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by Diane Spicer
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Remain bear aware.
Avoid confrontation by understanding bear body language.
Buy bear spray and use it correctly as your final line of bear safety.
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.
Using Bear Spray
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