Does Bear Spray Actually Work Against Bears?

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Do you love to camp, hike and otherwise spend time outdoors?  While the peaceful serenity of nature is undeniable, there are also risks you’ll want to be aware of.  If you suddenly encounter a bear, do you know how to stay safe?

Sprays are the number one bear deterrent available.  It’s easy-to-use, non-lethal and effective.  You should always bring bear spray along when spending any time in nature.

Why Use Bear Spray?

You could be an avid outdoors adventurer and never run into a single bear your entire life.  But even just one encounter is dangerous.  It’s better to be prepared and you don’t need it than to need the repellant that you don’t have.

One common fear is it easy to use, thankfully it is!  You don’t have to be a “crack shot” to stop the bear in its tracks.  Instead, the spray creates a cloud of chemicals which targets the bear’s eyes, ears, nose and lungs.  Precision “shooting” isn’t necessary to stay safe.

Bear spray is much more effective than a firearm.  Even if you’re an experienced hunter, you’ll likely have a difficult time quickly aiming at a bear displaying aggressive behaviors.  Plus, it’s practically impossible to kill a bear in just one or two shots.  A wounded animal will continue to charge and can be more dangerous than before.  While the animal might eventually die due to its injuries, it’ll happen far too late to save you.

It is easy to carry!  You can hang a can from your backpack or belt.  Lightweight and small in size, it won’t be a burden when hiking or camping.  Additionally, it is affordable and available both online and from practically all major outdoor retailers.

While bear attacks are rare, proper preparation is vital.  Plus, bears aren’t the only danger.  Bear spray is an effective deterrent for any animal you could potentially encounter outdoors including coyotes, mountain lions, elk and even other people.  Because the spray is non-lethal, you don’t have to worry about accidentally killing anyone either.

What are the Active Ingredients?

Bear spray is essentially super-powerful pepper spray.  The main ingredient in bear spray is a chemical called capsaicin, which is the active ingredient in chili peppers.  This atomized cloud of capsaicin completely disorients the bear’s senses.  Contact with the cloud instantly and significantly affects the bear’s ability to see, smell, hear and breathe.

Interestingly, small amounts of capsaicin provide medicinal benefits for humans.  Topical solutions are used to relieve muscle, joint and nerve pain.  However, a much larger amount of capsaicin is used in bear spray than these topical creams.

Note that bear spray affects every type of mammal, including people, so you’ll want to consider wind direction and other factors when using it (we’ll go over this in additional detail below).

Choosing the Right Bear Spray

Not all bear spray is the same.  You’ll want to look carefully at the features of the spray.  Here’s what to consider:

Strength

You can determine the strength of the bear spray by the total percent of capsaicin.  You want the spray to have at least 2% capsaicin.  Less won’t be as effective against an animal as large as a bear.  Interestingly, a higher percentage of capsaicin will last longer, but the effects won’t occur any quicker.  So there’s no need to spend more on spray with a capsaicin percentage over 2%.

Distance/Range

The ideal minimum spray range is about 30 feet, which is enough space for the spray to stop the bear before it reaches you but still far enough away to give you room to escape.  While you can choose a spray with a larger range, you probably don’t want to go beyond 50 feet or so.  Wind and other environmental factors can make aiming more difficult at longer ranges.

Continuous Spray Duration

The ability to create a large cloud quickly is vital to quickly stopping a bear.  But not all spray cans have the same burst speeds.  The can should be able to deliver a long, continuous spray.  Ideally, the spray should last at least five to seven seconds when holding down the trigger.

Container Size

Minimum container size should be at least 7.9 ounces (which is 225 grams).  Bears can weigh up to 800 pounds, so you’ll need to carry enough spray to incapacitate them successfully.  Otherwise, the bear will be irritated but not stopped.  A canister of 7.9 ounces should allow you at least two full five-seconds sprays.

Additionally, many people carry an additional can.  This provides a back-up in case the first can runs out or fails.  For maximum safety, ensure every adult in your group has a canister for themselves.

Expiration

Because bear spray is usually organic, it doesn’t last forever.  Most sprays will expire within three or four years after the date of manufacture.  Be sure and keep a close eye on the expiration date.  It can often be easy to overlook because – at least, ideally – you won’t be using the spray very often.

Recommendations

Not sure which bear spray is best?  Here are three products we recommend:

Frontiersman Bear Spray

Containing 2.0% major capsaicinoids, this is one of the strongest bear sprays allowed by the EPA.  The maximum range is 30 feet with a dispersal rate of 45 grams per second.  It quickly creates a heavy cloud of spray to stop even a large, charging bear.

An in-house HPLC lab helps ensure reliable operation.  According to a study from the University of Utah, this spray can have up to a 30% less frequent failure rate than other types of canisters.  This product has a three-year shelf life with a manufacturing date printed directly on the label.

Pros:

  • Maximum strength with 2% capsaicin
  • 30% more efficient operation than similar spray cans
  • A maximum range of 30 feet
  • Quick dispersal rate of 45 grams per second

Cons:

  • The trigger can feel loose
  • Best for single-use operation

Counter Assault Bear Spray

This 10.2 ounce canister of bear spray is lightweight and easy to carry with you while still providing plenty of protection.  Spray reaches between 12 and 32 feet.  Dispersal is fast, too, with the entire can able to be sprayed in under nine seconds.

Plus, a safety cap helps prevent accidental discharge.  It can be safely stored in a backpack without worry about unintentional trigger pull.  A safety tie glows in the dark so the product can easily be used in low-light conditions.

Pros:

  • Easy to transport
  • Glow-in-the-dark safety tie
  • A range of 12 to 32 feet
  • Complete dispersal in nine seconds

Cons:

  • Minimum range is relatively small
  • Canister not very large

Guard Alaska Spray

This pack of two nine-ounce canisters provides plenty of reliable protection.  Each canister can be completely emptied in nine seconds (for an impressive dispersal rate of one ounce per second).  Total range is between 15 and 20 feet.

This formula has a total capsaicinoid level of 1.34%.  While that percentage is less than the others, the UltraMag shotgun canister allows for a quick, wide cloud dispersal which should instantly stop a bear in its tracks.  Plus, the spray contains no flammable or ozone-depleting substances.

Pros:

  • UltraMag shotgun canister for fast, wide dispersal
  • Dispersal rate of nine ounces in nine seconds
  • Includes two separate canisters

Cons:

  • Capsaicin level of 1.34%

How to Safely Use Bear Spray

The time to learn how to use the spray is well before you have to face down a charging bear.  The first thing to know is that accessibility is key.  If you can’t reach the bear spray quickly, it won’t be able to help you.  Keep the canister clipped to a backpack or your belt.  You can store it in a backpack when driving, but the canister should always be easy to grab when you’re in bear country.

Spray takes a few seconds to reach a bear’s respiratory system.  The earlier you can spray, the safer you’ll be.  The main idea is to create a wall aerosol roughly 25 to 30 feet in front of you.  This creates an invisible barrier the bear will have to pass through.

Wind can be a significant factor.  Generally, you’ll want to aim just below the bear’s eyes and nose.  Of course, pulling out your bear spray to face down a charging bear is a stressful situation.  The main thing to keep in mind is to spray low to the ground.  The cloud of aerosol will still affect the bear but is less likely to be carried away by the wind.

Final Thoughts

Does bear spray work to prevent bear attacks?  Absolutely!  It’s the most effective way to not only protect yourself against bears but against other potentially dangerous wild animals.  Bear spray is far more useful and safer than a firearm.

Even though you could go your entire life without encountering a bear, just one incident can potentially be incredibly dangerous.  Fortunately, our complete guide to bear spray will help keep you safe.

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