Bear Safety- Does Bear Spray Work?

Bear Spray Demonstration

Last Updated on April 30, 2021

Outdoor activities, such as hiking, backpacking, and camping, are lots of fun and are enjoyed by many people. However, there are risks attached to outdoor pursuits and it is important that people enjoy these activities safely and take any necessary precautions. One risk people face when spending time in the outdoors is a bear attack.  Although these are rare, it is essential that you are prepared for such an eventuality. One of the best ways of preparing for this is to carry a bear repellent spray in your backpack. What many people wonder about this product is how effective is bear spray?

What is Bear Spray?

Bear spray is a substance in an aerosol canister that you can use to deter a bear from an attack. This product was developed during the 1980s. The main active ingredient in this spray is capsaicin. It works by irritating the eyes and nose of the bear, giving them a burning sensation. This deters them from attacking and they will retreat. Although this is uncomfortable for the bear, it will not do them any long-term harm and there are no reports of using these sprays leading to the death of a bear.

Does Bear Spray Really Work?

There have been many studies into how effective bear spray is when faced with a potential bear attack. One study showed that 98% of people escaped uninjured from a close-range encounter with a bear when they used bear spray according to the instructions. The results of this study suggest that bear spray is extremely effective in preventing bear attacks.

A 2010 study in Alaska revealed that between 1985 and 2006, bear spray prevented a bear from displaying undesirable behavior in 92% of cases. However, the same study showed that spraying bear on a latent object, such as a backpack, did not deter bears as the user intended. In fact, spraying on a latent object attracted bears. Therefore, this study shows that the spray is only effective when sprayed directly at bears as directed in the instructions on the canister.

Further studies and articles have noted that while bear spray is extremely effective in preventing injury to humans while also not permanently harming bears, no product is 100% effective.

How to Use Bear Spray?

It is essential that you always follow the instructions on the canister to make sure the bear spray is effective. However, as a general guideline, you should only use bear spray when you are in a close encounter with the bear. In most cases, the closer you are to the bear, the more effective the spray. Usually, you should be within four meters of the bear to use the spray. However, there are some sprays that are effective at much greater distances. You should spray the bear spray directly towards the bear’s face for at least four seconds, if not longer, for the spray to work properly and deter the bear from an attack.

Resource Management Officer of Banff National Park demonstrating how to use bear spray:

Recommended: Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray, learn how they are different!

Factors that Impact on the Effectiveness of Bear Spray

When bear spray does not work properly, it is usually down to human error rather than a problem with the product. Some factors that can impact on the effectiveness of bear spray include:

  • Distance- How far away from the bear you are when using the spray will impact on its effectiveness. Most bear repellent sprays have instructions that tell you how close to the bear you must stand to use the spray. If the bear is too far away and you use the spray, it will not work effectively.
  • Length of spraying- Bear spray does not work the second that you start to spray. It can take between four and eight seconds to work, depending on the product you are using. A common mistake that people make is to assume that they can just press the spray for a second and a bear will instantly start to retreat. You should read the instructions on your bear repellent spray before setting out on your trip to find out how long you need to press the spray for it to work effectively. This usually requires a continuous spray of around six seconds.
  • Wind- Weather is the one factor that affects the effectiveness of bear spray that is not down to human error. A strong gust of wind just as you are spraying the bear repellent can blow the spray away from the target and have no impact on the bear.

Final Verdict

Studies have shown that bear spray is an effective deterrent to a bear attack. Therefore, it is a useful item to take as a precaution if you are spending time outdoors in an area that is the natural habitat of bears. There are some occasions when a bear spray is not effective, but this is usually down to human error, such as using it too far away from the bear or not spraying for long enough.

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