Innovative Trail Conflict Solution: Bell Boxes

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?