Are Bears Afraid of Whistles? Well, it Depends

Beautiful Alaska Black Bear sits in a meadow, looking off to the side, with mouth open and tongue out

If you live in bear country, you may have some pretty frequent encounters with bears. Or maybe you don’t live near bear country but like to go hiking in a place that is known for having a large population of bears. One item you may have thought of taking with you when going into an area where you may encounter bears is a whistle.

Bears are not fearful of noises like whistles. Studies have shown loud noise to be ineffective in deterring bears. If you want to carry a whistle in bear country, do so for emergency SOS signaling. Instead, carry bear spray while hiking.

While bears aren’t afraid whistles, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carry one. Carrying a whistle while hiking will allow you to signal to others nearby that you’re in an emergency and need help. Here are some helpful tips that explain why whistles are not useful in frightening bears and what you should use instead.

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Why Bears are Not Afraid of Whistles

Bears are generally thought of to be hesitant of human contact in general. While bears mostly like to keep their distance from humans, they aren’t necessarily scared of us.

Now, there is STILL value in carrying a whistle while hiking – as it can make for a fantastic SOS and emergency signal. However, to deter bears, whistles simply do not do the trick.

Bears typically do not run or hide from human noise or deterrents. In a study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, researchers tested whether or not military weapon training affected the distance black bears kept from a certain area. Astonishingly, the researchers found that the black bears were not affected by the military training in any significance whatsoever.

Basically, if the presence of the military doesn’t deter bears from an area, then a whistle more than likely isn’t going to get the job done.

Overall, bears are really more curious than anything. Black bears are the most common species of bears in the United States, followed by brown bears (also called grizzly bears). A very curious creature, black backs are incredibly social and loves to inspect areas to figure things out. Black bears especially have a fascination with humans but often like to steer clear of them. They often view humans from a distance unless they accidentally stumble upon us. Originally, it was thought that bears had extremely poor eyesight, but that myth was debunked years ago.

Knowing that loud noises don’t effectively ward off bears, there are still other effective ways to deter bears.

Grizzly bear in Alaska river

So, one thing you can do to deter black bears is plainly talking when you are on a hiking trail or out in the woods so that they don’t accidentally run into you. Remember, they do not want to run into you just as much as you do not want to run into them. However, this method depends on a WIDE variety of factors and isn’t foolproof. You should always take as many precautions as possible.

While black bears may be less aggressive, brown grizzly bears are another story entirely. Black bears overall are much less aggressive than grizzly bears in terms of overall aggression.

Grizzly bears are much more protective and territorial than their black bear counterparts. Grizzly bears are especially protective of their cubs. If you see a grizzly bear cub and no mother, your best course of action is to slowly start to walk in the other direction and have your whistle ready in case you need to blow an SOS signal.

This implies that a mother grizzly bear is nearby – which is something you DEFINITELY do not want to encounter on accident.

In this situation, your best course of action is to carry bear spray along with a whistle for SOS purposes.

Why You Need to Carry Bear Spray Along With a Whistle

Brown mother bear protecting her cubs

While whistles are best for SOS emergencies, it’s extremely good to have a can of bear spray as a primary defense

Bear spray is an INCREDIBLE safety tool in protecting yourself against aggressive bears. Essentially, bear spray is simply a version of pepper spray that can shoot up to 3 meters away.

When you use bear spray against a bear, the spray uses a chemical called Capsicum to irritate the bear and halt it in its path, allowing you to get to safety.

Bear spray is your last line of defense because you never want to be that close to a bear, to begin with. However, it’s a must-have if you’re ever faced in that difficult situation

When you use bear spray, you have to factor in how strong the wind is and adjust your aim accordingly, making bear spray slightly inaccurate (this isn’t a reason not to carry it).

The National Parks Service goes into great depth about how some of their Yellowstone employees have used bear spray in a surprising encounter with a grizzly bear. It’s an excellent video that illustrates just how quickly a bear can surprise you in nature if you aren’t ready for it. Click here to watch it.

How Effective is Bear Spray?

Here’s some more evidence to the effectiveness of bear spray. Researchers out of BYU, University of Calgary, United States National Park Service, and Minerals Management Service analyzed a sample of spray incidents that included bears such as black bears, polar bears, and brown bears (grizzly bears). astoundingly, out of the 72 instances where individuals used bear spray to defend themselves, 98% of individuals came away from their encounters unharmed thanks to bear spray.

This is extraordinary simply thinking about it – what would have happened if none of those individuals had bear spray but were relying on only whistles, their voice, or nothing at all? The common factor of the success and survival of those individuals was bear spray.

Additionally, bear spray is a non-lethal option (it dazes the target) and is, therefore, bear friendly (in a way). While your first course of action should be to never get into one of these encounters in the first place, bear spray is a fantastic backup to have if the situation ever occurs.

To recap, you SHOULD bring a whistle hiking with you. The whistle shouldn’t be used to deter bears but rather, it should be used to call for help if needed. Additionally, you SHOULD bring bear spray with you as a non-lethal, last line of defense against bears while hiking.

Related Questions

Can bears hear dog whistles? It remains to be seen if bears can hear the noise that is emitted from a dog whistle. Bears may be able to hear sound in the ultrasonic range of 16-20 kHz, while a dog whistle emits sound in the 23-46 kHz range.

Does music scare bears? Loud noises in general, scare bears. If you’re playing music at a volume close to what a normal conversation would be, bears will be more than likely to avoid you due to the fact that bears usually prefer to avoid human contact.


Telesco, D. J., & Van Manen, F. T. (2006). Do black bears respond to military weapons training?. The Journal of wildlife management70(1), 222-230. 

Bacon, E. S., & Burghardt, G. M. (1976). Learning and color discrimination in the American black bear. Bears: Their Biology and Management, 27-36. 

Worthy, F. R., & Foggin, J. M. (2008). Conflicts between local villagers and Tibetan brown bears threaten conservation of bears in a remote region of the Tibetan Plateau. Human-Wildlife Conflicts2(2), 200-205 

Herrero, S., & Fleck, S. (1990). Injury to people inflicted by black, grizzly or polar bears: recent trends and new insights. Bears: Their Biology and Management, 25-32. 

Herrero, S., & Fleck, S. (1990). Injury to people inflicted by black, grizzly or polar bears: recent trends and new insights. Bears: Their Biology and Management, 25-32. 

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