If you spend time outdoors in bear country, particularly grizzly bear country, bear deterrent spray should be on your never-leave-home-without-it list. But, carrying it is not enough to keep bears away. You need to know how to use bear spray effectively, and without hesitation, because an up-close encounter with an aggressive bear is no time to be reading the instructions.
What Is Bear Spray?
Bear spray is an aerosol extract of hot peppers (just like the ones you eat in spicy food) designed to stop aggressive behavior in bears. The oily extract is called oleoresin capsicum and the active ingredients are capsaicin and other related capsaicinoids. When sprayed in an animal’s face, bear spray causes an almost immediate burning sensation. The eyes will burn, swell and tear, and if the animal breathes in the spray, the respiratory tract will become inflamed, making it temporarily difficult for the animal to breathe. These effects may sound harsh, but bear spray is not lethal and will not cause permanent damage. The discomfort wears off with time.
How to Use Bear Spray
Note: Always read the printed materials that accompany your canister of bear spray for specific instructions.
- Keep bear spray accessible: If you come upon a bear on the trail, you need to be able to reach your bear spray immediately. Keeping it in a holster on your belt is an excellent idea. Or, put it in an external pocket on your backpack that you can easily reach. In some situations, you may even want to carry it in-hand, such as when bears have been spotted nearby or you’re traveling in known bear country and the trail is so obscured by brush that you can’t see what’s ahead. Never store it inside your backpack; you may not have time to take your pack off and find it.
- Remove the safety clip: Bear spray canisters include safety clips to prevent accidental firing. If you encounter an aggressive bear and are preparing to use your spray, grab the canister, put your index finger in the finger loop and remove the safety clip by wrapping your thumb over the clip and pulling your thumb back.
- Aim slightly down and adjust for wind: You don’t need extreme precision when aiming, but you do want to spray toward the head of the animal, never above it. Aim down toward the ground in front of the approaching bear so that the bear will run into a cloud of spray. If possible, position yourself upwind so that the spray will be carried to the bear. If there is a crosswind, aim slightly into the wind so the wind will carry the spray back in front of the bear. If you’re facing into a strong headwind, try to reposition yourself so the spray won’t blow back in your face.
- Start spraying when the charging bear is about 30 feet away: Hold the canister firmly with both hands so that one hand is positioned with the index finger in the loop and the thumb resting on the trigger and the other hand is lower down with the fingers wrapped around the canister. Using both hands helps you maintain good aim. Press down with the thumb that’s on the trigger to spray short blasts lasting about 0.5 – 2 seconds in quick succession. Spray with a slight side-to-side motion to create a cloud in front of the approaching bear.
- Keep spraying until the bear changes direction: A bear may be deterred after the first blast or two of spray. Sometimes the sound alone is enough to scare it away. If it keeps approaching, keep spraying short blasts, one after another.
- Leave the area: When the bear stops or retreats, back away slowly. Do not run or make sudden movements. Keep an eye on the bear to make sure it’s not following you.
Tips for Using Bear Spray
Be sure you can use bear spray where you’re going: Some locations prohibit the use of bear spray, such as Yosemite National Park. So, before you leave home, check online or call the land management agency for the area you’re going to and ask if bear spray is permitted.
Be sure your bear spray isn’t expired: Bear spray has a shelf life of about 4 years. After that, it can lose its propellent, which means the spray won’t travel as far. The potency of the pepper does not diminish with time, though. Always check the expiration date on the canister before heading out on a trip.
Consider practicing with an inert canister: Manufacturers of bear spray typically sell inert canisters. If you’re headed into bear country, it’s not a bad idea to get one and practice with it. You can experiment with aiming into different wind conditions and get a feel for what it’s like to press the trigger.
Be careful not to accidentally spray yourself: But if you do, the effects are temporary and should wear off within 30 – 45 minutes. Flush any exposed areas, including your eyes, with large amounts of water. Find fresh air.
Do not spray clothing or equipment with bear spray: Bear spray is only effective if it is airborne. Do not spray it on clothing or gear—it doesn’t work like that, and doing so may actually attract wildlife.
Bear spray cannot be taken on airplanes: TSA does not allow bear spray on planes, either in checked luggage or carry-on bags. If you’re traveling by airplane and need bear spray at your destination, plan ahead and research local stores that carry it, such as REI.
Store bear spray in a cool, dry place away from kids and pets: When you’re not out on an adventure, keep your bear spray somewhere that’s below 120°F and above 32°F. Don’t store it in a hot vehicle or in direct sunlight—it could explode. Also, make sure your kids and pets can’t get ahold of it.
Continue to be bear aware: Just because you have bear spray at your side, doesn’t mean you can let your guard down. You still need to be diligent about keeping your camp clean, storing food properly, making noise while you hike and employing other bear deterrent techniques. Learn more in our article, Backpacking in Bear Country.