Best Bear Spray: How to Handle Bear Encounters

Interactions between bears and humans are on the rise as bear populations bounce back and humans increasingly wander into their territory. More and more people are starting to realize that bear spray is the best choice for protecting against an attack.

In this article, we’ll run through the features of bear spray and review some popular brands to help you choose the right one.

safety in bear country
Bear spray is much more effective than bells. And it’s even been proven to be more effective than firearms: a 2008 study in Alaska found that spray was 92% effective against brown bears, 90% effective against black bears and 100% effective against polar bears.

It has the added advantage of preventing us from running away, the worst thing you can do as it encourages them to chase you.

Last but not least, bear spray is much more humane than injuring or killing an animal with a firearm or other weapon.

You should carry spray anytime you’re in bear country. This includes when hiking, camping, fishing, kayaking, hunting, biking, etc. or visiting a national park where there is a risk of running into bears.

Keep it handy when you’re cooking, eating, going to the bathroom or sleeping. It is NOT a substitute for good camp cleanliness and proper food storage protocols. If you haven’t already got your canister, or don’t know how to hang a bear bag – see this in-depth tutorial.

Remember that “bear country” means just that. We are visitors in their home, so do everything possible to avoid encounters – it’s the bear that pays the price when things go wrong.
Bear spray is explosive and it’s not allowed on the plane, even in your checked luggage, so national parks often rent out cans of it.

But, as they last for several years, you might as well buy one if you’re driving to your destination.

After all, you’re paying for peace of mind – but the relatively small investment is definitely worth the lives of you, your loved ones and the bear!

Best Bear Spray: Reviews

FRONTIERSMAN Bear Spray


At a Glance:

The Good…
  • 2% capsaicin, the maximum allowed by the EPA
  • 30 ft/9 m range (7.9 oz.), 35 ft range (9.2 oz.), the furthest of the sprays on this list
  • Works against all North American bear species
  • Glow-in-the-dark safety clip for ease of use in the dark
  • No need to shake the canister before using
  • Shoots a powerful burst (up to 45 g/s) (highly effective but difficult to control and quick to empty)
  • Claims to have eliminated the 30% failure rate of most pepper sprays through in-house testing
The Bad…
  • A bit of a short shelf life – 3 years from date of manufacture (listed on can)
  • Glow-in-the-dark safety clip doesn’t glow for very long
  • Both sizes (7.9 oz. and 9.2 oz.) fairly large so difficult to pack
  • Safety clip easy to lose as it comes completely off
  • Holster sold separately (but is a good one)
Frontiersman is one of the most popular bear sprays on the market, with the longest range and a nifty glow-in-the-dark safety clip.

This is a great choice except if you are jogging, as even the smaller size is pretty bulky.

10.2 oz. Counter Assault Bear Deterrent


At a Glance:

The Good…
  • Decent range of 12-32 ft
  • 9.2 s spray for the 10.2 oz. canister, the longest on this list (approximately 7 s for the 8.1 oz. canister)
  • Safety cap is easy to remove with one thumb
  • 2% capsaicin, the maximum allowed by the EPA
  • Glow-in-the-dark safety clip with safety tie to prevent you losing it
  • Sold with a holster
  • Shelf life of 4 years from date of manufacture
The Bad…
  • Quality of the holster a bit flimsy and too tight to easily remove the spray can
  • Larger size can be awkward to carry
Counter Assault Deterrent is popular, with an impressive spray time and a holster included in the deal.

Bear Guard Alaska Bear Pepper Spray


At a Glance:

The Good…
  • EPA approved repellent for all species of North American bears
  • Environmentally safe – doesn’t have flammable or ozone depleting substances
  • 4 yr shelf life from date of manufacture
  • Comes with holster and belt loop
  • Can be used with one hand after removing safety clip
  • Relatively long spray time
The Bad…
  • Range is a bit short (15-20 ft)
  • Safety clip is not attached and can get lost
Bear Guard Alaska spray has a long shelf life and is easy use. The range is quite short but a spray time of up to 9 seconds should make up for that.

UDAP 12HP Bear Spray


At a Glance:

The Good…
  • Shoots a powerful burst; effective but hard to control and quick to empty
  • Glow-in-the-dark safety clip and chain to stop you losing it
  • Safety cap is easy to remove with one thumb
  • 2% capsaicin, the maximum allowed by the EPA
  • 30 ft range
  • 7.9 oz. (225 g): perfect size, easy to use and easy access from the holster
The Bad…
  • Spray time for the 7.9 oz. can is only 4 s
  • Expiration date of 3 years after manufacture
Like the Frontiersman, UDAP shoots a powerful burst that is over quite quickly.

This is a good option if you’re confident that the bear will be scared off the first time – maybe not so great if this is your only can and you’re planning on being out for a long time.

What to Consider when Choosing Bear Spray

Bear spray has been mostly standardized, and prices are comparable across brands. So the main differences between them are in how they spray: the distance and the force with which it shoots.

It’s nice to have a spray that you can dispense in short bursts to discourage a bear that keeps coming back.

But if it’s windy, you might consider getting a canister that dispenses a short but powerful burst of spray, less affected by the wind. Along with the spray style, there are several other factors to take into consideration:

  • Labeling: Be sure to choose one that is clearly marked for use against bears.
     
  • Total weight: experts recommend choosing a can that weighs at least 7.9 oz. (225 g), with a minimum of 0.857% capsaicin. Bear spray in the US will contain between 1-2% capsaicin.
     
  • Active ingredient: the active ingredient should be capsaicin, derived from oleoresin of capsicum. Capsaicin concentration tends to be 1-2% in the US and 1% in Canada.
Note:
It’s important to understand the difference between oleoresin capsicum and capsaicin content.
Pepper spray for use on humans usually contains 10% oleoresin capsicum, so some people get confused when the active ingredient in bear spray is only listed as 2%.
Oleoresin capsicum is the oil that contains the capsaicin and is not a good way to judge the potency of a spray.
Pepper spray usually contains about half the capsaicin of bear spray.
  • Spray distance: the longer the range, the better; aim for 25-30 ft (8-9 m) so the animal has time to feel the effects before getting too close to you
     
  • Length of spray: the can should fire a cloud/cone for at least 6 and ideally 8 seconds. Recent research has approved cans that have a shorter spray time, provided they dispense a powerful burst. But keep in mind that you may need to spray more than once.
     
  • Shape of spray: the burst should be in a cloud/cone shape; you’re unlikely to find a product that doesn’t. The aim is to create a barrier that he’ll be unwilling to pass through.
     
  • Ease of access and use: don’t carry it in your backpack as you won’t have time to grab it if Yogi is attacking you. Wear it in a holster that attaches to your belt or pack. Some companies have strings attached to their safety clips so you don’t lose them, or glow-in-the-dark features.
     
  • Size: A common complaint is that it is large and bulky; consider getting a 7.9 oz. can (or the next-smallest size available) if this is a concern for you. Of course, the bigger the can the more powerful the spray.

What’s bear spray, and how does it work?

Developed in the 1980’s, as a result of growing concern about the high number of run-ins between bears and humans. Researchers wanted to find a way to deter bears without having to resort to killing them.

Worn in a holster on your belt, shoulder straps, chest harness or backpack, it’s used to create a cloud of irritating spray that will discourage a bear from coming close to you.

It doesn’t cause any long-term harm.

Some people argue that when an animal hears the whoosh of the spray can and the red cloud, this in itself is enough to discourage it from coming any closer.

It’s important to always call it “bear spray” or “bear deterrent” to distinguish it from pepper spray, which is similar, but not identical.

The active ingredient in both is capsaicin, the same ingredient that makes chili peppers hot.

Most manufacturers refer to this as “concentration of major capsaicinoids” or “capsaicin and related capsaicinoids” (CRC).

Capsaicin causes a burning sensation and inflammation of the membranes in the eyes, nose, and lungs; the usual reaction is to flee from the spray.

Bear repellent also contains a carrier (usually propylene glycol) and a propellant (usually nitrogen).

While pepper spray contains about 1.33% capsaicin, bear spray can contain up to 2%. It’s designed to shoot a potent cloud of spray up to 30 ft, while pepper spray emits a short-range, targeted stream of spray into a person’s face.

So pepper spray is pretty ineffective against bears, as by the time they get close enough to be affected, it will be too late!

Studies have shown that bear spray is around 90% successful in deterring attacks from all three types of North American species.

In contrast, firearms have a success rate of only 76-84% and often have the unwanted side effect of injuring the user or hurting the animal and making it more agitated. It’s also easier to create a cloud of spray than accurately aim a firearm in such a stressful situation.

NB: Bear spray does not work like mosquito repellent. Some may even be attracted to the smell! Don’t use it as a preventative measure. Wash it off with vinegar if you get it on yourself or your things.

Safety Features: What to Do if you Spray Yourself

  • Keep the safety tab on at all times except when you are ready to deploy.
  • If you do accidentally spray yourself, rinse the affected areas with clean, cold water and mild soap.
  • Remove contact lenses and contaminated clothing.
  • Move away from the area and avoid breathing in the spray, taking shallow breaths if necessary.
  • Do not rub, or apply lotions or creams as these may trap the chemicals against your skin.
  • Try soothing the swelling with milk, an ice pack or cold towel.
  • It may take up to 20 minutes before you start to feel any relief. If symptoms persist, get medical help.
Some manufacturers recommend testing the can very briefly when you buy it to make sure it is adequately pressurized. You only need to do this once; if you waste too much, then you will need to replace the can. Don’t test the spray near your camp as the odor may attract bears!

Making Your Own Bear Spray

Just Don’t.

This may be tempting, but professional, regulated products are a much safer bet.

What if you don’t manage to pressurize the can properly, or you make a mistake in measuring the potency?

Bear species in the US: Black, Brown, and Polar

North America is home to three types of bears: black, brown, and polar bears. Knowing what species are present in your area, and how to identify them will help you understand how to act.

Alaska is home to all three species and has a larger population than all the other states put together.

Black bears:

a sow and her cubs
Cute cubs, beautiful to watch – let’s Leave No Trace and keep the wildlife wild!

A misleading name, as these critters can be black, brown, white and everything in between.

Compared to grizzlies, they have a flatter profile, more prominent ears, and smaller claws.

Although black bears tend to be smaller than grizzlies, they have been known to weigh as much as 800 lb. They live in 40 of the 50 states.

Have a watch of this short video from Missouri Conservation Department. It contains specific information about black bears – but also general “bear aware” tips:

Brown bears:

best bear spray
Brown bear cubs may look cute, but don’t forget they are wild animals and mama will do anything to protect them!

Grizzlies are the most common type of brown bear found in North America and can range in color from blond to black.

They tend to be bigger than black bears, but this is not a hard and fast rule. The easiest way to tell them apart is by the shoulder hump, which black bears don’t have.

Grizzlies have more concave faces, smaller ears, and larger claws. They live in Washington, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

The average run-in with a brown bear is 3.5 times more dangerous than the average polar bear run-in and 21 times more dangerous than the average black bear encounter.

This video demonstrates bear spray in action to repel a bear. What this video highlights, is how tourism is impacting natural bear behavior in Yellowstone.

Far from being left alone to their foraging, the sow and her cubs are disturbed by noisy tourists. And in the end, it’s the bear that has to move away – not the humans. Don’t be like this, people!

Polar bears:

beautiful white mama bear and cub
There aren’t many places where you’ll just happen into a polar bear – you’ll need to be in Alaska – or better still, Svalbad (Norway).

The biggest of the North American species – in fact, they are the largest land carnivore in the world – found in Alaska. The males can weigh up to 1750 lb. White in appearance (although their skin is actually black), with a longer neck, a skinnier face, and giant furry front paws.

In contrast to other species, only the pregnant females hibernate. Polar bears are incredibly agile and good at jumping. Their prey will often not know they are there until it is too late.

Here’s a lovely BBC video of polar bears taking apart the spycam cameras used to film them – something uplifting!

Bear With Me: How to minimize the Risk of Bear Encounters

There is no 100% foolproof way to avoid encounters. But if you follow these protocols, you can minimize your chances of a violent run-in.

Discuss tactics with your group before you leave and practice using your spray can. Bears often turn violent when they’re surprised so do everything in your power not to surprise them.
Using spray should be a last resort when a bear is close and coming towards you.

In this quick video, an editor from Backpacker Magazine teams up with Frontiersman to demonstrate a good bear safety plan:

  1. Be alert and keep an eye out for fresh tracks, fresh scat and signs of feeding, such as digging, turned-over rocks, torn-up logs, etc. which may indicate that bears are close. Those that are feeding might be too busy to notice you, and you don’t want to surprise a feeding animal.
     
  2. Respect closed areas; you are more likely to get hurt if you leave the trail.
     
  3. Make constant noise, preferably with your voice.
    Sound is especially important when you are in low-visibility areas or at times when a bear might have trouble hearing you, such as next to a roaring river or on a windy day, or if you think you might be upwind.
     
  4. Avoid hiking at dawn, at dusk or at nighttime, especially in the summer as this is when grizzlies are more likely to be out.
     
  5. If you see a bear, do everything you can to keep away from it.
    They protect a “critical space” and are more likely to charge when you get within ten yards. Never run – you won’t outrun him and you’ll trigger the instinct to chase you.One of the benefits of spray is that it forces you to hold your ground instead of running. Monitor the bear’s reaction to see if it looks curious, defensive or aggressive and act accordingly (see below for details).
     
  6. Try to walk with the wind at your back to warn bears of your presence.
     
  7. Hike in groups of 3 or more.
    Researchers found that 91% of people attacked in Yellowstone in the last few decades were hiking alone or with one other person.
     
  8. Avoid attracting them with the smell of human food or other strong scents.
    Bears are quick learners when it comes to food sources so always store your food in a bear canister or a hanging bear bag.
     
  9. Don’t approach carcasses. Bears sometimes guard their food sources and they may be hiding nearby.
     
  10. Never come between a mother and her cubs. She will do everything to defend them.
     
  11. And, of course, always carry your spray can, ideally at least two canisters per group
     

What to do if you see a bear

What to do will depend on how far away it is, what its mood is and several other factors.

  • In the distance:
    If you see one in the distance but they don’t know you’re there, remain downwind and walk away slowly.

  • Curious bear:
    will move slowly and stop frequently, standing on its back legs and sniffing.
    It will hold up its head and wave it from side to side, with its ears forward or to the sides. They rely on their sense of smell so help a curious fella catch your scent by slowly moving upwind.
    If possible, move to a safe space such as a car or building.

  • Surprised or threatened:
    When a bear feels surprised or threatened it will display agitated behavior such as huffing, hissing, growling, snapping its jaws, stomping its feet, panting and looking straight at you.
    It will lower its head and flatten back its ears.
    If this happens, avoid direct eye contact and don’t make sudden movements or loud noises, especially huffing or hissing.
    Often it’s just warning you to stay away, so back off slowly, gauging its reaction as you do. Keep your spray handy.

  • Predatory bear:
    When you think you might be identified as dinner, and maybe being stalked (e.g. seems unafraid, following your or circling you, keep coming back to you or seem weak), then you should get into a car, a hut or other safe place.Stand your ground, don’t run, stay in a group and make loud noises. Prepare your spray and remove the safety catch.

  • Charging: If a bear charges, group together, stand your ground, don’t run, and use your spray. Don’t climb a tree. Don’t ever corner a bear.
    Leave as soon as you safely can.

  • Attacking:
    Only play dead once a bear has already made contact with you, or a split second before it does. Keep your backpack on, lie on your stomach and clasp your hands over your head to protect your back, neck, and face.
    Research since the 1970’s in Yellowstone found that people who played dead during a surprise attack only received minor injuries 75% of the time, versus people who fought back and received severe injuries 80% of the time.
    Once the animal stops attacking you, give it a few minutes to gather its cubs and leave the area before you make a move. Walk away slowly, don’t run.Report the incident to park rangers with details of why the attack happened, how many people were in your group, the location of the incident, etc.

Every bear and every situation is different, and you should always try to gauge the effect of your actions on the animal in question (although: NEVER run and never look it in the eye).

Often you can scare away black bears by acting aggressively, throwing things, yelling at them, picking up sticks to make yourself look bigger, etc.

In contrast, grizzlies, especially mothers with cubs, are best dealt with by walking away slowly. In both cases, if you’re being attacked, your best option is to play dead.

But unlike grizzlies and black bears, polar bears are likely to see you as prey, so playing dead should be your absolute last option.

When it all comes down to your bear spray prowess

Banff National Park rangers give these instructions on how to use spray:

We’ve already covered the steps you can take to minimize the risk of a confrontation. But what do you do if, despite your precautions, you find an angry bear heading towards you?

Now is the time to use your spray to create a barrier in front of you and discourage it from coming any closer.

Of course, you’ll be carrying your can in a holster on your belt or pack where it’s easily accessible – or even in your hand.

Bears can run at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour, which won’t give you much time to fumble around looking for it. If you suspect you might run across a bear it’s smart to pre-emptively take off the safety clip.

If you are being charged, stand your ground and hold the can out in front of you with both hands, one gripping the body of the canister and one aiming the head.

Press the trigger with your thumb, aim low, adjust for wind (you don’t want the spray to go in your face or your skin!) and spray a short burst of a few seconds in a slight side-to-side motion to create a cloud of spray.

Start spraying when the animal is 60 ft away if it’s going fast, or 30 ft away if it’s moving slowly.

The spray will probably take a few seconds to affect the bear, which is why you want to start spraying before it gets too close. Sometimes the sound of the spray and the red cloud is enough to divert a charge.

If the bear keeps charging, enters your tent or otherwise manages to get very close to you, then spray again, this time aiming for its face.

Once it’s retreating or distracted, slowly walk away. Never run.

Once you’re done with the spray (assuming you are still alive), replace the safety clip.

Always store it carefully to prevent it accidentally firing.

How to practice using bear spray

Practice removing the can from the holster and removing the safety clip until it becomes a reflex.

You should also practice spraying – it’s helpful to use a practice spray with no active ingredients such as this one by Frontiersman.

Remember that bear spray can be affected by wind and rain or extreme temperatures. Practice in varying conditions and learn how to spray differently when the bear is close vs. far.

If you’re planning on going to bear country with other people, rehearse beforehand so you are coordinated in the event of an encounter.

There’s nothing worse than a group of hikers panicking and making a dangerous situation worse.

Is it legal to carry bear spray?

Bear spray is legal in the US but banned in some parks (although most parks in bear country encourage carrying it). It’s legal in Canada, but the label must clearly state that it is intended for use against animals, not humans.

The maximum permitted size of a bear spray canister in Canada is 500 mL.

When purchasing spray, be sure it is clearly labeled as bear spray and not pepper spray. Bear spray in the US is regulated by the EPA so look out for the EPA registration and establishment numbers.

In Canada it’s not regulated, so try to buy from a reputable manufacturer.

Shelf life & Storage of your Bear Spray

Typically, about 3-4 years before the propellant starts to lose potency and the spray is no longer as effective.

Replace the can if the seal is compromised, if you have partially used it, if it has been exposed to very hot or very cold temperatures such as inside a hot car (below freezing or above 120 ° F) or if it has passed the expiry date stamped on the can.

Check the expiry date when purchasing and don’t buy anything that expires in less than 3 years. Store it somewhere like a cupboard at home, away from extreme temperatures.

Keep an eye on the weight – if you find it’s losing a lot of weight, the can may have a leak. Replace the canister before it reaches the expiration date, and preferably sometime before that.

Keep in a plastic bag when not in use and when you’re done, always dispose of it in proper recycling facilities.

If you have only used a tiny bit, it may not be necessary to replace it. Test it by spraying for a millisecond; if the range is the same as the range stated on the can, then you’re good to go.

Like all products, there is a chance your can might be faulty. In fact, a University of Utah study found that pepper sprays fail in 30% of cases – likely due to inconsistencies in the concentration of active ingredients, even in products from the same manufacturer.

It’s always a good idea to have more than one can handy. An opposite problem is not being careful with the safety catch and accidentally spraying it when you don’t mean to – don’t do this either!

If you’ve sprayed it on your belongings, wash them with soap. Many users report that the effects linger up to several days after discharging indoors.

The Bear Necessities

Bear spray should be one of your bare necessities when heading out. It’s an effective, non-lethal way to avoid conflict with bears in their natural habitat.

And because we can, let’s end this article with Baloo from the Jungle Book:

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