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

Do Bear Bells Really Work?

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

Q: I visited Yellowstone for the first time this summer, and I wanted to go for a trail run. It was my first time alone in grizzly country, so I decided to buy some bear bells. At the checkout, the lady decided to warn me that because so many people use bear bells now, you might actually associate the sound with humans and come to investigate. You wouldn't really do that, would you!?—Boomer from Wisconsin, via email

A: Dinner bells, hiker hamburger hail, afternoon-snack alarm—the bear bell is a bear-country souvenir store staple that gets a lot of flack from locals and backcountry veterans. Whether it works on me isn't exactly clear.

In the most advanced testing, bear biologist Tom Smith jingled bear bells in varying volumes in front of brown bears in Katmai National Park. Regardless of how vigorously he shook, 15 different sets of bruins ignored the bells. And yet they snapped at attention the second he broke a pencil in half. This isn't 100-percent proof that bears don't respond to bear bells; Katmai bears are known for being relatively non-aggressive. But it means that in this specific case, the bells failed to warn and change my behavior as intended.

It's possible that bells aren't loud or unfamiliar enough; I might be tuning them out the same way I tune out gurgling water or birds chirping. Supporters point out that in a study in Glacier National Park conducted in 1982, the only people who got charged by bears that year were not wearing bells.

As far as attraction, bear guru Stephen Herrero leaves room for the possibility that bear bells might arouse interest in the more curious members of my species. There's not a lot hard evidence to support this, but when the human ambassador for my kind points it out, you probably should at least consider it.

Regardless, bells aren't terribly loud and could easily get lost in the sounds of wind, a river, or thick forest. It's much safer and smarter to use your own voice: Sing, shout my name, or, if you're Herrero, yodel. It's the best, most reliable way to alert me to your unfamiliar presence and ensure that I head in the opposite direction. Believe me: Yodeling sounds just as bad to my ears as it does to yours.

—BEAR

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

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I think a bear bell is a good idea for mountain bikers use while on a trail used by equestrians. If the mountain biker that came up behind me and my horse had been using a bear bell, my horse might not have spooked. I wouldn't have been almost scalped and broken my neck. I highly reccommend them. Also it helps if a hiker or biker speaks to you by just saying hello. Then the horse knows someone is there.

Jeffery T
Feb 03, 2012

About 5 years back I was hiking alone in Glacier National Park. As I passed by a group of 4 or five young men they laughed and made fun of my bear bells. But I just continued on in one direction and they continued on in the other. But just a mile furthur up the trail, guess what I encountered.. a bear. He was up in a tree only 20 feet off of the trail. As I unknowingly passed by him, the bear jumped out of the tree and ran off out of sight. I don't know for sure if my bear bells are what made him aware of me, but lucky for me, the bear appeared to be more afraid of me than I was afraid of him.

ron
Dec 26, 2011

I wil hike the at next year, to bell or not to bell.

Meg Schmidt
Jul 08, 2011

I used bear bells in Glacier Park in 1982 and I'm still here!

Meg Schmidt
Jul 08, 2011

I used bear bells in Glacier Park in 1982 and I'm still here!

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May 17, 2011

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Mountaingal
Mar 03, 2011

I've pack horses into the Cascades for 20 years. Horse response is not a fair comparison to a bear's response. Horses are the prey. They are herd animals like elk. They respond to a cracked twig like something might eat them. Since they focus on that one unusual item as a survival threat, the hiker needs to take the downhill side, or flight as the means of escape could send the horse and rider over the cliff. Bear bells are not necessary with horses. The bear I've seen hear us in advance, and take off, which is fine with me. The only sounds I want to hear is the creaking of saddles, and thud of hoof beats against a backdrop of nature.

Jerry Doyle
Mar 03, 2011

I'm a solo hiker having hiked in Alaska, Canada and the Northwest USA, including Glacier National Park. I use bear bells knowing the controversy surrounding the efficacy, but when hiking solo how can one all day use his voice singing, shouting and talking? Interestingly, while hiking outside Banff, Alberta Canada a horseman leading a pack train of horses stopped and shouted to me to stop too. His reason for asking me to stop? He said my bear bells were scaring his horses, and asked that I stop walking until he past completely with his team of horses. I found that request speaking volumes in saying that animals notice the bear bells and whether that cowboy pokes fun at them or not, he had to contend with me wearing them by asking me to stop walking so as not to scare his pack train of horses. Interesting.

Argosinu
Mar 03, 2011

I think the distinction between surprising/startling a bear and scaring one away is important. If the bear wants your food, the bell is worthless. And I want Mama bear to call her cub well before I arrive.

James
Mar 03, 2011

A few years ago I attended a bear lecture by a ranger at Banff National Park, who said bells are worthless because (1) they aren't loud enough for a bear to hear before you are up to the bear, and (2) bears don't associate the sound of a bell with humans, so they won't run away. As for the 1982 "study" in Glacier, I would guess that non-bell-wearers were charged because almost no one wore bells in 1982.

Debby Nelson
Mar 03, 2011

Trail running in bear country is fool hardy. One sure way to attract a grizzly-RUN! Better to leave the running in non bear habitat.

Steve C
Mar 03, 2011

Some old timers used to tie items like tin cups, pots, canteen onto the outside of their packs. The "clang, clang" with each step certainly alerted wildlife (and everyone else) to their coming.

Floyd
Mar 03, 2011

In Complete Walker IV page 731, the late Colin Fletcher and co-author Chip Rawlins seem to think that bear bells are more of a nuisance to two legged folks, than a bear repellent. Rawlins sometimes sings, makes noise or talks "in a conversational tone." Who knows what's best? I backpacked in black bear country (the Smokies and Cranberry Backcountry) back in the 60s and 80s, and saw no bears at either time.

dog handler
Mar 03, 2011

We have black bears and wolves near our house. We bell the dogs when we're hiking with a cow-type bell, as wolves like a tasty dog snack. There are quite a few wolf-eat-dog events every year, but only non-belled dogs have been consumed. The mechnical sound has been shown to protect dogs in our area.

I can't compare this to grizzlies, of course, but the cow bells are loud and have a much lower tone. Worth a try.

Davethehiker
Mar 03, 2011

I once had a family of three black bears cross the trail in front of me as I hiked the AT. At first I thought they were shadows or boulders but realized there was a baby and two larger adults. The biggest sat down on the trail, rolled over tree stump and seemed to eating something he found under the stump. As I photographed them, my hiking partner, a very experienced hiker, whispered to me, "don't make noise or they will run away". After a while I wanted them to get off the trail so I could pass. We banged our trekking poles together, we shouted at them, I blew my very shill and loud whistle as load as I could, I sang several verses of the "teddy bear's picnic". They totally ignored us and remained on the trail blocking our passage. We decided to get off the trail. Using my GPS we bushwhacked a big loop around them.

NY Gus
Mar 03, 2011

I love Ask A Bear. Just the premise of it being written from a bears point of view makes me laugh. Informative too.

Q: Do you know how to tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?

A: Grizzly bear scat has bells in it.

TD
Mar 03, 2011

As a biologist, I've worked and played - often alone - in some of the most bear-heavy country in the lower 48. I agree that the high frequencies produced by little, clinking bear bells fail to travel through vegetation or get much attention against a background of running water or birdsong. Our voices, though, are very distinctive - they will generally differentiate us from most other critters on the planet. In areas with human activities, it makes sense that bears will associate certain things (sounds, smells, visual cues) with humans. I suspect that someone singing 'I want to be an Airborne Ranger' is unmistakable to a bear; the sounds produced by various cheap-model bear bells are ambiguous at best.

Bear spray and bear bells and yakking and groups don't make up for careless or unwise behavior. Hint: 'trail running' in bear country is an inherently bad idea. Use trails for hiking (unplug the iPod, take your time, pay attention to the world around you) and save runing for the track.

Tom
Mar 03, 2011

Here in NJ (yes we have a lot of bears) the bells work not to scare them away, but to make them aware of your presence and direction of movement. The bears are more aggressive when they're surprised by a hiker or a mountain biker, the bells negate that element of the encounter.

Craig
Mar 03, 2011

This is all great advice. I do try to make noise when I hike but...When hiking alone, does anyone really talk, sing or call out? It just seems awkward to make a fool of myself when I run into another hiker. Regardless, I guess appearing as a fool is better than being bear lunch.

Martin Walters
Dec 04, 2010

Bear Bells sound preferable. Yodeling or talking to yourself may get you on medication. A Bear Bell would do double duty by also giving Cougar a heads up too. ( Cougars want nothing more than to avoid humans) Live next to Cougar Mountain and Tiger Mountain. Renton, WA. We have quite a few mind there own business Black Bear

Anyway, it is a well known saying in Washington State that the only hikers or school children in a play ground that need to fear a cougar, is the one who runs the slowest.

Also, Dogs kill more people per year than Cougar, Bear
and Alligator combined! ( Do love my dogs )



Nicole
Oct 05, 2010

I still prefer to use a Bear Bell, regardless.

Craig Koebelin
Aug 23, 2010

Always bring your trumpet

Lorraine Althoff
Aug 21, 2010

I backpack & live in Alaska alone with my Alaskan Malamute Zoe, granted the bells may or may not work, but I like the sound of them as I move. That is why I use them.

Ted Chase
Aug 20, 2010

Hey guys, i've been reading Ask a bear lately and the information provided here is pretty neat. if you want to check on more info about bear please go to my website www.tedchase.com/blog, i can probably help y'all out with information about bear activity in the heart of grizzly country, i live in East Glacier, Montana. keep it up guys, great stuff going on at backpacker blogs!

dropkick
Aug 20, 2010

Bear bells aren't meant to scare off bears. They're intended to make noise so that you don't walk up on a bear and startle it.

I'd rather have twenty bears get curious and take a peak at me, than startle just one.

Colorado Pete
Aug 19, 2010

In the early 1990's, my wife and I had the opportunity to work a full season in Yellowstone NP. One of our first concerns was trying to avoid confrontation with bears. When we first arrived, we knew there was a bear behind every tree, just waiting to get us. In talking with old timers in the park, we discussed the so called bear bells (know locally as "dinner bells") and other possible methods of avoiding bear confrontation. The truth is there is no absolute way of avoiding a confrontation other than staying out of bear country. Also true is the fact that there are greater numbers of potentially dangerous animals located within the park: buffalo, moose, elk, etc. Finially, our experience was just to enjoy the park and it's inhabitants for what they are and use common sense when they are present. Try not to attract them by leaving garbage or other smelly things out in the open. One of our fellow workers made some ice cream and when it was finished, he poured the residual salty water behind his travel trailer. Within a few days he had a herd of 6 or 8 buffalo spending time right up against his trailer, licking the ground where the salt was poured! He tried everything to get rid of the potential dangerous problem but he had those "friends" for the remainder of the season.

Bear Aware
Aug 19, 2010

Q: What's the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?
A: Black bear scat is full of partially digested seeds and berries. Grizzly bear scat contains bells and smells like pepper spray.

Orion
Aug 19, 2010

Now I can use this article to point out why I talk so much in the woods. LOL!!

Andrew Szalay
Aug 19, 2010

I still prefer "Hi, bear. Stay away!" shouts periodically. If nothing else it gives me the opportunity to have a "conversation" even when going solo. Haven't tried it on Grizzlies yet though.

Andrew Szalay
suburbanmountaineer.com

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Aug 19, 2010

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Sara
Aug 18, 2010

In my backcounty trips, I've had a total of three bear encounters, and I find that belting out a round of "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor" is more effective than bells or whistles.

Brian Lang
Aug 18, 2010

On the Berg Lake trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park, BC, Canada, I was once passed by a group of 10 hikers. The last person in the group had bear bells on her pack. When did I hear the bells? Right AFTER she passed me heading the opposite direction. Will they warn bears of your presence? Maybe. Do I think they work? Not in the least. Better to go in a group of 4 or more (no recorded bear attacks on groups of 4 or more according to Herrero) and/or make lots of noise/sing/yodel.

Chauga Bill
Aug 18, 2010

The bear bell can be somewhat helpful in locating your pack as a Bear carries it off. It also shows up in the scat making it easier to identify your remains.

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