Do Air Horns make for good bear deterrents?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

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About a week ago I was reading some information with regards to the pros and cons of hiking alone in the wilderness. One person participating in the discussion mentioned that he carries an air horn in case he ever runs into a bear on the trail.

I found this admission to be quite interesting because I've often wondered myself whether such a device would work or not. My thoughts were that the high-decibel noise coming from an air horn might be more effective than bear spray because:

1) You don't have to worry about the direction of the wind

2) You don't have to wait for the bear to get close enough before sounding the horn

3) Bears have much better hearing than humans, thus the noise would bother them even more than humans

4) When a problem bear is captured and then released, biologists/rangers always use lots of noise to scare the bear so that it stays away from humans in the future

Never hearing anyone else make a similar suggestion, I just assumed that it probably wasn’t a good idea. However, upon reading that posting in the forum, I proceeded to do a little research on the internet. I immediately found one person who claims to have successfully used an air horn to scare a bear away. This was from a personal website, so I wasn’t about to put my life on the line based on one website claim.

Digging a little bit deeper, I found an article on the Columbia Cascades National Park website which stated:

“Air horns are unproven in their effectiveness. High-pitched noises can arouse curiosity or irritate a bear.”

However, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife did recommend using air horns while hiking to scare aggressive bears away. Furthermore, according to an article in the Alaska Star, wildlife managers in Banff, Canada and Eugene, OR also use air horns to scare urban or problem bears away.

I found a few other examples of wildlife mangers suggesting that air horns are an effective deterrent to aggressive bears as well.

Just out of curiosity, do any of you know of anyone that has successfully used an air horn during a bear encounter anywhere? Have you ever heard a so called bear expert recommend that hikers should use air horns as a deterrent?

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, and more.


Anonymous said...

Hmm... I don't have any experience with air horns to contribute to the conversation, but I want to say this is an interesting post. Thanks for doing the research!

Anonymous said...

I don't have any experience in this either, but I am very curious to know if it works, especially with your recent twitter post about firearms.

The only suggestion I have for testing it is to find out who some of those pesky comment spammers that we all have are, and then send them out in the woods with air horns. Either way, we'd then have one of the two problems solved : )

Thanks for article, I'm gonna do some research and see what else I can find on this.

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Southern Hiker,

If you find anything else that's different that what I found, or more in depth, please share.

I'm not totally sold on this yet, but I think it's an intriguing alternative.


Smokies Hiker said...

I would never use an air horn to save my life..but I do carry a "storm" high power whistle.

I was 15 years in the industry that designed, built and distributed the valves in those horns and the failure rate can be astonishing - especially since they are spec'd out for sea level use.

I have also encountered plenty of hearing deficient bear in the GSMNP.

Even most experts agree that a large caliber handgun in an experts hands is often not enough in a large black, brown or polar bear attack. No professional wildlife expert or biologist I know carries and air horn for bear.

What works best? Large doses of bear spray and replace the canister EVERY YEAR. You also better buy a can and test it first on objects at varying distance and wind speeds. You should also spray yourself to learn how to neutralize it. Throw away the used can and go out with fresh cans only.

I hike solo daily spending more time in the backcountry of the park than most employees and have never carried any defense in the GSMNP however I do own spray and may in peak season this year carry it on some hikes.

Airhorn? It's a toy to make you feel better. Don't count on it as a life saving device.

Everything I hike with I must count on it to save my life or take pictures. It it won't do either, it doent get packed.

Chris Hibbard
SmokiesHiker for YourSmokies

The Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Chris - you make some great points, and some very persuasive ones at that.

Thanks for your input.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't think it would hurt (unless the bear gets irritated as mentioned.) Honestly, I've never carried any protection of any sort in the Smokies. I don't know if the post you read was the one I saw on this where the guy said he kept accidentally setting the air horn off since it was in his pocket, and scaring himself to death. I thought that was hilarious, and almost worth bringing a can along on a hike with the wife, LOL... I can see her stern look right now after I tried that trick:)


Smokies Hiker said...

Jeff be sure to look me up before you come to the Smokies so we can hike,


Smokies Hiker said...

I want to make clear about my prior post advocating the use of bear spray in the GSMNP.

Bear Spray is ILLEGAL in the Great Smoky Mountains national park.

Though many hikers and campers carry it in the GSMNP they are breaking the law!

Some national parks do allow it (as well as firearms) But the GSMNP does not!

Anonymous said...

My co-worker went to Yosemite and saw a bear. He took out his camera to take a picture and the bear started to come toward him. Luckily someone was watching him and they set off a bear horn. The bear took off. This happened this year. He was not camping in the immediate Valley area.

Henrik Kibak said...

I was interested in your post because I am flying internationally to a part of Greenland where polar bears can be found, though not quite north to where they are abundant. I will not be able to bring a gun or the usual bear mace... but I can share this scientific article which I found quite interesting: I will be bringing a reusable air horn, but am still looking for other approaches.

Anonymous said...

I am only responding because I actually have used an airhorn, only on a black bear, in the uppper peninsula of Michigan. The bear was spooked, but it wasn't extremely large. I saw one of the comments on this topic in reference to a Polar Bear in Greenland, and I would not recommend this as a deterrent in such a situation. I wouldn't recommend bear mace either. If you see a polar bear within your visual range, start praying.

WoodbridgeVA said...

I hike solo in the Shenandoah National Park and carry a whistle that makes a loud ear pearcing noise. About a year ago I had a run in with a bear that was grubbing for food about 30-50 feet off the trail. We saw each other and I took a few pictures (sadly out of focus). After about 5-8 minutes the bear walked slowly in my direction. When it began to walk fast, I blew the whistle hard several times. The bear turned, ran back about 80-100 feet, stopped, gave me a dirty "why did you do that?" look and wandered into the forest.

Anonymous said...

Black bears are commonly seen in my town scouring through trash bins. I'd heard about using an air horn, but never had to try it out until recently. We keep our trash bin in the garage except for Monday morning when the garbage truck picks up. A couple Mondays ago after hearing a commotion outside I saw a mother bear had tipped over the bin and she and her cub were scattering the trash. I grabbed the air horn, opened the door slightly, and blew it. They looked up surprised and just flat out took off in the opposite hesitation at all. I blew it once more for effect and they ran even faster. Guess it worked very well for these bears anyway and I intend to keep one in our hiking pack from now on!

Anonymous said...

I believe that Herrero in his book "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" discusses research that was conducted in Northwest Alaska concerning air horns. If I recall correctly, once they started using them, they saw no more bears. On the other hand, a Chugach Park ranger said to make sure they don't sound like a dying or injured animal. Not sure how to tell the difference as it is so loud it hurts your ears.

Anonymous said...

This article, however, cautions against the use of air horns:

Anonymous said...

I should have said the author(s) are cautious ABOUT their use.

Unknown said...

I carry a Storm Whistle and let me tell you they are LOUD! I don't know if it would work, but I bet that it would slow a bear down. I got the whistle for a signal device, so if you hear a loud whistle while hiking you will probably see me running down the trail with the bear chasing me. whistle to make a dog come. :)

Anonymous said...

Well I have to comment here. I live in the northern mountains of NM. Near the CO border. Not in a city. In the mountains. Elk all over the front yard, stream right behind the house with great trout and of course many black bear in the area. I live in Black Bear Canyon.
I have always watched first before exiting my home or even letting my dogs out. They are small, perfect bear bait.
I carry a handgun and can empty and reload and empty it in less than 10 seconds.
I recently bought a boat horn for my cabin cruiser I keep in Dallas.
When buying it I also bought 4 for me to take to the cabin.
I have used it no less than 12 times and every time the bears (and in one instance a timber wolf of no less than 150 pounds) ran like hell. And I was shocked how fast they can cover the ground.
I hunt and fish a lot and now consider my horn the first line of defense and my gun second. Hell I'd use them at the same time if need be.
When you step outside of your home and come face to face with a black bear a foot taller than you are simply keep calm, blow the horn "CONTINUOUSLY" and he'll run. You should be pulling your handgun out at the same time.
It works, but don't expect short blasts to do it. Lay down on it until it leaves.


Anonymous said...

Air horns do work. However nothing is fool proof. I carry Bear Spray and an air horn. Bears are predictors. They will eat you if they think they can pull it off. A 40 plus caliber hand gun is also good to have as a last resort. It is unfortunate that it is illegal to carry it interstate or cross border into Canada.

Natem said...

Bat Cave NC resident.
Two days after a bear stole a 25-lb bag of sunflower seeds,he came back in daylight. He was about 40 feet away when my wife repeatly shook a small bell and he immediately turned tail an went back up the mountain out of sight.

Anonymous said...

Each Bear is different. What works on one does not always work on another. Loud noised work well usually once but if the noise is not followed by a pain of some sort the next time It probably will not work. Margo supplies on their internet site sale a device called a bear rattler. To a bear it sounds like one large rattle snake. They have found it words well in a lot of experiences. When in bear areass a person should always carry two forms of bear deterrents. Best of luck

Anonymous said...

I have spoken to the chef of an Alaskan hunting outfit. I trust her. She said they have tried all bear deterrents and the one she recommended to me is an Air Horn. She said her first line of defense is getting rid of all food smells, and securely locking away food - however, they inevitably come since a bear can smell minute traces of food. She carries an Air horn in a holster on her hip. I met her at a primitive skills gathering in Canada, and sure enough the air horn was used successfully on a black bear at the gathering.

I carry one now, but I have (thankfully) not tested yet.

Of course, I also carry bear spray, and bear bangers (essentially a firecracker). I like having redundancy.

We test all devices before we go hiking in Canada.


Anonymous said...

No experience with bears but I did manage to escape a mauling by a large aggresive dog by using an air horn.

Anonymous said...

I have been hiking Silver Star Mt. in SW Washington State for the last few years. I carry a small air horn purchased at Walmart for less than $10. It easily fits in my pocket. Near the summit of Silver Star one day I encountered what appeared to be a Grizzly standing about seven feet tall looking at me from about 80 feet, uphill. It was a perfect photo op, but instead I sounded my air horn and yelled, the bear ran off right away.

Ken from Boulder said...

Lots of bears in my backyard (Boulder, CO mountains). Air horns definitely work - but from what I've read (including the report mentioned above) don't use them if you are TOO CLOSE to the bear -- if it's 30 feet away, it probably won't charge, it'll run.

On the other hand, if a bear has cubs with or near it, don't expect its actions to be predictable. If the cubs are closer than the bear, it'll move toward the danger either way.

Hope Adams said...

i never have any personal experience with bears..but your research is very interesting and informative.

Anonymous said...

I purchased an air horn for protecting while walking my dogs but it doesn't have any kind of cap over the button. Not sure how you'd keep one around without constantly setting it off by mistake.