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Bear spray: when and how to use it are two things every backpacker in brown (grizzly) bear country needs to know.
I have no photos of brown bears to share with you on this page.
That is a very, very good thing.
It means that I've succeeded in keeping a clean backcountry camp, reducing food and garbage odors by using appropriate bear canisters, and thus I've never had a close call with Ursus horribilus/arctos.
Or I'm very lucky.
Either way, Amen!
However, I have plenty of photos of grizzly habitat, because I spend a lot of time there.
So I've taken it as a solemn duty to learn all that I can about brown bears, and to know how to keep myself as safe as possible on backcountry trips.
Let me share a few tips on how to do that, including the use of a pepper spray specially formulated to deter brown bears in a bad mood.
If you know you're in brown bear country, you should be carrying bear spray.
How do you know you're in grizzly terrain?
If you're planning to hike and backpack in these areas, you need bear deterrents which are non-toxic and most likely to work.
That's bear spray, for most of us.
Each hiker in your group should have a canister of spray, and be knowledgeable about its use.
Your goal in carrying this little canister is to never have to use it!
Carrying bear spray may lead to overconfidence, and lax habits, in the backcountry.
Be very careful not to put yourself into a situation where the bear cannot see or hear you.
It's your job to remain "bear aware" at all times.
Keep your eyes peeled for bear scat, which are big lumps of you-know-what filled with berries, grass, hair and other signs that the bear is feeding in your area.
Also watch for bear tracks in the mud around streams and springs.
Long vertical scratches on trees and/or freshly stripped bark mean a large predator with sharp nails or claws is in the area.
Other ways to be bear aware:
And it goes without saying, don't go anywhere without the bear spray. It won't do you any good if it's buried in your backpack, left in your tent while you take a bath in the river, or forgotten in your jacket while napping in the sunshine.
The spray goes wherever you are: into the tent at night, especially.
When you spot a grizzly, you should be prepared to use the spray.
But not immediately, unless it charges you.
Bears use body language just like people do. If the bear is still sizing you up (take that literally), you might have some leeway to "read" its intent.
As they are doing this, get your bear spray out of its holster or chest harness, and have it positioned in your hand so you can deploy it without having to look at it.
Your instinct as a small soft creature is to run, or at least get away from that posturing bear.
But in your own best interest it's important to look big and threatening and definitely not like prey.
If the bear approaches you once it spots you, it means either curiosity or animosity.
There is a possibility of bluff charging, when the bear runs at you but diverts at the last moment.
You won't know if it's a bluff or for real, so once the bear is within 20 feet (6 m), it's time to introduce it to your friend, Bear Spray.
Spray, being the operative word.
Even when your hands are shaking.
The first thing to remember is that there's a safety clip or cap.
That has to be released in order for the spray to come out.
Back up even further. The spray can was sold with a zip tie or some other way to lock the safety clip. Be sure that is long gone before you are in a situation where you need to use the spray.
This probably sounds silly, but you should practice the sequence described below until you can use it without looking at it.
Here's how to deploy the spray:
Watch this video for a good demonstration of how to use bear spray.
Isn't it nice to know that the chances of a bear encounter go way, way down if you know how to handle brown bear territory?
First line of defense against a bear attack: Know if you're in bear territory.
Second line: Remain bear aware.
Third line: Avoid confrontation by understanding bear body language. Read a few books.
Fourth line: Use your bear spray correctly.
To be honest, the thrill of seeing these huge creatures is one that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Just handle the encounter in the best way possible, which you now know how to do.
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