for $3.99 and is the
home of the Pancake Challenge of man-hole cover sized pancakes. I believe the current record is 22 set in
2010. Supposedly in Damascus, VA there
is a 6 lb. burger challenge at a place called Fattie’s Diner; the 4 lb. and
subsequent 5 lb. burger challenges were beaten by earlier hikers. And then, there is the tradition of stopping
at Elk Wallow near Luray, VA for the best blackberry milkshake ever! I don’t know if that’s true or just a hiker’s
impression from the deprivation of normal home-cooked meals; guess I’ll
find out in Virginia.
Of course, calories are not the only consideration in a hiker’s food selection. Extra protein is needed for muscle regeneration and complex carbohydrates are needed for energy. So, a smart hiker will try to balance all these nutritional needs as well as the calories in their diet while trying to carry as little weight as possible. The average hiker will carry between 1.5-2 lbs. of food per day, mostly of dehydrated foods that include a lot of pastas, rice, couscous, oatmeal and ramen. Fruits will be in leathery rolls and vegetables will be dried. Bagels and tortillas are the breads of choice and meats will most be jerky, Spam singles, foil-packaged tuna, salmon and chicken, as well as the aforementioned summer sausages. And never forget, the hiking staple of all staples, trail mix or GORP (Good Ole Raisins and Peanuts).
Galloping Gourmets we might not be, but with home dehydrators being more common these days, many backpackers are able to expand their food choices and make recipes to their own liking. You can now take your own home-made chili, pasta sauce, or soups and re-hydrate them on the trail with boiling water, a Ziploc bag and a cozy to keep it warm. Yeah, no dishes to wash and no cans to pack out with the trash. But you still have to protect this food from the bears (and mice), who are hungry, have a great sense of smell and love to get at an easy meal.
Yogi’s claims of being smarter than the av-er-age bear stands as a testament to the intelligence of this animal when it comes to acquiring food. Most shelters have bear bag poles to hang your food out of reach at night. Before heading out, every hiker should know how to hang a bear bag properly in the event no poles are available or are full. One five mile section of the trail now requires a bear canister to be carried if you are overnight camping in that area; this is a first for the Appalachian Trail although this is common practice on the western trails of the United States. Bear canisters are designed to keep the bear out of the food, although some bears in the Adirondacks have even figured out how to open some of these. Some hang their food from the shelter roof, which keeps it from the bears, but requires adding another barrier to protect the food bag from mice, the other food predator of the trail.
So given all the planning, preparing, packaging and pigging out that backpackers do, it is highly unlikely that they willingly hand over any food to share with the bears along the way. Yet every year, hikers do lose food to the bears, usually because of not properly securing one’s supplies. Bears are opportunistic and will take whatever they can get, day or night. One of my fellow hikers even told a story of how she chased down a bear that stole her backpack once to get it back. Hikers take their food seriously and considering it’s all they have until the next resupply point, I think you can understand why. I don’t plan on sharing my blackberry milkshake or any other food with the bears no matter how cute they are.
Of course, if you should miscalculate the amount of food you need on the trail, or are just darn hungry because you’re not getting enough in your daily meals; you can resort to another hiker’s tradition and become a Yogi yourself by begging food from day hikers, campers and anyone who might give you a hand-out and raiding hiker's boxes for discarded items. Just watch out for Ranger Smith!