In my wilderness survival class, I am frequently asked what kind of gun would be the best defense against a bear attack.  I am asked “Is a rifle better than a pistol or what about a shotgun?”  Rarely does anyone ask about bear spray.

Early Saturday morning I was listening to Nothwestern Outdoors Radio.  The show’s host John Kruse interviewed a representative from bear spray manufacturer Counter Assault.

After listening I did some research and verified some of the statistics brought forward on the radio show.  I focused on an article from May 2012 in Outside Magazine by Nick Heil (“Shoot or Spray, the Best Way to Stop a Charging Bear.”)  The studies evaluated pertained to bear encounters in Alaska.

As it turns out, bear spray may be the backcountry traveler’s best option.


Here are a few “take-aways” from Heil’s article:

Over the period from 1883 to 2009, there were 269 bear close encounters.  Bears inflicted injuries in 151 encounters and killed 17 people.  Statistics showed that aggressive bears were repelled or killed 84% of the time with handguns and 76% of the time with long guns.

Bear spray was first introduced in 1985.  From 1985 to 2006 there were 83 close bear encounters involving 156 people. Heil reports that “In all the incidents involving spray, there were only three injuries and none of them were fatal: a 98% success rate.”

In regards to folklore (ie. wearing bells on your boots), an associate professor in Plant and Wildlife Sciences at Brigham Young University, Tom Smith, was asked to provide guidance on how to be safe in bear county.  “But all the information I could find was based on no data at all or just misguided impressions.”


So, what should you do in bear country?

  1. Before going on your outing watch Counter Assault’s video on their website.
  2. Keep bear spray in a holster readily assessable and out of the backpack.
  3. Get the spray out in front and get ready to activate. Spray has a limited volume.
  4. Stay in a group and group up when a bear is seen.
  5. Initially, stand your ground and make noise and then slowly back out.
  6. Don’t make eye contact.

Please keep the following in mind:

  1. Bear Spray has a shelf life of about two years.  Check the bottle’s label.
  2. Bottles of spray are not allowed to go into your luggage for air travel.
  3. Bear Spray can be purchased at many parks, Cabelas, Sportsman’s Ware House, REI and other stores that cater to hunters.
  4. At the end of a trip the bottles can be recycled.  I left an expired bottle on my last trip with the park rangers.

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