Awareness of bear behaviour, detecting bear signs and taking care not to surprise bears, together with an understanding of defensive bear behaviours like bluff charges, are the best ways of escaping attack and injury. Bear spray is not a substitute for following proper bear avoidance and safety techniques, and should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear.
That said, if the worse happens, used correctly bear spray is an excellent means of defence against a charging bear. It is far more likely to be effective than a gunshot. With spray you can cover a wider area than a single bullet and the stopping power of the spray has a greater success rate than a bullet, which many times won’t stop the bear from reaching you.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, say that persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. So, what’s the correct way to use a spray?
First rule is to read the instructions before you go out into bear country. Keep the can available, not in your pack, and now how to remove the safety clip and operate the trigger.
Second, make sure the wind is not blowing directly at you. If it is then it’s you that is going to receive the main effect of the spray and not the bear.
Third, wait until the bear is around 12 metres, that’s 40 feet, away. Further and the spray may not reach effectively. The minimum recommended distance is 8 metres, about 25 feet.
Fourth, start off spraying down and then, with a slight zig zag motion, bring the can up whilst spraying all the time. You’ll get about nine seconds if you use all the spray.
Use both hands. If the bear veers off, and it almost always will, stop spraying (you may only need a couple of seconds but don’t stop until the bear stops coming towards you) and be prepared for a further charge. But that’s unlikely, usually the bear will make off away from you.
Once the bear has left the immediate area you need to calmly get yourself out of there, preferably in the opposite direction to the one the bear took. Remember, WALK DON’T RUN.
At the bottom of this page you’ll find a video from the US National Park Service demonstrating the right way to use bear spray.
Bear spray is a last line of defence. If you follow our advice on bear encounters, and how to avoid them, you shouldn’t have to use it. In the very unlikely scenario that you encounter a bear, it charges, doesn’t stop when sprayed (or you don’t have spray) and doesn’t veer off, then follow the advice on the encounters page.
Page updated 09 October 2021