by Diane Spicer
Bear spray: when to use it, 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 using bear deterrent strategies.
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 as a bear deterrent.
Defensive spraying has been shown to be very effective at turning away a charging bear.
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 as personal defense, for most of us.
Each hiker in your group should have her own canister of spray like this, and be knowledgeable about its use.
Your goal in carrying this little canister of unpleasantness is to never have to use it!
However, carrying bear spray may lead to overconfidence and complacency in the backcountry.
Vigilance is required.
Be very careful not to put yourself into a situation where the bear cannot see or hear you.
Examples of behavior to avoid:
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 with weeping sap mean a large predator with sharp nails or claws is in the area.
Why would a human hiker waste time and energy doing that? Bears do!
And it goes without saying, don't go anywhere without your 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 you're napping in the sunshine.
The spray goes wherever you are: into the tent at night, especially.
Tip: Every hiker in a group needs a can of bear spray. Don't depend on someone else being there when you need it.
When you spot a grizzly, you should be prepared to use the spray.
It should be on the outside of your backpack, within easy reach, or on your belt.
But don't prepare to use it immediately, unless the bear charges you.
A bear charge can happen lightning fast, and you might not have time to react with your bear spray.
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.
Use your own body language to send a message:
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 on top of the can.
Back up even further.
The spray can was sold with a zip tie or some other way to lock the safety clip.
This probably sounds silly as you're sitting in comfort reading this, but you should practice the sequence described below until you can use it without looking at it.
The spray is only effective if it contacts the mucous membranes of your ursine friend.
So let's make sure that it does.
Watch this video for a good demonstration of how to use bear spray.
If you have the presence of mind when you meet a bear on a windy day, you can do a test blast (1 second or less) of your canister just to get a sense of where the spray will be carried.
It's up to you whether or not to tell the local authorities about your run in with a bear.
Filing a report becomes important when the bear's behavior is aggressive and you want to warn others.
It also helps law enforcement and emergency responders put together a pattern in order to locate a rogue bear.
What's bad for the bear's mucous membranes is also horrible for yours.
If a breeze brings some of the irritating vapors into your face, your eyes and nose will run and sting like crazy.
You might have temporary restriction of breathing, temporary restriction of sight, and you will be a lot of discomfort, some might call it pain.
Your only consolation: if it reached the bear, that's what's happening in Bear-ville, too.
To maximize its effectiveness, there are a few things you should do with the spray canister:
Store it in reasonable temperatures to extend shelf life
Never bring the spray into the passenger compartment of the car without a heavy storage container.
The expiration date is firm, and generous at around 4 years. Once the date has passed, get a new bear spray.
I'm not a bear expert, so all I can do is rely upon the expertise and wisdom of those who are looking at data or working in bear country for long periods of time.
Like me, you can learn from the results of a study which looked at a sample of bear spray incidents in Alaska over the years 1985 to 2006.
Update: The study's pdf has been removed from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website so I can no longer provide the link to it, but I was lucky enough to read it before it disappeared.
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:
To be honest, the thrill of seeing these huge creatures is one that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Sounds like a thrill you'd rather skip?
Sometimes you have no choice.
Just handle the encounter in the best way possible, which you now know how to do.
Using Bear Spray
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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