The Last Thing Any Camper Wants to Hear: There are Bears in Camp!

I’ve often wondered, when confronted with real danger, if I would stand and fight … or run like hell. 

On a recent camping trip in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, when a large black bear and her two cubs ambled into our camp, it only took a couple of milliseconds for my brain to totally ignore all the expert advice and yell at my feet – RUN! 

We’d just finished showers and were settling in for a quiet afternoon in camp. Terri was in the van putting a few things away, and I was relaxing in a camp chair reading an ebook. The idea of a nap was forming in my mind when I heard an unusual scratching noise behind me. 

I looked over my shoulder and was shocked to see a bear cub scrambling up a tree about 10 feet behind my chair. Expert woodsman that I am (yeah right), I knew this wasn’t the whole story, and a quick glance over the other shoulder found a large Mama bear and cub #2 staring at me and wondering why on earth I wasn’t getting a move on … and frankly so was I. 

But in my defense, no more than a few seconds had passed before I jerked my naked feet off the bench and ran barefoot across the gravel campsite to dive into the van – startling Terri, who immediately bashed her head on the van roof.  

And even though Terri might have been momentarily addled, she certainly understood the next words out of my mouth: “There are bears in camp!” 

According to the National Park Service, when confronted by a bear one should : 

  1. Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. (I assume most prey animals don’t speak English.)
  2. Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you. (They usually just want to scare the bejayus out of you.)
  3. Move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. (Your best subtle dance moves might temporarily distract the bear so you can get away.)
  4. Do NOT run. Like dogs, bears will chase fleeing animals. (Saying this is easy, doing it … not so much.)
  5. And most important: Be especially cautious if you see a female with cubs.

We’ve camped in bear country all across the country, and having heard what the experts had to say, we thought we were prepared. But honestly, my lizard brain took over and I just bolted for the van. When we told Terri’s sister Ellen this story, she texted what we consider an award-wining wisecrack: “Do these claw marks make my butt look big?” 

Looking back, I couldn’t have been more surprised, but I suspect the bears were as well. It’s hard to imagine that a protective female would knowingly allow her young cubs to stray so close to a human, no matter how relaxed and groggy he might appear. 

It was a frightening experience of course, but we had a close-up view of a bear family as they lumbered around our campsite and we have a few cowards-in-the-van cell phone photos to prove it. And those cubs were awfully cute. 

Happy Trails,

James & Terri

P.S. We’ve only had one other bear encounter, but we do have another “communing with nature” camping tale. 

Photo Credits: 1. Thomas Fuhrmann   2. Delaney Van  5. Gary Larson  7. Chad Carpenter

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

64 thoughts

    1. Thanks for the comment Michael, and for dropping by the blog. An adventurer like you knows that these types of experiences are always funnier after they’re finished and with a beer on the table. ~James

  1. We are so glad you two are safe! Ellen told us about this and it sounded so scary and it certainly seems so. Thankfully you had a van to escape to and not a tent. Oh my.

    1. Brenda, this all happened so quickly that it truly was just an automatic response, and having a hard-sided van was wonderful peace of mind. Once we were both safely in the van we gave ourselves the “you’re safe, calm down” lecture so we could see what the bears were doing outside. I said to Terri that we earned another “Bear Badge,” but for some reason she wasn’t amused. 🙂

      We just spoke with E/K and it was really good to hear that you’re doing great. We’re thinking about you and send all our best. ~J & T

    1. Yvonne, I think that my presence, quick reaction and mad dash probably befuddled Mama Bear, who luckily, didn’t really have time to react. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. 🙂 ~James

    1. Ray, when we camp in bear country we’re always “bear aware,” but have never had anything this surprising and close. We’ve camped a few nights in non-bear country since the encounter and it’s been nice to not worry about any critters bigger than mosquitos and raccoons. ~James

  2. James and Terri, a frightening experience for sure. I bet it got the adrenaline flowing fast and furious, I would probably have fainted. I am glad you were able to get inside the van fast enough and alert Terri. How long did they stay nearby? Would you go for a walk knowing there are bears there? They are beautiful animals, but not sure I would want a close encounter.

    1. Gilda, your comment about the adrenaline spike is right on the mark. It took us a couple of minutes to get our heart rates back under control. As avid campers, I’m sure you know that most bears are only looking for an easy meal of tasty human food (from the cooler that is), but females with cubs fit in another category altogether.

      The female wasn’t overtly aggressive but was very wary and stood her ground. The three of them ambled around the edge of our campsite for a couple of minutes and then wandered off into the forest. As for walking with bears nearby, knowing there was a female with cubs actively patrolling the area, we thought a hotel for the night would be a better option – best just not to have to fret about it. ~James

  3. Ohhhh…. that was a close call but looking back… what an encounter and you have the photos [hard not to love those beings, especially from the safety of a home or a van! ;-)] to remind you!

    1. Marina, I agree that from the safety of a hard-sided van it was wonderful to be able to watch the cubs and mother interact for a couple of minutes. We did a bit of online research and found that the distance the cubs climb up the tree is an indicator of how threatened they feel. The first encounter behind me in the chair the cub was about 10-12 feet up the tree. A bit later, both cubs climbed another tree and only went up 4-6 feet, so they were glad that I was in the van as well. 🙂 Interesting stuff. ~James

  4. Love this! We are heading to the mountains of Western North Carolina in August. I’ll keep your safety tips in mind, but will probably skip the first one of introducing myself to the bear!

    1. Kathleen we were camped on the Blue Ridge near Asheville, so there are definitely bears around. They’re a part of the experience which makes this an appealing part of the country, but something to keep in mind while out and about. Have a wonderful trip. ~James

  5. Glad you are safe. And honestly, I think I will run too, and as fast as I can. For some reason, I don’t think I would introduce myself. I would be terrified; maybe I would freeze on site, who knows. But they are so cute and adorable.

    1. In most cases, freezing in place and then backing slowly away is probably always the best option. But because these 3 bears were behind me and so close, I thought it best to get to safety ASAP. Not sure what an expert would have advised, but it worked for me in this case.

      The cubs were really small and they were adorable climbing the trees. ~James

  6. I am so glad you and T are safe, maybe you should get an armor plated van mama bear could not feed it to her little ones. I know the cubs are cute but Terrie will not you bring one home. Love you guys stay safe.

    1. I am so glad you and T are safe, maybe you should get an armor plated van mama bear could not feed it to her little ones. I know the cubs are cute but Terrie will not let you bring one home. Love you guys stay safe.

    2. Joyce neither of us are really fond of bears, particularly if they sneak up on us, but Terri likes bears about the same as you like snakes. As you can imagine, it was pretty funny after it was all over, but it wasn’t an episode I’d like to relive. I still think it’s very strange that Mama allowed the cubs to come so close, and I’m pretty sure that none of them knew I was there. Who knows? Maybe I was asleep. ~James

  7. I’m chuckling to myself Terri and James. Living in Deep River for a large part of our life, bears were the norm as were moose etc. You do have to be careful.
    Leslie

    1. Leslie, in many of our outdoor pursuits bears have been in the background as something we considered and were sensitive to. As campers, for years we’ve maintained good food and camp gear storage habits at the end of every day so there’s never any enticement for critters. This has served us well, but a mother with cubs that came that close took things to a new level for us. It was a fun experience … once it was over. ~James

    1. Shelley, we now know that we’re for sure bloggers because after our heart rates returned to the lower levels of the stratosphere, we were hustling around with our iphones to get photos for a post. 🙂 ~James

  8. So glad you were able to escape to safety! I had a surprise encounter with a bear in Northern Minnesota years ago. I was walking down the steps to the lake front at a friend’s cabin. I saw a dark spot which I thought was a dog. Then I realized it was far larger than a dog. I froze. The bear took one look at me and continued ambling into the woods. I was relieved to say the least!

    1. Rebecca I can relate to the feeling of surprise and disbelief, that’s for sure. I’m sure you were elated when your bear strolled off. But there was noooo doubt that any of these black furries were dogs. I’m sure that the folks in Northern MInn are accustomed to this sort of thing, but it caught us off guard for sure. ~James

  9. Oh my goodness!! I once met a man who had been mauled by a grizzly bear. He played dead as he had been taught but the bear then played with him causing severe injury. He said running would have been better. They can be scary creatures. Glad you came away OK.

    1. Darlene, an encounter with an aggressive grizzly is every hikers nightmare. I can’t say that I’d like to repeat this experience, but it won’t keep me awake at night because black bears aren’t known to be overly aggressive. The female had cubs and I tried to put as much distance between me and them as possible – and do it quickly. But grizzlies, are another story, and when we camp in their territory we’re very wary and nervous. The chances of having a bad encounter are small, but it would be a horrible way to go. ~James

  10. I am surprised you still had a steady hand to take the photos. I am glad you got away safely and it makes a great story.

    1. Anne, I’m glad to hear you think it makes a good story. When I calmed down, I thought: “I can get an entertaining post out of this.” So we whipped out our cell phones for a few photos. Grist for the blogging mill. 🙂 ~James

  11. For a moment – until the end – I thought those bear photos were yours. That would have been even more awesome. I loved reading this and enjoy having animals in camp, at a safe distance. 🙂

    What an adventurous and precious experience. Moving into the van was the perfect move. We once had black bears in “camp” when boondocking in Alaska. We had a truck camper back then and opened the top hatch to observe the animals eat berries and to take photos. Loved it!

    Another time, in The Yukon, we had a black bear stand up against the camper and rock it back and forth. It was probably hoping the camper would dispense food that way. 🙂

    1. Liesbet, one of the photos was ours – the one of the big Mama in profile. As you can imagine, it all happened so fast it was quite a fire drill just locating a phone to snap a few pics.

      Usually when we’re in bear country we don’t worried much about bears in our site because we’re so anal about food storage and our neighbors always seem so lax. So our idea was the bears would be in someone else’s campsite: famous last words. ~James

  12. This is a great story! When I was a wee tot my parents to me to Cherokee, North Carolina. In those days tourists fed bears scraps from their cars!

    1. Pam, just like gators in FL, tourists feeding bears is still a problem in the Blue Ridge. Hopefully however, more people are realizing that it’s dangerous to both the bears and humans. The National Park Service is very good about communicating the areas where bears are active as well as reminding everyone to store food properly and keep their distance. They don’t have to tell me twice! ~James

      1. Me too! Did you see that great video lately of sandhill cranes and an alligator crossing the street? The caption was pretty much “how Florida can you get”? Ha, ha! We have respect for gators and bears and keep our distance.

  13. The photos of the bears are incredible! I’ve never seen them up close but have heard stories and been warned about them – such as recently while in Mt Shasta. Sounds like a combination of scary and also excitement (once you were safely inside of course …) Great story well told! Now you have one for the grandchildren.

    Peta

    1. Peta, your assessment as scary and exciting after reaching safety is right on. Once we were calmed down (and all the van windows had been closed), it was great fun watching the bears, even if just for a couple of minutes. The female was big, beautiful and menacing, and the cubs were on high alert for our prescence. We had discussed, and had always wondered what it would be like to confront a bear. Now we know. ~James

  14. I smiled when I was reading this only because I knew you and Terri ended up safe despite the close encounter. Our adrenaline often kicks in immediately in a situation like this, but I think we all still should remember what experts say about what to do should we find ourselves in this kind of potentially life-threatening circumstances.

    1. Bama, in most cases with black bears in our part of the world, the experts say to back away slowly and put as much distance as possible between yourself and the bear. I think that I probably would have remembered to do this if the bears hadn’t been behind me and so close – and if cubs hadn’t been involved. As you can imagine, it was a topic of conversation for a while. ~James

  15. Yah, I’d have been running for the van too! I’ve had several bear encounters having been a cook in wilderness hunting camps in the Yukon for a few years, but never one this close, and never a mama with cubs (def the most dangerous!). I wouldn’t call you cowards so much as plain sensible for getting into and staying in that van.
    Alison

    1. Alison, it’s good to hear that I did the right thing from someone with “bear cred” from the Yukon. That’s grizzly country if I’m not mistaken, which cranks the danger factor up a few notches. A cook in wilderness hunting camps? That sounds intriguing, and I’m sure you came out of that experience with a goodly supply of stories yourself. ~James

  16. You are the second person in as many days to write of a bear encounter! I might get partway through a checklist of bear advice in my head, but it would take some real effort to not turn tail and run! (But I think I’d be more likely to run into a nearby van than just out in the open somewhere, and I assume that was behind your decision as well.)

    1. Lexie, I hope that the other person came out of the encounter unscathed. All three of these bears must have been in stealth mode, because they appeared out of nowhere and were so close that it scared the hell out of me. The camp was so quiet and I had no clue they were there … until they were. And frankly, having them so close and behind me was so shocking and unexpected I just bolted for the van. It was an experience that I don’t want to repeat that’s for sure. ~James

  17. In your defense the proximity of the van makes all the difference. However your story illustrates how hard it is to remain calm when a bear encounter happens. Should you not have had the van, running is a bad choice which makes you look like tasty lunch. We each carry bear spray on bikes or on foot but of course one has to be pretty darn close to the bear for it to be used. We’ve always gone with the make a lot of noise method. With my singing the bears are likely running in the opposite direction from the sound.. Take a bit of the peaceful wilderness out of the scene I have to admit.
    Seeing bears coming into a camp like that is worrisome for the future of the bears. As wildlife associates food with humans, no good ever comes from it. Hopefully that Mama just took a wrong turn.
    Fabulous photos by the way. Not ones you likely want to take again.

    1. Sue, all your advice fits exactly with what I have read and makes sense. I don’t envy you and Dave having grizzlies to deal with. But in this case, I have to believe that sitting quietly with my back to the bears and slumped in a camping chair that none of the bears knew I was there. I think that I surprised them as well, which explains why the one cub scrambled up the tree when he realized I was there.

      This all brings up the issue of bear bells and why hikers wear them: Don’t surprise a bear … and hopefully she won’t surprise you. I suspect if I had been up knocking around the campsite making noise the encounter may never have happened. Hard to know, but our food was all stowed and out of sight, so that wasn’t part of the equation. Anyway, it was a hoot, once it was over, and it’s good grist for the blogging mill :). Hope you are both well and things are getting back to normal in the Great White North. ~James

      1. James it sounds like you are very responsible campers with being careful about food. Likely a surprise for both the bears and yourself in this case. Luckily you did not find yourself between the cub and the Mama bear. The most dangerous thing of all.
        I did want to say that here in the great white north, we joke that bear bells might as well be dinner bells. The guides in the area will say they just aren’t loud enough. Think running water in streams, wind in the trees. The best thing is loud talking and traveling in groups of 4-6 whenever possible. Just a tip for anyone coming our way. We have had at least two fatal bear attacks this season in the area. Both Moms with cubs.
        Glad your story has a good ending and as you say makes for great blog material. Play safe out there.

      2. Two fatal bear attacks!! Oh man. What a horrific way to go. As for food storage, even when not in bear country if you remove accessible food from the equation it eliminates all sorts of potential headaches. ~James

  18. What a fun post you’ve made out of what would have been a terrifying experience for me! What I was hoping for as I scrolled through it was a video of your “subtle dance moves,” but, alas, I settled for the great cartoons and your smiling face safely behind a glass window rolled all the way up! Glad you’re safe and could talk about this experience. Oh, how it could have gone another way!

    1. Rusha, we certainly know well that things could have gone differently, and in fact, we decamped to a hotel for the night given the Mother and cubs wandering the area. As for the funny post, it’s a rare occasion that we can’t have a good laugh after the event. And one other thing that I can say is that to keep the G-rating on the post, I omitted a bunch of expletives that actually happened along with the encounter. 🙂 ~James

  19. James, I’d dive for the van, too. The bears were too close to you and mama bear was on high alert. Bears can run very fast in spite of their big appearance.

    1. Natalie, given their closeness their wasn’t much thinking involved. Luckily, the van was close and I think the female was also caught off guard by my presence, so she really didn’t have time to react. I’ve seen videos of bears running, and it’s scary to think about being chased by an angry mother. ~James

  20. I’m not likely to run into a bear here on the Texas coast: alligators, bobcats, and feral hog encounters are more likely (and quite common, in the case of the alligators). Still, this was fascinating to read, and you clearly made the right, if instinctive, decision. A lot of the ‘what to do’ articles are written with isolated hikers in mind; you were lucky to have a place to retreat to.

    I had a stare-off with an alligator recently. I was in my car on a road, and the gator was in the process of crossing the road. Like you and the bears, I’m sure that gator was as surprised as I was. We stared at one another for about ten minutes, then I tired of it, and went on (slowly) and he backed down into the slough he’d emerged from.

    I just can’t resist sharing this. I suspect it’s a video you’ll get a kick out of.

    1. Linda thanks so much for the video link. It was fabulous. What a perfect editing job for both video and music. Wonderful!!

      I love your gator story. I can just see the faceoff. We lived in FL for a few years and have had our fair share of gator sightings, and only one really close call where I almost stepped on a sluggish sleeper napping in the weeds by a canal. A yell from Terri saved my bacon on that one. We didn’t worry too much about them, but I will say that when we kayaked we kept a close eye out. ~James

    1. Kelmon, thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Luckily, in this case I didn’t have far to run, and I had a hard-side van to jump into. You never know about bears, which is why we always take them very seriously – particularly if cubs are involved. ~James,

  21. What an adventure! We’ve had bears in the area in many places we’ve been, and even have pictures of a young bear paw print on our grill. Needless to say, the grill was put away every night after that! Black bears don’t scare me like grizzlies do. In Alaska, we carried bear spray everywhere we went!

    Thanks for the laugh and fun pictures!!

    1. Laura, I feel the same way about grizzlies. When we camp in grizzly country we’re always on high alert. But I have to say that this episode was pretty scary at the time. The bears were so close and unexpected, and having the cubs along took it to a new level. Luckily, it turned out fine, but it could have gone another way. In the meantime, it’s becomes another tale in a camper’s life … you know the ones. 🙂 ~James

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