Does Bear Spray Actually Work Against Bears?

by Derrick | Last Updated: May 19, 2022

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?

Bear spray is the number one deterrent available that can help prevent a bear attack while in bear country. 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, close encounters with bears aren’t overly common. But even just one encounter is dangerous. It’s better to be prepared and carry bear spray and you don’t need it than have a close bear encounter and not be prepared.

One common fear is whether 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 that 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 in 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:


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%.


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

The 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-second 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.


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.


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.


  • 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


  • 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. The 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.


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


  • Minimum range is relatively small
  • Canister is 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). The 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.


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


  • Capsaicin level of 1.34%

How to Deploy Bear Spray and Use It Safely

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.

The 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.

Also, be sure to read the directions on the specific can of bear spray you purchase. Every bear spray has slightly different directions. Having a full understanding of these directions will ensure the proper process is followed when deploying bear spray.

Lastly, make sure to avoid spraying the full contents of your bear spray can all at once, while not common you may need an additional spray if the bear happens to charge a second time.

Other Methods To Avoid Close Range Bear Encounters

Pre-Trip Planning

Prior to your trip make sure you do some pre-trip planning. Packing bear spray is an important first step, but also understanding what kind of bears are in the area is just as important.

Different kinds of bears have different behavior patterns. For example, black bears are typically more afraid of humans than grizzly bears.

Being able to recognize the different types of bears and understand the different bears’ behavior patterns is important to understand what to do when/if you have a bear encounter.

Make Some Noise When Moving Through The Forest

If you are planning to travel through an area where you might encounter a bear, it is important to make some noise as you go. This will help to avoid any close-range encounters with bears that might be startled by your sudden appearance.

If you are hiking with a group, generally speaking, the noise of movement and general talking is enough to give any bears in the area proper notification.

The real issue is when traveling alone, where you can often move very quietly through the woods. When traveling alone in bear country you should make a concerted effort to clap your hands, sing, or talk loudly enough that a bear will hear you coming from some distance away. Worst case, tie a small bell to your pack so that any movement will create some noise, or carry a small radio.

Make sure to keep making noise as you move through the area and keep an eye out.

Remember, a bear’s natural reaction when encountering something new is to flee. By making some noise, you are giving the bear time to realize a human is in the area and allow them to move on.

Expect Bears To Not Always Follow The Same Patterns

Another common mistake is to expect bears to always behave in the same way. Just because a bear did not react to you before, does not mean they will not in the future. Remember you may not always be interacting with the same bear!

Dealing With Aggressive Bears

Aggressive bears can be found in many different parts of the world, and dealing with them can be a difficult task. In North America, for example, there are two species of aggressive bears that are commonly encountered: the grizzly bear and the brown bear. These animals are both large and powerful, and they can be very dangerous if they feel threatened.

If you encounter an aggressive bear, it is important to stay calm and avoid making any sudden movements. If the bear feels threatened, it may attack. Try to back away slowly and make yourself as small as possible.

Aggressive bears are also attracted to food, so avoid carrying anything that might smell appetizing. If worst comes to worst and the bear does attack, try to protect your head and neck. These are the most vulnerable parts of your body, and they are also the areas that will cause the most damage if you are bitten or clawed.

Aggressive bears are definitely a force to be reckoned with, but if you use caution and common sense, you should be able to avoid any problems.

Are Black Bears Aggressive?

Black bears can be aggressive, but typically only if they feel threatened.

For the most part, black bears are shy and reclusive animals that do their best to avoid humans. However, if a black bear feels cornered or threatened, it will not hesitate to defend itself with its powerful claws and teeth.

In rare instances, black bears have even been known to attack humans in a predatory manner. Fortunately, such attacks are incredibly rare, and black bear encounters can usually be avoided by taking precautions such as making noise and carrying bear spray when hiking in areas where these magnificent animals live.

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.