In the United States, bears can be found in many areas, but their populations are largely centered on forests, and especially in the wilderness areas west of the Rockies. However, bears are venturing further from their forested abodes as suburbs encroach on their remaining habitat.
Bears are potentially a dangerous encounter to have in the wild. They are massive animals with powerful claws and teeth, a thick and difficult-to-damage hide, and a temperamental attitude. Bear attacks are infrequent, but when they do set their sights on a target, it usually goes in their favor.
How infrequent are attacks? That can be a difficult number to assess accurately. Fatal attacks are unfortunately easier to tally. In the 2000’s in North America, 46 fatalities have been reported (27 in the United States and 19 in Canada). On average it’s about three fatalities a year.
How Bear Spray Works
Essentially a giant can of concentrated pepper spray, bear spray consists of oleoresin capsicum. That’s the stuff that makes peppers hot and spicy; ever cut jalapeno or habanero peppers and accidentally rub your eye? That’s the G-rated preview of what bear spray feels like.
What It Does
A concentrated pepper spray irritates mucous membranes and other sensitive areas like the mouth and ears. The material becomes aerosolized and forms a cloud of burning vapor. If it hits the eyes, it can cause temporary blindness. The stuff wears off in about twenty minutes, leaving a blurry-eyed bear wondering where those thousands of stinging bees came from.
Spray versus Firearms
Statistically, bear spray is far more effective than firearms to deter bears. Bears can run at speeds up to 30 miles-per-hour (yikes), making firearms difficult at best to use defensively. Additionally, it takes 3-4 bullet wounds to kill a bear.
Spray, on the other hand, is easier to use, attacks more broadly and is not fatal. I’m not about to break into a Disney song here, but when we’re in bear country, we’re in the bear’s home. If we can simply deter the bears instead of killing them, we should.
If we’re looking simply at numbers, sprays work over 90% of the time.
What to Look for in a Good Bear Spray
All sprays are regulated by the EPA and have a standard concentration of active ingredient, so while “stronger” is a useful trait we’re looking primarily for spray distance, spray duration and quantity, and ease of accessibility.
The farther a spray reaches, the better chance you have of stopping a bear before it reaches you. The best sprays reach distances of 30 feet. At a minimum you want something that sprays 15 feet; anything less than that and you’re liable to stand in a cloud of the stuff yourself.
Duration and Quantity
Even when sprayed accurately a longer duration means more deterrent which equals out to better chances of making it through a bear encounter gone bad. The best sprays on the market spray for nearly 10 seconds. You shouldn’t accept anything less than 7 second duration.
The more, the better. You want a can no smaller than 8 ounces.
Accessibility and Safety Features
What good is this deterrent if you can’t reach it? The biggest mistake people make when using bear spray is storing it in their backpack where they can’t instantly reach it.
The best bear sprays will come with an included holster allowing you to store the can on your belt or straps of your pack. You want to channel John Wayne’s quickdraw when using the bear spray; the faster it’s in your hands the faster it’s ready.
Accessibility ties in with safety features. Most sprays will have a glow-in-the-dark indicator of where the applicator is pointed, but the best have a handle or use of operation that prevents it from being handled the wrong way. Pointing the can at yourself instead of the bear is not only embarrassing, but it’s also potentially deadly.
Avoiding Bear Encounters in the First Place
Ah, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
Most bears are shy creatures. That wild encounter I had with one is proof of that. It seems like they’re naturally afraid of any perceived threat and would rather bound off to safety than risk an injury. Survivors of many bear attacks report that they stumbled upon the bear and surprised each other; in a moment of panic and territoriality the bear attacks.
To avoid a bear encounter:
- The best way to avoid bear encounters is to make some noise. A loud conversation, crunching sticks in your path, or wearing a bear bell might break the atmosphere, but it lets bears know you’re in the vicinity.
- Store your food safely in bear-proof canisters or keep it as far away from your campsite as possible. Experts recommend 100 yards, but that’s simply not possible all the time. The farther the better, and keep wrappers and dirty plates away from your camp.
- If possible hang your food from a tree branch. Shoot for about fifteen feet off the ground, and about five feet from the trunk of the tree.
- Watch for and avoid places where bears are likely to be like berry patches and streambeds.
How to Use Bear Spray
Practice makes perfect, and there are two main things you’ll want to practice with bear spraying: removing it from the holster and spraying it.
In theory, it’s a simple process but remembering what to do when a bear is charging you makes fools of us all. That is why practice is so imperative and important. You’re going to want to buy a practice can or two to get used to what this stuff does and how it handles, and to practice smoothly retrieving it from your holster.
Practice these steps when conditioning yourself how to safely use bear spray:
- With a steady grip, point the can towards the bear
- Aim so that your spray is angled above the bear’s head (the spray naturally drops)
- Depress the trigger in short bursts (two to three second) when the bear is about thirty feet away
- DO NOT empty the can in one spray. You may need to apply a second dose if the first one is ineffective. If the bear isn’t stopped from one burst, spray again
- When the bear retreats or is busy trying to rid itself of the irritating chemical, get yourself out of the area (don’t run) and to safety
Watch the excellent video by Parks Canada to see exactly what to expect when using bear spray.
- Most bear sprays aren’t cheap, but they can potentially save your life. Make sure to bring two cans per group of hikers, even if you’re the only one out there.
- Consider the wind speed and direction before you spray your can.
- These sprays are effective at keeping bears away, but it doesn’t last forever. It’s imperative to get out of the area without running as soon as the bear is incapacitated.
- Holding the can in two hands is preferable to one, when you can, to ensure accurate aiming.
- DO NOT use the bear spray as a repellant. It doesn’t work and seems to actually attract animals.
Handling & Storage
Always practice caution and safety when handling. Cans have a lifespan of four years, so you need to replace it after that time. Avoid extreme temperatures (32° to about 110° Fahrenheit) always.
Never puncture the can. Some bear sprays are incredibly flammable. For that reason, keep the can out of the direct sun whenever possible.
Never point the cat at your face. That shouldn’t even need to be said, but kids are eating laundry detergent so… I mean…
Always ensure the can is safely stored in a holster and that all safety caps are in place.
Accidents happen. Maybe the can discharges, or you have it go off in your car like these poor folks i the video below (there’s some cursing in here, so NSFW [I commend you for reading about bear spray while at work]). So, what do you do in case of accidental contact?
Prepare yourself to experience an intense burning sensation on any exposed flesh that comes into contact with the spray and the excruciating pain comes when it contacts your eyes, nose, and mouth. After about 15-20 minutes the worst of it goes away if you follow these guidelines:
- Avoid rubbing, touching, and scratching any areas with your hands as much as possible to prevent spreading the stuff even further around your body
- Get as much of the spray off without touching yourself as possible (use leaves, clothing, etc.)
- Liberally and frequently rinse the stuff off with cool, clean water
- Take short breaths
- Remove your contacts
- Wash your clothing as soon as you can
Recycling Bear Spray
Don’t just throw that can away! That’s irresponsible, come on, now.
Some parks like Yellowstone will have recycling bins for bear sprays. If you don’t have access to one, you can click here to find a mailing address where you can send your cans for safe recycling. Otherwise, you’ll want to call your county or city’s waste management facilities and ask the preferred method
Bear sprays are powerful tools to use against the potentially fatal threat of bears. The sprays are humane, relatively inexpensive for the level of safety they provide and are incredibly effective. They’re easy to use with a little practice and safe to store if you aren’t subjecting the cans to extreme temperatures.
Next time you head out into bear country, you’re sure to bring a handy can of this spray with you.
Now as my parting gift to you, no discussion on bear safety is complete without the wisdom of Dwight Schrute. Enjoy his PSA, and look forward to the next feature on My Open Country
Safety & Environment Further Reading
Check out our other guides on hiking safety & the environment:
- Don’t get caught out in the dark without the best headlamps for hiking & backpacking
- Hiking in rain doesn’t have to misery with our tips.
- Learn & apply the 7 principles of leave no trace
- Learn how to identify poison oak, ivy & sumac.
- Mosquitos an issue? Pick up some camping insect repellent before you head out into the wild.