Bear Spray Or Gun: Which Is A Better Defense Against A Bear Attack?

bear spray deterrent

Do you know what to do if a bear charges?

As a guy that always totes a gun in the backcountry, my first response to that questions was “duhhh”, I’ll rely on my gun (vs bear spray).

But I have had to reconsider. Grizzly bears are huge Apex predators, and fit into a special category of mega fauna that demands an extra measure of respect. Resistance maybe futile.

If a 300 lb black bear grabs you, it is probably trying to eat you, so your best chance is to fight back. A big black bear will be formidable, but not invincible. If a 600 – 1,000 lb “grizz” grabs you, you better go limp. Fighting will just make them try harder to subdue you. You would have a better chance trying to fight an entire NFL football team armed with knives.

If you shoot something as big as a grizzly bear and are not lucky enough to penetrate their skull or clip the spinal chord on the 1st shot, it might just piss them off. The average elk can run 100 yards after a double lung shot, so how long do you think grizz can continue to whip your ass before it dies? The bear will eventually die, but you will still die first.

This U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service publication Fact Sheet #8 – Bear Spray vs. Bullets – Which offers better protection? (pdf file) states that since 1992, 50% of all people that attempt to protect themselves from grizzly bear attacks with a firearm were injured. Those that used pepper spray “escaped injury most of the time”, and if they were attacked, their injuries were less serious and the attacks did not last as long. So if you plan to hike or hunt in grizzly bear country, get yourself a magnum sized pepper spray canister and keep it handy in a holster. It will be as useless as an unloaded gun if it’s in your backpack. I take that back. An unloaded gun can be used as a hammer.

None of us want to needlessly kill a female bear with cubs. Obviously if a human life is in danger, the life of a bear and her cubs is not important. If using pepper spray usually has a better outcome for the human, it also undoubtedly has a better outcome for the bear.

A Friend’s Grizzly Bear Encounter While Elk Hunting

About 10 years ago, a friend was elk hunting in an area east of Yellowstone in the Shoshone National Forest (Wyoming). He was bugling for elk from beneath a fallen tree at the edge of a river. Suddenly, a Grizzly bear jumped down the 15 ft bank and landed just feet away from his hiding spot. The bear was drawn to his elk calling.

He had a rifle, but he said it seemed very puny when faced with the grizzly bear at that distance. He did not have pepper spray.

The bear stared at him a few minutes, then huffed, pawed and slapped at the dirt and faked charged dozens of times, but never came at him under the tree.

After about 15 minutes, the bear slowly turned and walked away. My friend was so pumped up on adrenaline, he ran out from under his tree and screamed at the bear to release the tension. Bad move. The bear turned and came back and they went through the whole process again, with the bear threatening to charge for about 15 more minutes before walking away again.

Note to self: If a grizzly bear wants to walk away, let him.

This U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Publication also has tips for Elk Hunters in Grizzly Country (pdf file). If you will be hunting anywhere Grizzly bears are likely to occur, it’s worth a look.

Learn How to Use Bear Spray Correctly

Some people never cease to amazed me. Apparently, some people have the idea that Bear Spray can act as a bear repellent, Bear Spray is not that kind of repellent.

Do not spray your clothing or equipment or spray around your camp with bear spray. This may attract bears. Use bear spray only to spray an attacking bear in the face. If a bear charges you, spray when the bear is between 30-40 feet and aim at slightly downward angle.

Also, I would have never thought about this, but Glacier National Park warns that you may not be able to cross the U.S.- Canada border with some bear sprays. Only pepper sprays clearly labeled as bear spray can be taken into Canada. Pepper sprays made to deter humans are not allowed. Go figure.

Best Bear Spray

Because I (this is the wife speaking now) had encountered several bears during my work as a wildlife technician and felt very vulnerable without a gun or bear spray, I decided from then on to carry both. The gun was always a last resort in my mind – only a backup to bear spray. I would have a very hard time killing a bear knowing that bear spray, a non-lethal alternative, may have done the job. I did carry around a little bottle of pepper spray (also called mace, personal defense or law enforcement spray) but those are meant to deter humans not bears. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it will do the job because it does not have nearly enough volume, capsaicin concentration nor spray-force to stop a bear. So I did some research and found what to look for, at a minimum, when buying bear spray.

Things to Look For When Buying Bear Spray

Some sprays may be labeled as “Bear Spray” when in reality they are not. Here is a requirement list of features to look for when buying bear pepper spray:

  • As required by the EPA, all bear spray labels must read either: “Bear Deterrent” or “To deter bears from attacking humans.”
  • Label will clearly list the proper ingredients such as: Capsaicin and related capsaicinoids/derived from oleoresin of capsicum.
  • Active ingredient level should be between: 1.0% to 2.0% (capsaicin and related capsaicinoids).
  • Minimum spray duration of 6 seconds
  • Minimum net content weight: 7.9 ounces or 225 grams.
  • Minimum spray distance: 25 feet
  • Should have a safety clip to prevent accidental sprays
  • Will include or buy separately a hip holster or chest strap holster for carrying. I prefer the hip holster because it doesn’t get in the way of my binoculars or backpack chest straps. Why do you need a holster? Because you need easy, fast access to your bear spray. Don’t carry in your pack or anywhere you don’t easy access to – it could mean the difference between avoiding a bear attack or being mauled, injured and possibly killed.

 Some Tips When Using Bear Spray

Each person in your group should carry a canister of bear spray when in bear country. You should practice getting your bear spray out of your holster, removing the safety clip and aiming. You don’t want to be fumbling around if you actually need to use it. It should be second nature for automatic use. You also should test fire a new can to make sure it is not defective. Needless to say – test outdoors and don’t test on a windy day or at least spray downwind, but be mindful of who’s downwind!

If traveling in a vehicle, store the bear spray in a sealed bag or canister in the trunk or back of the vehicle. Don’t store the canister in direct sunlight or leave in your car if the vehicle may get over 120 degrees F or below 32 degrees F. Make sure you read all the detailed precautions, directions for use and storage and disposal instructions.

Some popular brands of bear spray pepper spray/deterrent are Counter Assault, UDAP, Guard Alaska and Frontiersman. Some come in different sizes (volume of spray) and have different spray ranges from 15 to over 30 feet. Obviously, I would want one that can spray up to 30 feet vs 15 feet.

For the price, spray range, percentage of CRCs and included holster, I think the Frontiersman Bear Attack Deterrent is a good choice:

  • 7.9 oz with maximum 2% capsaicin and related capsaicinoids
  • Includes with hip holster
  • 30-foot deploy range
  • Glow-in-the dark safety clip

Fortunately, I haven’t needed to use bear spray since I purchased it, but it does give me some more peace of mind knowing I have it when hiking, camping, etc… But, you shouldn’t just rely on your bear spray when in bear country. You first need to rely on common sense and take all steps to avoid a bear encounter in the first place. Be aware of your surroundings and know what to do if you run into a bear.

Here are some additional tips on what to do if you encounter a bear.


Bear Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tuchodi/4959047/

Comments

  1. I’d go with Fox 5.3 spray. The reason is that bear sprays are generally weaker than personal defense sprays. Fox 5.3 is the hottest stuff on the market, delivering a whopping 5.3 million Scoville heat units.

    For that reason, I’m convinced that it will likely change a bear’s mind about how you might taste faster than products advertised as “bear spray”.

    I will always preferably carry my sidearm however personally. Last September I had a black bear attack while grouse hunting with my German Shorthaired Pointer. The dog managed to find himself between a large 350lb+ sow and her cubs.

    The bear unfortunately attempted to attack us when my dog attempted to defend me during the initial confrontation. I tossed my Ithaca 20.ga with 8 shot to the ground and drew my .40 cal pistol. The bear took 4 jacketed hollow points inside 12 feet before the 5th changed her mind at arms reach distance just prior to her making contact.

    The bear turned, and ran through the brush growling and snarling. I returned a day later with game dept enforcement officers. The bear was long gone, and so were the cubs. The hope is that the hollow points did what hollow points do, expanding rapidly to minimize penetration, hopefully failing to breech the bears fat layers resulting in a less than lethal encounter.

    I’ll never know, but that’s the hope.

    -Ken

    • Scary story Ken.

      But I’m not going to agree that a personal defense spray would be better than bear spray, especially against a grizzly bears.
      It might be hotter, but I didn’t see any can that held more than 4 ounces.

      Ken corrected me… Fox Labs does make a 1 Pound 2% 5.3-mm Pistol Grip Stream Pepper Spray. They say it is good for “crowd control”.

      I think you would agree that if your encounter had been against a momma grizzly bear you would be telling a different story today (if still able to tell it).

Comments, Opinions, Questions?

*

Notify me of new posts by email.