Does Bear Spray Work?
In this article, I will put forward a well-researched opinion on the question by pulling from real-world experience (see video above). I have also compiled the most accurate data on the subject by analyzing the only known studies on the subject, Efficacy Of Bear Deterrent Spray In Alaska and Efficacy of Firearms For Bear Deterrence In Alaska. Both studies were led by Tom Smith and published in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
Does Bear Spray Work? A Real World Encounter
It was July 4th weekend and I was hiking with two friends, deep inside the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in central Idaho. We had already driven 4 hours north of Elk City and we used a chainsaw to cut our way to the trailhead. The parking area was devoid of cell phone reception and it was clear we were the first people to access this land since snow closed the road last fall. After parking, we ventured on a 15-mile hike through federally designated wilderness area. There aren’t many other places in the continental United States more remote than where we were.
More than 10 miles deep in the bush was when we had our bear encounter. At this point, we were 5 hours from the car and another 4-hour drive to Elk City, which has a population of fewer than 100 people. There were three of us, all athletic adult males, between the ages of 25 and 32. We were hiking in single-file formation when Carmen – leading the group – first saw the bear. He yelled, “BEAR!” which prompted John and me to quickly prepare ourselves for the encounter.
While I scrambled to grab the canister of bear spray hanging from my belt, I was also scanning the dense forest around me looking for the animal. I heard it before I saw it. It was huffing loudly and crashing through sticks and branches. If you don’t know, bears are fucking fast, they can sprint upwards of 30 miles per hour and crash through dense undergrowth as if it wasn’t there. I locked eyes with it while it was charging me and when it approached within 20 feet I sprayed it. The spray had its desired effect and the bear stopped charging, changing direction and careening to our left, making a semi-circle around us. It was moving so fast, I could barely keep track of it.
After successfully sprinting nearly 100 yards in what seemed like 4 seconds, it slowed its pace and began to approach us again. More cautious, it was still huffing and smelling the air, its eyes fixated on our group. It was this encounter that I captured on video. When it came within 10feet of me, I sprayed it again. The bear spray caused it to flinch its head backward. But it wasn’t until the yells of me and my two hiking partners reached a cacophony that it turned around and stalked into the woods.
It was at this time that the pepper spray saturated the air preventing us from breathing or keeping our eyes open. We were literally choking. The bear continued to circle us, huffing and acting just as aggressive as it had been before being sprayed.
We followed the trail up a switchback, toward the direction the animal had walked – the only direction we could go as we fled the cloud of capsaicin. The bear continued to circle us, seemingly looking for weaknesses within the group. As we pressed forward, uphill, it followed us, still circling and outpacing us easily. As we continued to make forward progress, we lost sight of the bear in the foliage and it disappeared without a sound.
Analyzing The Efficacy of Bear Spray
The most recent study on the effectiveness of bear spray, which you can find here in its entirety, lays out the most complete empirical evidence ever collected on bear spray incidents. The following statistics are pulled directly from the study:
- 83 bear spray incidents are analyzed. 11 of the encounters were a direct result of bear spray residue acting like a bear attractant. Of the 83 incidents, examined, brown bears were involved in 61 (74%), black bears in 20 (24%), and polar bears in 2
- In 11% of cases involving food-oriented black bears, the bear returned to the site of the spray. Of the 7 aggressive black bear incidents (where no food was involved) 3 of the sprayed bears returned and 1 never left the area. Overall, 42% of black bears eventually stayed in the area where spraying occurred
- In 3 out of the 14 aggressive instances of brown bears studies (21%) of bears returned after being sprayed. Aggressive is defined as not food-related encounters.
- It is not recommended to have bear spray residue on property or around campsites. There is evidence it does attract bears.
- In 18% of all cases analyzed both brown and black bear returned after being sprayed. Repeated spraying eventually deterred the bears.
- 24% (17of 72) instances studied required multiple sprayings
- The bear spray did not increase the aggressiveness of bears after being sprayed
The abstract of the study: “Bear spray represents an effective alternative to lethal force and should be considered as an option for personal safety for those recreating and working in bear country.”
I reached out to the author, Tom Smith, who had this to say in response to my own encounter, [bear spray] “It’s a stop-gap deterrent but probably not as good as 3 persons who simply group up and represent a (numerical) threat to the bear.”
Analyzing The Efficacy of Fire Arms For Bear Deterrence
Following the bear spray study, Tom Smith conducted similar research on the efficacy of guns and their success rate for deterring bear attacks. This was the first time a study quantified bear-human encounters with a goal to measure firearm success rates was published.
- The data is pulled from the years 1883-2009 which is a vastly larger data pool than the study on bear spray. This is due to the relatively recent invention and proliferation of bear spray.
- 269 incidents were used in the study (compared to 83 with bear spray – 224% larger sample size)
- 357 bears, including dependent offspring, were involved in 269 incidents, including 300 brown bears (84%), 36 black bears (10%), 6 polar bears (2%), and 15 of unknown species (4%). Bear-inflicted injuries occurred in 151 of 269 (56%)
- Success rates by firearm type were similar with 84% of handgun users (31 of 37) and 76% of long gun users (134 of 176) successfully defending themselves from aggressive bears
- Comparing outcomes for people who used their firearm in an aggressive bear encounter to those who had firearms but did not use them found no difference in the outcome
- When the animal involved in the incident was a black bear, odds of firearm success were more than 38 times greater than when the bear was a brown, polar, or unknown bear
- Once a bear charged, odds of firearm success decreased nearly 7-fold
- Firearms failed to protect people for a variety of reasons:
- Lack of time to respond to the bear (27%)
- Did not use the firearm (21%)
- Mechanical issues (i.e., jamming; 14%)
- The proximity to bear was too close for deployment (9%)
- the shooter missed the bear (9%)
- The gun was emptied and could not be reloaded (8%)
- The safety mechanism was engaged and the person was unable to unlock it in time to use the gun (8%)
- People tripped and fell while trying to shoot the bear (3%)
- The firearm’s discharge reportedly triggered the bear to charge that ended further use of the gun (1%)
The abstract of the study, “Although firearms have failed to protect some users, they are the only deterrent that can lethally stop an aggressive bear. Where firearms have failed to protect people, we identified contributing causes. Our findings suggest that only those proficient in firearms use should rely on them for protection in bear country.”
Tom Scott had this to say when comparing both studies, “Stop-gap [referencing bearspray] in that it isn’t like a firearm that can be a stop-dead deterrent. Still, both have their strengths and weaknesses.”
My Opinion On Carrying Bearspray On A Hike
How would my own bear encounter of been different if I was hiking alone? What if it was a grizzly bear?
Using the bear spray twice in the same encounter used up more than 90% of the canister. If the bear continued to approach me, I would have been defenseless. The only deterrent to that bear was the fact that we were 3 full-grown men. The finite characteristic of bear spray is its greatest weakness. This is compounded on backpacking trips where it is logistically impossible to carry voluminous gear, such as multiple canisters.
Will I continue to carry bear spray? Absolutely.
For day hikes near civilization and popular tourist attractions, bear spray is most likely overkill. However, on remote long-distance hikes, animals are less conditioned to humans and will perceive humans as a threat or even as a possible food source. This is not the first time I have been charged by an aggressive black bear while backpacking in remote areas. It is from my own experience that I recommend everyone carry bear spray when entering bear country.
Will I start carrying a gun on backpacking trips? Sometimes.
I will never enter the central Idaho wilderness solo without carrying a sidearm. If I am hiking alone, I will have both bear spray and a holstered firearm on my person at all times. If I am hiking with two or more people, I will ensure everyone is openly carrying a bear spray canister.
Final Thoughts On Using Bear Spray While Hiking
Using a gun as the first reaction to a bear encounter is empirically proven to not be as effective as first using bear spray. However, as someone who has used bear spray, carrying a gun as a second line of defense is the safest option when dealing with aggressive bears. If a bear is not deterred by the spray or comes back to the scene of the initial confrontation, a firearm will be useful. After the bear spray has been depleted, and if the animal is still aggressive, a gun will save your life.
For the majority of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, there is no justifiable reason to carry a gun hiking. But for the exceptionally long and remote thru-hikes, hunts, and fishing trips, carrying a gun is highly advisable. Never take the life of bear if you don’t have to. The wilderness is ultimately protected by those who carry a gun but keep it holstered.
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