Bear Safety


One of the many highlights of visiting a National Park is the opportunity to observe and photograph wildlife. Shenandoah is certainly no exception: visitors find white-tailed deer, a wide variety of birds, and butterflies, and, with some frequency, black bears. In most cases these wildlife encounters are events that visitors enjoy and that have no impacts on park wildlife. On the other hand, there are some instances when the encounters pose risks to both the visitor and the animal. This web page provides information that will greatly improve your chances to enjoy seeing a black bear in the wild.

We take food storage very seriously because once a bear begins to associate food with humans, problems arise. It is extremely important to keep human food away from bears. Our goal is to keep bears and people safe. Almost every year, park staff members are involved in taking steps to separate people from wildlife (hazing animals or relocating animals). When bears become too comfortable around people, they can become aggressive.

In Shenandoah we have an active bear program. You may see our Rangers use non-lethal aversive tactics to chase a bear out of a developed area. You may see and hear Rangers shouting at bears and chasing them from high-use areas. They may also use rubber slugs or clear paintballs shot from a gun. Be prepared for the associated noises. The intent is not to harm the bear, but to scare it from the area and restore its natural fear of people.

Every once in a while, staff is forced to destroy an animal because risks have become too great. This usually involves animals that have received food from people and are habituated to being in very close proximity to us. You can help us avoid these situations.

For general information on how visitors should behave when viewing or photographing wildlife, please see the Viewing and Photographing Wildlife web page.

For information specific to interactions with bears, read on …

Black bear on a picnic table helping itself to some food.

NPS Photo

Keeping Bears and People Separated

When visiting the park you may spot a bear any where (while hiking, camping, on a nature walk, or simply walking between your car and a lodge or restaurant).

If you spot a bear:

  • Maintain your distance from the bear. Park regulations require at least 50 yards to safely view a bear.
  • Make noise to make sure the bear knows you are present.
  • If the bear moves closer to you, move away slowly but do not turn your back to the bear.
  • Make noise and stay in groups
  • Keep children close by.
  • Take a detour in your route of travel but do not surround the animal.
  • Consider retreating to your vehicle (if it is nearby) until the bear moves on.

Bears may be attracted to your food or garbage when you are picnicking or camping.

To reduce the opportunity for bears to obtain food or garbage:

  • Never try to feed a bear (What would you do if you run out of food before the bear runs out of appetite?)
  • Only take out food you will be using.
  • Be prepared to pack up quickly.
  • Do not leave food or garbage in the open and unattended.
  • Store food and trash in appropriate hard-sided facilities.
  • Use food storage lockers or bear poles in campgrounds.
  • Dispose of garbage in bear resistant trash cans and dumpsters.
  • Do not leave garbage (bagged or not) outside of a full trash can - find another one.
  • If the bear gets to food or garbage anyway, do not attempt to get it back.

Compliance with these simple rules will go a long way to prevent trouble with bears. You will find reminders of these rules at park campgrounds and picnic areas.

Photographing Bears

  • General rules listed above apply.
  • Never approach a bear for that "perfect shot". Use telephoto lenses.
  • Never entice an animal into a preferred pose with food or garbage.
  • Never deliberately move or position yourself in order to alter a bear's movement or behavior.
  • Be considerate of the interests of others who may be observing or photographing the animal.

Avoiding Bears While Hiking

  • Stay alert to your surroundings and the presence of wildlife while hiking.
  • If possible hike in groups.
  • When you spot a bear, make noise to ensure that the bear is aware of your presence.
  • If the bear doesn't leave the area, take a detour or slowly backaway. Making noise during your retreat is appropriate. Keep children close to the group.
  • Do not pursue and NEVER surround a bear. Give it room to escape.
  • DO NOT run from a bear. Bears will pursue prey and flight is a signal to them to start pursuit.
  • If a bear approaches and you have no escape route, stand tall, wave your arms, yell, clap, and throw rocks to deter the bear.

Most of the time, avoidance or making noise will result in an uneventful encounter. There are circumstances when the bear perceives that the threat is more significant such as when you have simply startled the bear. For information on bluff charges or real charges, see below.

Big Meadows Campground food storage box.
Big Meadows Campground food storage box.

Avoiding Bears While Camping in Developed Areas and the Backcountry

  • Food preparation and clean up should be done well away from your tent and food storage area.
  • Minimize the amount of food you prepare to reduce storage needs or waste.
  • Do not bring food, toiletries, or cooking utensils into the tent.
  • Clean all pots, pans, and grills thoroughly with unscented soap and water making sure no trace of food is left for animals to smell.
  • Do not leave food lying around. Clean up everything right away after a meal and contain uneaten food in plastic bags or containers. Do not put cooking grease or food scraps in fire rings.
  • Do not assume food and supplies are safe in a car. If you must keep supplies in a car, lock it up in the trunk. It is not unknown for bears to try to break into cars through the windshield or windows! If coolers or other food storage containers are to be stored in the passenger compartment of a vehicle cover them so they can not be seen.
  • Do not go to bed in the same clothes you were cooking in. Keep dirty clothes and packs outside the tent.
  • Use a bear resistant food container (BRFC), a bear pole, or hoist your food in a tree ten feet off the ground and four feet out in a bear bag. Cookware and trash should be similarly secured.
  • Be cautious of how you dispose of garbage. Dispose of garbage at a designated facility away from the campsite.
  • If you have brought a pet with you, make sure that it is secured and on leash at all times. Do not leave pet food in dishes in anticipation that it will be eaten later on.

Encountering a Black Bear

If an encounter occurs …

Remain calm and don't run. Like dogs, bears will often chase fleeing animals. You can't outrun a bear. They have been clocked at speeds up to 35 mph! Climbing a tree is futile since black bears excel at climbing trees. Jaw popping by the bear is a signal to you that it is uncomfortable.

Let the bear know you are human. Talk to it in a normal voice and wave your arms. If a bear cannot tell what you are, it may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious - not threatening.

If the Bear does not leave the area - move away slowly. If leaving the area is not an option, or if the bear gets too close, you should make yourself appear as large as possible. Lifting your arms and a pack over head, moving to higher ground or, if in a group, huddling together will help discourage the bear. Make louder noise by banging pots and pans or using other noisemakers. Throwing rocks or objects at the bear may be appropriate but only when you are "cornered."

If a bear charges…

Don't run! Bears often make bluff charges, sometimes to within 10 feet of their adversary, without making contact. Usually, if you hold your ground they will back off.

Discharge pepper spray if you have it. Make sure you know how to use pepper spray. Discharging pepper spray improperly could make matters worse if you incapacitate yourself or others in your party.

If a bear actually makes contact…

Fight back! In rare instances black bears perceive humans as prey - if you are attacked by a black bear always fight back. Try to focus your attack on the bear's eyes and nose.

Report Incidents

If you become aware of a situation where a bear is "hanging out" in a campground or picnic area, where people are deliberately feeding a bear, or if you are involved in bluff charge situation or an actual contact incident - report it to park staff immediately.

Emergency Line: 800-732-0911

Additional Information

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries-Bear

Last updated: January 29, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Shenandoah National Park
3655 U.S. Highway 211 East

Luray, VA 22835


(540) 999-3500

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