What About Bear Spray?

Brown Bear - Bear SprayIs a Bear Spray effective and is it necessary for you to carry it?  Also, what precautions can you take in order to not have to use it in the first place?  What are the types and are some better than others?

This article will answer these questions and more.  This is important information that you should know before heading out on your next backpacking trip.  What about the bear?

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My: (Well, really just bears)

There are three major types of bears in North America: Black, Grizzly (or Brown Bear) and Polar.  We won’t discuss the Polar Bear here.  They are less likely to be encountered unless up near the Arctic Circle or the Hudson Bay area.

  • Black Bear - Bear SprayBlack Bears: The name can be a misnomer, the Black Bears in the Southeast are normally black, but the ones located in the west can be cinnamon or black.  This variety can weigh from 200 to 500 pounds and be 5 to 6 feet long.  They have a straight nose and a brown face.  Their hind end can be taller than their shoulder area.  These bears can attack, but are not as aggressive as the Grizzly.  Just because they are not as aggressive, does not mean that they will not attack.  Black Bears are the most prevalent bear species in the lower 48 states.
  • Grizzly/Brown Bears: Grizzlies can weigh from 300 to 1,000 pounds.  They are 6 to 7 feet long.  They have a distinctive hump at their shoulders.  Their snout is curved and their rump is shorter.  Their color may vary from black to brown or even a yellow tinted color.  The fur on the shoulders can have a white “frosted” look.  Grizzlies are only found in a few areas of the contiguous United States, but can be found in Canada and Alaska.  The Grizzly is much more aggressive than the black bear.Grizzley Bear - Bear Spray

Typical for Both Types of Bears:

  • Bears have poor eyesight, good hearing and a great sense of smell.
  • They are more active at dusk and dawn.  Be more aware of your surroundings at these times.

Preventing Bear Encounters:

  • Bears, in many places, have found easy and good tasting food from careless backpackers.  These are hikers that have not either taken precautions with their food or have left scraps or trash around their campsite when they leave.  This practice, in some cases, has conditioned the bear to associated humans with food.  There are a few precautions that you can take to avoid a bad situation:
  • When backpacking in the Grizzly habitat, make sure to travel in groups of four or more.  Bears have been conditioned over thousands of years that a large group of humans can be bad for them.
  • Contact the local land manager for specific bear information in the area you will be hiking.
  • Always wear a backpack when hiking in bear country.  This is true even for a day hike. (more about this below)
  • Make noise while on the trail.  This alerts the bear that you are around, so that it can leave.
  • Be very aware on the trail.  If the wind is in your face and the trail is thick with vegetation, you could sneak up on a bear.  You may startle a bear, because he hasn’t heard or smelled you, because you are down wind.
  • Stay on the trail

Food, personal hygiene products (deodorant, soap, toothpaste) and other scented products (bug spray, sunscreen) and trash:

  • Keep all of your food, hygiene products, scented products, pots, pans and trash properly stored.  Check with the local land manager to find out if a Bear Container is required.  At your campsite, make sure all of the items listed above are stored either in a Bear Canister or properly hung in a tree (called bear bagging).  It should be 100 yards from your cooking area and 100 yards from your tents or sleeping area.
  • Make sure that if you are not eating it, that food is put away properly.  Double sealed in plastic bags is a good idea.  Also, if you drop any food, pick it up and pack it out as trash.  You don’t want a bear to find it and start looking for more.
  • Keep a clean campsite and make sure your cooking area is at least 100 yards and downwind from your tent or sleeping area.  Leave No Trace has a great set of guidelines.
  • Find and use unscented hygiene products.

Bear Spray:

Bear spray (pepper spray) is a cayenne pepper mixture.   Bear Spray comes in two types; Oil based and water based.   The general idea is to spray the bear with the mixture in the face so that it penetrates the eyes, mouth and nasal membranes.   This spray has been known to be 85% effective in deterring a bear.  The oil based sprays tend to stay in the air longer and can be more effective.  With either type of spray, you must be extremely close to the bear in order for them to work, 8 to 24 feet.  You must have nerves of steel to wait until the bear is almost on you.

  • Don’t use any “Key Chain” pepper sprays.
  • Find one that has a holster belt attachment
  • It should contain 1 to 2 percent Capsaisin or just make sure that the EPA certifies it against bears.
  • Be careful not to spray it where the wind is blowing in your face.
  • Bears can be attracted to the smell, so don’t think that by spraying on your clothes or backpack, it will repel them.

Oh No, A Bear – What to do and not to do when encountering a bear?:

  • The object here is to convince the bear that you are not a threat or prey.
  • Most importantly and this going to be the hardest to do; remain calm.
  • If the bear has not seen you, back away slowly and circumvent them.
  • Never look the bear directly in the eyes or scream.
  • Talk to the bear in a soft, monotone, deliberate voice.
  • Raise your arms slowly if this will help the bear identify you.
  • Back away slowly.  If this movement appears to be disturb the bear, then stop.
  • Under no circumstances are you to run away.  This will turn on the bear’s predator instincts and they will chase you.  A bear can run a lot faster than you, so it will not be hard for them to catch you.
  • Never turn you back on a bear

A Charging Bear: (Put this on my Visa)

  • If you are in a large group, stand together and talking firmly.  Raising and linking your arms may help.
  • Stand your ground.  This may sound counter intuitive, but most bear charges are a bluff.
  • If you have bear spray, get it out and ready to use.  Again don’t use it until the bear is extremely close.  You don’t want to waste it on a fake charge.

The Bear Attacks:

  • This is the scenario that every hiker dreads.  The bear spray didn’t work, the talking and waving your arms just made it madder.  What to do next:
  • Just like before, remain calm.
  • Fall to the ground face down.  Clasp your hands behind your neck.  Your elbows close to your face.  Your feet should be apart.  It’s a good idea to keep your backpack on from the time you see the bear.  With your backpack on, it is a first line of defense against the bear.
  • Play Dead.  If it is apparent that the bear is attacking you to eat you, rather than trying to remove you as a threat, your only recourse is to fight back.  This is especially true if it is a black bear.
  • If the bear attacks you and stops to walk away, lay still for at least 20 minutes, probably longer.  Bears have been known to stay in the area and watch over humans for an hour or more.

The good news is that bear attacks are very rare.  You are more likely to get bit by a snake, stung by a bee or bit by a dog than attacked by a bear.  This still doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take precautions or be prepared with bear spray.

Pictures from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: In Order: Steve Hillebrand, Mike Bender ,Terry Tollefsbol

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.