Beyond the Bench: Benefits of Using Hearing Protection While Hunting

Beyond the Bench: Benefits of Using Hearing Protection While Hunting

It’s frustrating, but I do it anyway. I’m used to being the only one in the hunting party wearing ear protection. Some people say it’s smart. Others think it’s not only unnecessary but a hindrance, impairing my ability to hear game. Regardless, the standard belief is that one shot, or just a few, can’t hurt.

The truth is it does. I consulted Dr. Bill Dickinson, audiologist and avid hunter, for some answers: “One shot can do enough to cause permanent damage. Especially if there is any type of reflection of sound from a solid surface like a goose pit or shooting house or metal roof on the range. Take me, for example. I have several hunting buddies who have significant hearing loss across all frequencies due to one pull of the trigger. Or more often somebody shot too close to their ears while hunting, and now they have irreparable damage.”

Through the years, some hunters and shooters have come to expect some level of hearing loss and take it as fact. It doesn’t have to be. Dickinson summarized the results of many research studies, explaining, “Over 90 percent of adults admit they do not use any hearing protection when engaged in situations where they know sound is too loud and they should be protecting their hearing. Music concerts, power tools, loud equipment, work environments, etc., are all common everyday examples of sound that is often dangerous to your hearing. Even worse, most studies [involving] hunters show that 80 to 90 percent of hunters admit to never using hearing protection while hunting.”

Hearing loss may be temporary, especially if the exposure to loud noises is infrequent, but more frequent exposure directly correlates with permanent loss. This supports the argument of those who don’t wear hearing protection, but there’s a catch. Hearing loss is only one possible issue.

“Problems such as high blood pressure, hypertension and cardiac have been proven as a result to daily loud noise. The impact of hearing loss is tied to other health care issues such as sleep apnea, diabetes, social withdrawal and depression. Hearing loss dramatically under stimulates the brain, which drastically increases your chances of having dementia due to the deterioration of your brain,” Dickinson added.

At the end of the day, it may not be about protecting your ears as much as it is protecting your brain and preventing complications from pre-existing issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “hearing loss is twice as common in people who have diabetes as it is in people of the same age who don’t.” Nerve damage caused by hyper and hypoglycemia contributes to this. As a Type 1 Diabetic, I’m already at risk in one capacity, and don’t wish to add to it. I’ve also seen how hearing loss, whatever the cause, can negatively affect family life and social relationships.

With all the risks, why don’t more people protect their hearing? Some hunters claim it impairs their ability to hear game and others in their midst. Many ranges require ear and eye protection, but some shooters still struggle to hear line commands, which is another safety concern. Technology has advanced to greatly amend if not solve these problems. Electronic earplugs and hearing protectors block dangerous levels of sound and amplify others. Double-plugging, or wearing both earplugs and muffs, is also an option.

I’ve long double-plugged my ears as a competitive shooter, using custom molded earplugs and electronic muffs over top. While hunting, the muffs were cumbersome, so I took to wearing one earplug and temporarily stashing the other. I’d keep it out for as long as possible so that I could hear movement in the woods, turkey calls or the whispers of my hunting party, and then I’d try the best I could to stealthily put it back in when it was time to shoot. This was an arduous and painful process—simultaneously trying to prepare myself for an ethical shot and move as little as possible lest I spook my quarry.

As a result, I began to dread hunting with a firearm. A conversation with Dickinson changed this for me. Though his technology is not new, his approach is. Dickinson partnered with another doctor, Dr. David Gnewikow, to found Tetra Hearing, a company providing electronic hearing devices to enhance the hunting experience. Their products feature patent-pending Specialized Target Optimization, an algorithm that enhances the specific sounds of the game of your choice.

Though such technology can be expensive, it’s an investment in your future in and out of the field. While hearing loss still can occur with hearing protection since the only guarantee is to avoid all loud noises, damage is highly unlikely when wearing any reputable device properly rated for noise reduction.

What about suppressors? Dickinson notes that suppressors can help to stop or slow hearing loss. As reported in an NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum fact sheet, suppressors decrease muzzle report and the risk of hearing damage while helping to increase shooting accuracy by reducing felt recoil and shot “flinch.” They also allow hunters to maintain full situational awareness while hunting and help to decrease noise complaints, which are often used as a reason to close hunting and shooting areas. This is why the NRA Institute for Legislative Action works to pass legislation legalizing their use across the country. But while suppressors reduce the intensity of muzzle report, remember that even a muffled sound still can be harmful. What causes me to flinch, others barely notice. This isn’t just about pre-existing damage.

“Sound is the physical presence of acoustic waves,” Dickinson explained. “Hearing is the psychological perception of sound ... a.k.a. how our brain perceives the acoustic stimuli. Like anything else in life—food, drink, dogs, people, smells, etc.—our individual brains will accept or reject certain things based on our personal likes or dislikes. Loud sound really is no different.”

Years ago, people didn’t have hearing protection. They didn’t know the damage loud noises could cause and the negative effects it can have on the rest of one’s life. In today’s world, technological advancements and research all support the benefits of protecting your hearing. Fortunately, people like Dickinson are working to spread awareness that hearing protection is a help—not a hindrance.