Why Do Hikers Wear Bells In Bear Country? | Hikers University

If you have ever hiked in Alaska, you might have seen some people wearing cowbells and may be wondering why some hikers wear bells in Bear Country.

For those of us who have come to the wilderness to get away from the noise and chaos of civilization, it can be quite annoying to hear the jangling and clanking of a bell hanging from a hiker’s backpack. However, it is there for a reason.

When hiking in Bear County, it is always possible that you might encounter a bear or other wild animals while on the trail. Hence, some hikers wear bells to warn the animals that something or someone is approaching so they won’t be caught by surprise.

If you are not aware of why hikers wear bells in Bear Country, this guide can shed some light on the topic. We will also discuss whether this unusual technique works in warding off bears, what you should do if you still run into a bear, and whether it is a good idea to wear bells in Bear Country.

As an adventure lover myself, I have seen several people wear bells and have tried it myself a few times as well. To find out whether bells are effective in warning of bears and other animals, I have also added a few researches on the topic.

Table of contents


Why do Some Hikers Wear Bells in Bear Country?

Many people believe that bells are designed to scare bears and other predators like wolves and cougars. However, why would such large animals and predators be afraid of the jangling of a cowbell?

The truth is that these bells are designed to only warn bears and other animals that something or someone is approaching. This prevents these animals from being caught by surprise. Although these animals are not usually interested in attacking humans, a sudden encounter between a hiker and a bear can lead to alarm which can trigger their protective mode. As such, a bear might attack a hiker in order to defend itself or its cubs that may be nearby.

These types of attacks can easily turn deadly. To prevent this from happening, hikers are advised to make a lot of noise in areas where bear activity has been noticed.

A cowbell can make a lot of racket which can be heard a mile away by these wild animals and they will know that something is coming and will just get out of your way.

Another option to wearing bells is to carry any gear that makes noise as you travel. However, this can also be problematic since some sounds can trigger predatory urges in large omnivores and carnivores, which can have the opposite effect you want.

However, bells do not evoke this type of reaction and therefore are worn by many hikers as a precautionary measure against wild animals.

Does Wearing Bells Actually Warn Off Bears?

There is a lot of  dispute about whether bells actually work to keep away large animals and predators. In my own experience, I have never once encountered an attacking bear, whether I was wearing a bell or not (though I have seen many at relatively close distances), but that could be due to any number of reasons.

However, I am friends with many hikers who swear that cowbells are an effective measure against meeting any wild animals. They say there is a reason why so many people wear them in Bear Country and even park agencies recommend wearing them to reduce the risk of meeting wild predators.

All of this does make sense since most wild animal attacks happen when the animal is startled and its defense mode is activated.

However, there is another faction of hikers who staunchly believe that bear bells are just worn by newbie hikers and tourists. These people say that the sound of a bell does not deter wild animals. In fact, some also say that a predator may become curious as to what is making the sound and may approach you to investigate.

In this scenario, the bell will have fulfilled its intended purpose, at least, which is to warn the animal that something is coming their way and they won’t be startled.

Now let’s take a look at what the research says.

Bear Bells Do Work

According to a 1982 research conducted on hiker and bear encounters in Glacier National Park, it was found that people who wore bells were less likely to be attacked by a bear. However, they did see a grizzly bear at close quarters, which means the animal did not leave the area after hearing the sound of the bell.

On the other hand, people who weren’t wearing bells reported more encounters with grizzly bears.

Bear Bells Do Not Work

In a study conducted by a scientist affiliated with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center, some evidence was found that bears may, in fact, ignore the sound of bells entirely, even when they were rung at full volume, and may conflate them with birds chirping or other natural sounds.

Interestingly, the study also found that bears and other wild animals would quickly react to the sound of twigs snapping or noises that mimicked the sound of a bear roaring.


Unfortunately, there are not many studies that have been done on the subject so there is no conclusive proof that bear bells prevent bear attacks.

What To Do If You Encounter a Bear Even While Using a Bell


Even if you wear a bell, there is still a likelihood that you will chance upon a bear on one of your hikes. Bears are active during the day time and if you meet one, there are a few tactics you can employ.

If you see a bear on a hiking trail near civilization or a developed area, don’t try to run your way out of the situation. Instead, make as much noise as you possibly can. Typically, a bear will not engage with humans who are making a lot of noise.

However, if you encounter a grizzly in a remote or undeveloped area, such as deep in the woods, try to maintain a safe distance of at least 50 yards between you and the animal.

It can be very frightening to meet a bear during a hike, so you may employ a few strategies to reduce the risks of such encounters.

Should You Wear Bells in Bear Country

Since there is no conclusive evidence that bear bells prevent bear encounters and attacks, my advice would be that there is no harm in wearing bearbells if you do not rely on them fully. In the best case scenario, a bear or wild animal will move out of your way when they hear the jangling of a bell. However, if they do not, you should always be prepared with other protective methods to ensure your safety.

Whether you are wearing a bell or not, you need to take certain measures to proactively protect yourself from bears and other wild animals in Bear Country.

●     Get Informed: Before setting out on a hike, it is important to educate yourself on what kind of animals live near the areas where you will be hiking and find out ways you can protect yourself in case of an encounter.

●     Safety in Numbers: One another effective way to keep away bears and wild animals is to always hike in groups. Most wild animals will not attack a large group of people unprovoked and will prefer to stay clear away from them. Hence, it is a good idea to plan your trip with lots of people.

●     Bear Bagging: Bears are often attracted to the smell of food and may approach you if you are carrying food or other scented items openly. To make sure this doesn’t happen, it is a good idea to tightly seal your food in air-tight containers so that their smell does not reach any wild animal. You can also hang your bag on a high tree bough so that the bear would not be able to reach it.

●     Bear Horn and Whistles: Bear horns and whistles are shockingly loud instruments that produce a sound that can carry a mile away. They can be effective equipment in startling bears or other wild animals. However, keep in mind that you do not overuse them as they may be mistaken for a distress signal by someone in the vicinity.

●     Bear Spray: If you are in an imminent danger of a bear attack, a bear spray may be able to ensure your safety. The spray consists of a potent mixture of peppers that you can use on any charging bear to make it leave you alone.

Also keep in mind that the constant noise of the bell can become quite irritating after a while for both you and your hiking crew. They may also scare off other wild animals that you hope to get your sight on like wild moose.

Ultimately, even if you buy a bear bell and attach it to your backpack, you will need to consider whether using it is worth your peace of mind.


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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