Do I Need Bear Spray When I Hike?

Bear spray is one of the essential items we carry on hikes. Do I need bear spray? Hopefully not. But my goal is to be prepared in any circumstance.

I like to read articles about outdoor life. In researching for this article I came across a writeup in Adventure Journal about why the author doesn’t use bear spray. To sum up his two main reasons:

  1. It’s inhumane
  2. He wants to experience the wild on it’s terms

While respect each persons approach to outdoor life, I disagree with point #1. He fails to take into consideration that if he is ever attacked by a bear, the park authorities hunt down the bear and euthanize it. That, to me is inhumane. (Why bears are euthanized)

Not to mention the fact that bears recover from repellant spray. It irritates for a moment causing them to get out of the way, but it is non-lethal (and not harmful). You will be scarred (ilterally) for life if attacked by bear. That is, if you survive at all.

Our rule of thumb: Respect wildlife, but protect yourself.

By understanding bear behavior and being aware of your surroundings you can do both.

Before we jump in to the details, this video from How To Survive will be helpful.

How To Use Bear Spray

There are two basic steps to deploy repellant spray; opening the cannister, and using it effectively.

1) Know how to open and deploy the spray

It’s important to get to know your spray cannister. How do you release the safety? How do you pull the trigger? Where do you spray?

These are crucial things you need to know. Don’t wait until you are in the woods to figure it out. Practice removing your cannister from the holster, removing the safety, and squeezing the trigger.

You should do this until you are comfortable handling the cannister. You should practice without actually squeezing the trigger. If you prefer, there are ‘practice cannister’ you can purchase here.

  • Remove from your holster
  • Flip the safety pin to expose the trigger
  • Aim low in the front of the bear
  • Squeeze the trigger

In this video, Bob Legasa teaches how to successfully deploy assault spray.

2) Release the Spray

Spray is only meant to be used if a bear is charging. Do not use it just to ‘shush’ off a bear in the area. Instead, make your presence known and slowly back away (without running).

  • Deploy a small burst when the bear is 60 feet away
  • Release the 2nd blast when the bear reaches 30 feet from you
  • Spray low (not high)
  • Build a wall of spray by moving the stream back and forth
  • Continue spraying until bear stops charging
  • If the bear continues charging through the spray, drop to the ground face down using your hands to cover the back of your head.
  • Once bear leaves, you should leave the area.

Rangers actually deploying spray on a bear with her cubs.

Two hikers use spray against a young bear.

Is Bear Repellant Effective?

Studies show that bear spray is more effective than any other deterrent against a charging bear. Why is it effective?

Bear spray works when other deterrents fail. The U.S. Department of the Interior says that bear spray not only works in 85% of bear encounters, it is also more effective than firearms and other deterrents.

Tom Smith is a biologist with BYU who has studied bear behavior for years. He recommends bear spray over a firearm. A 2008 study showed spray was effective in halting an agressive bear in 92% of the cases.

“People should consider carrying a non-lethal deterrent such as bear spray,” said Smith, a gun owner himself. “It’s much easier to deploy, it’s less cumbersome and its success rate in these situations is higher than guns.”

Spray is non-lethal and easy to use. It requires little training to use: Simply aim and shoot — there is no need to take time to aim like with a firearm or even throw rocks or sticks like those who do not carry deterrents at all.

It is light and easy to carry. It weighs about as much as a can of soda, so you can easily carry it in a backpack or belt pouch.

It is also less dangerous than other deterrents. Unlike weapons such as firearms, it doesn’t go off accidentally if dropped or bumped. And bear spray won’t injure you like pepper spray or mace can if it accidentally gets on your hands and in your eyes.

When To Spray a Bear

Only release a repellant against a charging bear. If the animal is in your area looking for food, let them know you are present and slowly move away from the area. As I mentioned earlier, do not run. This triggers the chase mechanism in wild animals.

Bears will usually leave the area if humans are present, unless they have a strong reason to be there:

  • This is there feeding ground
  • Their cubs are nearby

Treat them and their area with respect and only fight back if charged.

Any time you are hiking in bear country, it is smart to carry bear repellent.

How Bear Spray Works

Bear spray is a mixture of oleoresin capsicum (an extract from hot peppers) and compressed gas. 

The liquid is sprayed out an aerosol canister at high speed and force. As the spray gets into a bear’s eyes, nose and mouth, it causes temporary blindness, choking, coughing and nausea. The bear usually will break off its attack immediately after being sprayed.

What Are The Ingredients in Bear Spray?

The major ingredients that are used in bear spray are capsaicin and related capsaicinoids. The spray is composed of a specially formulated state of these ingredients that is referred to as Oleoresin Capsicum. The bear repellent extract contains 8% to 10% of capsaicinoids.

Many people think pepper spray is the same as bear spray, but it is not. Pepper spray is a chemical weapon that causes severe burns. The main ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, but it also contains several other chemicals such as propellants, thickening agents and coloring agents.

People who use bear spray often use pepper spray when they want protection from humans or animals other than bears. However, bear spray contains only capsaicinoids.

What Is The Best Bear Spray To Carry?

There are several good options for hikers. Here are out top recommendations.

Bear Spray vs Mace

Are Bear Spray and Pepper Spray the Same? No. They are not the same. We’ve already looked at the ingredients in wildlife repellent. But what about pepper spray?

Many people think pepper spray is the same as bear spray, but it is not. Pepper spray is a chemical weapon that causes severe burns. The main ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, but it also contains several other chemicals such as propellants, thickening agents and coloring agents.

The strength of pepper spray is measured on the same scale that’s used to measure the heat level of peppers, Scoville heat units (SHU). The higher the heat unit, the higher the level of capsaicin. Typical pepper spray is rated between 500,000 and 5,000,000 SHU. A jalapeno is only about 8,000 SHU.

– TBOTech

The main ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum (OC), which causes a burning sensation to the skin and eyes. Bear spray is also composed of ingredients that cause a burning sensation.

Active ingredient include:

  • Oleoresin Capsicum Oil
  • Capsaicin (the ingredient that adds heat to chili peppers)

The difference is pepper spray has higher concentration of capsaicin. Pepper spray is also deployed in a straight stream; bear spray delivers a broader cloud or mist.

Can I Use Bear Spray For Self Defense?

Bear spray is designed for wildlife, not humans. A regular pepper spray is better for self-defense because it contains a mixture of ingredients formulated to irritate people.

How To Carry Bear Spray

The goal is to keep it close so you can access it quickly. I’ve carried bear spray two different ways.

First, I keep it hooked on my backpack strap near my chest.

Second, I carry it on my belt like a sidearm.

Both ways work well but I prefer to have it on my backpack. It is easier for me to access when carried there. It is a matter of preference.

Never keep it buried in your backpack. The goal is quick access. With that in mind, there is no hard-fast rule of where to carry.

What To Do If A Grizzly Bear Attacks

This video from REI talks about what to know when hiking in bear country, and what to do if you are attacked by a Grizzly Bear.

It’s important to know when a bear is ‘bluffing’ to get you out of the area, and when they are in attack mode.

FAQ on Bear Spray

Is Bear Spray Legal in my State?

While bear spray is legal in most states (check your specific state or park for details), there are limitations on where and how you can purchase it. And it is prohibited in some state parks. There are even some brands forbidden in certain areas.

Bear spray is legal across the United States. It can be purchased even in Hawaii, New York, or Massachusetts, where standard pepper sprays are illegal unless bought locally by certified firearms dealers or pharmacists. – Wikipedia

When in doubt, contact the state park specifically for information. It is also a good idea to ask if bear activity has been recorded where you are hiking.

Will Bear Spray Work on Mountain Lions

Yes. It has been known to work on mountain lions and other preditors.

Will Bear Spray Hurt A Dog?

Yes. It can harm your dog. Most affects are temporary, but it works just like it does on a bear – it causes swelling of the mucous membranes and irritates their eyes and sinus cavities.

How Long Does Bear Spray Last?

The expiration date on most brands is four years. When you purchase a cannister, check the manufactoring date or expiration date to make sure your can will last as long as you need.

How To Dispose of Old Bear Spray

It should not be disposed of like ordinary household products. Each can has disposal recommendations. Make sure you read those direction so you dispose of your product properly.

Some states have recycling bins for hazzardous chemicals. Follow the procedures for your county or state to ensure proper disposal.

A few places to check:

  • Local Fire Department
  • City or County Landfill
  • State Park

When in doubt, contact your local government and ask how you should dispose of hazzardous material. Each city has outlined procedures to follow.

Final Thoughts on Carrying Bear Spray While Hiking

Do I need bear repellent while hiking? The short answer is yes! Since bears are indiginous to most regions in the United States (and other preditors as well), it is a good safety procedure to always carry bear spray.

It can be used in many different scenarios. The rule of thumb in hiking is ‘be prepared.’ One way to prepare is to have something you can quickly access that will deter a wild animal from approaching. Bear spray is the best resource for this.

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