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Bear Spray 101: How to Stay Safe in Bear Country

If you enjoy hiking, camping, or exploring the great outdoors, preparing for encounters with wildlife is essential. While bear attacks are relatively rare, they can be dangerous and even fatal if not handled properly. If you’re hiking in bear country, knowing how to use bear spray is non-negotiable. But how does bear spray work, and what is the difference between bear spray versus pepper spray?

Today, we’ll teach you all you need to know about what it is, how it works, and how to use it. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a novice explorer, these tips will help you stay safe and prepared for any encounter.

So lace up those hiking boots, and let’s get started!

Bear Spray Demonstration and Safety Tips

What Is Bear Spray?

Bear spray is a type of pepper spray specifically designed to stop a bear attack. It typically contains a higher concentration of capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray, than traditional pepper sprays for self-defense against humans.

When you spray it, the capsaicin causes temporary blindness, difficulty breathing, and extreme discomfort, giving you time to escape or for the animal to retreat. It usually comes in a canister with a range of up to 30 feet. However, this defense mechanism is a last resort when other methods fail. 

Bear Spray Is NOT a Repellant, or Shield

Bear spray can help subdue an aggressive animal, but it is not a repellant, or shield. Spraying the substance on your body, tent, or other gear will not repel or keep bears away from you. Nor will spraying it scare it away from a distance. Finally, carrying bear spray should not make you seek out or approach bears deliberately. It is not a substitute for practicing safe avoidance techniques. Furthermore, it should ONLY be used during an aggressive confrontation with a bear.

Carrying a bear canister during your adventures does not guarantee your safety, and you must know how and when to use it for full effectiveness. We dive deep into proper bear spray usage later in this article to increase your chances of escaping a bear attack unscathed.

Also, following the appropriate safety measures for camping in areas with dangerous wildlife is essential. How you store your food, cook meals, and use the restroom can help you avoid dangerous wildlife, and we will cover these techniques later in this article.

Hiker with bear spray
Bear spray is a must for avid hikers.

When Should You Carry Bear Spray?

If you are hiking or camping in bear country, you should always carry bear spray as a precautionary measure. Bears can wander into parking lots, around visitor centers, and right into your campsite in bear country. Even if you don’t plan on encountering wildlife, it’s essential to prepare for the possibility. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Does Bear Spray Work on Grizzlies?

Bear sprays can be effective at stopping any bear attack, including a grizzly attack. Studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have actually shown that when properly used, they are more effective at stopping grizzly bear charges than firearms. In fact, the use of firearms is likely to increase your chances of serious injury, whereas more bear spray users escape injury most of the time. Grizzlies are generally more aggressive and likely to attack, but the bear spray can be very helpful when you use it correctly.

“Because the grizzly bear is federally protected in the Lower 48 States as a threatened species, it is a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to shoot one, except in self-defense and defense of others during an imminent attack.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

It’s worth noting that not all sprays are equal, and no spray is 100% effective. Look for a spray with a capsaicin concentration of at least 1%. These are typically more effective at stopping aggressive encounters.

Fascinated by grizzlies? Learn about the amazing efforts at Yellowstone National Park to revitalize this endangered species.

Bear Spray vs. Pepper Spray

Bear and pepper spray are aerosol sprays that work for self-defense, but they have some differences. Bear spray typically contains a higher concentration of capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray. It also has a higher volume of spray to cover a larger area and pack a longer punch. As it can shoot up to 30 feet, you can keep a safer distance from the animal.

On the other hand, pepper spray is primarily used for human attackers and has a much shorter range, typically around six to 12 feet, versus bear spray, which has a higher volume. It usually has a lower capsaicin concentration and a smaller spray volume.

Using pepper spray on bears versus bear spray is generally not recommended, as it may not be strong enough and could agitate the bear. Similarly, using bear spray on humans can cause extreme harm and injury.

bear in parking lot
Even if you aren’t in bear country, it is always a good idea to pack bear spray for your hike.

How to Use Bear Spray

If you plan on hiking or camping in bear country, carrying bear spray is an effective way to stay safe in the event of an aggressive encounter. However, simply having it is not enough; you must know how to use it.

Be Prepared

You never really know when you’ll encounter dangerous wildlife, but you definitely don’t want to wait until the bear is in front of you to start figuring out your bear spray. Ideally, you should take the time to familiarize yourself with the canister and its parts.

Nearly all bear spray canisters have a safety, a trigger, a belt loop or velcro strap, and a pouch that holds the cylindrical can of pressurized pepper spray. The safety on the trigger is so it does not spray unexpectedly. Keep the safety on at all times, as it is simple and quick to remove. If this goes off indoors or in a vehicle, everyone will have pepper in their face.

It’s also essential to have your canister easily accessible. Put it in a pocket or attach it to your belt, as you’ll waste precious time digging through a backpack to get to it. Some encounters can happen very quickly, and the last thing you want to do is make sudden movements to get to your safety equipment.

Remove the Safety

If you experience a close bear encounter, the first thing to do is draw the spray and remove the safety. You want to do this before the situation escalates to the point where you need to use it. To remove the safety clip, place your index finger through the loop and pull back with your thumb. The orange plastic clip will pop off and expose the trigger.

grizzly bear on hillside
Bear spray can shoot up to 30 feet, which can help you keep a safe distance from the bear.

Aim

With the canister now armed, the next thing you need to do is aim at the creature. You want to direct it just ahead of its face so it will run through the cloud once you spray it. Keep in mind that the spray often drifts up, so aim just slightly downward from the center face.

However, you must be mindful of the direction of the wind if it is brisk. While bear spray can work on animals, it’s also effective on humans. Spraying into the wind can cause the cloud to come back into your eyes and anyone standing near you. If you thought fending off an attack was hard, try it while partially blinded. Trust us; it won’t be pleasant or easy.

Know When To Pull The Trigger, and When Not To

This is the hardest part: waiting. When an aggressive bear is threatening or bluff-charging you, it’s important to remember that you will have a limited amount of spray available. You’ll want to make the most out of every drop to ensure its effectiveness. Pull the trigger too early, and you could find yourself with an angry animal and an empty canister.

Bear spray is typically most effective at distances between 20 and 30 feet. You’ll need to keep your cool and avoid spraying too early. Luckily, attacks without a warning or two are rare.

You want to do all you can to de-escalate the situation and avoid using your canister. Generally, it’s best to back away slowly to avoid escalating the encounter. While there are some cases where you should stand your ground, it’s typically a last resort.

Spray Until The Bear Changes Direction

Unfortunately, you can’t de-escalate every situation. If the bear really charges, you must spray it to protect yourself and anyone hiking with you. When that time comes, spray until the bear changes directions. Most bear spray canisters will provide between five and nine seconds of spray when you put them to work.

Back Away Calmly

Once you have released the spray, back away calmly but promptly. Hopefully, the bear spray will work and the animal retreats in the opposite direction, and you can slowly and deliberately escape from the encounter. Don’t turn your back, and keep eyes on the beast for as long as possible.

Avoid making any sudden movements or loud noises. You could startle the bears and trigger another defensive or aggressive reaction. If they continue to follow you, speak calmly but loudly to them.

Pro Tip: No bear spray on hand? Find out Can You Escape a Bear By Climbing a Tree?

grizzly brown bears walking in field
While hiking alone, stay alert for any signs of wildlife that may harm you.

Safety Tips for Adventures in Bear Country

If you’re planning an adventure in bear country, taking precautions is vital to ensure your safety. Encounters can be scary and dangerous, but following simple safety tips can minimize the risks. 

Practice With Bear Spray First

The first time you use your bear spray should not be in a tense situation. Like when using a fire extinguisher, practicing at least once before heading out into the unknown is a good idea.

If you’re new, you can purchase practice canisters. These are smaller and less expensive than normal-size versions. You can practice by setting up a target safely away from humans and pets. Remember to consider the wind direction when placing the mark, and try aiming in different directions of the wind.

Take the time to learn how to remove the safety and activate the spray. You can see how far the can will spray and how to aim it.

Be Aware

When hiking, you must be constantly aware of your surroundings. While you may have curated the perfect playlist for your hike, we suggest you leave your headphones at home. Your music may mask rustling in the bushes or other warning signs of a potentially dangerous situation.

Being aware also means using your eyes during your hike. It’s not uncommon to find feces and other markers near where animals have been recently. Use all your senses to your advantage and stay safe.

Pro Tip: Use this hiking hack for How to Identify Big Animal Tracks on the Trail to stay aware of your surroundings.

Make Noise

Making noise is an important safety tip when hiking or camping in bear country. Bears are usually shy and often avoid human contact if they know you’re around. By making noise, you can alert them to your presence and avoid surprising them, reducing the likelihood of an encounter.

This can be done by talking loudly, singing, or clapping, especially around crests or corners in the trail. The noise should be consistent and loud enough for animals to hear, especially when moving through areas with limited visibility, like dense vegetation or around noisy waterfalls.

Travel in Groups

Travel in a group if you want to avoid a potentially dangerous encounter. If you’re hiking with others, you’ll likely be conversing and naturally making noise. Most animals will probably hear you and your friends and vacate the area to avoid an encounter.

Additionally, if you encounter an aggressive animal, you can increase your chances of them leaving you alone by spreading out. Many animals will high tail it out of a situation if they feel outnumbered or disadvantaged.

Bear in forest
After spraying your bear spray, back away slowly and do not turn your back from the bear.

Stay on Designated Trails

Staying on designated trails is advised when hiking or camping. Trails are typically marked and maintained to ensure that hikers and campers can navigate the terrain safely. They are also often patrolled by rangers who are more familiar with the animal movements. Be mindful of closures in areas with high bear populations and frequent sightings. 

Store Food Properly

Properly storing your food is essential when spending time in these areas. Bears have an excellent sense of smell and are attracted to the scent of food. Correctly storing your food can help reduce the likelihood of attracting animals to your campsite or hiking trail.

When available, always use bear-resistant containers and storage lockers. They’re tough and able to keep your stuff away from hungry wildlife. Some campgrounds provide them at campsites and require that guests use them.

Pro Tip: Use these tips on How to Use an Ursack Bear Bag the Right Way to keep you and your food safe from bears.

Do Not Run

Do not run during an encounter with a bear. Running can trigger predatory instincts and cause them to see you as prey. While stocky, they’re actually quite swift, and you will lose this race. Do not try to climb a try.

Instead of running, speak calmly and loudly and back away slowly. Avoid eye contact and appear as non-threatening as possible by standing still but slowly waving your arms so they recognize you as human. Avoid sudden movements or loud noises, which could startle them and trigger a defensive or aggressive response.

If they charge, use bear spray as a last resort to stop them and protect yourself.

Survival Myth: Bear Spray VS Self Defense Pepper Spray

Be Prepared, Not Scared in Bear Country

Being prepared when entering bear country is crucial for your safety and the well-being of all animals. While feeling scared or anxious in such situations is understandable, knowledge and preparation can go a long way in mitigating those fears. By following the tips we’ve shared, you can minimize the risk of negative encounters with wildlife. Bears are an essential part of our natural world, and by respecting them and their habitat, we can coexist in harmony.

Have you ever encountered a bear while hiking? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

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She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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David

Sunday 28th of May 2023

Thank you for a nicely done article! It's written in the context of Grizzly bears. Strategy when encountering a Black bear is a little different. Here's a link.https://www.nps.gov/articles/bearattacks.htm