I’ve participated in online camping forums and discussion groups for several years now and at least a couple of times a year I will see a post that goes something like this: “I’m camping in bear country this weekend and just picked up some bear spray. I spray it around my tent before I go to bed, right?” And, then my eyes bulge, my jaw drops and I re-read the post just to make sure that I understand it clearly. There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there about bear spray, so I decided to dedicate this post to it. It’s also important to remember that the best way to reduce dangerous bear encounters is to keep a respectful distance from wildlife when possible and keep a very clean campsite.
What is Bear Spray?
Bear spray is a specially designed aerosol formula for dealing with aggressive bears. It has a stronger propellant than most aerosols so that it can be sprayed from a further distance and the spray itself is designed to form a cloud, rather than a puddle. Most bear sprays advertise at least a 30 foot spray distance. Bear spray in Canada is 1% Capsaicin and roughly 0.84% Related Capsaicinoids. In the U.S., the ingredients are labelled as 2% Capsaicin and other Related Capsaicinoids, but ultimately they are the exact same product, just labelled differently. Keep in mind, pepper spray (personal protection spray or law enforcement spray) and bear spray are NOT the same thing. The ingredients are derived from the same pepper, but the contents are of different strength and personal protection spray will not spray nearly as far as bear spray will.
Why should I have bear spray?
To be completely honest, the chances of running into a predatory black bear are extremely low. Even the chances of running into a defensive black bear that would be willing to attack you if it feels threatened are pretty low. (Brown bear attacks are a whole different story and because I live in Ontario and have never seen a Brown bear, the thought of them scares the daylights out of me!!!). However, if you spend significant time outside in black bear country, it’s a good safety tool to consider, whether you’re camping, hiking, fishing, hunting or working in the woods. My husband and I spend considerable time outside and we’ve never come close to using ours, but we have camped in at least two specific locations where black bears have fatally attacked humans in the last 20 years, so it provides us with a little peace of mind.
Where to buy and how much?
Bear spray is sold at most outdoor stores for $25-50CAN (Canadian Tire, MEC, Epps, BassPro). However, it is a restricted product in Canada and you will need to be at least 18 years old, show photo ID and sign a waiver before purchasing it. Here is a link to the MEC waiver form. Different sizes are available; the photo above is 225g/8oz and is roughly 8.5 inches tall. There are many manufacturers including Frontiersman (pictured) and Counter Assault. If you plan on carrying it in cold climates, make sure the brand you buy is designed for cold temperatures and will not freeze up. The Inter-agency Grizzly Bear Committee recommends buying a brand with a spray duration of 6 seconds to compensate for multiple bears, wind, bears that may zigzag, circle, or charge repeatedly, and for the hike out. It’s also important to buy a brand that can spray 25+ feet to reach the bear at a distance sufficient for the bear to react to the ingredients in time to divert its charge and retreat.
How do I store it?
As with any aerosol can, it should be kept in a cool place whenever possible. Try not to keep it in a hot car or it could explode or lose pressure, making it less effective. It’s also important to keep an eye on the expiry date which is usually about 3 years after purchase. When you buy the spray, it will have a zip tie around the handle and the safety clip to prevent accidental discharge. Make sure you cut off the zip tie once you are out in the wilderness — you do not want to be fumbling around and struggling to get it off if you encounter a dangerous bear. Do not test spray it before your trip — you will waste the spray and the scent of any residual spray on the outside of the canister can attract bears (read below).
How do I carry it?
It’s important that your bear spray is accessible when you need it. There are belt holsters you can buy for carrying spray while hiking or you can clip it onto your belt with a carbine clip. It’s also a good idea to keep it in your tent with you at night (as long as it has never been sprayed before) — the brand we use, which is pictured above, has a glow-in-the-dark safety clip. ALWAYS keep the safety clip in place unless you’re actually confronted by a dangerous bear — it is easy to slip it off if the need arises. However, if you do pull the safety clip off, you can put it back on later.
How NOT to use it:
Bear spray is designed to be used as an absolute LAST resort on an aggressive bear. You DO NOT spray it around your tent, campsite or home! Capsaicin is a naturally occurring ingredient in chili peppers and is sometimes added to food for flavour. And bears like flavour. If used improperly or sprayed around outside, it can actually attract bears. If you’ve inadvertently sprayed the ground or your belongings, leave the area and leave anything that has been sprayed. According to the University of Alberta, the “spray is a stable, weather-resistant compound that apparently does not lose its attractant, or irritant properties quickly. This suggests that even a single discharge has the potential to attract brown bears for a significant amount of time”. Scientists have “observed a brown bear rolling vigorously in beach gravel that had been inadvertently sprayed with red pepper spray five days previously.”
How to properly use it:
Bear spray should be sprayed in the face of an attacking bear. Aim for the nose, eyes and mouth (sensitive areas with less fur). If the bear is still a good distance away, aim in it’s general direction and hopefully the bear will run through the cloud, getting the spray in its eyes, nose and mouth while it’s running toward you. If used properly, the spray can cause temporary blindness, painful burning sensation and respiratory swelling and distress and will most likely stop the bear in it’s tracks, ultimately giving you time to vacate the area. The spray does not cause any long term harm to the bear.
How effective is it?
Investigations of human-bear encounters by the US Fish and Wildlife Service since 1992 have shown that bear spray works better than bullets in preventing fatalities and serious injuries. People who encountered grizzlies and defended themselves with firearms suffered injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, people who defended themselves with bear spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter attacks and less severe injuries. The University of Calgary’s Dr. Stephen Herrero found similar results — he analyzed 83 bear spray incidents in Alaska from 1985-2006; 61 cases were brown bears, 20 cases were black bears and 2 cases were polar bears. Red pepper spray stopped bears’ undesirable behaviour 92% of the time when used on brown bears, 90% for black bears, and 100% for polar bears. Of all people involved in the bear spray incidents, 98% were uninjured by bears in close range encounters.
- Bear spray is not a toy and should obviously be kept out of reach of children. It should never be used on people or pets.
- It should never be used in a tent, indoors or other enclosed places.
- In Canada, pepper spray is considered a prohibited weapon. Bear spray is legal, as long as it states on the product that it is intended for animal use only. However, if you are caught using it on anything or anyone other than a dangerous animal or you are caught carrying it in an area with no realistic expectation of being attacked by a bear (downtown Toronto), you can be charged.
- Ironically, some US National Parks ban the use of bear spray.
- Lesson Learned: Avoiding Campsite Bears (woodsywisdom.wordpress.com)