OUTDOOR BASICS

Does Bear Spray Work: Staying Safe When Traveling to Bear Country

bear sprays on the ground
Jerry Mueller
Written by Jerry Mueller

Any outdoor enthusiast knows that there are certain rules and guidelines that you need to follow when you’re in the wild. Many of these are not just for the protection of Mother Nature but for the safety of adventurers as well. One of the most important rules that you should always keep in mind is to have the utmost respect for nature. Stumbling upon this article, you might be wondering: does bear spray work?

Well, not only will we answer that query but we will provide some tips on overall bear safety. Underestimating the risks and dangers associated with outdoor activities can lead to deadly consequences. For example, strutting around your campsite without any sort of precautions can help in attracting one of nature’s fiercest predators: bears.

What is a bear spray? Is it the same as a pepper spray?

Basically, a bear spray is a deterrent used in wilderness environments in order to deter aggressive bears. These sprays generally contain increased levels of major capsaicinoids, usually 1 to 2 percent.

a bottle of bear spray

When all is said and done, bear sprays aren’t all that different when compared to pepper sprays which are used to protect against human assailants. However, the most notable difference between a pepper spray and bear spray is that the latter can shoot farther and covers a wider area of effect.

There are three main ingredients to a bear spray:

  • Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) – this is the active ingredient that comes from cayenne peppers. Capsicum is the ingredient that’s responsible for the burning sensation that the attacker experience when sprayed. Not to be confused with the one that’s used with edibles like salsa as those are food-grade OC.
  • Base fluid – this is the oil-based fluid mixed with OC to dilute it.
  • Aerosol propellant – the ingredient responsible for propelling the ingredients from the can towards the target.

spraying with a bear spray

These ingredients are safely packed into a canister that comes with a trigger and safety mechanism to prevent accidental sprays. So can you use a pepper spray during bear encounters? We would advise against it due to the reduced range and area of effect. When it comes to bear deterrents, always go for bear sprays to get the job done, and potentially save your life.

How does one purchase a bear spray?

Choosing a bear spray to take with you on bear country is surprisingly easy. As of this article, there are 6 bear sprays that are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each bear spray has its own variation, but when purchasing one, you will want to take into account these factors:

  • Spray duration – this is essentially the duration of the spray’s ejection. In typical fashion, it’s 4 to 9 seconds per canister.
  • Range – this indicates the effective reach of the spray. Sprays can vary roughly from 18-40 feet (5.4 to 12 meters).
  • Weight – you will want a bear spray to be always in your person, so you should definitely consider the weight.
  • Cost – how much money would you shell out so you can protect yourself from a hungry, aggressive bear?
  • Shelf life – the canister should have a 4 years shelf life at minimum.

three bear sprays on the ground

When choosing your spray, you will need to determine which factor is the most important for you. A far-reaching spray that shoots 40 feet might give you security from a black bear at a distance but it will likely run out sooner than a spray that can shoot at 25 feet.

So it’s always a good idea to determine your needs first and read up on brand specifications before you decide to buy a spray and conquer bear country. That’s right, you can’t just buy a spray and be done with it.

So are bear sprays effective?

Bear spray effectiveness is not exactly unheard of, especially when it has become a regular backcountry tool. So just how effective this deterrent tool is?

man spraying a bear spray

Well, it’s one of those things that you should absolutely have but hope you never have to use. Below are some of the points that make bear sprays an essential item in your outdoor experience:

  • Once you’ve successfully hit the bear on the face with your handy spray, it’s safe to say that you’re in business. Once directly sprayed on the face, most often than not, the bear will immediately retreat with great confusion. The capsaicin has the same effect on bears as it is with humans, so it means that they will be feeling the burning sensation in their eyes, nose and lungs.
  • According to a bear biologist named Thomas Smith, in the 20 years of bear incidents, bear sprays were determined to be effective 92% of the time. Now, compare that to guns that have only managed to be 67% effective against bear attacks. There’s also this little thing that you can’t bring guns into many national parks.
  • Another thing that makes spray more desirable than other bear deterrents is that it’s a non-lethal solution.

We humans are the ones who have wondered into their homes, so it’s not exactly the bears’ fault when it comes to these encounters.

A bear spray is not just effective but it ensures that you are not making any permanent harm to the animal.

man holding spray and a bear

As you can see, it’s easy to see why a bear spray is an essential to any hiker or camper’s outdoor must-haves.

Tips on how to use a bear spray

If you have decided to purchase an anti-bear spray, don’t think that you are all set. Proper care and application is paramount when it comes to successful usage of these sprays in real world situations. Here are some of the best practices when it comes to bear deterrent sprays.

Get EPA-registered sprays

There is no shortage of bear deterrents that you can buy. However, not all of them are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With non-registered products, you can’t be sure if they are effective in warding off bear attacks.

woman spraying bear spray in the woods

We’re guessing that not many people are thrilled with the idea of finding out that their spray lacks efficacy while they’re about to be mauled by a bear. You should have no trouble finding EPA-registered products in most brick-and-mortar stores.

Get a holster

Another thing that we highly recommend is to invest in a canister holster that you can wear on your person. What’s the use of a $45 anti-bear spray if you need to dig around your a pack to retrieve in the unfortunate case of bear encounter? In this regard, it would be a good idea to invest in a spray that comes with its own handy holster.

Look for a spray with at least 5-second duration

A charging bear scenario has a lot of possible variables so it’s not as clear-cut as it may seem. There’s distance, velocity, wind direction and more. A 4-second spray might give you ample coverage but why take chances? If you can get your hands on a 5-second spray, all the better. This should give you enough time to effectively and quickly spray all contents.

man spraying a bear spray

Carry more than one canisters

This one seems to be a no-brainer. If you know that you are hiking in a bear-heavy country, you should bring at least two canisters of spray.

Cold can affect the can

Below 40˚F, the spray can be subjected to reduced distance or may not even work at all. Proper can storage means that you should avoid storing the can inside your vehicle or outside in a pack. If the season is colder, keep the can inside your jacket to keep it nice and warm.

Practice makes perfect

This can be a little expensive since you’ll be testing your cans, and these are not exactly cheap. However, it would be worth it to try out your sprays and practice how you use them. You can practice on cans and other object but please, don’t try it on animals and other people.

girl practices spraying

With that, you should be ready to explore bear country with your trust anti-bear spray. However, wouldn’t it be better if you could work on…

Avoiding bear encounters

What’s better than having an effective bear deterrent while exploring bear country? Well, how does not encountering any bears at all sound? Sounds great, right? Here are some of the best tips on how to avoid bear encounters and forgo the need for your bear spray:

Be noisy

Sounds counterproductive but bears are scared of us as much as we are scared of them. If they could have their way, they’d rather not cross paths with people. So for you own safety, don’t be a stealth hiker which means that you should make noise and make your presence known.

hikers listening music on speaker

Some people who don’t fancy an appointment with bears should even wear loud chimes and bells. So turn up the music, talk loudly, whistle, sing – anything to make your presence known.

Location, location, location

Pastoral landscapes with dense vegetation and roaring rivers are basically the food court of the wild. Of course, this means that such locations have higher chances of bear encounters. If you think it’s a good idea to camp in a spot, check for animal-made trails, bear droppings, claw marks, trampled patches, carcasses and more. Once you see these signs, it’s time to look for another campsite.

Don’t cook in camp

Those hotdogs and beans that you are cooking over the fire might smell delicious but you might not be the only who’s enjoying the aroma. The smell of food will linger for a good while and a hungry bear might pick up the scent.

cooking hot dogs on a campfire

This is why you should not camp where you cook. Your campsite should be at least 100 yards (91 meters) and should be upwind from your kitchen.

Hang up you stuff in trees or use bear canisters

Once you are done cooking, make sure that you stash away your cooking utensils. You can either hang the utensils up on a tree or store it in a special bear canister. While you’re at it, be sure to also stash your food, trash and toiletries in your container.

In many natural parks, you will be required to bring your own bear canister or have the option to rent one. With that said, it goes

Don’t pack things that smell

Scented soaps, lotions, deodorants and perfumes can easily attract the unwanted attention of your local grizzly or black bear. If you can’t do away with these strong-smelling items, pack them in airtight containers or doubled plastic bags.

scented toiletries packed in a doubled bag

Don’t pee where you camp

Again, this is all about the bears’ keen sense of smell. Urine odor can attract bears, so the last thing you would want to do is to pee close to your camping site. A good practice is to use a container or bottle for peeing which you can dispose away from your campsite.

As mentioned before, a bear spray is a tool that you should always have in your person when exploring bear country but hope that you’ll never have to use it. With these guidelines, your chances of encountering these great predators should be significantly reduced.

Spray the bear away

So is a bear spray a worthy investment for any hiker or camper? Well, unless you want a bear-sponsored plastic surgery, a bear spray is simply a must. Sure, these anti-bear tools are not exactly the cheapest tool in your kit but safety is something that you can’t put money in.

woman spraying a bear

You can’t underestimate Mother Nature and that includes our neighborhood-friendly furries. Again, this is all about respecting nature and its forces, and bears are definitely a force to reckon with. Bringing spray with you will also allow you to enjoy your trips more as opposed to being afraid for you own hide.

So are you traveling into bear country anytime soon? Do you think a bear spray is a must when traveling to bear country?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Mueller
Jerry Mueller

Jerry ‘Boy Scout’ Mueller spends 99% of his time camping or teaching others how to live in the wild. He became an Eagle Scout which is the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouting division when he was 17 and after that he still lives the scout life. Jerry always plans neatly every trip, takes leadership very seriously and if you listen to his tips and stories, you can learn tons of useful things.

  • Jerry Mueller

    Thanks!

  • Jerry Mueller

    Preparedness and safety first!

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