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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Ask A Bear: Can Boat Horns Scare Bears?

Our resident bruin expert answers all your questions in our weekly feature, 'Ask A Bear.'

by: 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.

—BEAR

Got a question for the bear? Send it to askabear@backpacker.com.


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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Jerry W Doyle
Jan 18, 2013

I backpack and day hike in Alaska and Canada as a solo hiker. I carry an air blaster and pepper spray. The air blaster is a large canister that sounds as loud as the air horn on a tractor-trailer and the sound carries up to one mile according to the canister. When blasted, the sound hurts my ears. It is inconceivable for me to believe that a blast from the air horn would not stop a charging bear in its tracks causing it to scamper away. The use of a gun, as already denoted, requires expert marksmanship to ensure that the shooter hits the precise targeted area on the bear. Few shooters are this professional at a fast charging target and besides, few shooters even have the time to get a shot off. This is why history shows us that some fatal bear attacks on humans were individuals carrying weapons but never had the time to use them when attacked suddenly.

The air blaster is my first choice, as pepper spray (as already denoted) is useless when hiking upwind. If hiking downwind I will use the pepper spray first concomitant with the use of the air blaster.

I always am hesitant to expound on the efficacy of the air blaster. I fear that others may not have the profound respect of using the air blaster except when truly needed. Its use should be only during an emergency such as a charging bear. Another time may be when the hiker feels the need is critical as a defensive technique such as in the midst of thickets while approaching a loud creek of rushing water where potential bears could not hear you shouting your approach. The only other time I used the air blaster was in the midst of tall thickets over six feet on a narrow path and I had a deep abiding sense that I was not alone, but something was near me. I took the air blaster and unleashed a blast that even hurt my ears. After I stopped, I heard a huge commotion immediately to my right of some huge animal running away from me. I am sure it was a bear.

As the reader can see, I believe in the large canister air blaster as the maximum protection for traveling in bear country.

Here is my problem with the use of a gun as a defensive weapon against a charging bear. One reason that bear biologists do not view the use of firearms as the best deterrent is the well-known fact that many individuals who had weapons with them, still were mauled by bears or killed by bears. In many of the instances, the individuals never got the chance to discharge their weapons. In incidences where they did fire their weapons, they either missed the bear or worse, wounded the mammal thus enraging the bear further, resulting in a more vicious attack.

Bear attacks usually come so swiftly in amongst tall thick alders or in the dead of the night while the individual(s) sleep in his or her tent. A black bear attacked a family June 17, 2007 while they slept in their tent in the American Fork Canyon in the Uinta National Forest in Utah County, Utah. The black bear attacked suddenly in the dead of the night taking eleven-year-old Samuel Evan Ives away from his family and killing him, even though the young boy lay sleeping with his stepfather, mother and six-year-old brother. It happened that quickly. Utah Department of Wildlife officials later tracked and found the bear, killing him.

To kill a charging grizzly bear in order to defend yourself, you must be capable of shooting to kill an object hurtling at you, perhaps through dense brush, at speeds of up to forty-four feet per second. If you are not an expert marksman and an “instinctive” shooter, then you may be better off without a firearm or at least keeping the firearm for use only in very few situations.

The type of shooting described above is not “hunting.” Experts denote clearly, that the type of shooting involves “self-defense” shooting under extremely demanding conditions.

Training entails shooting hundreds of rounds with the chosen firearm under a variety of conditions chosen to simulate field conditions. Accurate shooting should become something that you do almost without thinking, “instinctively.” If possible, moving targets should be used in training situations.

The reason firearms are not the best deterrent is the kind of accurate shooting called for above under the extreme conditions where bear attacks occur suddenly. Notice that I used the term “instinctive” shooting. Bear biologists and Park Wardens say that “instinctive” shooting is paramount, because of the frequent lack of precise aim that is possible when hunting with telescopic sights and high-powered rifles.

In the extreme, the shooter may fire shotguns or rifles at the hip rather than at shoulder level. The psychological impact of a charging grizzly is something difficult to simulate in training situations. Experts are adamant, that in choosing whether and when to carry a firearm, one must try to predict how he or she will behave, if charged by an attacking grizzly.

The outdoor elements play a major role on the condition of the weapon. The outdoor elements can affect whether at the time of firing, if the weapon is capable for firing at the needed instant. In bear country, rain showers come often, creek crossings are many, thick alders are prevalent, grime and dirt plentiful. These and other elements play a factor.

During the fall of 1979, Monte Adams, a renowned expert big-game hunter, was looking for mountain sheep in the mountains of southern Alberta. He entered a sub alpine meadow where there were fresh signs of bears feeding on berries. What happened next to Monte Adams is conjecture, but investigating authorities feel reasonably certain of the events that unfolded. Adams was hunting “solo.” We know that one’s chances of sustaining a bear attack rises exponentially very high when traveling “solo” in bear country. Authorities believe that Monte Adams came upon a sow with cubs. The grizzly felt threatened with an extreme need to protect her cubs. She attacked Adams swiftly and viciously. It also appeared that Adams already had ammunition in the chamber of his rifle and that he jammed the rifle by trying to put another round into the chamber. The sow killed Monte Adams ferociously.

Also, with the perceived security of a firearm, people become bolder, which can be bad for several reasons. Experts denote that for some people, carrying a firearm tends to turn off the “alertness” to signs of bears and to situations in which bear danger might develop. As indicated previously, if you are not an expert sharpshooter and an “instinctive” shooter then you run the risk of wounding the attacking bear. A wounded bear, especially a grizzly, becomes even more enraged with an even higher threatened feeling. The wounded bear fights back for its life, resulting in a more vicious attack on the shooter than perhaps what normally would occur.

Experts say that the weapon should not be discharged until a charging grizzly is from fifty to one hundred feet away, or even closer. This is far too close for anyone who is not an expert with firearms. Only experts, though, increase their margin of safety by considering shooting at these close distances. At these close distances, a charging grizzly bear, not shot, will reach a person in one and a half to two seconds. The right shot will stop a charging grizzly before it reaches you even at close range.

So bear, please know that I will never harm you in your residence because I am a guest in your residence. If you get angry by my presence, then I will blast you with a deafening sound and some pepper in your snout, but that will be the extent.

Jerry D
Alexandria, LA

ozzie banicki
May 04, 2012

I can't count on the wind favoring me when I'm fly fishing. A .45lc with 300 grains of hard cast in black bear country cut the wind every time.

Second, an Attwood air horn around one's neck is light and faster than a draw of a gun, appropriate in certain situations when used in combination.

A hand-held flare (looks like a baton) requires pulling the string also might borrow time for a quick draw of your handgun.

El Comanche
Jul 21, 2011

There are two distinct categories when it comes to bear encounters. People constantly mix them up, which is dangerous.

1. Avoidance: This is more important than any sort of defense gear.Talking clapping, bear bells and an air horn for very loud rivers with bear scat will assure you do not have an encounter. None of these do ANYTHING in a defense situation.

2. Defense: Once you have an encounter you have to be able to read it. In Steve's case above, using avoidance gear proved to be worthless. Pepper spray is much more effective in these situations.
In attacks, spray has proven itself about 70% effective according to bear behavior expert Gary Shelton. If the wind is in your face it is useless though. I find high winds common in the backcountry. A .44 magnum or larger caliber has proven to be about 95% effect in the right hands. I know many hikers do not like guns, but Gary has the experience and data to prove this. The problem with using a firearm in an attack is most hikers are not proficient enough to be effective. You must practice, hone you marksmanship and the speed of you draw to be effective. DO NOT SHOOT A BEAR IF YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO PUT IN THE TIME TO BE ACCURATE! A pissed off bear that has been shot anywhere but the head of spine will destroy you.
You also have to be able to understand the difference between a defensive aggressive attack and a predatory one.
I didn't write this to start a gun debate, just to point out the facts that I'm aware of. Gary Shelton has more experience/contact with aggressive bear behavior than anyone in the world. He trains forest service workers in the BC area. His books are worth reading.

El Comanche
Jul 21, 2011

There are two distinct categories when it comes to bear encounters. People constantly mix them up, which is dangerous.

1. Avoidance: This is more important than any sort of defense gear.Talking clapping, bear bells and an air horn for very loud rivers with bear scat will assure you do not have an encounter. None of these do ANYTHING in a defense situation.

2. Defense: Once you have an encounter you have to be able to read it. In Steve's case above, using avoidance gear proved to be worthless. Pepper spray is much more effective in these situations.
In attacks, spray has proven itself about 70% effective according to bear behavior expert Gary Shelton. If the wind is in your face it is useless though. I find high winds common in the backcountry. A .44 magnum or larger caliber has proven to be about 95% effect in the right hands. I know many hikers do not like guns, but Gary has the experience and data to prove this. The problem with using a firearm in an attack is most hikers are not proficient enough to be effective. You must practice, hone you marksmanship and the speed of you draw to be effective. DO NOT SHOOT A BEAR IF YOU ARE NOT WILLING TO PUT IN THE TIME TO BE ACCURATE! A pissed off bear that has been shot anywhere but the head of spine will destroy you.
You also have to be able to understand the difference between a defensive aggressive attack and a predatory one.
I didn't write this to start a gun debate, just to point out the facts that I'm aware of. Gary Shelton has more experience/contact with aggressive bear behavior than anyone in the world. He trains forest service workers in the BC area. His books are worth reading.

John
Jun 30, 2011

I bought a horn for protection and thought I would try it at home to check it out. I was deaf for 5-10 minutes. I figured the bear could be attacking others and I wouldn't hear a thing. I leave the horn at home.

steve
Jun 17, 2011

I have personal experience trying to use an air horn to deter a bear. While backpacking in Alaska, we had a bear come into camp. He was standing about 40 feet away, and none of the noise we made (yelling, banging on pots, and using an air horn) had any noticeable effect. He finally moved when we started hitting him with softball sized rocks, but only moved just out of rock throwing range.

So while an air horn maymay work to alert a bear to your presence, it can't be relied on to deter a hungry habituated bear.

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