The Two Products You Need to Deter a Bear Safely

A step-by-step guide on how to prepare and safely deploy bear spray

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The Products You Need to Deter a Bear With Bear Spray Safely

Tripsavvy / Alli Waataja

Bear attacks on humans are rare, but, like shark attacks, they generate a lot of fear and media attention when they do happen. There is plenty you can do to minimize your chances of having a conflict with a bear before you get to the point of needing bear spray, but there are several bear spray products that you can effectively employ if a bear is charging you.

Jamin Grigg, a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks & Wildlife, says your best protection is to be smart around bears (and any wildlife): “Most bears aren’t aggressive towards people, but you can avoid potential conflicts by keeping your eyes and ears open and staying far away from bears when you do see them.”

Bear-human conflicts tend to happen in areas with many bears and people. The ever-popular Yellowstone National Park averages one bear attack per year (for over four million visitors annually), and visitors are encouraged to carry bear spray, which can be more effective than firearms against bear attacks. The National Park Service suggests visitors rent or buy bear spray, but they also note that you can drastically reduce your odds of needing it by hiking in groups of three or more, staying on marked trails, and keeping an eye out for bears, so you don’t surprise them.

Counter Assault Bear Spray

Counter Assault Bear Spray


Sabre Frontiersman Practice Bear Spray

Sabre Frontiersman Practice Bear Spray


How to Use Bear Spray

While most people assume bear spray is to be used in close quarters as pepper spray would be for self-defense, you actually want to employ bear spray much sooner to put a cloud of the chile pepper-derived irritant between you and the bear to give you time to put distance between you and the animal. 

Step 1: Keep the spray handy

The first step to properly using bear spray comes before you ever see a bear: carry it on your person while recreating outdoors in bear country. Adverse bear encounters often happen when you accidentally surprise a bear, which will likely be a surprise for you, too! Having the bear spray readily accessible will make it more likely you can employ it in time to have the desired effect on the bear.

Many bear spray products, such as the popular Counter Assault, have a belt-mounted holster that lets you carry the spray like a pistol to deploy it quickly. Randy Hunt, Head of Operations at Counter Assault, cautions never to leave bear spray in your backpack. “If you are in an encounter, you do not want to have to take off your pack, open it and search through the pockets to find the spray and have it at the ready.” A Velcro holster can be mounted on your hip, chest, or wherever feels comfortable, so you can access it quickly when needed. If you see a bear acting strangely or aggressively nearby and have time to prepare, you can take the bear spray out of the holster so you’re ready to deploy if the bear starts to charge.

Step 2: Prepare to release the bear spray

If a bear appears to be charging or pursuing you, remove the safety clip found on most bear sprays that prevents accidental discharge. In a helpful video, Yellowstone Bear Management Biologist Kerry Gunther displays the proper technique for aiming and discharging bear spray. You want to aim the canister slightly down and adjust for crosswind so that the resultant cloud of spray forms between you and the bear. (If the wind is coming from your left, for example, aim to your left to compensate.)

Step 3: Deploy the bear spray

You don’t want to release the spray too soon because the cloud could dissipate before the bear reaches it, and you, of course, don’t want to wait too long to spray as it might not have time to take effect properly before the bear reaches you. Yellowstone National Park recommends releasing the spray when a bear is 10 to 20 yards away. To help visualize, that is roughly two to four average car lengths away. 

Keep spraying until the bear changes direction and/or stops. If the bear continues directly at you, continue spraying and put spray directly into the bear’s face as it gets within closer range.

Counter Assault recommends lying face down on the ground once a bear reaches 15 feet (or about a single car’s length) to protect your face and head from the bear and the spray. Their FAQ page suggests, “Try to spray the bear but be ready to lie face down on the ground, protecting the back of your neck while holding the can and randomly spraying the area.”

If you’re nervous about your ability to perform under pressure, practice with practice bear spray, which operates the same as regular bear spray but doesn’t contain the irritant ingredients that deter bears and could irritate you if misused.

Step 4: Leave the area

Once you’ve put a cloud of bear spray between you and the bear (and rerouted or deterred the bear), you want to walk, not run, from the area. While keeping an eye on the bear and keeping your spray ready to deploy again if needed, slowly walk backward away from the area.

How to Store Bear Spray

Bear spray can be as effective on people as on bears, so treat it with care and respect. (After all, the main effective ingredient, capsaicin, is the same deterrent found in tear gas and pepper spray.) The best place to store bear spray is a dark, cool, and dry location that doesn’t experience temperature swings or get colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter than 120 degrees. You also want to ensure it’s not accessible to children or pets. Hot temperatures are the most dangerous as they could cause the canister to explode. Not good.

It’s tempting to leave bear spray in your vehicle, but the temperature swings with seasonality, and use in a car isn’t good for bear spray. Randy Hunt from Counter Assault points out that “while an outdoor temperature may be at 95 degrees, the interior of the car is hotter. Bear Spray canisters can fail and release their contents in extreme heat.” This unfortunate result has happened even to Forest Service and Park Service professionals experienced with using bear spray. The best storage place is a temperature-controlled room, perhaps in a garage or basement, when the temperature remains fairly steady throughout the year.

How to Travel with Bear Spray

Airline security and TSA won’t allow you to travel with bear spray, so if you’re flying to a destination where you have concerns about bears and want to be equipped, ship bear spray to your destination or purchase it when you arrive. Bear spray is readily available in grizzly country, and Yellowstone offers bear spray for sale and rent at visitors’ centers and gift shops within the park.

When transporting bear spray by vehicle, try to store the bear spray in a hard-sided case to minimize the risk of accidental discharge. If you don’t have a case already, Counter Assault makes a screw-top case that fits multiple sizes of their bear spray to prevent accidental discharge called the Kozee-Tote. Most bear sprays also have safety mechanisms, but hard impacts in transit could break those and release the spray either in your vehicle or your luggage. Neither is going to be good.

How to Dispose of Bear Spray

Bear spray is good for about four years before needing replacement. The effectiveness of the propellant diminishes, but the contents do not, so you still need to take care when disposing of an old canister. If you don’t live in an area with a bear spray disposal drop-off, Hunt suggests finding a safe, open area away from people, pets, and property and fully discharging the canister keeping the wind in mind. Once empty, follow local regulations for disposing of metal aerosol containers.

Why Trust TripSavvy

Justin Park didn’t grow up in bear country but has hunted, hiked, and biked in bear country in the West for the past 15 years. He practices staying alert to see bears and avoiding surprising them to minimize the risk of conflict but carries bear spray, especially in grizzly country.

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