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photos: San Diego Mountain Bike Association.

A friend recently returned from a trip to California with an interesting discovery: bell boxes for mountain bikers. If you ride in California you already know about these but for east coasters, the concept may be new. At many shared-use trailheads, mountain bike clubs have installed signed boxes containing loaner bear bells with velcro loops to attach to mountain bikes. The bells alert hikers and equestrians to oncoming bike traffic, allowing them to move out of the way or at least avoid being startled. Brilliant.

We seem to hear about trail-use conflicts a lot and much of the animosity is toward mountain bikers who are seen as the new kids on the trail. Sure, hikers and equestrians have tried (unsuccessfully) pinning trail damage on mountain bikers but at the end of the day, I suspect the real reason these groups don’t want us on the trail is we ride too dang fast and quiet on the trail. As a hiker, it’s startling to have a mountain bike come up unexpectedly, especially on a quiet hike in the woods all alone. Heck, I’d get jumpy after just one or two fast bikes passed me too.

With that in mind, I often slow down to hiking speed as I approach pedestrians on the trail, saying “hello” to let the person know I’m behind them but even that can be startling if the greeting comes too late or too loud. Plus, it forces me to slow down almost to a stop to give the hiker a chance to react. With a bear bell that’s constantly ringing, the hiker gets a warning that slowly builds as the rider approaches.

The downside to attaching a bell to your mountain bike is you gotta hear that thing jingling the ENTIRE time you’re riding. I have an old school bell on my FS bike (one of those big ones that goes brrrrrrrrrrr-iiiiing) and it dings a bit whenever I hit a bump. On a ride with mtbgreg1 last week I just about ripped the thing off my bike a couple times because it started annoying me so much! There’s also something to be said for quiet riding beyond your own mental health – listening to your bike is a good way to monitor the health of the bike. Catching a subtle rubbing or creaking sound early in a ride can save you from serious mechanical damage down the road.

So what’s the verdict – are bell boxes a good idea for shared use trails? I’d have to say it depends. For shared-use trails with a lot of traffic I think the idea has legs, particularly in areas where hikers are vocal about closing trails to bikes. Whenever you can address the root cause to a problem (hikers feeling on edge because of bikes) it’s usually a good solution. I think bear bells do just that.

For more remote trail systems where user conflicts are fewer and farther between, bear bells don’t make as much sense (except if you’re in actual bear country where a bell is for your own protection). It’s always important to ride in control and to watch for others on the trail – including other mountain bikers – but with fewer users you won’t find yourself slowing as often.

What do you think – are bell boxes a good idea? Does anyone ride with a bear bell full time?

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  • mtbgreg1

    I’d just heard about those for the first time recently. I think it’s an interesting concept, and does make a lot of sense on crowded trails. However, I can see it getting really annoying.

    I also noticed that your bell kept dinging when you rattled over roots and rocks, and I was quite a ways behind you most of the time 😉 If I had to listen to something like that (or worse) the entire ride, I think it would annoy the crap out of me!!

    One of the reasons I ride my MTB is for the peace and quiet and the serenity of nature. BTW, today’s POD really captures that serenity: http://www.singletracks.com/mountain-bike/photo-of-day.php?id=159

  • npark@lapalomagc.com

    I have used them over on the Central Coast of California and have found them helpful. As far as being irritating, I put it in my bag until I get to the top, and then clip it on for the rumble down. I have only seen them offered on trails with significant speed potential and that share the track with alot of hikers and or equestrians. The club I have seen sponsoring them is the CCCMB (Central Coast Concerned Mountain Bikers)

  • cubanchurchill

    There are quite a few joggers around my area that are on the local bike trails. Everyone I run into on the trail, biker or not, is very friendly and just as happy to be out as I am. Sorry to say this but it’s true- people in the south are a bit more friendly than other areas around the country. When I pass by someone on the trail it’s hello how are you doing today ?? and the normal repsonse back is great thank you!! followed by a” it’s a beautifu day to be outside.. Since the local trails are shared trails I always try and lookout for pedestrians. I personally don’t feel the need for a bell- but that’s just my 2 cents

  • maddslacker

    So, next to the bell box, is there a box for hikers to leave their iPod headphones in while they are out on the trail? 😀

  • dgaddis

    I have a bell, a Brass Duet, that goes “da-ding” when you ring it, and it’s great for alerting people that you’re approaching, riders or hikers. Also, it NEVER rings unless I ring it, and it’s on a rigid bike. Well, okay, it’ll ding in a crash sometimes lol. So if you want a bell that’s quiet until you want it to make noise, check it out.

  • steve32300

    I bought a bear bell for those real back country rides but don’t use it until those rides,but I do keep it in my camel bak where it don’t make noise ALL the time.I have a ring ring bell that don’t make any noise untill I pull the trigger on it and the hikers seem to have a lot of respect for that goofy thing,hahahahah..whatever keeps the peice…

  • fleetwood

    Conceptually, it is a good idea, but like many have noted the constant ringing would be too much for me. Providing bells that are initiated by the ride would probably be better. Not sure how much extra cost would be involved with that type of bell though. Also, educating riders on the need for them might get more and more riders to provide their own where needed.

    I don’t have a bell, but one would be handy on the James River Park System in Richmond. Other places I ride it’s probably not as needed. I do see them (and hear them) often in JRPS, which an urban multi-use trail system and you encounter walkers, runners, and other riders in both directions on a regular basis. When coming up on someone from behind, I begin slowing down and usually try to make extra noise (“ahem”, gear shifting, talking to my riding buddy, etc.) to give them a chance to hear me coming before I am right behind them.

    There are also a lot of blind turns in JRPS, so sending out a warning ring as you approach is a good idea just in case someone is coming from the other direction.

    Like cubanchurchill mentioned, most folks on the trails around here are pleasant and courteous. Unfortunately, the last d-bag that I witnessed was a mountain biker. I guess there is one in every bunch.

  • trek7k

    I’m told cyclists are required to have a bell in some municipalities (not the bear bell type – just one the rider can ring if necessary). Still, on the trail, the rider can only ring the bell when he/she sees a hiker but often that’s too late and the hiker is startled.

    I think npark’s idea of packing a bear bell and bringing it out only for descents on crowded trails sounds like a good compromise.

    Edit: one other way to look at this – would you rather ride a particular trail with a bell or not ride it at all? The answer probably depends on the quality of the trail, convenience, etc. In some areas this may be the only compromise the user groups could agree to.

  • dubinjs

    This idea sounds a bit annoying to me. I ride with a bell that I can ring as I need to. I live and ride on the East coast where the overgrowth during the summer gets heavy on the trails. I only use the bell in these months to alert other people and riders on the trail that I am coming around a blind corner, or to alert them I’m coming up behind them and want to pass.
    A bell that rings constantly is in itself a hazard to the rider. For one it kills the peacefulness of the ride. Two, it takes away from your concentration while riding. And three, it voids the ability to listen to your bike and possible mechanical issues that might need attention.

    The idea has a good foot, but the design is horrible.

  • glenpittman

    They have these bells available at Paris Mountain State Park, in Greenville SC. I have used the bells all but one ride there, but haven’t met another biker there with the bell. Now that I have a new FS bike, I don’t get as much chain slap as before, so I find myself sneaking up on others a lot more. This past weekend, I found myself having to announce my approach on quite a few hikers (I don’t overtake very many other mountain bikers, LOL)

  • fat_billy

    Bells work unless they’re wereing headphones. Are air horns ok for the earbud freeks? They’re the ones that are a problem. Too bad Tazers are so pricey. What ever happened to calling out rider back as a signal for a slower rider? Oh yeah, that was before the ear buds playing Cat Stevens. Rider Up if they are coming from the front and rider back if they are coming from behind. Simple, easy, works unless you are listening to Where the Children Play and are zoned out. I’ve vented now. Later,

  • RoadWarrior

    No mater how far I’m back when I call out it still usually startles the hiker, that is if they don’t have those plastic things stuck in their ears. Had a rider pass me this week, and I never heard him, either a super quiet bike, or I going to need hearing aids soon. Had a bell once, no one semed to hear it, so just started calling out.

  • mtbgreg1

    Speaking of headphones, one time I rode up on this guy trail running while wearing headphones. I shouted at him for a little while, rode behind him for a minute, and then when I had a gap I accelerated straight past his elbow. Scared the crap out of him, but wasn’t anything I could do about it!

  • AK_Dan

    Nice post-
    This may not be the ‘fix all’ solution to the hiker/biker conflicts on these trails but it does show that someone is trying. If the trails in question have that many conflicts to warrant such a measure they must be pretty popular and widely used so Im thinking that the bikers who ride there expect to see other users on the trails so it would be no big deal. Eventually they will get tired of restocking these boxes and try something else.

    In most cities/municipalities a bell is required to ride on all public pathways- not too many recreational riders around here obey this rule but most commuters do. I have a thumb operated, single ‘Ding’ bell that works just fine.
    I also have a couple of the bell pictured above that are used for their originally intended purpose; Bears. It comes with a mesh covering with a small magnet in it that muffles the sound of the bell to a certain extent. I only uncover it and let it ring loudly if I am in thick brush where visibility is limited. Trust me after a couple miles of listening to this thing you will be starting to wish something would come out of the woods and eat you-

  • azdrawdy

    I have used “ding bells” for years. I got used to using them over in Germany years back, and they keep trail conflicts to a minimum. People react positively to a little “ding” versus a sneak attack. They even work great during a race.

    I have an Incredibell Bellini on all of my bikes. Tiny as all get out, stupidly lightweight, unintrusive and best of all, they make zero noise until you flick the little plastic nub.

    http://www.mirrycle.com/bellini.php

  • arizonaglider

    I ride with a “ding bell” it dings at most bumps and I can flick the ringer. It’s mounted close enough too my left grip to flick while on the grip. I also slow down and chat with hikers. I always tell them that they have the right of way and thank them for letting me by. If I see a fast jogger running in the opposite direction I always get off the trail if possible and wave the runner towards me. Here in the Southwest I run across equestrians and am really careful. Sometimes I make the joke that we are both powered by oats (I munch Nature Valley Granola bars). We really need to do these things to keep our trail privileges.

  • robomekk

    I’ve done a good deal of hiking as well as biking, and I’ve never had an issue hearing bikers approaching. You can hear them swishing though underbrush, banging off roots and rocks and generally making a good deal of noise just by biking. That of course elaves out the issue of headphones, but I know that a bell like that would drive me crazy.

  • PHRANQUY

    One of these days those bears are going to figure out that you guys are ringing “dinner bells” and everyone is going to be running away from the sound instead of just moving out of the way.

    All kidding aside, there are a lot of people I ride with who use the bells to announce their approach on slower riders or in some cases where there is a 2-way trail announce their approach to a blind brush filled corner. My favorite bell has been the Brass Duet that was mentioned above, and I plan to get one some day, I just haven’t seen one in a shop.

  • tswelsh

    I’ve used one for years on all my bikes, FS and rigid SS. I rarely even notice the sound myself and don’t have any trouble hearing odd noises from my bikes, especially the brake rub I can’t get rid of on my Avids but that’s another story. I don’t like having to ‘think’ about when to ring it so I like the fact it is always ‘on’.

    We have quite a few multi-use trails and there have been many times I’ve come around a corner to find someone diving off the trail because they heard me just before seeing me. As a part of our state’s advocacy team, I think this is a great idea to prevent minor trail conflicts from erupting into an actual issue.

  • Texx Smith

    No bells needed solution that makes everyone happy:
    Bikes go the opposite way of horse and hikers. Everyone looks in front of them, naturally, thus no one one ever gets startled.
    Alternate directions on different days of the week, clearly mark these things at the trailheads.

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