When hiking in bear country, it’s advised to carry bear spray and a bear horn. If we’re being honest though, while bear spray might make you feel safer, no one really wants to get close enough to a bear to have to mace it. As with all wildlife encounters, from fearsome mountain lions to meek-but-might moose, prevention is key, and making noise is generally thought to be a good way to alert any unsuspecting fauna of your impending presence. But as we’ve previously discussed, the supporting evidence for certain noise-makers such as bear bells is flimsy at best, so do bear horns work? We investigate whether you can blast a bear away from the honey pot for long enough to keep traveling through the backcountry, or if you’re just wasting your money and disturbing local wildlife.
What is a bear horn?
A bear horn is a small, lightweight air horn made of plastic that attaches to an aluminum canister and makes a loud, piercing sound. The horn is deployed by pressing a lockable button and contains a limited number of short blasts that are around 115 decibels – that’s louder than an ambulance and about the same volume as your annoying neighbor’s leaf blower. Bear horns aren’t intended to be used for self-defense; as in, you’re not meant to blast the horn in the bear’s cute, fuzzy face. Manufacturers of bear horns suggest deploying periodic, short blasts (no more than a second) while you hike to alert bears that you’re coming through.
Bears have a very acute sense of hearing, according to the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife, about twice that of a human, but if they don’t hear the clump of your hiking boots, they should be able to hear your horn from a half mile away. Because bears are solitary creatures and tend to be wary of humans, the idea is that they hear this unfamiliar sound and hustle off into the woods, leaving the path clear for you.
Do bear horns work?
So do bear horns actually work or, like bear bells, is it possible that they just create a false sense of security, and disturb the surrounding wildlife unnecessarily?
The theory behind bear horns is that bears generally tend to give humans a wide berth, and the sound will also be unlikely anything they’ve ever heard (unless they, too, have an annoying neighbor) so upon hearing it, they’ll drop their nuts and berries and scamper deeper into the undergrowth to get away from it.
In practice, a review by the Zoology Department at the University of Montana found that loud, sharp noises were consistently successful at repelling bears, if only for a few minutes, and they did stop bears from charging too, however it should be noted that the subject matter here consisted of grizzlies and polar bears, not the much more common black bear. So bear horns are definitely great for hiking in Yellowstone National Park and treks across the Arctic, but what about somewhere like Colorado or California?
At the time of writing this article, we couldn’t find any studies, conclusive or otherwise, on the effects of bear horns on black bears. If anyone understands bear behavior, it’s likely to be park rangers at National Parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier National Park, which have about 1,500 black bears between them and sightings are common, while interactions are not totally unusual. Across the board, we discovered that each park clearly recommends making loud noises as a means of repelling bears and we figure these people have plenty of experience repelling bears.
So, without any scientific data, a bear horn will probably be heard by any bear within a half mile radius and that bear is unlikely to come and charge you. At least for a few minutes, it’s more likely to stay where it is or move further away. Plus, bear horns are lightweight and compact, so they can easily fit in your backpack and they’re cheap, so it seems reasonable to carry one in bear country.
That said, it’s probably not ideal for the surrounding wildlife, or bird watchers, for you to be blasting your horn non-stop, but setting off the occasional blast if you’re feeling isolated, or think you can hear or smell a bear nearby, won’t do any harm and may even help. However, you’ll still want to know what to do if you meet a bear in case Smokey gets confused and runs towards you instead.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.