Why You Need Bear Spray To Stay Safe In Bear Country
Picture this… you’re hiking through the woods in the morning light toward your favorite peak. As you’re riding the old heel-toe express, you’re day dreaming about snacks and life when all of the sudden you’re face to face with a menacing grizzly bear. The bear postures about, lets out a few grunts and growls, swats the air, and charges. What are you going to do?
People have an unsafe fascination with wild animals – largely in part because of the media. Yet, most people are not prepared for close encounters with large predators – especially bears. As humans continue to encroach on bear’s natural habitats encounters are more likely to happen.
This post will focus on the most effective way to stop a potentially dangerous encounter with a grizzly, black, or polar bear – bear spray.
What is bear spray?
Bear spray is designed to deter encounters with large predators ultimately leaving the animal unharmed. It comes in a spray can, usually aerosol, that contains a concentration of 1% to 2% oleoresin capsicum – this is the heat that makes peppers spicy. Once the bear spray is airborne, it temporarily causes the membranes in the eyes, nose, and lungs of the animal (and potentially you too) to swell resulting in loss of sight and limited ability to breathe. Do not get near airborne bear spray.
This explosive and flammable spray is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA tests each batch to show that it is effective. At a minimum, it comes in a 7.9 ounce or 225 gram pressurized can. Larger cans exist and bigger is better. The larger the can, the longer it will spray – ideal if you need to spray an aggressive bear more than once.
Bear spray can be purchased online or at outdoor retailers. It typically runs about $50 per can.
How do you use bear spray?
Bear spray must be easily accessible. It does you no good tucked inside your pack, dangling off the back of your backpack, or left in your truck. Always have it within hands reach when in bear country. Attach it to a hip holster or across your chest so you can grab it instantly. This way you are ready for a surprise encounter with a bear.
Bear sprays come with a safety plug over the trigger. When necessary, remove the plug, point the canister slightly downward and trigger a short 2 to 3 second burst moving the can side to side when the bear is approximately 25 feet away. The spray leaves the can at approximately 70 mph and can reach distances of 18 to 30 feet. For reference, bears can run up to 50 ft per second.
The spray leaves a lingering cloud or cone in the air that will usually halt a bear. It will only work when it is airborne. It has been known to attract bears when sprayed on objects like tents, campsites, or trees. Under no circumstances should bear spray be used like insect repellant (yes, I’ve seen this happen).
Most bear sprays have about six seconds worth of spray. Bursts of sprays are most effective. Don’t use an entire canister all at once in case a bear charges multiple times. Multiple charges are more common if you stumble across fresh kills or are between a sow and her cubs.
Is bear spray as effective as a gun?
While guns are designed to kill, they are less effective than bear spray. Most bear encounters happen at close range and people are in a panic. This immediately impacts accuracy of a firearm and the speed at which it can be used. While guns can kill or scare bears they are less likely to deter an attack.
Bear spray is designed to deter a bear attack without harming a bear. In the lower 48, grizzlies are a threatened species. This makes it illegal to shoot one based on the Endangered Species Act except in self defense or defense of others during imminent attack. Penalties include fines and/or jail time.
In the laboratory setting, bear spray is effective 100% of the time. Results vary in the wild due to a variety of factors – wind, temperatures, bear spray manufacturers, weather, distance, and even individual bears. Based on several studies, bear spray is always more effective than guns.
A study by Tom Smith of Brigham Young University, reviewed 600 bear-human encounters in Alaska between 1985 and 2006. They reviewed 83 close encounters involving 156 people. In incidents involving spray, there were only three injuries and zero fatalities – a 98% success rate. Guns and bullets deterred bears about 2/3 of the time and it took on average 4 shots to stop a bear (Outside Online and Field and Stream).
If a gun is all you have, by all means use it to thwart an attack. But if you are in bear country, you need bear spray.
Will bear spray ever not work?
Every bear encounter is different. Wind, temperatures, and rain are known to affect bear sprays. Also be wary of the expiration date. Do not store bear spray at extreme temperatures as this may also cause issues.
Does bear spray expire?
Yes, bear spray does expire. It typically has a shelf life of four years after purchase. The expiration date or year is marked on the can. Overtime this number can rub off, so write it in sharpie marker every year to remind yourself.
What’s interesting is the potency of the oleoresin capsicum stays the same. The issue lies in the aerosol cans losing power over time resulting in a weaker spray. Also the seals on the can leak too. If you only have expired bear spray, it’s better than nothing. But invest in a new can if you are spending any time in bear country.
Will bear spray work on other attacking animals?
Yes and no. Bear spray is designed to be used on attacking and charging bears. It can be used on other predators, but it’s effectiveness is questionable.
- Mountain Lions – Lions are not known to charge and may just maneuver around a lingering cloud of bear spray. It may also be challenging to accurately hit an agile cat. (MT.gov)
- Wolves – Wolf attacks are rare. Wolves may be driven back by bear spray, but will typically continue to follow you.
- Moose? Wolverines? Badgers? – It’s unclear how these animals will react.
Bear spray is an effective deterrent, but it is not designed for use against anything but bears. Every animal has a different behavior and attack pattern. If bear spray is all you have, it’s better than nothing.
What companies make bear spray?
Counter Assault, Frontiersman, and UDAP all make bear spray. The minimum size can is 7.9 oz and it must contain less than 2% oleoresin capsicum to be considered bear spray. Bear spray is not the same as mace or generic pepper spray.
Is bear spray illegal?
Bear spray is legal in all states, but it is banned in some national parks. It is encouraged in parks like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Parks due to the dense bear population. You will need to declare it when traveling over the US/Canada border too. If you are planning to fly with bear spray, consult your airline for flight restrictions.
What else do I need to know about bear spray?
Bear attacks and encounters are few and far between. Since the 1830’s there have been about 150 fatalities due to grizzly, black, and polar bears (Wikipedia). The chances of being “injured by a bear are approximately 1 in 2.2 million” in Yellowstone National Park (NPS). Do your best to avoid encounters and carry bear spray. Hopefully you won’t have many problems.
If you’re in bear country, be bear aware. Travel in large groups, make lots of noise, carry bear spray, know what to do if a bear attacks, store food properly, and keep your distance. Learn more about bear awareness from the Grizzly Discovery Center.
Before you head into bear country, do your research so you know what to do. And carry bear spray.
ALWAYS CONSULT BEAR SPRAY MANUFACTURER RECOMMENDATIONS AND GUIDELINES WHEN USING BEAR SPRAY. DO NOT SOLELY RELY ON THIS POST FOR ALL OF YOUR BEAR SPRAY KNOWLEDGE. THE MORE YOU KNOW THE SAFER YOU WILL BE.
Learn more about bears and bear spray:
The author spends lots of time in grizzly riddled terrain skiing, hiking, climbing, and mountaineering. He is always bear aware, but did have one encounter with a grizzly that charged his group multiple times. During that incident, he did not discharge his bear spray due to wind and weather conditions. The entire group escaped uninjured. He always loudly carries bear spray whenever he is in the bear country.