There is nothing like a negative bear confrontation that can quickly turn any positive outdoor experience into a sour one. Personal safety is always number one, especially in the wilderness. It is exciting to see a bear in the wilderness, but it can be terrifying to have an encounter with one.
Especially in Grizzly bear habitat, it’s important to carry the best bear spray possible. We’ll cover 5 options below, but if we had to pick just one, it would be Counter Assault Bear Deterrent which is the most recommended by Park Rangers.
Bear spray is a must have device in bear country. When partaking in any form of recreation – day hiking, backpacking, trail running, spring backcountry skiing, camping, picnicking, fishing, climbing, mountain biking, hunting, etc. – make sure to have bear spray handy and know how to use it.
Bear Spray Purchasing Guide
Bear spray can be purchased at shops surrounding bear country areas, including outdoor stores, service stations, and bookstores. National parks, like Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park are well stocked with bear spray for visitors to purchase. Some locations will have bear spray to rent, which is convenient for shorter visits or for visitors who are flying to and from bear country recreation destinations.
Always purchase Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved product. Because bear spray is considered a pesticide, it must be registered with the EPA. Capsaicin in products sold in the United states are regulated by the EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act by Congress.
The best bear sprays will meet the requirements of the EPA’s Significant New Alternative Policy (SNAP) of the Clean Air Act relating to ozone depleting substances. The EPA prohibits more than 2% of the active ingredient of capsaicin in bear spray.
Bear spray must pass several EPA tests to ensure the use of the spray is humane to the animal, EPA sets size, strength, spray distance, and spray time standards for all EPA approved bear spray to ensure its effectiveness in bear attacks. The maximum bear spray strength the EPA allows is 2.0% capsainiciods.
Bear spray is stronger than personal defense mace weapons. Personal defense mace weapons contain a stronger active ingredient. Make sure to purchase deterrent that is specifically designed for bears (versus people or domestic dogs).
They are created with a stream of mace concentrate, rather than a cloud, which requires a closer range and a more precise shot. They do not contain the same ingredients, do not have the same delivery system, and, therefore, will not be as effective at stopping a charging bear from attacking.
Most airlines do not allow you to fly with bear spray. Call ahead and check the airport policy before attempting to travel with bear spray. Canadian border patrol may allow EPA approved canisters to cross the border but be sure to check with officials before attempting to transport bear spray internationally.
What to look for in bear spray:
Strength: Bear spray should have a minimum concentration of 0.857% and a maximum concentration of 2% of capsaicin.
Canister Size: The canister size should be at least 7.9 ounces of net weight.
Type of Sprayer: Spray should be a cloud or cone pattern.
Duration: Spray should last from 5-8 seconds.
Range: Spray should reach at least 16 feet.
Type: Not all pepper sprays are the same. Buy deterrent specific to bears, not personal defense pepper spray.
Number: Carry at least two canisters per a group, but it is ideal for every person have their own spray.
Shelf-life: After initial purchase, spray should have a shelf-life of 4 years.
The 5 Best Bear Spray Products
The following types of bear spray are highly recommended as the most effective and the best bear spray on the market.
1. Best Overall: Counter Assault Bear Deterrent
This is the original bear spray deterrent and the top choice for park rangers and experienced hikers. Counter Assault recently released a statement with the company’s intent to develop the first 40-foot bear EPA approved bear spray on the market.
Range: 12-32 feet
Amount: 8.1 ounces or 10 ounces.
Duration (until empty): 7 seconds or 9.2 seconds
Strength: 2.0% capsaicin and other capsaiciniods, red pepper derivatives.
Pros: The canister includes a safety cap to help prevent accidental discharge. It comes with a holster which fits the canister and attaches easily to belts and packs. The top of the canister’s safety tab is glow in the dark, making easier to find at night. It has a four-year shelf life with the expiration date printed on the canister.
Cons: Will affect eyes and respiratory if residue makes contact.
2. Best Value: UDAP Bear Spray Safety Orange
This brand was founded by a bear attack survivor with the intention to improve on already existing formulas. It is the most powerful bear spray fog.
Range: 30 feet
Amount: 7.9 ounces
Duration: 4 seconds
Strength: 2.0% capsaicin and other capsaiciniods
Pros: The canister comes in bright safety orange, so it is easy spot and includes a holster. The holster allows for silent, easy access to the bear spray canister. It clips on and does not require a belt for mounting to your hip. The holster also fits all bear spray canisters. It is non-flammable, zero ozone depletion potential, EPA registered, and oil-based for lasting airborne disbursement.
Cons: This spray is an extremely hot formula and the residue should be handled carefully.
This brand is registered with the EPA as a repellent against all bears and is endorsed by the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation.
Range: 15-20 feet
Amount: 9 ounces
Duration: 4 seconds
Strength: 2.0% capsaicin and other capsaiciniods
Pros: It is not flammable and does not contain ozone-depleting chemicals. It has a removable safety trigger and comes with a holster sleeve.
Cons: This spray has a shorter range than some of the other options. Users have reported the canister leaks in certain conditions, so be sure to check your canister and safely store it when not in use.
4. Best Range: Mace Brand Bear Attack Survival Spray
This product is popular among law enforcement officers. The spray is made from the highest level of capsaicin concentration allowed by the EPA.
Range: 35 feet
Amount: 7 ounces
Duration: 6 seconds
Strength: 2.0% capsaicin and other capsaiciniods
Pros: It is made in the U.S.A. and has one of the longest ranges.
Cons: It does not come with a holster.
This bear spray is manufactured by Sabre, which is a company that produces pepper spray for law enforcement. This canister has a 3-year shelf life.
Range: 30 or 35 feet
Amount: 7.9 or 9.2 ounces
Duration: 4 seconds
Strength: 2.0% capsaicin and other capsaiciniods
Pros: Releases at 1.84 oz per a second.
Cons: This canister does not include a holster.
Why Carry Bear Spray?
An 800-pound bear charges at a rate of 50 feet per second. The reaction time to which to respond in self-defense is very short and limited.
Bear spray is a non-lethal substance designed to deter aggressive bears from attacking. Bear spray is proven to work effectively to reduce human injuries caused by bears. It also reduces the number of bears killed by people in self-defense.
The best bear spray will have the optimal combination of spray time and distance. Most sprays will deploy high volume, powerful, atomized blasts of highly concentrated pepper spray.
Bears have very sensitive noses and weak eyesight. As a bear deterrent, bear spray temporarily disables a bear by causing intense irritation and burning of the mucous membrane in the eyes, nose, and mouth.
It causes bears to cough and wheeze and have overall discomfort. However, the spray wears off after a couple of hours and there are no long-term or lasting health effects that will affect the bears. The bears will be more concerned with cleaning off the spray than with continuing to carry out an attack.
Rangers of public lands (national parks, forest services, bureau of land management) located in bear country highly encourage visitors to carry bear spray. Bear country areas of the United States are home habitats to bears. Some parks prohibit the use or possession of bear spray. Be sure to check park regulations before visiting the park.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reported that law enforcement and experienced hunters who used firearms as self-defense against a bear suffered personal injuries 50% of the time. People using bear spray to defend themselves come away from experiences without injuries or sustain injuries far less severe than incidents that involved guns.
How Bear Spray Works
Bear spray works by temporarily disabling the bear allowing a person to have time to leave the area. Bear spray promotes backcountry safety and supports bear conservation. Bear spray discharges in a fine cloud of capsaicin, filling the air with droplets, to temporarily reduce the bears ability to breath, see, and smell. Bear spray has never been reported to kill a bear.
Bear spray is not like insect repellant. It is not effective against bears when it is applied to people or equipment. In fact, the pepper element of bear spray has the potential to attract bears to it, as they associate it with the smell of food.
Bear spray was developed in the 1980’s by a University of Montana graduation student, Carrie Hunt. She development the formula to have a spray range of 30 feet and spray in 7 seconds. The concept of bear spray is to get the active ingredient of capsaicin and related capsaicinoids between the threatened person and the attacking bear as quickly as possible at the greatest range.
Warning: Bear spray is meant to be used as a last resort against a charging or aggressive bear – it should not be a substitution to smart bear avoidance and bear safety techniques. Bear spray is not 100% effective; proper use and deployment is necessary to avoid or reduce risks associated with travel in bear country.
Keep bear spray in an easy to reach place and know how to use it. While it is legal to use against bears, it is strongly discouraged and, in most cases, prohibited as a weapon against other humans.
Safe Bear Country Travel Practices
Don’t let the need for bear spray or the possibility of seeing a bear deter from enjoying a wilderness experience. Bears are not looking for humans; they are not interested in making people dinner. Carrying bear spray, respecting area closures, and practicing other safe bear country travel techniques will mitigate dangerous encounters.
If you see a bear, do not run. Running can provoke their natural instinct to chase, which can initiate an attack. The chances of out running any wild predator is slim. If you do see a bear, remain calm and slowly back away while watching it. If the bear starts to follow, stop and stand your ground.
Remain together as a group and try to scare it off by yelling, shouting, clapping, banging metal together, or any other form of intimidation. Do not depend on personal defense tactics as means to stop a charging bear.
Bear spray is a last resort. Only if intimidation tactics fail, be prepared to use bear spray to deter the bear. The spray should not be used against uninterested bears. Only use if the bear is initiating an attack.
Do not hike at dawn, dusk, or at night. Bears are most active at these times. If traveling at these times, be extra loud. Stay on maintained trails. Most attacks have occurred when people are hiking off trail.
Follow bear management closure signs. If an area is closed for bear management, it means there is high bear activity in that area. Perhaps there is an animal carcass the area – bears commonly feed on animal carcasses. Bears guard and defend against other scavengers and humans, they will become defensive and could cause injury or death under confrontation.
If there is a carcass along the trail, leave the area and report the carcass to rangers so they can close the area for bear management.
Watch for signs of bear on and around the trail. Signs include tracks, scat, cub spotting, and feeding sites (signs of digging, rolled over rocks, torn up logs, and destroyed ant hills). Mother bears are particularly defensive for their cubs and will get extremely aggressive to protect them. If you see a bear or cubs, slowly back away and change direction.
Do not surprise bears, or other wildlife. Make sure to be are visible and audible. Traveling near a loud stream, upwind from a bear, around a blind corner, through high bushes or thick forests, and on a windy day can make it difficult for bears to hear, smell, or see a person approaching.
Bears are likely to be more dangerous when they are startled or surprised. Don’t hesitate to carry bear spray in ready position if traveling through an area that is suspected to have bear activity.
Hiking in groups of three or more people has proven to be safest. Around 90% of bear attacks happen to individuals who are hiking with only one other hiking partner.
Do not leave bags with food or other items with attractive smells unattended. Even leaving a bag for a few minutes is enough to lure a bear to it. Bears love human food and know how to identify a bag that has human food in it. They may become aggressive to obtain the bag. Whether camping out for a night or backpacking for multiple days, know how to hang a proper bear hang or store food in a bear keg.
Everyone in the hiking group should have their own bear spray canister. It is not worth being in the dangerous situation where the person who is charged by the bear is not equipped with the bear repellent. If not everyone, there should at least be two canisters per a trip. If one needs to be deployed on a bear and there are still miles or days left of the trip, it is smart to have a second one to protect the group with.
Why Bears Attack
All bears are predators and, as with most animals, are very protective of their cubs. Predators keep other populations down, including deer, elk, and moose. Bears are indicator species and they need a variety of habitats to survive. Managing habitat for bears benefits many other species.
Grizzly bears and polar bears are notorious for being more aggressive than black bears or brown bears. Different species of bears often inhabit the same territories, but any territory occupied by bears is known as ‘bear country.’
The total number of grizzlies in the lower 48 states is now around 1,800 bears, whereas 50,000 bears ranged across the United States from California to the Great Plains and from Mexico to Alaska. In the fall of 2018, grizzly bears were relisted as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Under the Act, the government must protect grizzly bears by making it an illegal federal crime to kill them.
The population has not recovered to healthy numbers since when they were originally listed decades before in 1975. At that time, the population was around 1,000 bears. Trophy hunting, trapping, poisoning, and shooting brought them close to extinction. They continue to face threats of dwindling food sources and increased conflicts.
The grizzly population has not returned to normal levels because the species is extremely slow at reproducing.
Bears are very smart animals and learn quickly. In Yellowstone National Park, mother bears have taught their cubs to identify coolers and have figured out how to open car doors to obtain the contents of the coolers. It is wise to cover and hide identifiable coolers, even if they are securely locked in a vehicle. In the Adirondack State Park, a mother bear has been reported to teach her cubs how to unlock a specific brand of bear keg.
Be sure to check the regulations with local rangers for backcountry travel and use the appreciate bear proof equipment.
Unfortunately, bears that demonstrate aggressive behavior are often removed from parks and relocated, or even killed. It is the bears natural instinct to protect itself and its offspring from perceived threats. It is unfair to have a bear suffer from wounds or death simply because it was defending itself or its cubs.
Help reduce negative confrontations with bears and risking their livelihood by following safe bear country backcountry travel practices.
Which Bears to Use Bear Spray On
Bear spray works on all species of bears: black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears. Although most bear spray manufacturers do not test the bear spray on other predators, people have reported effective responses to encounters with mountain lions, wild pigs, wild dogs, and moose.
How to Use Bear Spray
Practicing with the bear spray in an open field away from other people is a great way to become familiar with how to use the bear spray. It is also good to understand its force and power when discharged.
How to discharge the bear spray:
- Remove the canister from its holster.
- Remove the safety clip or tab with thumb.
- Extend arms fully and aim the spray in the direction of the charging bear, pointing towards the ground in front of the bear. Adjust for wind direction. Be sure not to aim too high above the bears head, as that will be less effective.
- Begin spraying when the charging bear is 30-60 feet away by press firmly with two hands on the trigger.
- Spray towards the charging bear, aiming at its nose, so that the bear must pass through the cloud of spray.
- Spray either in short bursts or continuously in the direction of the bear.
- If the bear does not change direction and continues to charge, spray directly in the bears face.
- If it is not needed, do not use the entire contents of the canister in case another application may be needed.
- Leave the area as quickly and calmly as possible, without running.
- If possible, find a place of safety, a cabin or car.
Tips about using bear spray:
- Keep the canister readily available and accessible on a belt or in a holster. Do not store the canisters inside a pack or bag.
- The cloud like spray eliminates the need for aiming accurately.
- The canister does not have to be close to bear, nor does a person have to have a good shot. To be effective, the spray just needs to be between the threatened person and the bear.
- Be aware to not be up wind of the spray when it is discharged because the cloud of capsaicin will drift back to the person discharging the spray.
- The aerosol canisters stay under pressure even has elevation fluctuates.
- The spray is most effective at short range but will work at longer range. Do not wait until the last minute to discharge the canister at a charging bear.
- Hiking poles can interfere with the use of bear spray. Be prepared to drop your poles to prioritize deploying the spray.
How to Store Bear Spray
Bear spray can explode if not properly stored. Be careful not to let the canister reach temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit or go below freezing temperatures. Do not store in the passenger compartment of cars or near any heat sources.
When to Replace and Recycle Empty or Expired Bear Spray
Bear spray is only effective for 3-5 years and has a maximum shelf life of 4 years. Check the expiration date before use and do not hesitate to replace sprays that are near their expiration. If the seal of the canister deteriorates, the activation of the spray may be compromised.
Properly dispose of the bear spray aerosol canisters after they have been completely discharged or if the expiration date has passed. Outdoor gear stores, camping stores, and some airports offer receptacles for empty or expired canisters. Some hotels will also have a place to recycle and dispose of sprays.
If you have a bear spray that has neither been discharged or expired, you can donate it to the local ranger stations or backcountry offices.
Effect on Humans
Bear spray is not permanently harmful to humans. If someone is caught in the cross fire or if the canister leaks, the active ingredients of the bear spray will not blind or cause permanent injury.
The ingredients do have inflammatory properties and will affect humans, as it does bears. It may cause temporary irritation to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, lungs, and may cause swelling. Eyes will involuntarily close and tear and nose will run profusely.
Few users have experienced negative side effects themselves after discharging the canister. The people who have reported side effects said they range from minor irritations to near incapacitation. Some side effects include excessive coughing, irritation, and feeling a burning sensation when the ingredient makes contact with direct skin, lasting for about an hour or so.
In the event of contamination:
- Wash affected area with clean cold water
- Wash all contaminated clothing as soon as possible with white vinegar
- Avoid breathing in the spray by taking short shallow breaths
- If initial relief from symptoms are not felt within 20 minutes, seek medical attention
If residue gets on clothing or equipment, clean contaminated clothing or equipment with white vinegar. Do not use water, as it will only spread around the oil-based substance.