If you’re anything like me, the prospect of seeing bears on your next backpacking trip is as exciting as it is terrifying. I love nature, but I also love being alive. Getting too close to a bear, without being prepared, puts those two things on a delicate balance beam. Bear deterrents such as bear spray may not be necessary every time you hike, but they do help you feel safe. They can also be life-savers in the ultra-rare chance you need to use them.
Loud sounds are one of the most effective ways to alert a bear to your presence. This has many people wondering if air horns deter bears, since they’re incredibly loud, affordable, and easy to find. Learn more about their effectiveness, and why I bring a bear horn every time I backpack in bear country, below!
Will an Air Horn deter bears?
Bear spray is a popular option when it comes to bear safety. However, air horns are much cheaper and can get the job done, too. Air horns can be used to scare both black and brown bears. What they experience when you blow the horn is much louder than everything else they encounter in nature except for a nearby lightning strike.
Airhorns and bear spray are best used for different purposes, though. While bear spray is a last resort during a close bear encounter, an air horn can be your first resort. Announcing your presence to a far-off bear is much less terrifying than having to stop a charge with bear spray!
Air horns: are they reliable?
Air horns are pretty reliable, in most situations. The closer you are to civilization or a main highway, though, the more likely it is that a local bear has heard car horns many times before. If that’s the case, the sound of an air horn may not startle them very much. That’s why it’s best to take a layered approach to bear defense and bear safety.
These days, you can even get an air horn specifically designed for bear safety. These horns can be heard for more than half a mile and any backpacker is wise to carry one! I took one on a recent trip to North Cascades National Park, and it was great for peace of mind. Were there bears in the area that I really needed to be afraid of? Maybe not, but I err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to bears.
Whenever I made camp, I would let out a half-second “honk” from my bear horn. That way, any bears in the vicinity would know there’s a stranger around. Since bears don’t seek out humans and most encounters happen purely by chance, the bear horn pretty much guarantees that me and the bears are going to enjoy our evenings separately!
Will a bear horn stop a bear attack? Bear horns vs Bear spray
Bear horns are designed to keep bears far away, not to scare them away when you’ve already crossed paths. If you stumble upon an aggressive bear, the best thing you can have on you is bear spray. A bear horn, in this situation, is too little, too late. A blast from a bear horn might scare it away, but it might also make the bear more aggressive. If you are face to face with a bear, a loud horn might not be very much help at all!
Bear horns are a deterrent, not a repellant. Those words might sound similar, but there’s a slight distinction.
- Bear horns are used to make sure bears know you’re in the area so that they can keep their distance, which is what they prefer to do.
- Bear spray is used to survive a potentially deadly bear encounter when there is no other way out.
How Loud are Air Horns?
Air horns ring at a volume of 129 decibels– the same as a car horn and 32 times louder than a vacuum cleaner. Why compare it to a vacuum cleaner? I have no idea. It’s just loud. Air horns can also be heard from up to a mile away, depending on where you are and weather conditions. That’s a lot of power in a tiny canister!
How to deter bears without bear spray
If you run across a bear or know that one has been following you, it’s best not to rely on one method of deterrence alone. Bear spray is one of the most effective ways to deter a bear, but not everyone wants to carry it with them at all times.
So, how do you make sure that you never have a bear encounter that turns deadly? First of all, don’t worry too much- bear attacks are incredibly uncommon. Only 67 people in the US have died from bear attacks since 1900- more people have been killed by vending machines in the last decade alone!
Uncommon though they are, dangerous bear encounters are nothing to be flippant about. So, if you run into a bear that gets too close for comfort, what are you to do?
Make yourself tall! Make yourself intimidating! Let the bear know that you aren’t a creature that’ll be easy to mess with- even if you’re bluffing. Bears, too, sometimes engage in bluff charges to get other creatures to back off, so they respect the tactic.
Asserting your dominance by becoming tall and loud communicates to the bear that you are not a threat, but you aren’t prey either. Bears aren’t usually looking for a fight; almost every time a bear makes a show of force, it’s defensive rather than predatory. If you stand up to the bear without attacking it, it’ll get the point.
Part of asserting your dominance is making noise– yelling, blowing your air horn, and loud clapping. The louder you are, the safer you are. This applies not only to actual bear encounters but also to hiking/backpacking in bear country in general.
You don’t have to be obnoxious levels of loud when hiking, but a nice conversation or a bit of singing while you walk can alert bears to your presence when you’re still far away. If they know you’re in the area, chances are you’ll only ever see bears from a safe distance– and that is way more enjoyable!
The last thing you want to do in a bear encounter is run. It sends a different message than you think it does, and it can even trigger an attack response in the bear. Bears are faster than you, so running is never a good idea anyways. If you think you’re in serious danger, get your bear spray ready. It’s the last line of defense you have!
Any loud, high-pitched noise should be startling enough to a bear that it will not be interested in getting close to you (unless it’s already preparing to charge). Air horns, bangers, flares, and whistling screamers are all great bear deterrents.
If you’re already face to face with a bear, there isn’t much that a whistle is going to do. Whistles and other sounds are best used before you see a bear, because they announce your presence to nearby animals and let them know where you are, because bears don’t want to run into you any more than you want to run into them!
Bear bells are similar to bear horns in that they are a good way to reduce the chances of a bear stumbling upon you and being frightened enough to charge. The bells can be heard a long way off, and they drastically reduce the chances of a dangerous bear encounter ever happening.
Air horns are unquestionably effective with proper use. If you are using an air horn to signal nearby bears of your presence, it will be nearly 100% effective at helping you avoid dangerous encounters. If you want to use the horn to stop a bear from charging, it’s more of a 50/50 situation.
Conclusion: Do Air Horns Scare Off Bears?
Air horns are generally reliable for scaring bears. They will keep bears away in most scenarios because they’re extremely loud and startling. The best way to be bear safe while hiking or backpacking in the national parks, however, is to use multiple layers of bear safety. Have you had any bear encounters where you used an air horn? Share your stories in the comments section!