I say “huh?” a lot more than anyone in his mid-30s ought to. Even though I spent countless hours sitting next to an active runway, I suspect the real culprit wasn’t my time at that particular job. I was good about donning my eyes and ears at work, but neglected them completely when I was out in the field, hunting on my time.
Here are 10 things you need to know about hunting with hearing protection—plus some of my recommendations for things to stuff into your canals or to cover your ears with—so your significant other doesn’t need to yell at you from across the dinner table.
1. Hearing Loss Occurs at 85 Decibels
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) begins at levels as low as 85 decibels. That means that sounds as innocuous as heavy traffic can affect your hearing. A typical gunshot is somewhere around 140-190 decibels, well above safe levels. And that's not indoors or under a roof at an outdoor range, environments that make gunshots significantly louder.
2. Loud Sounds Can Cause Permanent Damage
High-decibel bursts of sound can rupture eardrums or damage bones in the middle ear. This can create immediate and permanent hearing loss. Yes, permanent, as in it cannot be reversed or treated. Not only could you lose some of your ability to hear, but you might notice a persistent "ringing" in your ears afterward, which leads us to...
3. Tinnitus Can Be a Life-Long Companion
Commonly described as ringing in the ears, this malady affects as many as 25 million Americans every year. It is often caused by noise-induced hearing loss, and it can be permanent.
Technically, tinnitus is the hearing of sound when no external sound is present. It's often described as a ringing, but can also sound like a clicking, hiss, or roaring. Occasionally, sufferers can hear unclear voices or music. The perceived sounds can be soft or loud, low pitched or high pitched, and appear to be coming from one ear or both.
While tinnitus is just a symtom of an underlying problem and not a disease itself, the most common cause is noise-induced hearing loss. The condition can cause anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and depression.
4. Waterfowlers Are Particularly at Risk
Perhaps no other group of hunters is more at risk of hearing loss than waterfowlers. When duck hunting, multiple shots are taken in quick succession, and the close proximity to other hunters in the blind increases exposure.
Just think about it, is there any other type of hunting where you are not only exposed to potentially more than 100 rounds from your own shotgun in a relatively short time period, but also the reports of the guns all around you—meaning your ears could absorb the sound of literally hundreds of gunshots in one morning.
For this reason, many waterfowlers today won't go into the field without plugs or earmuffs, and many veteran hunters are sporting hearing aids.
5. Noise Reduction Ratings Measure Performance
Noise Reduction Ratings, or NRR, tell you how effective a piece of ear protection is, so these are the numbers you have to pay attention to when comparing hearing protection products.
Your exposure to noise is limited by the NRR of the device you’re using. So, if your scattergun produces a blast of 147 decibels and your ear pro has a NRR of 29, you are only being exposed to 118 decibels—a reduction of 29 decibels.
Most commercially available models have NRR of 27 to 35 and electronic hearing protection usually has a cutoff of 85 decibels, meaning anything louder and the microphones automatically cut out the external sound, protecting your ears.
6. You Can Still Maintain a Good Cheek Weld
The big "cans" or bulky earmuffs of yore were dismissed by many hunters because they stuck out too far and didn't allow for shooters to get a good cheek weld with a long gun, especially when raising a shotgun for an overhead shot of any kind.
That's not necessarily true anymore. Today, most earmuff models feature slimline profiles designed to permit fluid shouldering. They're also increasingly designed to work well with safety glasses.
Of course, you could bypass all that by using some kind of much smaller in-ear hearing protection.
7. You Can Choose from In- or Over-Ear Protection
Muffs, like the kind shooting ranges have available for people who didn't bring their own, are what many think of when hearing protection comes up, but there are myriad options available on today's market.
Ear plugs, electronic hearing protection, traditional ear muffs, and even child-specific models are available. Some plugs can be custom molded to fit your ear shape and keep out the most sound, while others are made of expanding foam that fills your ear canal after a few seconds.
If you are in a particularly loud environment, like an indoor range or under a roof with some high-caliber rifles at an outdoor range, you can double up by putting ear plugs in and then muffs on top. When you get that first punch in the chest from the shockwave cast by a big ol' muzzle brake on a .300 Win Mag, you might be glad you did.
8. In-Ear Models are Comparable to Muffs
Traditionally muffs were superior to ear plugs for a number of reasons but advances in technology has leveled the playing field. In past decades, muffs were the only platform large enough to incorporate electronics, but that's all different now.
These days, you can get over-the-counter in-ear models with a NRR of 35, or custom-made offerings with even better protection.
While they are a financial investment, there are a number of electronic in-ear options on the market that work the same was as larger electronic hearing protection headsets do, but shrunk down to something not much bigger than regular earplugs that let you clearly communicate and hear your surroundings in the woods or the RO at the range. We'll get into those more at the end.
9. Some Protection Can Actually Enhance Your Hearing
Models like Walker’s Game Ear effectively act to amplify sounds until a loud noise is detected. Then, the circuitry quickly shuts down the amplification and the protective qualities take over. So you can hear that distant buck and cancel out the report of your .30-06 without thinking about it.
Hearing protection products like these are compact, lightweight, and comfortable enough to wear for hours—a big advantage over earmuffs, especially on hot weather hunts.
10. Hearing Protection Only Works If You Let It
If you don’t wear them they can’t protect you. You need to have a set that is comfortable enough to wear all day. With all the different makes on the market there is no reason why can’t find a pair that works for you. You might have to try a few things in the process, but protecting your hearing for the rest of your life is worth it.
Here are a few more hearing protection options out there that you may want to try if you haven't yet found something that's completely comfortable for you:
Bonus - If You're Going Pro
Wild Ear Custom Electronic Ear Buds
If you're planning to get into competitive shooting of any kind, or if you spend a solid number of days in the duck blind, it only makes sense to spend the money and get the best gear that will do what you need and last you a good while. When it comes to hearing protection, ideally it should allow you to hear ambient noise at not dangerous levels, be comfortable yet stay in place without constant adjustment, and, obviously, protect your ears from the big noises. Wild Ear's products fill all those requirements.
Wild Ear's Master Series of earbuds are made from silicone casts of your ears, which you can do yourself with a kit they mail you, or you can have it done by an audiologist. I don't recommend doing it yourself. If you're going to get good ear pro, you might as well spend a few extra bucks and get a professional to make the casts (they have to go pretty deep). I had mine done for $45. Any place that fits people for hearing aids can do it.
The Master Series buds protect your ears from extreme noise and gunshots while providing hearing enhancement for safety and communication. They include four digital hearing enhancement programs, two that are better for hearing voices and two that are good for hearing ambient noises when things are quiet, like when sitting in a ground blind, for instance.
They are extremely low-profile and won't interfere with hats or masks in the field or with eye protection and a hat at the range. The custom fit means they stay in place, making them great for hunting or competition.
If the pricetag on these makes you shiver, Wild Ear makes a number of products with fewer features, that are much more affordable for the average shooter and still offer great hearing protection. —David Maccar