At this time of year, many anglers and wilderness lovers take trips into the back country, often to places where there are wild bears. In the vast majority of situations, humans and bears coexist peacefully in the wild, and tens of thousands of encounters occur without incident each year. However, when bears become aggressive, you need to react quickly to protect yourself. The best way to do this is to carry a can of bear repellent, which sprays concentrated capsaicinoids — the stuff that makes hot peppers hot — to cause irritation in the bear’s eyes, nose, and throat.
Not sure if bear spray really works? In July 2010, the famous zoo keeper Jack Hanna became successful used pepper spray to scare off a young male grizzly This threatened Hanna and several others huddled on a narrow ledge in Glacier National Park. That same weekend, pepper spray was used by two other hiking groups, a Student Conservation Corps worker and a park ranger. In all cases involving both grizzlies and black bears, the spray proved 100% effective and no one was injured.
I always used pepper spray,” Hanna told a reporter at the time. “You don’t need it for years, but when you need it, you really need it.”
Spray vs Guns
When most people think of bear protection, they think gun…big gun. In fact, I’ve had a Winchester Model 1300 with me my entire career as a tour guide in Alaska. But relying on a weapon poses several problems, not the least of which is it’s quite difficult to shoot accurately at an animal that’s attacking you – especially when the encounter is quick and unexpected, as is usually the case. Unless the user is particularly proficient with a firearm, they risk injuring and injuring the bear more aggressive. Also, weapons are heavy and unwieldy, making them unsuitable for many hiking trips.
But there’s an even more compelling reason to use bear spray: it works better. According to a 2008 study conducted by Dr. Stephen Herrero was co-authored – whose Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance (1985) is the definitive book on the subject – bear spray is far more effective than a gun at deterring bear attacks. Researchers studied bear spray use in Alaska over a 20-year period and found that the spray stopped “undesirable” behavior in grizzlies an impressive 94% of the time and 100% in black bears. (UPDATE: These numbers have had some scrutiny. Check the link at the bottom of the page for a story about Outside.)
Use of bear spray
However, simply purchasing a can of bear spray is not enough to protect yourself. You’ll have to learn how to use it and then carry it in an accessible holster so you can grab it quickly. All bear sprays are most effective when sprayed directly in a bear’s face, giving it a neat snout full of irritants, but sometimes just a puff is enough to scare off a curious bear. Be aware that the spray is not a bear dismissive Spraying in camp attracts bears rather than deters them. How to use bear spray in the field:
- When a bear approaches do not run. This can trigger a predatory response that will cause the bear to start chasing you. This is a race you will not win. Try to stay calm.
- Remove the bear spray can from the holster and remove the safety clip.
- Aim for the bear and slightly down and adjust the crosswind if necessary.
- Spray a short burst when the animal is 15 meters away.
- If the bear keeps coming, fire it again from 25 feet away, aiming straight for the face.
- Punch him straight in the eyes from a distance of 10 feet.
In most cases, you won’t get to the last step, but rest assured that bear spray can stop even an aggressive grizzly that’s practically overhead. Author and naturalist E. Donnall Thomas described one such incident that occurred in southeast Alaska:
“An aggressive young brown bear had come within 3 to 12 feet despite all the usual yelling and a friend had a rifle trained on its muzzle,” Thomas told me. “As soon as the spray hit the bear, the animal turned and galloped down the river.”
Safety in bear country
Although bear spray is an effective deterrent, Herrero says, “Don’t bet your life on it.” This means that if you are in bear territory, you should take every precaution to ensure you don’t have to use your spray. Find out about proper food storage, where to set up camp, avoiding areas where you are likely to surprise a bear, etc. Although you cannot guarantee it will not be a dangerous encounter comes with a bear, you can definitely make the situation less likely.
Also, don’t count on a single can of bear spray for an entire group. Anyone entering bear country should be equipped with their own spray. Also, have canisters readily available in the cooking, sleeping, and toilet areas of your camp. Be sure to check the expiration dates on all canisters before heading out into the wild.
Many experts have likened bear spray to a seat belt: you’ll probably never need it, but if you do, it could mean the difference between life and death.