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The DAILY DIRT - The nitty and the gritty of outdoor news

Ask A Bear: Can Boat Horns Scare Bears?

Got a burning ursine question? Ask our resident bruin expert in our weekly feature, 'Ask A Bear.'

Q: I think a small boat horn would be as effective in dealing with bears as would say bear spray, also
it could be used if you get lost to call for help, and it also can be used to a limited degree to defend
yourself. I'm not sure but I believe Alaskan salmon fisherman use them for protection against you (bears). —James McCandless, via email

A: Believe it or not, in some studies boat horns have shown that they can be effective deterrents to me and my kin. I'm not a fan of loud, unfamiliar noises of any kind, so loud, gas-powered boat horns can pack an especially powerful aural punch to my sensitive ears.

In an informal study undertaken by Alaska Fish and Game officials and recorded by noted bear expert Stephen Herrero in his excellent Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, grad students monitoring salmon populations took gas-powered boat horns with them into the Alaska backcountry and let loose occasional blasts, especially when they were surrounded by dense brush. They never once even saw a bear, despite encountering loads of bear sign. But when they decided they'd like to see me after all, they stopped using their horns, and they immediately began running into me along the stream.

As far as a deterrent in an encounter, there isn't enough data to compare directly to bear spray. But extremely loud and sharp noises like boat horns seem to be among the most promising ways to both scare me away from you and associate humans with painful, obnoxious noises. They seem to be especially useful near large rivers, where I won't hear the usual deterrent sounds (clapping, singing, loud voices).

There are some caveats to the boat horn: If you hike through the backcountry constantly tooting it to scare me off, I might run away, but I'll bet any hikers trying to enjoy the view won't. They'll probably try and find you, and they'll likely be angrier than any bear you'd ever encounter.


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Jack HB
Jul 20, 2012


Jack HB
Jul 20, 2012


Nov 19, 2009

We had a close encounter in Alaska with a bear that came into camp looking for food. We gave it a blast from the boat horn from about 20' away, and it had absolutely no effect.

So while the horn may be useful to warn bears of your presence, I wouldn't rely on it to deter a bear during an encounter.

Jim Barton
Nov 19, 2009

I spent six weeks backpacking and mapping landslides and relic glacial landforms for my senior thesis in the Teton Wilderness of Wyoming in the summer of 1990, and used a small boat horn when entering areas of dense brush, strictly to warn grizzly bears of my presence. My advisor had a serious encounter there the previous year, face to face with a sow and her cub, so I was warned to make my presence known. And I know there were bears in my area, as I had talked to outfitters running guided horse-back tours. I didn't see any bears during my stay.

Nov 19, 2009

In some cases this may actually increase the intensity of the attack. Bears in Alaska are much more social animals then the bears in WY and MT. In most cases the bear feels threatened when attacking a loud noise like a scream or horn can actually make the bear more excited and possibly harm you more. Bear spray is the best deterrent available and it is safe for bears. Bear spray is a win win situation. If you enjoy the great outdoors in grizzly country, you should be responsible and carry bear spray.

Horns may be good for letting bears know you are coming and may scare some off at a distance. However, I would never blow one at a charging/ attacking bear.

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