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Protecting your Ears while Hunting

It is September, which means bowhunting season for whitetail deer in Ontario is upon us and rifle hunting season is soon to be here too. (And black powder hunting too, lest we forget!)

If you love hunting then you know that having a keen ear is one of the hunter’s most important assets when it comes to finding the elusive whitetail.

And you also know that it is essential to protect your hearing against sudden gunshots or other hunting-related noises. Studies have found that men over the age of 48 who hunt regularly are statistically more likely to experience high-frequency hearing loss – the type associated with damage from sudden loud explosions and similar loud noises. At the same time, the evidence shows that many hunters fail to take precautions to avoid serious hearing problems. Many of us think we are invincible, but we clearly are not.

How can you protect your ears while out stalking your prey? How can you keep your ears in great shape while out hunting so you can even hear the prey in the future? In short...

How do you protect your ears while hunting?

The first thing to do if you are worried about your hearing is to understand the risks. Even a single loud gunshot can permanently damage your hearing. Just one. I personally have hearing damage dating back to an incident when I was 12 years old.

It doesn’t have to be a couple of feet away, either. Shots from twenty to thirty yards away can also degrade your auditory abilities, particularly if heard repeatedly and/or over a long period. Generally, experts report that noises of 85 decibels or more can cause permanent hearing issues, and gunshots are usually in the range of 120 to 130 decibels – more than enough to damage your hearing for good. (And black powder rifles... they are often in the 150 to 160 decibels range.)

For reference a Boeing 747 during takeoff is 140 decibels. Guaranteed severe hearing damage.

So remember those numbers in your mind before you head out hunting: There is a constant risk when using firearms of permanent hearing damage, and you need to take precautions. But what are the specific precautions you need to take?

The most important thing to do is to wear protective gear that muffles sound and vibrations from gunshots such as earplugs and "game ears" (ear muffs designed to dampen noise). This is easily the most important fix you can make that will prevent hearing damage. Fortunately, there are a number of items hunters can use to achieve that outcome.

Different types of ear protection for hunters to consider

The most common form of ear protection for hunters is earplugs. Generally made of foam and ridged to ensure they remain securely in place.

There are also specialist hunting earplugs are available from brands like Sportear or Auritech. These earplugs have been designed with firearms users in mind.

Not all hunting stores sell such things, but not worry. If you visit a local audiologist / hearing centre they can usually order specialty items for you that cannot be found in hunting stores. eg. Omni Hearing in Vaughan (not far from the Bass Pro) has a wide variety of hearing aids and ear plugs. And if they don't have them, they can order them for you.

So even if you cannot find what you are looking for at a hunting store like Bass Pro, just visit a hearing centre and they can usually order whatever you need. (Or recommend products you didn't know existed.)

Auritech Earplugs

When you choose a pair of earplugs, you will likely come across a metric called the "noise reduction rating."

To find out how much your earplugs actually reduce gunshot noise, take this number, subtract seven, then divide it by two, and that will give you a rough estimate of the percentage value.

However, there is a catch: earplugs cannot reduce the impact of vibrations from gunshots, and they are a blunt instrument, blocking out all ambient sound, which can be a big problem for serious hunters who also want to hear their prey.

This means that many hunters avoid earplugs and prefer ear muffs instead.

However when practicing shooting, you should probably just wear both. Earplugs and earmuffs. And then during the actual hunt, use just the earmuffs.

Brands like Peltor or Honeywell manufacture hunting headsets that muffle the sound and vibrations of gunshots by blocking out the louder sound wavelengths. At the same time, they actually amplify other noises via sophisticated detection systems, allowing hunters to remain aware of what’s going on in the brush without risking their hearing. If you intend to hunt regularly, it’s definitely worth checking out these smart ear muffs, which fortunately are not much more price wise than standard models.

But wait, there is also a 3rd option!

Electronic ear plugs. The great advantage of these devices (which are worn like hearing aids) is that they can be tuned to block out specific frequencies. The disadvantage is that they provide little protection against vibration, but for hunters who need to remain alert and mobile, this is often a sacrifice worth making.

What about hunting with hearing aids?

If you are a hearing aid user, you might assume that hunting is a thing of the past, but that doesn’t have to be the case. There’s no doubt that hunting poses some challenges for hearing aid users. Most importantly, rapid, loud noises like gunfire can overload the microphones on many hearing aid models, rendering them ineffective. And hunters can also fall into the trap of assuming that their device’s noise cancellation function will protect them against gunfire, when that’s not usually the case.

Abrupt noises can be too fast for many devices to detect, delivering every single decibel to your inner ear. So, what is the solution? A hearing aid that is made specifically for hunting. As we touched upon earlier, there are electronic ear plugs that resemble hearing aids. But there are also hearing aids that feature highly sensitive noise detection and cancellation that can handle gunshots. eg. Starkey’s SoundGear.

The point is that there are a wide range of options out there for people who want to hunt and want to protect their hearing / preserve their current hearing if they already have hearing damage.

Rifle Hunting Vs Bowhunting

Hearing damage is a good argument for learning how to bowhunt honestly. Or spearhunt. Getting close enough to your prey (25 yards or less is normal for bowhunting) is an extra challenge for a hunter, but the benefit is that you don't have to worry about hearing damage. No, you only need to be a good enough shot to get the whitetail in the vitals at 25 yards or less.

You also benefit (usually, varies on province or state) from a longer hunting season for bows and crossbows.

For rifle hunting and black powder hunting there are definitely risks. Few know these risks better than Elmer Keith or Nash Buckingham - professional hunters - who didn't take the hearing damage warnings seriously and became almost deafened by their love of firearms.

And you don't have to be frequent shooters like they are. A single shot that is louder than normal can make all the difference.

Ask yourself:

Is protecting my hearing worth paying a few dollars in order to keep it?

Why not just make every shot count by making certain your ears are protected too? For a tiny investment in earplugs and/or earmuffs it is certainly worth it.

Personally I already own earmuffs that I use when operating my bandsaw and other machinery in my workshop. It is bright yellow, so I probably won't use them for hunting at any point. But I have them to protect my ears.

And since I prefer bows and crossbows I don't really need them.

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