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.

A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service page Fact Sheet (#8 – Bear Spray vs. Bullets -Link is Broken… US Govt websites notorious for losing content) – Which offers better protection? 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 Alaska Fish and Game website has a page about Bear Safety for Hunters. 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.

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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.

From Bear Aware

More Bear Spray Facts

References for Efficacy of Firearm or Bear Spray as Deterrents

Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska; Smith, Tom; Herrero, Stephen; D. Debruyn, Terry & Wilder, James; Journal of Wildlife Management 76(5):1021-1027 · July 2012

Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska; ;Smith, Tom; Herrero, Stephen; D. Debruyn, Terry & Wilder, James; Journal of Wildlife Management 72(3):640 – 645 · December 2010

BYU Study: Using a gun in bear encounters doesn’t make you safer

Download the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee Bear Spray Report 2008 pdf

Check out these other Bear Sprays, Deterrents and Alerts:

Bear Image Credit:


  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 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.


    • 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).

  2. Dave Smith says

    The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “fact sheet” on Bear Spray vs. Bullets is fact free. No data. No references. Anyone foolish enough to think bear spray is a legitimate alternative to a firearm for a person hunting deer or elk with a rifle needs to put a can of bear spray in a hip-holster on their strong side, and then try using it with each of the 6 field carries for long guns. Best of luck. In some cases, a right handed hunter would need to reach across the front of his body and deploy bear spray with just his left hand. In other cases a hunter would need to switch his rifle from right hand to left hand and then try to deploy bear spray one-handed. Good luck with these stunts while facing a charging grizzly.

    • Thanks Dave. I just noticed the link to the Bear Spray vs Bullets fact sheet no longer works. Here is a new link to the USFWS fact sheet.

      You are correct that the fact sheet had no real facts, but it did link to a website that had some information about how University of Montana wildlife graduate student, Carrie Hunt (and others) tested various sprays on bears.

      That link also no longer works (typical of govt web sites), but here is a 2008 Bear Spray report.

      There is no way of knowing the exact right thing to do in every bear-human interaction.
      I say any interaction where both humans and bears survive is a good outcome as long as the bear (or human) doesn’t learn any bad habits that put everyone at risk for the next interaction (“Bear spray is not brains in a can” and a rewarded bear is a dead bear).

      Anyone that plans to defend themselves with bear spray or with a gun, had better be trained. You are correct about the problems of carrying weapons and other gear and also having bear spray in a position it can quickly and accurately be deployed.

      But training includes not only how to quickly deploy and accurately spray, but also when and how to spray. How many rounds does it take to become proficient with our handguns and rifles? So if a bear spray is to be our primary defense against a predator that can cover 44 feet per second and kill you with one touch; how many cans should we go through in practice? And each can only has about 6 seconds of spray.

      Anyone with gun or bear spray (in holster or already in a firing position) will need luck when facing a charging bear.

      But in the Journal of Wildlife Management (2010), Tom Smith and Steven Herrero found that pepper spray stopped bears 92% of the time when used on brown bears, 90% for black bears, and 100% for polar bears. Of all persons carrying sprays, 98% were uninjured by bears in close‐range encounters. Three people were injured after defensive spraying (brown bears), but injuries were relatively minor. In 7% (5/71) of bear spray incidents, wind interfered with spray accuracy. In 14% (10/71) of bear spray incidents, users sprayed themselves, ranging from minor irritation (11%, 8/71) to incapacitation (3%, 2/71). They conclude that “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”.

      In another publication by Tom Smith (2008), they found no statistical difference in the outcome (no injury, injury or fatality) when they compared those who used guns (sample = 229) to those who had firearms but did not use them (sample = 40).

      So there are some data. You have equal chances of being killed, injured or escaping injury if you use a gun against a bear, but brown bears were deterred 92% of the time with bear spray and the other 8% that were injured did not require hospitalization.

      I don’t usually hunt in Grizzly Bear country. But when I do, I will not be alone. Everyone will have both bear spray and weapons. And we will practice with our bear spray and we will back each other up and be as “bear aware” as humanly possible.


      Yes, and you will need even more good luck if you fire your weapon into a Grizzly, it will most certainly know that you are a supreme threat an will proceeded to kill you…

  3. I decided to go on a family vacation to friends in the city of Sheridan, Wyoming, and, on the advice of my friends, I wanted to see all the sights of the state. Just in case, before the trip, I ordered a spray and bells.

    The day after arrival we started the tour, we visited the canyon, hot springs of the Yellowstone volcano and much more, but we could not even imagine that Yellowstone Park could be a dangerous place for outdoor recreation.

    We stopped in the park to spend the night, tents, marshmallows on the fire. The next morning I woke up someone’s roar, coming out of the tent, I saw a huge bear scouring for food.

    I did not hesitate, climbed into the tent and took the spray from the bears, I was lucky, I managed to scare him away.

    Upon arrival home, I told my friends about this story. Half of them criticized me and said that “you better take a gun with you”.
    I do not know how they are, but I was pleased with my choice.

    What do you think? Better weapons or sprays against bears?

    • Yes, you were lucky. Don’t know why you could not imagine Yellowstone could be a dangerous place for outdoor recreation, you must have imagined something, because you bought bear spray. I guess you can imagine it now.

      And am not sure what you mean by “took the spray from the bear”… Did you have to spray the bear?

      Your friends that criticized you for taking bear spray and not a gun don’t know what they are talking about. When they go into bear country, let them do what they want. Bottom line, you survived with no injury to yourself or the bear.

      Also, not sure why you are asking me what I would do. The entire point of the post is to make sure people understand they should have bear spray and know how to use it.

      People that use spray instead of guns have a higher probability of surviving. I take both bear spray and gun, but you better believe bear spray is the first choice. You want to piss a grizzly bear off? Go ahead, but leave me out of it.

      The best situation would be a group of people, all with bear spray and some with guns. If challenged by a bear, it could be hit with 2 or 3 cans of spray at a time with other cans held in reserve. But large groups of people are less likely to run into trouble with a bear than one or two people.

  4. Great article. Thanks for the info. Are there any other studies about surviving hostile wildlife encounters? Also, an author’s name and a publication date for this article would be nice.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work.



    • Caleb, my first instinct was to ignore your comment as non-sense, but since the main goal of this post is to educate, I will try to do that.

      I do my best to spread correct information. I don’t know where you received your education about black bear behavior, but there is nothing more dangerous than to be wrong, but at the same time be convinced that you are absolutely correct.
      I will try to point you in the right direction, so you will have the opportunity to get more/better information.

      Bears (black and brown) may eat vegetation, but they also eat meat. The main danger from black bears is from males that are looking for meat.

      Don’t take my word for it, let’s find some scientific examples.

      An easy example to find is a Wiki article (here) that cites a paper by Stephen Herrero who wrote “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” stated that 23 people were killed by black bears from 1900 to 1980.

      More recently, a study in the Journal of Wildlife Management (here) documented black bear attacks that resulted in the death of 63 people between 1900 – 2009. The article states that “… many of our assumptions about [black] bear dangers are wrong.”

      The most important message was that “…lone, hungry males—not mothers with young—who are most often the killers.”

      The reality is you are more likely to be killed by a dog or a bee or by lightning than by a black bear.

      I agree that there is no need to over-react and panic if you run into a black bear.

      If you actually read the post, you would know I am trying to convince people it is better to use pepper spray than a gun.

      But if you find yourself face to face with a hungry male black bear, you may be looking at this:
      black bear teeth.
      and not this:

      cow teeth.

      Black bears are classified as Carnivora, not Artiodactyla or Perissodactyla

  6. A month ago I woke up at 12:30am from my wife yelling there is a bear after our goats. While I’ve seen a bear a couple times over the years on our property it never been like this. I jumped up and grabbed my nightstand-gun, a 45acp pistol with attached light, my slippers and headed out. I ran out the back door around to see a black bear on top of one of my goats. I ran to the fence line about 60 feet away and aimed dead center and shot it. The bear took off but did a uturn about 30 feet away and came back to grab the goat while I was yelling to my wife to get the gate key. I wanted mostly to put the goat out of its misery. with the bear taking the goat out of sight past brush and trees, I went back into my garage and jumped in my car trying to verify it was gone. Nope. It went to the other side of my property about 100 feet away. It jump back when it saw me and I called my wife and updated her. I then went inside and loaded my rifle and called my neighbor to warn him. After penning up our other goats near the house we stayed up for another couple hours with no sign. I called the wildlife department and got a trapper to place a bear trap. But the next night it took down another neighbors goat. Problem bear that we haven’t seen since. Now I have rifle and shotgun loaded with proper ammo in my safe, a 44mag also in my nightstand safe, bear spray mounted in each of our vehicle, floodlight installed, combo lock on the gate, and electric fencing around a portion of the property. Long story short, a determined bear can be a tough adversary and however you decide to ‘deal’ with it, make sure you go with something 100% effective. Most handguns are not enough. I trust bear spray to be very effective at making a bear go away. I trust a rifle to be very effective at stopping a bear that won’t go away.

Comments, Opinions, Questions?