Bear Spray: Packin' Heat

It's basically pepper in an aerosol can, and it's supposed to stop a charging grizzly. But will it? Here's everything you need to know.
Publish date:
Social count:
It's basically pepper in an aerosol can, and it's supposed to stop a charging grizzly. But will it? Here's everything you need to know.

An interesting statement appeared on one of our message boards recently. It read: "Even while carrying pepper spray, I've always thought of it as just a bear's condiment."

The joke being (we hope) that hungry bears, like discerning humans, appreciate a little spice in life, and especially at mealtime. Then we saw the film that turned the bear-spray world on its collective ear and wondered if there's more truth than humor to the aforementioned comment. An Alaskan wildlife researcher sprayed a patch of ground with pepper spray--the stuff that's supposed to deter and offend big bears--then videotaped a grizz as it sniffed the peppery earth and proceeded to wallow playfully in the stuff like a big dog that just found a stinky paradise. The bear, by all accounts, liked the "deterrent."

Which got us thinking about bear spray, its (supposed) usefulness, the pros and cons, and generally, whether it's worth its weight on your belt. Here's what we found.

Yes it works, But...

"This Stuff Isn't Brains In A Can"

The big question, the one you don't want to answer while face to fang with a grizzly, is: Does bear spray really work? The answer is a qualified "yes," according to Stephen Herrero, Ph.D., author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance and professor of environmental science, University of Calgary, Alberta.

Dr. Herrero, a noted researcher of bear behavior and attacks, along with Andrew Higgins, a university colleague, examined 66 field cases in which various brands of spray were used on black and grizzly bears that displayed behavior ranging from overly curious to actively aggressive toward humans. They concluded that, "while we don't know how these encounters would have ended in the absence of spray, the use...appears to have prevented injury in most cases," Dr. Herrero says.

Dr. Herrero, other bear experts, and even spray manufacturers agree on one important point, however. Bear spray is a last resort after all other appropriate precautions--storing food in bearproof containers, keeping a clean camp, making lots of noise while hiking, steering clear of areas with fresh bear scat or digs--have failed and you suddenly find yourself confronted by an aggressive or persistent bruin. Says Dr. Herrero, quoting a fellow grizzly researcher, "This stuff isn't brains in a can."

Key Ingredient

If You Run Out Of Spray, Throw Salsa

If you're wondering what gives bear spray its zip and zing, think jalape-?os, haba?eros, cayenne-peppers, in other words. The hot varieties contain a potent chemical called capsaicin (cap say sin), plus related but milder compounds known as capsaicinoids. Just 1 ounce of purified capsaicin diluted in 750 gallons of water would make your tongue burn.

Capsaicin finds its way into bear spray in a form called oleoresin of capsicum (OC), which is simply dried, ground-up peppers in a vegetable oil slurry. The food industry uses OC to add pizzazz to everything from salsa to canned chili. Bear-spray manufacturers combine this thick OC with a liquid called a carrier so it comes out of the can in a foglike spray. The final ingredient is the propellant.

By example, if a typical 225-gram can (7.9 ounces) says it contains 10 percent OC, that means that 10 percent of the total weight (about 23 grams) of the canister's contents is OC. The remaining 90 percent is carrier and propellant. It's worth noting, though, that the percentage of OC is not necessarily an indication of how much actual capsaicin (the hottest compound) is present, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now requires bear-spray manufacturers to list the percentage of "capsaicin and related capsaicinoids" as the active ingredient instead of just the percentage of OC.

While all the current EPA-approved bear sprays are OC-based, there may be other concoctions that are just as effective against bruins, but haven't been tested to the EPA's satisfaction. That's why the EPA slapped ChemArmor, the makers of Bear Pause, with a "stop-sale" order in November 1999 (see Signpost, April 2000). Bear Pause is not red or oily like other sprays, and its manufacturer claims it uses a purified "pharmaceutical grade" form of capsaicin instead of "food grade" OC. The EPA has ordered Bear Pause off of retailers' shelves until ChemArmor can satisfy the agency's testing and safety requirements.

Accidental Discharge

Stay Calm, And Don't Claw Your Eyes Out

Any substance that'll change an 800-pound bear's mind will sure as heck do some harm to a comparatively puny human. If you accidentally spray yourself, here's what to do:

  • Manufacturers and chemists recommend lots of soap and water, which usually isn't available in the backcountry. Plus we've found that splashing on water spreads the capsaicin and burns more skin. If you're near a creek, submerge whatever part is affected, and try to do so for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • If it's in your eyes, flush with lots and lots of water for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and discard contact lenses.
  • If you have vegetable or olive oil for cooking, rub some on the affected area to dissolve the capsaicin, then flush with water.
  • Don't apply lotion or cream of any kind-even suntan lotion-to skin that's been sprayed. You'll only reactivate the capsaicin and intensify the burn.
  • Try to relax and wait it out. Hard to do, granted, but the burning will subside after an hour or so, and should vanish in several hours.

Expert Advice

How To Pick The Right Spray

When you walk into an outfitter shop armed with bear-spray questions, you take your chances. The guy behind the counter may truly know his stuff, or he could be the store's wind-surfing expert. So we thought it best to consult some credible sources for information about choosing and using pepper spray:

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: Formed in 1983 to coordinate grizzly bear recovery in the United States, it includes representation from all federal land management agencies as well as members from state agencies in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington, plus Canada.

Tom Smith, Ph.D.: A research wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Biological Science Center in Anchorage, Alaska, Dr. Smith has extensively tested and researched bear sprays.

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA oversees the registration of all bear sprays in the United States.

Based on recommendations from these three sources, look for a bear spray that:

  • Is labeled "for deterring attacks by bears." Avoid products labeled for use against humans because they won't have the firepower you need.
  • Contains 1 to 2 percent capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, with a net weight of at least 225 grams or 7.9 ounces-this is considered the minimum effective size.
  • Is derived from oleoresin of capsicum (OC), the only currently EPA-approved active ingredient.
  • Is registered with the EPA to ensure compliance with standards for active ingredients and performance.
  • Delivers a shotgun-cloud pattern. Less-expensive, less-effective sprays often come out in a stream, rather than in a cloud pattern that you don't have to aim as exactly. All EPA-registered sprays have a cloud pattern.
  • Hits the target at a minimum range of 25 feet, which is the distance at which you should fire if a bear is charging. (See "The Great Bear Spray Shoot-Out" on page 67.)
  • Has at least 6 seconds total spray time, as indicated on the label. This allows you multiple short bursts of spray if needed for a single persistent bear, or for multiple encounters on a long trip.
  • Is well within its expiration date. Replace unused bear spray canisters every 3 years to ensure against depressurization or degradation of contents. Use the old canister for practice sessions at home. You can also weigh the can on a postal scale when new, then at the beginning of each season. Replace the can when the weight drops below 75 percent of its original weight.

When And How To Use It


As a deterrent on an aggressive or attacking bear. In other words, don't spray a bear that's just checking you out. If it's coming at you purposefully and/or quickly, use the spray.

Do not spray it on people, tents, packs, other equipment, or the surrounding area as a repellent. Dr. Smith's tests have shown that OC-based spray residue attracts bears "like catnip."

Likewise, don't test-fire any spray in or near camp. We particularly like a comment we saw on one manufacturer's Web site: "We think the people who spray their kids with this as a repellent are direct descendants of the woman who bathed her poodle, then tried to dry it in her microwave."


Make sure it's accessible at all times. After our field-test experiences, we recommend a hip holster over a chest model, to avoid the risk

of spray blowing back in your face.

o Remove the safety clip.

o Aim slightly down and directly in front of the approaching bear. Try to adjust for any crosswind.

o Spray a brief shot when the bear is about 50 feet away so it'll walk into the spray.

o If the bear continues to approach, spray again, this time aiming for the eyes and nose.

o Once the animal has retreated or is busy cleaning itself, leave quickly, but don't run.

For more information, see igbc/Bear_Spray.htm.

A Contrarian's View

"Pepper Belongs In The Kitchen"

By Jonathan Dorn, Equipment Editor

I'm a pacifist, a vegetarian, and a gun-hater...and for all these reasons, I don't carry bear spray.

Statistically speaking, driving to work poses an infinitely greater threat to my health than hiking unarmed in Montana or Alaska.

Combine the very remote risk of a violent bear encounter with the many precautions I take in camp and on the trail-hanging food, making noise, going slow in thick brush--and I have better things to worry about, like giardia and Lyme-carrying ticks.

Even if the numbers didn't favor me so strongly, I still wouldn't pack heat. Bear spray is a weapon, and firing it is an act of violence. Legal, sure, maybe even a wise last resort. But lifting my hand in anger against another living creature, even in self-defense, violates one of the first and most fundamental lessons my parents taught me. Sure, I'll swat a few mosquitoes, and I once nailed a mouse that invaded my food bag, but to me minimum impact means living adventurously without doing harm to the wild things and places I've devoted my life to protecting.

What's more, bear spray degrades my wilderness experience. Just thinking about that canister on my hip--I carried one twice--makes me feel uneasy, paranoid, threatened, threatening, and disconnected. I prefer the sharp, pure edge of fear. Perhaps my greatest backcountry experience ever came during a solo hike in Alaska, when I turned a blind corner to face a recently used bear den. In that slow and electrifying moment, I felt more alive than I'd dreamed possible.

Would I rather remember that encounter as a nervous, fumbling scramble to flip the safety on a canister? Or for the musky scent in the air, for the single green shoot growing from the black pile of excavated dirt, for the thunderbolt of adrenaline that jump-started my physical and spiritual being?

Call me foolhardy, but when I hike in grizzly country this summer--I'll be deep in the Alaskan bush by the time you read this--I'll hit the trail with only open arms.

Preventive Measures

Common Sense: Better Than Spray

  • Stay off trails at night, in early morning, and in evening, when bears are actively feeding.
  • Clap, sing, talk loudly, or make noise by clanging cups or pots, especially if you see fresh bear sign or are hiking on a trail with blind curves, near sound-covering streams, or in terrain where your vision is limited.
  • Stay away from, or be especially alert when near, prime bear habitat like berry patches, avalanche chutes, and streams with fish.
  • If you smell something dead or spot carrion birds like ravens and buzzards overhead,
  • take another route. You may be about to encounter a carcass, or a bear guarding it.
  • Set up your kitchen at least 100 yards downwind of your tent.
  • Hang all food in sealed bags or use bearproof canisters (see Signpost, June). Store all food at least 100 yards from your tent and kitchen. If you're in an area of heavy bear activity, it's a good idea to hang the clothes you cooked in, as well. Do not sleep in the clothes you wore when cooking.