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CAMPING GADGET DEBATE: Can a Bear Bell Really Save Your Life?

Bear bells are one of the most controversial pieces of hiking gear. While some people swear by them, others have sworn them off.

Heading out into the backcountry means you’re likely to encounter these massive carnivores. And although you can scare them off with several proven methods, some are less reliable.

Today, we’re considering whether or not bear bells are worth staking your life on. 

Let’s head out!

A photo of a person's torso with a red bear bell hanging from their backpack strap.
Are bear bells really helpful against bear attacks?

What Is a Bear Bell?

When you come to bear country, bells are one of the items you’ll see at the local outfitters. Alongside pepper spray and whistles, these large, backpack-mounted noise makers have a purpose. They’re meant to alert Smokey that you’re just around the corner.

Bear bells are easily found online or in outdoor retailers. Usually, they’re about one inch in diameter and come in a range of bright colors. 

The theory behind them is simple. Startling one of these mammals is the fastest way to get attacked. They’re not interested in meeting on the trail, so if they know you’re coming, they’re out of there.

But locals don’t put much stock in these “dinner bells.” Anecdotal evidence aside, we wondered if there was any truth behind their claims.

Are Bear Bells Effective?

Encounters with bears are relatively common, especially in the Mountain West. And regardless of how they look clowning around on YouTube, they’re very dangerous in real life. Unsurprisingly, a whole industry has grown up dedicated to keeping backpackers safe. 

However, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that a bear bell will save your life.

In fact, some studies show the opposite effect. Because these devices aren’t loud enough to scare them away at a distance, they don’t work as intended. Instead of spooking them from several hundred yards away, backpackers might be right on top of them before they hear it. 

Another claim is that a bear’s natural curiosity makes the ringing useless. Rather than protection, they give hikers a false sense of security. 

But before you laugh your way past them in the store, listen to this. Studies show that people carrying bells were never charged while on the trail. Compare that to the 14% of those without the noisemakers who had a close encounter, and it’s not all bad news.

Evidence for their effectiveness is patchy at best. And when there’s a hungry predator on the prowl, that’s not enough for us to put our faith in.

Bear spray might work better: Will Bear Spray Save Your Life?

What Are Better Alternatives to a Bear Bell When Hiking?

Instead of strapping on a bear bell, research suggests some more useful alternatives. You want them to hear you coming from as far away as possible without disturbing other hikers.

The theory behind them is correct. In the woods, sounds made by humans aren’t normal, so animals run away from them. But the wrong noises get lost in the mix with wind, leaves, and streams. Even whistles aren’t 100% effective because they’re mistaken for birds or wounded prey.

Shouting “Hey bear,” talking, and singing all work when hiking. Not only does it help pass the time, these sounds don’t occur in nature.

You never want to be in a situation where you need this next item. Bear spray is a powerful deterrent that works 98% of the time. It’ll reach 12 to 30 feet but can blow back in the wind and affect you, too. 

If a bear charges, stand your ground and deploy this spicy weapon. Keep it on your belt in a holster, not hidden away in your pack.

How to Stay Safe in Bear Country

Some other tips to stay safe that don’t include a bear bell are helpful to keep in mind. 

When you’re in their space, avoid venturing out at dawn or dusk. Bears are most active at these times, and you’ll likely run into them foraging for food.

Don’t go out alone, even if you’re familiar with the area. Research shows that groups of four or more are the least likely to be attacked. It could be because of the noise, strong scent, or vibrations caused by so many boots on the ground.

Finally, make noise. As we already mentioned, shouting “Hey, bear!” now and then makes a difference. Clapping your hands or banging trekking poles together is also effective. Don’t scream or whistle, though. The sound may attract the predators instead of driving them away.

Campers will want to keep a few other tips in mind. 

Keep your food secured in a bear canister, bear bag, or hanging bag. Coolers don’t stop scents from escaping and can attract attention. In areas with regular human activity, they’ve probably learned how to open them anyway.

Cook and clean up meals away from your tent so you don’t leave odors behind. Use unscented soap to keep things clean. After all, bears are curious and will investigate things that seem safe but unfamiliar.

Bear boxes are proven to help prevent bear interactions: Is a Campground Bear Box Really Worth the Effort?

What Should You Do if You Encounter a Bear in the Wild?

Encountering a bear in the wild is one of the most terrifying experiences. We’ve seen videos and read stories that are simply chilling. However, in the event that you have an up-close brush with one, some quick thinking is more likely to save your life than a bear bell.

Don’t ever try to go around one of these creatures. If you see one on the trail, they’ve likely seen you too. Reroute and don’t turn your back on them. Cubs are a sure sign that the mother is close by, and there are few things in nature as dangerous as that.

Black Bears

Black bears are some of the most common critters you’ll encounter in the forest. While they aren’t as large as other species, they’re still dangerous. 

If one approaches you, try to make yourself as big as possible. Raise your arms above your head and yell or bang pots together to scare it off. You can also throw rocks or other objects at it.

Don’t play dead. Unlike some, these animals will treat you as potential prey. Making yourself seem like you’re not worth the trouble is the best thing to do.

Grizzly Bears

These massive creatures are one of the most dangerous you’ll come across. Standing over eight feet tall at their full height, they’re the movie villains from your nightmares. If you see one standing, they’re figuring out if you’re a threat. Back away, don’t make eye contact, and talk quietly. Get out your spray and have it ready in case of attack.

Grizzlies have two different ways to charge. They’ll try to scare you away by bluffing. Head up and ears raised, they might come at you and stop. Don’t panic. Just remain friendly and relaxed.

A real attack is different. If one charges at you with its head and ears down, you’re in a potential fight for your life. Use your deterrent when they’re around 30 feet away. That usually is enough to stop them, but not always. 

When they approach you, play dead by lying on your stomach with your pack on your back. Protect your neck with your hands. They may try to flip you over. Just keep rolling until you’re back on your belly.  

Stay that way until you’re sure they’ve left the area.

If you want to add a bear bell to your arsenal, try this inexpensive one: Coghlan’s Bear Bell with Magnetic Silencer.

Are Bear Bells Worth It?

Bear bells aren’t a sure way to keep yourself safe when you’re out in the woods. In fact, they may attract the carnivorous predators you’re trying to scare away. And while they’re a common sight at outdoor retailers, they aren’t a reliable means of protection.

Instead, you should shout, sing, clap, and hike in groups. If you must carry a bear bell, make it part of a comprehensive plan. Alone, it’s not going to save you.

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