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 Bear Spray:
When And How To Use It

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.

Backpacking tent in grizzly habitat

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.

When to carry bear spray

If you know you're in brown bear country, you should be carrying bear spray as a bear deterrent.

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 her own canister of spray, and be knowledgeable about its use.

  • Buy bear spray which contains 1.3-2% capsaicin and related capsaicinoids

When to use bear spray

Your goal in carrying this little canister is to never have to use it!

However, 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.

  • Napping under a tree
  • Hiking silently through dense brush or near noisy water features
  • Coming around blind corners on the trail without making noise
  • Hiking in early morning or late evening when the bear is most likely to be going about its business of eating

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.

Long vertical scratches and freshly peeled bark on this tree indicates bear activityA bear used sharp claws recently on this tree

More ways to be bear aware

  • Spot their "beds", areas of flattened vegetation where they rest and sleep.
  • Watch for their food caches, large humps of dirt covered carcasses.
  • Take note of dug up patches of stream banks, ant hills, and other areas where they can find insects, roots and other food.
  • Really big rocks that are flipped over are a good bear sign. Why would a human hiker waste time and energy doing that? They don't want the worms and insects under the rock, do they?

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.

Don't spray right away

When you spot a grizzly, you should be prepared to use the spray.

But not immediately, unless it charges you.

  • This can happen when mama bear realizes you are too close to her cubs.
  • It can happen lightning fast, and you might not have time to react with your bear spray.
  • Instead, protect your head and neck with your hands, and roll into a ball to protect your vital organs. Lie motionless.

Body language is your clue
to when or if to 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.

  • Bears communicate their intent to threaten and intimidate you by making weird noises with their jaws and throat (like snorting and clacking teeth together).
  • They may growl and slap the ground with their paws.
  • They also may salivate, which will highlight their teeth and accentuate their role as a predator.
  • Along the same lines, they position their bodies side ways to appear as large and threatening as possible.

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.

  • You should have practiced this maneuver at home several times, to get the feel for it without looking.

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:

  • Sing loudly and off key.
  • Wave your arms.
  • Do not run. Bad things happen to humans who run from bears.

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.

How to use bear spray

The first thing to remember is that there's a safety clip or cap on top of the can.

  • That has to be released with a quick flick of your thumb 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 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.

  • Build a body memory of how your hand feels holding it, and where the release for the safety clip is.
  • You can't even believe how scared you'll be when you see a brown bear coming your way, so train your muscles to react even when your mind is screeching.

Here's how to deploy the spray

  • Use both hands to release a 3 - 6 second burst of spray.
  • Then release another one.
  • Aim a bit low. You want to create a mist that will rise up and get the bear's attention as it comes even closer.
  • It would be great if you were downwind of the noxious spray, but you won't have time to make that particular calculation unless you already did while sizing up the bear's behavior (see tip below).
  • Don't drop the can and run. This will be incredibly hard, but do not run.
  • Don't turn your back on the bear, because you need to see how it reacts. It should move away from you, reacting to the painful sensation of pepper spray in its face.
  • As the bear begins to move away, walk backwards slowly and monitor its actions. You don't want a repeat attack to catch you off guard.

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.

Side effects
of using bear spray

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 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.

Storing your bear spray

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

  • Don't store the canister near heat sources at home, such as a shelf next to the furnace or a large south facing picture window.

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.

  • You don't want to rely upon the false hope of bear spray that has lost its effectiveness, do you?

Summing it up

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.

Fourth line:

Buy bear spray and use it 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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Using Bear Spray

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