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Bear Spray: Still Your Best Line of Defense in Grizzly Territory, Bear Experts Believe

Your best defense if you ever encounter a surprised or angry grizzly bear? Bear spray, according to a report on the Fourth International Human-Bear Conflict Workshop in Missoula, Mont., published in The Missoulian newspaper last weekend.

The workshop involved more 300 bear experts, including author and bear expert Steve Herrero (Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance) and professor emeritus from the University of Calgary, who participated in 2 separate studies examining the effectiveness of bear spray and firearms in bear encounters.

Bear sprayAccording to the article, one study showed 98% of bear spray users came away unharmed and no deaths to humans or bears occurred. In the firearm study, 56% of users were injured, and 61% of the bears died.

A possible reason: Bear spray is projected in a cloud, requiring less precision than a firearm during a frightening situation.

Some useful tactics for avoiding bear conflicts in the first place:

• Consult with rangers in the area you want to explore and ask about reports about any recent bear activity. Heed their advice, even if that includes visiting another area.

• Travel in small groups (not solo) in the backcountry, keep alert and make noise: talk, clap hands, routinely rattle a can with pebbles inside. Noise sends a long-range alert to bears that they should make tracks. Bears typically head in the opposite direction of human racket.

• Carry bear spray, keep it accessible and be familiar with how to dispense it should the need suddenly arise. But, as the article points out, don't apply bear spray on a tent or skin like a repellent. Bear spray is usually pepper-based, and it's meant to sting a bear's eyes and elicit a flee response. But a mere coating of bear spray is likely to attract bears, which are drawn to food odors.

• Read the REI Expert Advice articles Food Handling and Storage Strategy (which includes the subcategory "Food Handling in Grizzly Bear Country") and Reasons for Using a Bear Canister.

• Pick up a copy of Herrero's Bear Attacks, long considered a seminal guide to staying safe in bear territory.

Photo below courtesy of National Park Service (Bryan Harry).

Posted on at 4:58 PM

Tagged: bear canisters, bear spray, food storage and grizzly bears

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Stephen Yutzy

So if the smell of bear spray can eventually attract the very bears it initially repels, what's the recommendation for after using it? There's bound to be a little on my skin, clothes, pack, etc.

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

A fine question. Unless discharged into a headwind, Counter Assault bear spray projects a high-pressure barrier spray that reaches up to 35 feet. The dispenser is designed to forcibly propel its contents in a high-pressure manner that it should not drift back toward the user. Should this nevertheless somehow occur, Counter Assault provides these instructions on its website, indicating soap and water can effectively remove trace residue:

The effects of Counter Assault typically last for approximately 30-45 minutes, and discomfort can be somewhat relieved by washing with lots of cool water. A non-oil based soap (Johnson's Baby Wash, no tears formula) can be used and will help remove the pepper oil from the skin. Once completed, pat dry with a cloth towel. DO NOT RUB. When used properly pepper sprays have no lasting side effects.


I have actually been sprayed by bear spray, albeit accidentally. My companion was testing her bear spray (as per the directions) upwind of me and send a cloud of bear spray descending upon me. It put me on the ground for 20 minutes. After that, I could walk and breathe normally, but had that awful smell up my nose for weeks after that. Luckily, with the exception of my head and hands, I was covered in clothing so not much got on my skin. It really does burn the eyes. My eyes watered for quite some time. It took my breath away and made me cough. But that smell! It seemed to taint everything. Even now I can recall that smell. I hope you never have to discharge one of these to ward off bears, but certainly take great care when testing out your canister before entering the woods. Be certain there is low wind.


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