Knowing how to use bear spray is a key to being prepared for an encounter in the wilderness. We talk with a bear safety expert to dispel some misconceptions and get advice for deterring bears.
SABRE Frontiersman recommends carrying bear spray when camping, hiking, hunting, fishing and, yes, biking in bear country. Basically, any time you’re on their turf.
We spoke with SABRE CEO and personal security expert David Nance to dispel a few myths about bears and the proper use of bear spray.
Frontiersman makes a full line of bear safety products. Some are meant to alert bears to your presence and prevent an encounter. When those don’t apply, there’s bear spray.
Myth 1: Aim Straight Ahead
One of the myths (or bad illustrations) is to extend arms straight ahead at a right angle from your torso. That goes against bear behavior (and EPA guidelines).
“Bears are going to charge you on all fours, low to the ground and running so they get speed. You want to point it more down, at a 45-degree angle down, so you don’t shoot over its head,” Nance said.
“It’s definitely not a stream. Going outward of 25-35 feet, you’re getting a cloud with a diameter of about 8 feet, so it’s quite wide. You want to get the mass of that spray out where they’ll inhale it and it will get in their eyes, so you want to aim it more downward at 45 degrees.”
Myth 2: Same as Pepper Spray
Some people bring their everyday carry pepper spray into bear country, thinking it could offer some protection. There are several reasons it likely won’t.
First, the potency is weak. Nance says people will compare the “2% major capsaicinoids” listed on bear sprays with the “10% oleoresin capsicum” listed on keychain pepper sprays and assume the higher number is stronger.
“Oleoresin capsicum is measuring the amount of pepper in the canister. Major capsaicinoids, that’s the heat-bearing, pain-producing component that determines how effective that product is going to be,” he said. Frontiersman Bear Spray uses 2.0% capsaicinoids, the maximum bear spray strength allowed by the EPA while Sabre’s Red Max Strength Pepper Spray (for use on humans) uses 1.33% major capsaicinoids.
Second, the can is too small. Pepper spray usually maxes out at one ounce with enough pressure to shoot a stream 10 feet. Bear spray canisters hold 9 ounces and shoot a concentrated cloud up to 30 feet. “That’s 20% more product,” Nance noted.
Myth 3: Bear Spray Is Applied to Your Skin & Clothes Like Bug Spray
Misunderstanding the term “repellent” has led to some ill-advised uses of bear spray. Bear spray is meant to be used as a deterrent to bears that are already keen on charging.
Nance explains sometimes the meaning of “repellent” or “deterrent” is lost in translation by international visitors and they use it like bug repellent, spraying their clothes and skin. Other times, it seems that nobody read the instructions or warnings on the can at all.
“DO NOT SPRAY ON HUMANS” is the first thing they’d read.
Nance tells us he once had a retail clerk in an outdoor sporting goods store ask him if he knew how to use the product. Nance played dumb and listened in horror as the clerk explained you needed to spray yourself with it so the bears would leave you alone.
There are other misconceptions that bear spray can be dispersed around a campsite to ward off bears during the night. That’s got some logic to it, but in fact, the concentrated pepper in the spray is still a plant-based odor and actually attracts bears from far away to come to investigate.
The better deterrent is putting all scented products inside a bear-safe container and placing it at least 100 feet from your campsite.
Bear Spray Best Practices
Keep It Handy
First off, if you’re traveling in bear territory with a group, more than one person should be carrying bear spray. Seldom is a group actually huddled together when outdoors so it makes sense for most members to carry protection with them.
The best advice for carrying bear spray is simply “within reach.” Nance estimates that roughly three-fourths of SABRE customers choose a holster spray and wear it on their hip. Others, riding ATVs or mountain bikes, choose to wear spray on their chest, where it’s still within reach.
In fact, the brand even makes a frame-mounted bike holster for its spray.
Dispersing Bear Spray
Knowing how to disperse bear spray is the most important aspect. First, you need to depress the actuator tab for a burst of spray. Aim at the face and eyes of a bear (which will be low to the ground during charge).
Depress the actuator tab long enough to create a barrier of spray between you and the bear. Stop to evaluate the impact of wind and other factors and adjust your aim if needed before spraying again.
Using Frontiersman Bear Spray
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee recommends that a spray reach a minimum of 25 feet and last for 6 seconds. This advice is based on a 2008 bear spray report based on biologists and other professionals testing sprays in the field. Frontiersman reports its 9.2-ounce canister will disperse 1.84 ounces per second at a top distance of 35 feet.
The University of Utah reported that pepper sprays fail 30% of the time and suggested greater quality control within the industry. SABRE has an in-house lab to check for the maximum strength formula in each lot of sprays.
A fresh can has a 3-year shelf life. Check the date on the can to ensure that it has enough pressure inside to force the spray a proper distance.
Frontiersman bear spray holsters have no straps that interfere with a fast draw. These sprays also come in combo packs that include an inert canister for practice.
One last tip: Nance suggests if you come across a carcass in the wild that you should move along quickly. It may be one that a bear is heading toward or protecting for a later meal.