Poll: Bear Bells – Effective or Gimmick?

Black Bear

I was recently contacted by a reader who had a very specific question regarding the effectiveness of bear bells vs. whistles in the back country. Here is the full question:

“Brian I wanted to get your opinion on the use of whistles to alert bears in the area as opposed to using bells. I fish a lot in the Montana mountains and have been using bells. I thought that a whistle blown every 3-5 minutes while I’m in areas that are frequented by bears might work better than bells…… your thoughts please?”

I have a pretty strong opinion about this and responded back via email with my thoughts, but rather than just blurt out what my opinion is here, I’ll share it afterward, I thought I’d open it up to everyone else to get a collective take on the effectiveness of bear bells and your thoughts about using an emergency whistle on a regular basis.

I don’t mean to single out this reader because of their question, quite the opposite. I think it is a fantastic question and one that deserves to be thrown out to a larger audience than just me :)

So what do you think about bear bells? Effective, annoying, pointless sales gimmick, other? And what about the question of using an emergency whistle instead..?

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  • dstb

    I don’t know for sure, but we were at Glacier NP a few years ago and a ranger there referred to them as dinner bells.

  • dstb

    I don’t know for sure, but we were at Glacier NP a few years ago and a ranger there referred to them as dinner bells.

  • Wolf46

    If I have to whistle every 3 minutes, I’ll rather stay home.

  • Wolf46

    If I have to whistle every 3 minutes, I’ll rather stay home.

  • PaullyD

    I’ve always understood them to be dinner bells. The constant repetitive tinkle creates a curiosity in a bear rather then a fear. The only reason I use a bear bell is for when I’m mountain biking so other riders know I’m coming.

  • PaullyD

    I’ve always understood them to be dinner bells. The constant repetitive tinkle creates a curiosity in a bear rather then a fear. The only reason I use a bear bell is for when I’m mountain biking so other riders know I’m coming.

  • sojourner

    Don’t the bells just irritate the bears digestive system? :)

  • sojourner

    Don’t the bells just irritate the bears digestive system? :)

  • James Conley

    Sadly google provides no links to any double-blind studies on the effectiveness of bear bells. This is disheartenting.

  • James Conley

    Sadly google provides no links to any double-blind studies on the effectiveness of bear bells. This is disheartenting.

  • Cal

    Bear Bells are more annoying (both to the people wearing them, and fellow hikers) than they are effective. Around here (the Rocky Mountains in Alberta) the parks recommend speaking or singing loudly (not screaming or anything, but using your “outside voice”) in order to alert bears that they are sharing space with you. Your voice carries louder and further than the sound of the bell, and that should prevent you from startling any bears by accidentally sneaking up on them.

    A whistle will probably work about as effectively. Certainly better than a bell, in my thinking. We just talk a lot on the trail, and so far we haven’t had any problems (and we saw at least 10 bears last season, and they were all well aware of us before we saw them). I don’t recommend bells to anyone, since they are too quiet, and I find them annoying.

  • Cal

    Bear Bells are more annoying (both to the people wearing them, and fellow hikers) than they are effective. Around here (the Rocky Mountains in Alberta) the parks recommend speaking or singing loudly (not screaming or anything, but using your “outside voice”) in order to alert bears that they are sharing space with you. Your voice carries louder and further than the sound of the bell, and that should prevent you from startling any bears by accidentally sneaking up on them.

    A whistle will probably work about as effectively. Certainly better than a bell, in my thinking. We just talk a lot on the trail, and so far we haven’t had any problems (and we saw at least 10 bears last season, and they were all well aware of us before we saw them). I don’t recommend bells to anyone, since they are too quiet, and I find them annoying.

  • Joslyn Bloodworth

    First problem I have with bear bells is that one would drive me insane. Second bear attacks generally happen because you are encroaching on the bear’s space one way or another, whether you’re near a den, a recent kill or there are cubs nearby. I know there have been attacks that seem random to people but it probably makes perfect sense to the bear. Like Cal said singing carries better and is less annoying, but if you’re passing by a bear that is feeling protective of something near you, you’re better off with a can of bear spray than a bell. My third thought is, I was under the impression that if you are in Grizzly country, you carry bear spray always.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dan.yates.758 Dan Yates

      Easy to tell if you are in Grizz country, bear spoor contains remnants of bear spray canisters and birkenstocks. Ive never shot one, but if you venture into bear country as I do, you are delusional if you don’t carry iron, .357 is minimum. “Legal” you say? Better in a trial than in a stomach.

  • Joslyn Bloodworth

    First problem I have with bear bells is that one would drive me insane. Second bear attacks generally happen because you are encroaching on the bear’s space one way or another, whether you’re near a den, a recent kill or there are cubs nearby. I know there have been attacks that seem random to people but it probably makes perfect sense to the bear. Like Cal said singing carries better and is less annoying, but if you’re passing by a bear that is feeling protective of something near you, you’re better off with a can of bear spray than a bell. My third thought is, I was under the impression that if you are in Grizzly country, you carry bear spray always.

  • Randy Amos

    There is no way I could handle wearing a bear bell all day, it would make me crazy. I go to the backcountry to get away from the daily things that make me crazy. I also do not like the idea of using an emergency whistle. I believe it would work and be effective but it is for just that an emergency. I also think using it could lead to false alarms by anyone in the area. On top of that blowing that shrieking whistle all day would be just as annoying as the bell. With that said the thought of surprising a bear and getting attacked has no appeal either. My preference would be to maintain a conversation with a hiking partner or maybe give your hiking poles an extra click together if you are coming up on a blind corner.

  • Randy Amos

    There is no way I could handle wearing a bear bell all day, it would make me crazy. I go to the backcountry to get away from the daily things that make me crazy. I also do not like the idea of using an emergency whistle. I believe it would work and be effective but it is for just that an emergency. I also think using it could lead to false alarms by anyone in the area. On top of that blowing that shrieking whistle all day would be just as annoying as the bell. With that said the thought of surprising a bear and getting attacked has no appeal either. My preference would be to maintain a conversation with a hiking partner or maybe give your hiking poles an extra click together if you are coming up on a blind corner.

  • twency

    Thankfully bear bells usually aren’t cited as a necessity in black bear territory, so where I’ve hiked here on the East coast it hasn’t been an issue.

    You know how to tell the difference between black bear poop and grizzly bear poop, right? Black bear poop is smaller and contains lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear poop has bells in it and smells like pepper.

  • twency

    Thankfully bear bells usually aren’t cited as a necessity in black bear territory, so where I’ve hiked here on the East coast it hasn’t been an issue.

    You know how to tell the difference between black bear poop and grizzly bear poop, right? Black bear poop is smaller and contains lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear poop has bells in it and smells like pepper.

  • Knotty

    To me bells are just to avoid surprising a bear but their sound would take all the joy out of hiking. I prefer making some noise with my trekking poles or chatting with others. I always wear a whistle. Have used it to convince black bears that want my dinner to move along, plus it’s useful for emergency signalling or to check on group members who are just out of sight. Last fall one of our group lost his bearings when gathering firewood. He used his whistle to signal and we responded with whistles, guiding him back to camp.
    Bottom line…bells are for Christmas. :-)

    • http://skunkapeblog.com/ Skunkape Blog

      Thanks Knotty, I do not have to start a new message. I agree with you 100%. I do love Christmas!

  • Knotty

    To me bells are just to avoid surprising a bear but their sound would take all the joy out of hiking. I prefer making some noise with my trekking poles or chatting with others. I always wear a whistle. Have used it to convince black bears that want my dinner to move along, plus it’s useful for emergency signalling or to check on group members who are just out of sight. Last fall one of our group lost his bearings when gathering firewood. He used his whistle to signal and we responded with whistles, guiding him back to camp.
    Bottom line…bells are for Christmas. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/vortex33 Vortex33

    This is the perfect post! I’m heading to Yosemite in two weeks and I keep wavering between wearing my bear bell or going without. The man and I typically do not chat while hiking (unless I am asking him to slow down the pace) so I’ve been thinking about using a bell to help make noise. I’d never use an emergency whistle except for emergencies, too many readings of The Boy Who Cried Wolf when I was little.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      I’m surprised no one else really picked up on that… using an emergency whistle for a non-emergency is an incredibly stupid idea and ineffective against bears I’m sure. Using your whistle on a regular, timed, basis is gonna either draw nearby hikers to you thinking that you are in trouble, or get you ignored when you genuinely do need help (the “cry wolf” scenario). I’ll tell you now that you’re gonna feel my wrath if you do it along a trail I’m on :)

  • http://twitter.com/vortex33 Vortex33

    This is the perfect post! I’m heading to Yosemite in two weeks and I keep wavering between wearing my bear bell or going without. The man and I typically do not chat while hiking (unless I am asking him to slow down the pace) so I’ve been thinking about using a bell to help make noise. I’d never use an emergency whistle except for emergencies, too many readings of The Boy Who Cried Wolf when I was little.

  • Nick

    bear bells are an effective way to keep other hikers far far away.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      LOL – even ones you were supposed to be hiking with :)

  • Nick

    bear bells are an effective way to keep other hikers far far away.

  • Ahmad

    Vote: Gimmick

    I’ve only encountered Black Bears so that’s all I can base my opinion on. The bells will probably help avoid you surprising a bear but it won’t scare it away, so they shouldn’t be relied upon to do that. If there’s a bear in your path it’s going to still be there regardless of the bells because most bears in heavily travelled areas have associated humans with the food they carry, so if they sense humans their first instinct will be curiosity and then caution. For me, my best defense against black bears are trekking poles. When I’ve come across bears I just smack the poles together and it scares them away. I also feel safer having something long and sharp between me and the bears in the case they do charge or false charge.

  • Ahmad

    Vote: Gimmick

    I’ve only encountered Black Bears so that’s all I can base my opinion on. The bells will probably help avoid you surprising a bear but it won’t scare it away, so they shouldn’t be relied upon to do that. If there’s a bear in your path it’s going to still be there regardless of the bells because most bears in heavily travelled areas have associated humans with the food they carry, so if they sense humans their first instinct will be curiosity and then caution. For me, my best defense against black bears are trekking poles. When I’ve come across bears I just smack the poles together and it scares them away. I also feel safer having something long and sharp between me and the bears in the case they do charge or false charge.

  • Bearwalker

    Brian, bear bells are a pointless sales gimmic. The sound of the bell isn’t loud enough, nor does it carry far enough to be effective. A whistle do the trick but have no experience using one. The best defense, as always is to call out in a loud voice to let the bears know you are in the area.
    Bearwalker

  • Bearwalker

    Brian, bear bells are a pointless sales gimmic. The sound of the bell isn’t loud enough, nor does it carry far enough to be effective. A whistle do the trick but have no experience using one. The best defense, as always is to call out in a loud voice to let the bears know you are in the area.
    Bearwalker

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    LOL – even ones you were supposed to be hiking with :)

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    I’m surprised no one else really picked up on that… using an emergency whistle for a non-emergency is an incredibly stupid idea and ineffective against bears I’m sure. Using your whistle on a regular, timed, basis is gonna either draw nearby hikers to you thinking that you are in trouble, or get you ignored when you genuinely do need help (the “cry wolf” scenario). I’ll tell you now that you’re gonna feel my wrath if you do it along a trail I’m on :)

  • lightrocker

    Agreed, Bells are for avoided unwanted surprises :)

    The concept of using bells reminds me of this
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakujo

  • RevLee

    That reminds me of the old joke about how to tell the difference between grizzly and black bear scat. Black bear scat is full of berries, while grizzly scat has bells and smells like pepper spray.

  • RevLee

    That reminds me of the old joke about how to tell the difference between grizzly and black bear scat. Black bear scat is full of berries, while grizzly scat has bells and smells like pepper spray.

  • CharlesRivet

    I’ve only experience with black bears as I am in the east part of Canada. Came across them a few time – never wore bells – never had any problem.
    I think it’s more important to hike with someone slower… (yes, humour!).
    Came across worlverine tracks once – that got me scared…and I don’t think bells would have helped!

  • CharlesRivet

    I’ve only experience with black bears as I am in the east part of Canada. Came across them a few time – never wore bells – never had any problem.
    I think it’s more important to hike with someone slower… (yes, humour!).
    Came across worlverine tracks once – that got me scared…and I don’t think bells would have helped!

  • Kane

    It’s my understanding that whistling is a terrible idea, because it triggers a prey response in predatory animals. Think of how dogs respond to a whistle: they go investigate. I don’t want a bear to hear a high pitch sound and come running my way. For all I know fawns make that noise when they can’t find their mother…

    +1 to using a whistle only in emergency situations.

  • Kane

    It’s my understanding that whistling is a terrible idea, because it triggers a prey response in predatory animals. Think of how dogs respond to a whistle: they go investigate. I don’t want a bear to hear a high pitch sound and come running my way. For all I know fawns make that noise when they can’t find their mother…

    +1 to using a whistle only in emergency situations.

  • Birch Davis

    On whistling sounding like an emergency – I was always taught that a whistle (or any noise) 3 times in a row was “Help!” I wouldn’t necessarily investigate a single whistle blast (although the repeating whistles would be more likely to make me think someone who didn’t know was in trouble….)

  • Birch Davis

    On whistling sounding like an emergency – I was always taught that a whistle (or any noise) 3 times in a row was “Help!” I wouldn’t necessarily investigate a single whistle blast (although the repeating whistles would be more likely to make me think someone who didn’t know was in trouble….)

  • chris Martin

    Bear bells are not necessary. Educate yourself about bear behavior, be aware of your surroundings, and know how to respond when you encounter a bear. Bear bells probably do more to increase your piece of mind than they do to alert bears of your presence. They most certainly are not a deterrent for bears.

  • Chris

    Bear bells are not necessary. Educate yourself about bear behavior, be aware of your surroundings, and know how to respond when you encounter a bear. Bear bells probably do more to increase your piece of mind than they do to alert bears of your presence. They most certainly are not a deterrent for bears.

  • DD Longlegs

    Yes, bear bells are annoying but, because I hike alone, I use them. And I buy them in the dollar store so a couple for under $5 is a good deal. (I am already eccentric enough so I don’t need to add talking to myself to the rest of the list. LOL Hanging pots off my belt is another idea but I aint gonna do that either!). Carrying a whistle is a great idea. Using it often is not. You can’t make a “rule” and say that bears will follow it. They are about as predictable as people. It depends on how used to people bears are but I would rather alert them and give them a chance to move off the trail than to surprise them. Often the wind is against me when I hike. In that case bells are not going to be useful because they won’t be heard. The idea of banging hiking poles together (or perhaps rocks since I don’t use poles) is a good one. Bears generally choose to move away if they know you are there and they are MUCH more aware of what’s around them than you are. And, just because a bear is not looking at you doesn’t mean he is not
    aware of you. Learn to read their body language, especially their ears
    and hackles. If a bear is predatory, bells or bangers or air horns or whistles or spray or even a gun may not help…just as with predatory people. No point in frightening yourself out of the bush because of shadows. Stay alert, stay bear smart, take whatever you prefer, and go and have a good time. Here is a good webpage for bear encounters/behaviour.
    http://www.mountainnature.com/wildlife/bears/BearEncounters.htm

    • DD Longlegs

      Oh ya….I also ALWAYS carry bear spray. But trust me, even getting a teensy whiff of that stuff is NASTY and will incapacitate you so if you feel you have to use it be sure you know which direction the wind is from and force yourself to wait until the bear is REALLY close (less than 30 feet). Measure this out beforehand so that you know what 30 feet looks like before your adrenaline hits the roof.

  • DD Longlegs

    Yes, bear bells are annoying but, because I hike alone, I use them. And I buy them in the dollar store so a couple for under $5 is a good deal. (I am already eccentric enough so I don’t need to add talking to myself to the rest of the list. LOL Hanging pots off my belt is another idea but I aint gonna do that either!). Carrying a whistle is a great idea. Using it often is not. You can’t make a “rule” and say that bears will follow it. They are about as predictable as people. It depends on how used to people bears are but I would rather alert them and give them a chance to move off the trail than to surprise them. Often the wind is against me when I hike. In that case bells are not going to be useful because they won’t be heard. The idea of banging hiking poles together (or perhaps rocks since I don’t use poles) is a good one. Bears generally choose to move away if they know you are there and they are MUCH more aware of what’s around them than you are. And, just because a bear is not looking at you doesn’t mean he is not
    aware of you. Learn to read their body language, especially their ears
    and hackles. If a bear is predatory, bells or bangers or air horns or whistles or spray or even a gun may not help…just as with predatory people. No point in frightening yourself out of the bush because of shadows. Stay alert, stay bear smart, take whatever you prefer, and go and have a good time. Here is a good webpage for bear encounters/behaviour.
    http://www.mountainnature.com/wildlife/bears/BearEncounters.htm

  • DD Longlegs

    Oh ya….I also ALWAYS carry bear spray. But trust me, even getting a teensy whiff of that stuff is NASTY and will incapacitate you so if you feel you have to use it be sure you know which direction the wind is from and force yourself to wait until the bear is REALLY close (less than 30 feet). Measure this out beforehand so that you know what 30 feet looks like before your adrenaline hits the roof.

  • 123

    Just today, in the Trapper Creek Cirque (montana), I left my wife and dog to investigate repeated whistles on a higher ridge. Spent an hour climbing toward a higher ridge line thinking someone was in trouble. Whistles are used for a purpose: to convey a sense of urgency; that there is a situation of danger and need of response. Most people are not expecting SOS or three short bursts, in succession, to indicate possible danger. A whistle in the backcountry should indicate need of help and should not be used informally. Use other noises, bring your bear spray, and be aware of signs. Do not tweet the whole backcountry as if you are the only person possible inhabiting it.

  • 123

    Just today, in the Trapper Creek Cirque (montana), I left my wife and dog to investigate repeated whistles on a higher ridge. Spent an hour climbing toward a higher ridge line thinking someone was in trouble. Whistles are used for a purpose: to convey a sense of urgency; that there is a situation of danger and need of response. Most people are not expecting SOS or three short bursts, in succession, to indicate possible danger. A whistle in the backcountry should indicate need of help and should not be used informally. Use other noises, bring your bear spray, and be aware of signs. Do not tweet the whole backcountry as if you are the only person possible inhabiting it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.yates.758 Dan Yates

    Easy to tell if you are in Grizz country, bear spoor contains remnants of bear spray canisters and birkenstocks. Ive never shot one, but if you venture into bear country as I do, you are delusional if you don’t carry iron, .357 is minimum. “Legal” you say? Better in a trial than in a stomach.

  • Bandersnatch

    I’m confused… How do you safely but the bell around the bear’s neck ? (although I”ll concede that its significantly less dificult than teaching them to use whistles)

  • Bandersnatch

    I’m confused… How do you safely but the bell around the bear’s neck ? (although I”ll concede that its significantly less dificult than teaching them to use whistles)

  • http://skunkapeblog.com/ Skunkape Blog

    Thanks Knotty, I do not have to start a new message. I agree with you 100%. I do love Christmas!

  • Wally

    I’d suggest that gentle advice may well be more effective than wrath. After all, a person blowing a whistle in a non-emergency situation is not breaking any laws and is more likely to respond to reason than chastisement. Dale Carnegie applies!