My family and I go hiking frequently in bear country. We’ve never encountered a bear (thank goodness!), but we always have a canister of bear spray with us.
My husband and I, both used to work in law enforcement, were we carried pepper spray on our key chains.
Is there a difference in pepper spray and bear spray?
Why would I need to use them?
Are there any drawbacks to using pepper or bear spray?
What about alternatives?
Pepper Spray vs Bear Spray: What is the Difference?
You may have wondered if there is a difference between pepper spray and bear spray.
After all, if you could just use a can of pepper spray out in the wilderness than why not buy the cheaper option?
Although both sprays contain the same active ingredient - oleoresin capsicum, bear spray contains a much lower concentration than pepper spray, containing 1-2% rather than 10% and higher. Bear spray is regulated by the EPA. Oleoresin capsicum is the same chemical found in chili peppers that causes irritation and stinging.
Pepper spray is used to incapacitate an attacker so that you have time to escape. You could potentially use bear spray on a person attacking you, but if they were determined enough, they could fight through the effects of the spray due to the lower concentration.
Some of the effects of pepper spray are difficulty breathing (yet not bad enough to die!), causing the eyes to immediately close, temporary blindness, coughing, producing tears and so on.
The effects can last for 30 to 45 minutes. Pepper spray is so effective that almost all military and law enforcement officers in the United States carry it as a weapon.
Though bear spray has the same ingredient as pepper spray, it is the capsaicin and related capsaicinoids that are the active ingredients in bear spray.
The goal of spraying a bear isn’t to incapacitate and hurt it.
The goal with spraying a bear is to give yourself time to get away from the danger. You should only ever spray a bear that is charging you or acting aggressively towards you, and bear spray is the most non-toxic and non-lethal way to stop a bear.
When should you use pepper spray and bear spray and how?
When and How to use Pepper Spray?
Here is a video instructing on how to use pepper spray the right way.
Pepper spray has different laws in different places. Pepper spray should only be used in self-defense when there is risk of personal injury from another person.
When using pepper spray, first become familiar with how to use it.
Practice carrying it, drawing it, and aiming with it. When doing this practice, also practice yelling! When actually being attacked, shouting is sometimes the last thing we think to do, so practicing yelling while attacking can make it feel more natural if an emergency arises.
Also become familiar with the safety mechanism on the pepper spray; it won’t be much use if you can’t actually fire it.
Next up is your aim and posture. If you are being attacked you won’t just be standing straight forward and spraying a non-moving target.
Practice defense postures, take a step back to reduce your profile, aim for the face, and spray in a fanning motion to account for the attacker’s movements, poor aim, and any other factors.
Best Pepper Spray
This Saber 3 in 1 spray is a great option if you are looking for a compact and effective pepper spray.
Here is a key-chain version of the same highly rated brand.
When and How to use Bear Spray
Here is a video on the proper way to use bear spray.
Bear spray should be used when there is an immediate threat to life from a charging bear. It is proven that bear spray is more effective in warding off a physical attack than bullets by about 50%. There are other ways to scare a bear off that is merely curious or showing aggression in defense, but not actually attacking.
Generally, bears want to get away from people as quickly as possible, so allowing them the space to do so is the best bet.
Stephen Herrero, Ph.D., author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance and professor of environmental science, University of Calgary, Alberta said “this stuff isn’t brains in a can.” You need to take precautions like properly storing food, cleaning up a campsite, making a lot of noise while hiking by singing, talking loudly, and clapping, and avoiding areas with fresh bear scat. The use of bear spray should always be an absolute last resort.
Avoid testing the bear spray around your campsite.
the spray is like a catnip for bears, which doesn’t feel very comforting when you are using the same stuff to try and avoid being mauled.
It is proven to work to deter bears, though, if sprayed on their facial region during an attack, but if sprayed outside of an attack the bear will sniff it out, and, as one witness reported, will roll around in it like a wet dog after a bath.
To use the bear spray, remove the safety clip, if there is one. Aim slightly down so the spray will fall into the bears face.
Try to adjust for any wind.
When they bear is about 50 feet away try out a short burst of spray so the bear will walk through it. If this doesn’t deter them, spray a full blast when they are about 20 feet away.
If the bear retreats or is licking the spray off of its fur, use this time to get as far away from the bear as possible. Walk, don’t run, if you can help it.
The Center for Wildlife recommends a suggested minimum spray time of about 6 seconds to provide sufficient protection. Anything below this is believed to be ineffective for deterring a bear.
They recommend this spray time to ensure effectiveness in the case of:
- Having multiple bears charging (as if one isn't terrifying enough!)
- Repeated attacks or charging
- A bear going after another person in your party after being sprayed by you
- Weather conditions that may reduce effectiveness like rain
- Exceptionally aggressive bears like those protecting their cubs
- Erratic spraying due to fear.
Best Bear Spray
A great bear spray option is this Frontiersman bear spray with hip holster. This spray is the maximum strength allowed by the EPA and can reach a range of 30 feet and has a glow in the dark safety clip. With a maximum shelf life of 3 years, you don't have to worry about expired bear spray anymore. It is the spray that we always carry with us when out in bear country. This bear spray produces a big cloud of fog for more effective coverage of the area the bear is charging.
What are the drawbacks of using pepper spray or bear spray?
The biggest drawback to using pepper spray and bear spray is not knowing how the recipient of the spray will react.
With pepper spray, some people are immediately incapacitated, but others may not react at all, especially if they are under the influence of drugs or are male and having a huge testosterone surge.
This is similar for bears.
Usually bears will flee if sprayed, if they feel they can get away, but sometimes it won’t be enough to deter them if they are intent on fighting or are protecting a food source or their cubs.
It is usually best to try and remove yourself from the situation as calmly as possible without turning your back on the bear as you move away slowly.
Another drawback to pepper spray and bear spray is the risk of the spray getting into your own eyes. If the wind is blowing, it won’t take much for the spray to fly back in your face, which could weaken you in the fight.
Bear spray can be adversely effected by different factors like the proximity of the bear, wind, rain, or even the temperature.
Source: National Park Service
If you do accidentally spray yourself in the face, remain calm (and don’t claw your eyes out!). If you are in the wilderness and safe from danger, try soaking the affected area in a creek or water.
Splashing on water or using lotions on the area will spread and reactivate the capsaicin, causing more burning. If you have olive or vegetable oil, you can rub it onto the affected area to allow it to dissolve the capsaicin and then rinse with water. The only thing really to do is wait it out, the burning should decrease after an hour or so.
Are there alternatives to using bear spray?
Some alternatives of having to use bear spray on a bear are just simple precautions and constant vigilance.
- Make a lot of noise when walking through the wilderness so that you reduce the chances of startling a bear that didn’t hear you and the bear reacting aggressively. I would strongly advise against using bear bells. Bears have associated that the bells mean humans, and humans mean food in their packs, so you are basically ringing the dinner bell for the bears. Some ways to make noise are talking loudly, clapping, or singing; this is especially useful around blind corners and areas with low visibility.
- If you encounter a bear that isn’t actively charging you, there are a variety of ways to react, and each reaction depends solely on the behavior of the bear. The important thing is to stay calm, keep your wits about you, and be as prepared as possible for what to do.
- And if all else fails, make sure you are hiking with someone that is slower than you (not really, no man, woman, or child left behind!)
- Here is an extensive list on what bears are attracted to; things like all human food, pots and pans, pet food, fuel, cosmetics and more. It also provides information on what to do when you encounter a bear and how to react to different bear behaviors; like a bear not yet noticing you, a bear that is ignoring you, a bear that is watching you, but not reacting, or a bear that is actively pursuing you in a calm and measured way.
The difference between pepper spray and bear spray is minimal, but significant.
Bear spray is regulated by the EPA and pepper spray is not. The important connection between the two is that they are an excellent tool for saving your life in an emergency encounter.
Do you have any questions about bear spray, pepper spray or travelling in bear country?