As urban areas get more crowded, people are flocking to the outdoors to enjoy the peace, quiet and beauty that nature offers.
But it’s not just about urban sprawl – there’s a growing movement of people who want to spend less time connected to everything and everyone around them.
Hiking, biking, camping, and general outdoorsing have never been more popular.
But spending time in nature is not without risk, especially that posed by bears.
Now, while bear attacks are incredibly rare, it makes sense to take precautions when you’re visiting a national park inhabited by bears.
And one of the best ways to keep you and your loved ones safe is to invest in some bear spray.
So let’s take a look at what your options are:
In A Hurry? Our Top Picks…
Counter Assault Bear Deterrent
Best for long-distance protection from all known species of bear.
Counter Assault has made a name for themselves among park rangers, hikers and outdoors types that won’t go into the backcountry without it.
And that’s because it was developed by a bear encounter survivor – somebody who actually understands what you need in real life man-meets-bear situations.
Their bear repellant spray is available in two sizes: 8.1-ounce and 10.2 ounces, and packs quite a punch because it contains the legal maximum of 2% capsaicin.
What sets it apart from the competition is that it’s also EPA approved and has been tested and proven to work on all 8 species of bear.
But even more important is that it can project a deterrent mist up to 40-feet, which gives you those extra seconds to get yourself away from potential danger.
It has a maximum continuous spray duration of 8 seconds, which is almost 100% more than some other brands. That might sound trivial, but an extra few seconds of spray can make all the difference.
Something else we like about this spray is the glow in the dark safety cap because you can find and use your spray, even in the dead of night.
Tornado Pepper Spray- Bear Spray
Best for encounters with multiple or larger bears.
Tornado bear spray is brought to you by the same people who manufacture Mace, who has been in business since 1970.
Tornado manufacture pepper spray products for law enforcement, but today we’re going to look at their 9-ounce can of bear repellant.
There’s been an ongoing debate in outdoors circles about how much spray duration you actually need.
Some “experts” claim that 6-seconds of continuous spray time is the absolute minimum you should have. If that’s the case then Tornado Bear Spray blows right past that requirement with a total spray duration of 9 seconds.
The spray itself also claims to be able to penetrate wet bear fur, which implies it is far more viscous than other outdoors defense products.
Tornado Bear Spray is effective at ranges of up to 20 feet.
There’s no holster included, which is a shame, but you can always pick one up later.
Udap Bear Spray Safety Orange
Best for use in national parks and forests.
UDAP Bear Spray is the creation of bear attack survivor, Mark Matheny. After surviving a near-fatal attack where he was badly mauled, he set about making sure that other hunters, hikers, skiers, and cyclists never suffered his fate.
UDAP claim to manufacture, the “world’s hottest pepper spray”, which is believable considering it contains the maximum legal 2% of capsaicinoids.
This spray projects an irritant pepper fog at ranges of up to 30 feet, using an oil-based carrier to ensure that it lasts longer and sticks to anything it hits.
The glow in the dark safety cap ensures that you won’t trigger the spray by accident, and also that you’ll be able to find it in low-light conditions.
The 7.9 ounce can is light enough for anyone to carry, and this product also comes supplied with the “Griz Guard” holster, which is a neat plastic holster that clips to your belt or jeans.
It does have an alleged maximum spray duration of 4-seconds, which means this is a one-shot deal.
Frontiersman Bear Spray with Chest or Belt Holster
Best for use on larger or predatory bears
Sabre Security Equipment Corporation has four decades of experience in supplying both law enforcement and citizens with self-defense products such as pepper spray and stun guns.
So it was a natural progression for them to move into manufacturing bear spray.
And they’ve done a pretty good job.
Their Sabre Frontiersman spray is capable of a maximum range of 35-feet, which is 20-feet further than many of their competitor’s products.
What we really like about this product is that it allows multi-burst use – you can fire a warning shot in the general direction of the bear to deter it. But if it charges you can then fire an aimed shot straight at its face.
This is unlike other products where you get one chance, and that’s it.
The delivery system is also pretty robust too, pumping out almost 2 ounces per second for an 8-ounce can.
That does mean that you probably won’t get more than 5 seconds of continuous spray, but the burst spray ability makes up for that.
Frontiersman Bear Spray has been extensively tested by the USAF at Elmendorf Air Force Base, where bears are as common as cats.
Bear Guard Alaska Bear Pepper
Best for use on smaller bears
Bear Guard has a reputation for being one of the most potent bear repellants on the market today.
It’s at the lower end of the potency spectrum when compared with other products though, containing only 1.34% capsaicinoids.
This will still prove to be effective against smaller bears, but will not be as useful if you’re up against a big Grizzly or Kodiak for example.
The 9-ounce can size and 9-second total spray duration does make up for this a little bit.
But then you also need to factor in the maximum range for this bear spray is no more than 20 feet.
So you’ll need to time your spray fog accurately to make up for the lack of range.
The ballistic holster is a nice touch, but the Velcro cover might get in the way when trying to deploy the spray in a hurry.
Why Bear Spray?
Surely you could just use pepper spray instead?
Although that might seem like a good idea on paper, the theory falls apart in real life.
The first issue with using pepper spray created for humans is just that – it’s only designed to deter or disable human attackers.
A wild bear can weigh anywhere up to 1200lbs (600kg), so using a tiny can of pepper spray against an animal that size is like trying to stop a freight train using only harsh language.
There’s also the issue of the potency of the pepper spray itself – they’re not all created equal, but we cover that in the next section.
That’s why you have to use a bear repellant designed specifically for those massive furry omnivores we call bears.
Guns vs. Bear Spray
Now, that probably has some of you thinking, “Well, why don’t I just carry a gun instead?”
There’s an equally good answer – the human factor.
Fight or flight situations as depicted in the movies are hilarious because the hero or heroine always fights their way out of danger, no matter what.
What happens to real people – untrained city dwellers – is that you temporarily freeze because your mind is trying to process why you’re suddenly facing down a 500lb brown bear.
The most likely outcome is that you’ll freeze, fumble to get your firearm out of its holster, and maybe get a shot off.
The reality is that most people lack the skill to accurately shoot a bear in a way that will kill it instantly.
Which means you’ll only wound it, and that makes you a threat it now has no choice but to deal with.
So it will attack you with everything it has.
The same applies to firing a gun at a bear – he or she will instantly perceive you as a threat and will be forced to either attack you or flee.
Basically, bear spray is a non-lethal way of ending an encounter with a wild animal who’s probably as afraid of you as you are of it.
What Is In Bear Spray?
These sprays contain something called oleoresin capsicum, or in layman’s English – Cayenne or Chili pepper.
The actual ingredient is called capsaicin, but it comes from the plant genus Capsicum, which is where it gets its name.
It’s what causes that burning sensation in your mouth, and your eyes to water, when you eat hot chicken wings or a really spicy curry.
Anyone who has accidentally rubbed their eyes while slicing chili peppers knows exactly how much pain this substance causes.
Regular pepper spray contains between 0.18% and 1.3% major capsaicinoids – or the five main compounds within capsaicin which cause the burning sensation.
This is enough to disable even the largest of humans.
Bear spray, on the other hand, contains between 1% and 2% capsaicinoids, by volume, making it anywhere up to 11x stronger than regular self-defense sprays.
Your bear repellant contains an atomized version of this compound, designed for maximum possible dispersion in the air.
The other active ingredients are either water or alcohol and a propellant, usually in the form of compressed air.
You can also measure the effectiveness of a spray by using the Scoville Heat Units scale (SHU).
Most commercial bear sprays are in the 5 million SHU region.
How hot is that?
Imagine crushing two Carolina Reap peppers together and mashing them into your eyeballs.
That’s also what it feels like for a bear.
How Does Bear Spray Work?
Bear spray works in the animal kingdom in much the same way regular pepper spray does on humans.
The only major difference is that bears don’t usually have large exposed areas of skin.
But they do have extremely sensitive noses, and capsaicin attacks the mucous membranes there and in the bear’s eyes.
If the bear inhales the spray it should also cause instant irritation of their mouth and throat, giving them all the more reason to leave you alone.
Temporarily blinded and in pain, the bear will retreat, especially if it has cubs to tend to.
These sprays are usually aerosol-based, with a trigger, so you simply need to push the “button” and aim it at the bear’s face.
A high-quality bear repellant spray will be able to project a mist or stream of pepper spray anywhere from 12 feet – 32 feet in front of you.
The further the spray travels, the more distance it puts between you and the bear, which is always a good thing.
How to Choose the Best Bear Spray – Buyers Guide
Now let’s take a look at 5 of the best sprays on the market right now.
Not all bear sprays are created equal, which is worth taking into account before you find yourself 20-feet from a Kodiak with a repellant that’s only effective at shorter distances.
What you need to focus on more than anything else is the amount of capsaicin in the product you’re using.
Remember that personal pepper sprays with 1% capsaicin content are fine, but you really do need a spray with 2% capsaicin to be effective against a large animal like a bear.
With that being said, anything above 2% is most likely a waste of time and is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.
Spray duration is another area worth your attention. The last thing you want to have happen is that your warning shot is your final shot i.e. that 4-second burst was all you had and there’s nothing in reserve.
The jury is still out on this, but the alleged minimum spray duration any bear repellant should have is at least 6 seconds.
And finally, you’ll need a bear spray that is capable of getting into the bear’s face without you having to come face-to-face with a 600lb beast.
That’s why you should insist on only using repellants that are capable of “hitting” their target up to 20 feet away – anything less than that is putting yourself in harm’s way.
How To Use Bear Spray Properly?
The best advice we can share here are the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t Panic”.
And we’re not trying to be funny here (well okay, maybe a little) but panicking in dangerous situations is what causes most people to get hurt.
So the first step is to remain calm, slow your breathing and focus on the task at hand – preparing to use your bear spray.
- Check wind direction and speed to ensure you’re not downwind of the bear or you’ll be on the receiving end of the spray and end up incapacitated.
- Remove the safety cap from your bear spray – it’s usually a bright orange color.
- Place your forefinger in the grip hole, and place your thumb over the “trigger” mechanism.
- Ideally hold the can with both hands, one hand supporting the can itself.
- Next, deploy your bear spray when the bear is approximately 20 feet from you, for maximum effectiveness.
- Aim the spray directly at the bear’s head, adjusting for gravity or wind.
- Fire a burst that is 1-2 seconds long in a zig-zag pattern, focusing on the bear’s face
- Where possible use an additional burst to deter the bear if the first “shot” didn’t work.
- Back away slowly, avoiding eye contact with the bear, but being aware of your surroundings in case there’s more than one animal present.
Finally, do whatever it takes to leave the area immediately after deploying your bear spray because an often-unheeded side effect of using capsaicin spray is that it can attract other bears in the area.
When To Replace Bear Spray?
We would suggest treating bear spray in the same way you’d treat maintaining a firearm – perform regular checks.
The first of these is to check the expiry date on the spray and replace it within the stated timeframe.
Some people claim pepper spray will remain effective for months after the expiry date passes, but you won’t know for certain until you have to use it in real life.
Most bear sprays have a shelf life of 4 years though, so you’ll only need to check every few months.
You should also replace your bear spray if you accidentally discharge it.
You might have only sprayed it for what seemed like a few seconds, but then remember that some of these products have a 6-second max spray duration.
This could result in you carrying around a 90% empty can of bear spray, which obviously isn’t what you want.
Cans of bear spray also need to be replaced if they’ve been exposed to temperature extremes of above or below 50 centigrade.
If you notice any signs of external damage, puckering or denting on the can, then that’s also a sign you should replace your bear repellant as soon as possible.
Something else to watch out for are any signs of leaks or discoloration around the spray nozzle or the seals near it. These are telltale signs of a slow leak and a compromised product.
One way to avoid any potential problems is to buy more than one can of bear spray when you order. You’ll get a nice discount for doing that, and always have a backup can ready to go.
Although we’ve focused a lot of our attention in this article on the best bear sprays and how to use them, you should invest just as much effort in avoiding bear encounters.
Many of the recorded incidents take place because people decide they know better than park rangers, or just give in to curiosity.
That curiosity results in a handful of people losing their lives each year.
Spending time in the outdoors means being prepared, and carrying bear spray is as essential as carrying water.
Doesn’t it just make the bear mad?
Bears react to pain in the same way all animals do – they try to distance themselves from it. The pain caused by the spray will make the bear retreat from you in all but the most predatory of cases.
Isn’t a gun a better option?
You need to be a trained marksman, carrying a large caliber handgun or rifle, to be able to take a bear down with a single shot. Most hikers and backpackers carry neither, and the ones that do have not been trained in how to remain calm in high-stress situations. Bear spray, on the other hand, can be used by anyone.
Are bear spray and pepper spray the same?
A typical can of pepper spray contains anywhere from 0.13 to about 1% capsaicinoids. Bear spray contains 1% – 2% capsaicinoids, so it is far more potent. Never replace bear spray with regular pepper spray.
Can bear spray be packed in checked luggage?
It will depend on the size of the can, and not just that it’s a defensive weapon. Most airlines only prohibit the carrying of aerosols over 4-ounces in size, but there’s also a strict rule against carrying any flammable substances. So the only way to be certain is to check in advance with whatever airline you’re traveling with.
Can bear spray be used on dogs?
Absolutely not, or at least not unless you want to permanently harm or kill the dog in question. We’ve heard anecdotal stories of bear spray being successfully used on stray or aggressive dogs, but we’d recommend choosing a dog repellant spray instead.
How often should I replace bear spray?
Most bear repellants have a shelf life of approximately four years, so you should replace your stock of spray within that timeframe. All sprays should have a clearly printed expiry date on them. You should also replace any canisters of spray that have been partially discharged.
How effective is bear spray in real life?
Park rangers in numerous states have claimed an effectiveness rate of in excess of 90%. It would appear that bear spray is effective in pretty much every case of accidental encounters between humans and bears. With that being said, no bear spray is guaranteed to be 100% effective in every imaginable or possible bear encounter.
Is bear spray dangerous to humans?
Yes. These products contain a far higher concentration of capsaicinoids than regular pepper spray, sometimes often as 10x as much. Bear spray is more potent than pepper spray used by law enforcement agencies, for example.