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Vacationing near the Smokies? Bear safety tips for your cabin or hotel

A new BearWise flier educates tourists how they impact bears at their hotels and rental cabins, even if they never venture into the woods.

Reporter's Note: See the full list of BearWise vacation tips at the bottom of this article.

(GATLINBURG, Tenn.)  At Pam Hill's rental properties overlooking Gatlinburg, there are plenty of signs visitors in "bear country."

"We have warning signs on the trash containers. We have a magnet on the refrigerator. We want to protect the bears and also protect our guests. It's very important that guests know the bears are very active here and they are not afraid of people at all," said Hill, owner of Stony Brook Cabins and Chalets.

Historically, much of the focus for educating tourists about bears dealt with how to behave inside the national park. Leaders with the BearWise Taskforce created a new flier to teach tourists they equally impact bears by what they do at their cabins and hotels.

Credit: WBIR
Trash strewn by bears that broke into an unlocked bear-proof garbage container on the left. The cage on the right was locked and still has its track safely inside.

"It's a big deal to try to help people understand proper storage of their trash, not leaving things out on the porch that can attract bears.  We have millions of people who come here for the attractions and never go into the woods. But what they do during their vacations affects bears as much as anyone," said Dan Gibbs, wildlife biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).

The new "BearWise Vacation Tips" flier can be placed in hotels, cabins, and handed out when people check in wherever they are lodging.  Owners can order copies of the flier with free shipping. They can also download the flier as a PDF that can be printed on their own as well as emailed to customers when they reserve cabins and hotel rooms.

LINK:  BearWise Vacation Tips Flier Download and Order Site

"We will put the flier in their hands when they check in and put them on the refrigerators in the cabins. But we want to send them this information before they get here. Because once they get here, they're in the vacation mode. They're excited and not wanting to read information. They want to go about their vacation," said Hill.

Credit: WBIR
New BearWise Vacation Tips flier to educate visitors about bear safety where they lodge.

It is important to educate tourists before they arrive because they are increasingly encountering bears as soon as they arrive.

"Bears, they learn very quickly. Bears have learned that vehicles are a place that people store food. You need to lock your car, even if you're gone for just a second. Do not leave your window cracked even an inch. If they can get a claw in, they will pop that window out," said Gibbs.

"We tell all our guests to lock your car and don't leave food in it. They [the bears] walk right up to the car door and open it. People will go inside with one load and come back out to find a bear in their car. Or they are sitting inside relaxing and a bear breaks into their car," said Hill.

The fliers teach vacationers how to avoid giving bears food, how to view them safely, how to prevent break-ins by bears, and other safety tips.

Credit: WBIR
A back bear sits in a jeep it broke into searching for food in Gatlinburg's Chalet Village neighborhood. Photo by S.J. Geis.

Another big point is how to correctly operate bear-proof trash containers. They are of no use if people do not lock them correctly or allow trash to overflow where they cannot be closed.

"This is not only for their safety but for the safety of people that will be using that cabin next week and next month," said Gibbs.

"We want to protect the bears, protect the environment, and protect the guests so it's a wonderful vacation," said Hill.

You can download or order copies of the BearWise Vacation Tips flier at the BearWise website. The full text of the flier is below.

BearWise Vacation Tips

You are in bear country, so there’s a good chance you’ll see black bears here, even if you never go into the woods.        

Don’t Feed the Bears

  • Don’t leave food, trash or pet food outdoors when no one is around. A few seconds is all it takes for a hungry bear to swipe it.
  • Feeding bears or using food to encourage bears to approach you is often illegal and always dangerous.
  • Don’t throw scraps or leftovers out the car window or into the woods behind your vacation rental.
  • If trash container or dumpster is full, don’t pile trash outside; take it with you when you leave.

Bear Viewing Guidelines

  • Stay in your vehicle; even bears that seem comfortable around people are still wild animals.
  • Never approach bears or entice them to approach you.
  • Enjoy bears from a safe distance. Stay at least 50 yards or 10 car lengths away.
  • Don’t block the road to view bears. If permitted, pull over and take photos from the safety of your vehicle. 

If you want to see bears, early morning and early evening are good times for viewing and photography.

Driving in Bear Country

  • Stay alert, stick to the speed limit and scan the roadsides. If a bear crosses the road, watch for cubs before you drive on. 
  • Be especially alert at dawn and dusk when bears are most active; black bears are fast and hard to see.
  • If you hit a bear, don’t try to help it. Call 911 or report to authorities as soon as you can.

Wildlife collisions are not always covered by insurance.

Dogs and bears don’t mix. 

Keep your dog on a leash at all times when outdoors. Letting your dog approach or lunge at a bear puts you and your pet in danger.

Discourage Break-Ins

  • Lock vehicles; don’t leave windows open even a crack. Remove anything with an odor (food, drinks, trash, pet food, scented products).
  • Keep exterior doors closed, even when you’re there.
  • Don’t stash food, beverages, trash or recycling on porches/patios/decks. 

If You See a Black Bear

  • If a bear comes around your place, try to scare it away by making lots of noise yelling or banging pots and pans together from a safe distance.
  • If you see a bear near a dumpster or in a building, don’t approach or corner it. Give the bear an escape route. 


Black bears are seldom aggressive and attacks are rare.

  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it.
  • If you see a bear before it notices you: Stand still, don’t approach and enjoy the moment. Then move away quietly in the opposite direction.
  • If you encounter a bear that is aware of you: don’t run; running may trigger a chase response. Back away slowly in the opposite direction and wait for the bear to leave.

Visit BearWise.org to learn what to do if a black bear approaches, charges or follows you.

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