Bears are a factor on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. The Appalachian Trail has currently closed for camping the five mile section from Neel’s Gap to Jarrard Gap. For good reason. The last two years, bears have rampaged all night in these areas. Every single hiker who tried camping there had to put up with them running around all night looking for food. They are plenty capable of stealing hung food bags.
There is a solution though. Just since I thru-hiked in 2005, almost every shelter from Springer Mountain north to central North Carolina has added cables for hanging food. Cables work almost all the time; they take the issue of bears off the table. Thank you Georgia Appalachian Trail Club and Carolina Mountain Club.
After getting through these areas though, most shelters will not have cables. However, the bear problem seems to get less problematic. Many hikers just hang their food on the strings hanging down from shelter roofs that keep mice at bay. I’ve heard very few-if any–stories of bears coming in full shelters and stealing food bags.
The Pacific Crest Trail is another test altogether. Bears are known to be more aggressive in the West, and for good reason. There is less rainfall and, consequently, less vegetation. Since bears are traditionally 80% vegetarian, they have to compensate for this by becoming more aggessive in stealing hiker food bags. Bear canisters are mandatory in the High Sierra. Most PCT thru-hikers order them at the Saufley’s Hostel, while still in the desert, to be sent to Kennedy Meadows. These canisters really do work, although most of us sent them home when we got to Lake Tahoe. We didn’t want to carry the extra three pounds. But that usually meant that we were sleeping with it in our tents at night. I got mostly–but not entirely–used to this. Anything could happen. Most hikers take to urinating circles around their tent to neutralize the smell of their food. If you get “hit”–the Western term for a bear stealing your food–you could conceivably have a walk of a few days to get to a trail town. That is why it is better to travel in group. Nonetheless, even if alone, bears are not a reason to not hike. They’re just a wild card that add to the adventure.