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How to Use Bear Spray and Stay Safe From Bears

North America is home to three types of bears: American black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears.

By nature, bears are shy and defensive creatures who, despite their size and strength, are far more scared of you than you are of them. Though rare, bear encounters are not impossible. In these cases, the best method of defense is knowing how to use bear spray.

Keep reading to learn how to use bear spray and give yourself some peace of mind when hiking or camping in bear territory!

A sign warning of bears in the area. How to use bear spray.

What is Bear Spray?

When looking for and researching bear spray, you’ll likely find it listed under a few different names – bear deterrent, bear repellant, and bear canister, to name a few. From this, the purpose and intention of bear spray are pretty obvious: to keep away bears!

If you’re an avid camper, hiker, or outdoorsy person, you know that while bear encounters are uncommon, when they do happen, they’re extremely dangerous.

So if you want to get out and enjoy the wilderness, it’s crucial to have a plan to protect yourself.

Keeping bear spray on you is a great protective measure, as its sole purpose is to protect you from aggressive bear encounters.

But what is bear spray exactly?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t magically create a forcefield around you, shielding you from a bear attack. But, it does disable them long enough to de-escalate the situation and hopefully scare them off.

Bear spray contains the chemical capsaicin, which is the active chemical compound in hot peppers. If you’ve felt your eyes water and lips burn after eating a chili, you can thank capsaicin.

It’s more or less the same thing you’ll find in a container of mace, just a lot more potent and concentrated. In short, bear spray is pepper spray for bears!

How Does it Work

When the bear spray is correctly administered, it will interfere with the bear’s sensory abilities. Bear spray will cause the bear’s eyes, ears, and nose to sting and will impair its breathing.

Bears are known to have an incredible sense of smell, far more powerful than that of a dog or cat, so rendering their senses useless is painful and scary for them, enough so that it will cause the bear to retreat.

How to Use Bear Spray

Person holding a can of bear spray with blurred wooded background.

Bear spray can only help you if you know how to use it correctly.

If you plan an adventure where a bear encounter might be possible, you must know how to use bear spray correctly.

However, bear spray should not be your first line of defense. Taking proper precautions to avoid bear encounters should be taken regardless of whether or not you have bear spray.

Bear spray is a last resort option for a bear acting aggressively in close range, roughly 60 feet.

How to Spray

First and foremost, bear spray is not like bug spray. You should not spray it on your clothes or skin to keep the bear away – you will only end up harming yourself!

Since bear spray is essentially pepper spray strong enough to impair a bear (thus, will most certainly take down a human!), you’ll want to ensure that you can spray it without the aerosol coming into contact with yourself or others.

When angling your aim, account for the wind and spray three times toward the bear’s head once the bear is roughly 30 feet away.

The aerosol spray will naturally expand and rise, so you’ll want to aim slightly lower than you think and spray the bear down.

Spraying up into the air will likely miss the bear and may harm you or others around you instead.

If, after the first use, the bear still doesn’t back away, repeat the process.

What to do Next

When used correctly, bear spray effectively repels an aggressive bear. If you’ve followed the correct steps and the bear has been impaired, it will likely retreat.

Once the bear runs away, it’s best to leave the scene as soon as possible in case the bear returns after its respiratory system has cleared.

Bear Spray Tips and Tricks

Now that you know how to use bear spray, here are a few more tips to help you stay safe.

They may not seem it, but bears are fast and can cover a serious amount of ground.

Keep Your Bear Spray Handy

As such, having your bear spray accessible at all times when a bear encounter is possible is super important.

If you leave it in your backpack or campsite, you may not be able to access the bear spray in enough time to use it correctly.

Luckily, there are easier ways to transport your bear spray in an accessible way without having to carry it in your hand.

You can find a belt or holster specifically designed for holding bear spray that leaves you hands-free for your hike but with your defense still at the ready.

A belt holster for carrying a can of bear spray.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you’ve never used pepper spray at all before in any capacity, you might feel a bit nervous about how to use bear spray, what it feels like, how to aim, or what kind of power the canister has.

That’s totally normal! So normal, in fact, that you can find some practice canisters out there to help you learn how to use bear spray properly.

It may seem silly to try and spray a placebo to feel more confident, but it’s better to practice and feel prepared. Then, if the moment comes, you won’t be stuck in a potentially dangerous situation without the experience to back you up.

Expiration Dates

Strangely enough, bear spray does have a shelf life. If your can is over four years old, it’s probably time for a new one. It’s not that the actual capsaicin product expires. The can itself loses pressure over time, rendering the spray ineffective.

If there isn’t enough pressure behind the aerosol, it won’t reach the bear as intended and, therefore, won’t do anything to deter the bear.

Before any wilderness trip or journey where bear encounters are possible, make sure to test your bear spray in a safe place away from other people and animals to check that the canister is still pressurized.

Storing and Carrying Bear Spray

Like any pressurized aerosol product, you have to be pretty careful about how you store and transport bear spray.

Man holding can of bear spray.

Properly Storing Bear Spray

These kinds of products are prone to exploding and are easily punctured if not stored correctly. Then the bear spray would be helpful to no one (except maybe the bear)!

The best practice is to keep your bear spray stored in a cool, dry place and out of direct sunlight. If you have kids or pets, keeping your bear spray in a fireproof or locking container is a smart idea, too.

How to Carry Bear Spray

You already know how important it is to keep your bear spray accessible when on the move in bear territory. But there are a few other things to mention when discussing proper carrying procedures.

Most bear sprays will have a safety clip to avoid accidental discharge. If you have your bear spray on your holster, make sure the safety clip is on. However, be clear on how to turn the clip on and off quickly so you can easily spray it if need be.

Though guidance on how to use bear spray dictates that you should not leave bear spray in your tent because that will prevent easy access, this rule doesn’t apply if you yourself are in your tent.

If, for whatever reason, a bear approaches your tent while you’re inside, you’ll want to have your bear spray at the ready. Unfortunately, no tent is a match for a bear, and simply being inside the shelter won’t inherently keep you safe.

Where to Buy Bear Spray

Bear spray is not difficult to find, and most outdoor retailers will have spray for purchase.

While you are in the market for bear spray, be sure you also purchase a belt holster to store it safely on your person.

Other Ways to Stay Safe From Bears

Again, bear spray should be your last resort when dealing with a bear encounter. Before you rely too heavily on it, there are steps you can take early on to ensure you’re doing everything to avoid bear encounters altogether.

Closeup of black bear.

Plan Carefully and Research

The best way to prepare yourself for a bear encounter is to plan and research beforehand. If your chosen campsite has a history of high bear populations, it’s probably a good idea to choose another area.

When identifying trails or paths you want to hike, see what others say about them first. Are there frequent bear sightings in the area? Does the site have a naturally high bear population?

Answering these questions will help inform safer choices regarding bear encounters.

Another thing to consider is the type of bears native to the area. Grizzly and polar bears are considerably more dangerous than black bears, both in demeanor and size.

If you find yourself in an area with a high population of more aggressive species of bears, taking every precaution possible is crucial.

Keep Calm

Bears do not hunt and eat humans by nature, so if you do find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation with a bear, it’s essential to stay calm and not create more of a threat (easier said than done).

Bears typically attack humans for one of two reasons: they feel threatened and are protecting themselves or their cubs (momma bears are particularly ferocious), or they sense that you have food and you’re standing in the way of their meal.

If you spot a bear from afar acting calm and it hasn’t made a move to charge you, there’s no need to freak out and pull out your bear spray. Simply walk away calmly and quietly until you are out of sight and safe before continuing on.

Avoiding Encounters

Generally, bears are afraid of humans unless they feel threatened and will likely flee from you. Bear encounters are usually easy to avoid if you follow a few tenets:

  • Hike in a group if you can and make noise while you move. You don’t want to do anything to spook the bear, but normal footfall and chatter will be enough to deter a bear away from your area.
  • Avoiding hiking at dusk or dawn, when bears are most likely out, is also smart.
  • Sometimes, your surroundings can hide you from the bear or hide the bear from you. If you’re around water, the bear may not hear you coming, and you’re much more likely to surprise it.
  • Be on high alert when moving through these environments, and try to make more noise if possible.
  • If you spot a large animal that’s dead or wounded, get as far away as possible. Bears are scavengers and opportunists, so this is a perfect meal to attract them to the area.
  • On a similar note, leave your strong-smelling food or toiletry products at home if you frequent bear territory.
  • They’ll smell your fruity perfume or fragrant sausages and head your way looking for food. Stick to designated areas, or at the very least, areas downwind.

How to Use Bear Spray: FAQ

A brown mother bear and her two cubs.

Does bear spray hurt the bear?

Bear spray doesn’t hurt the bear in any long-term way, but it will momentarily sting and irritate its face and respiratory system. However, bear spray is not lethal, so there’s no worry about leaving a bear injured enough to die while you escape.

Is bear spray okay to use everywhere?

Unfortunately, no. Some national parks or camping areas prohibit the use of bear spray.

But they do so with good reason. If they thought bear spray was necessary for survival, they would allow you to use it.

Be sure to double-check your campsite or hiking trail’s policy on bear spray before you go!

What should I do if bear spray gets on me?

If, for some unlucky reason, bear spray gets on you, immediately vacate the area and wash your skin and clothes. Try to take short, shallow breaths so as not to breathe any spray in.

Should I play dead?

This answer depends on the type of bear you encounter (hence the emphasis on doing your research beforehand). Though they tend to be less aggressive overall, if black bears do attack, they attack to kill.

Playing dead around a black bear, as well as polar bears, will not deter it and will put you in a potentially fatal position.

The only scenario where playing dead will work is disengaging with a defensive grizzly bear. If a grizzly bear protecting its cubs deems you no longer a threat, it will likely retreat. However, if you’re unsure if it’s the right time to play dead, it’s best to avoid it altogether and use bear spray.

Wrapping Up the Guide for How to Use Bear Spray

Closeup view of a bear spray trigger.

Though it is always a good idea to carry bear spray, remember that bear encounters are extremely unlikely.

While this is no excuse for not being prepared and not knowing how to use bear spray, it shouldn’t stop you from getting outdoors and having fun!

For more tips on staying safe in bear country, check out our guide on How to Keep Bears Away from Your Campsite.