Bears. For many of us, just saying the word is enough to send shivers down our spines and invoke nightmarish mental images of 500-pound pulverizers and a particularly unpleasant ordeal suffered by Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant. Even without the Discovery Channel horror-shows and Hollywood scaremongering, however, few of us are in any doubt that the Ursidae family pose a very real threat to our well-being while out on the trail. Like almost no other source of danger we might meet with in the backcountry — mammalian or not — they are a force to be reckoned with rather than messed with.
So, just how are we supposed to get our hike on when one of our planet’s largest omnivores is walking the very same wilds in which we plan to do our own wandering?
A number of measures can be taken to ensure we don’t end up on the receiving end of a bear’s bad side while out hiking or copping Zs in our backcountry camping spot. One of the simplest and most effective of these comes in a little canister that over the years has earned itself the aka of ‘lifesaver’ with countless outdoorsmen and women: bear spray.
In this article, we will bring you a straight-talking guide to bear sprays, starting with a few technical facts and figures before then moving onto more practical insights into how to use your spray and a review of the top bear-blockers out there in 2018.
What is Bear Spray?
Most varieties of bear spray are made with capsaicin-based agents that act in a similar way to pepper sprays used for self-defense from human attackers in urban environments. Using a concentrated formula of very hot, ground-up peppers contained in a pressurized, projectile container, the sprays work by incapacitating the aggressor by burning their eyes and nose, thus leaving the spray-wielder time to escape.
Bear spray as we currently know it was invented by hunter Mark Metheny following a bear encounter near Yellowstone in 1992, when he used a standard pepper spray to successfully (more or less — he suffered a host of gnarly wounds to his back, face, and neck) fend off a mother grizzly protecting her cubs. In his own words, following the attack Metheny…
“…became obsessed with the subject of pepper spray as a bear deterrent to stop this kind of an aggressive attack. Within months I had ideas for improving the product: a much hotter pepper concentrate for more effectiveness, a “fluffier” formulation that would hang in the air longer, a carrying holster with a tied-on trigger safety wedge that wouldn’t be as easily lost as the customary loose one, and even a glow-in-the-dark safety clip so a spray canister could be quickly located at night in a tent. I didn’t invent the wheel, I just improved it.”
And so was born the bear spray as we know it…
How to Use a Bear Spray
As with any technology, no matter how basic, using bear spray requires a little bit of know-how to ensure it serves its purpose effectively and to avoid harming yourself in the process. None of the guys and gals here at All Outdoors Guide have experienced a full or even partial load of 2% capsaicin product in the face (or any other body part, for that matter) following accidental or errant discharge, but we can be fairly confident that it ranks high in the list of all-time “things to avoid”.
Let’s start with a few warnings:
- Don’t keep your spray in your backpack — by the time you get it out it may well be too late (charging bears, as we all know, are no slouches).
- Keep the safety clip on at all times when not in use.
- Take the canister into your tent at night and store it in a safe, easily accessible place.
- Never use your spray on tents, clothing, or around your campsite as a deterrent — once the irritants contained in your spray have been broken down by exposure to ambient air then the remaining pepper content will actually attract bears.
- Don’t leave your spray in your car as canisters can explode in very high temperatures (above 120F).
- Check the expiry date on your spray before every trip.
In the case of a bear encounter:
- Remove the canister from the holster and then remove the safety catch/clip (not vice-versa).
- If at all possible, reposition yourself and your group so the bear is downwind so as to avoid being hit by blowback of the product once fired.
- Wait until the bear is within the range stated on the product label before discharging the spray (we’d allow it to come an extra few feet closer to be on the safe side).
- If the bear is charging, discharge the spray when the bear is 30-60 feet away.
- Take aim, allowing for crosswind, and pull the trigger — don’t worry if you aren’t a good shot, the important thing is to put a cloud of spray between you and the charging bear.
- If the bear continues to charge, aim the spray directly at the bear’s face.
The following video offers a handy summary of the points listed above:
Why You Should Consider Carrying Bear Spray
Although bear attacks are fairly infrequent (there have only been 158 fatal bear attacks in North America since 1900), even in areas with the most dense bear populations in the US, Canada, and elsewhere around the globe, there are plenty of reasons to carry a spray with you in bear country, even if purely as a “just-in-case” safety measure.
In case you need convincing, the following reasons in favor of carrying a spray might do the trick.
Let’s start with the stats…
Although no deterrent is 100% effective in deterring bear attacks, a study of bear incidents in Alaska reported that a very comforting total of 98% of the bear spray users involved in close-range encounters with bears escaped unharmed. The same study found that those who were harmed (that unfortunate 2%) suffered only minor injuries that did not require hospitalization.
While many prospective bear spray users are put off by the risk of harming themselves when using the spray, the study’s finding that only 11% of users reported suffering minor irritation following the use of their spray and only 3% near incapacitation should go some way to putting your mind at ease. Furthermore, the risk of experiencing either of the above should be reduced if your spray is used correctly.
The take-home? Bear spray is no guarantee of survival in the case of a bear attack, but it remains the single most effective means of deterring attacks and surviving them once underway.
Peace of Mind
Walking in bear country can leave many of us on edge — so much so that our enjoyment of our hike can be seriously limited and, in many cases, just reaching the end of the trail in one piece comes to be seen as an objective in itself, rather than reveling in the beauty and tranquility of our environment. Carrying a can of bear spray can, at a very minimum, relieve some of our apprehension and let us enjoy our hike in the knowledge that we have at least one tried-and-tested means of dealing with an encounter or attack should it arise.
If we haven’t persuaded you yet, maybe the employees and patrons of Yellowstone National Park can…!
An Ethical Deterrent
In many countries around the world, the use of bear spray is considered a “soft option” in terms of bear deterrence. And the “hard” option? Usually of the 9mm variety and dispensed from a steel barrel at speeds in excess of 700 miles per hour…
Though many of us may wish we were equipped with a similar armament should we ever come face to face with an ursine aggressor, there are a number of reasons why carrying a bear canister should be considered a better, and safer, option:
- Taking out a fast-moving, 500-pound target with a firearm requires a steady hand, substantial kills, lots of practice and experience, and, most notably, b***s of steel (!)
- A study in the Journal of Wildlife Management reported of bear attacks in Alaska that “firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not”
- Firearms are an effective deterrent only about 50% of the time, whereas, according to Alaska’s U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, bear spray is 92% effective against brown bears and 90% effective against black bears
- While a bullet wound may slow a bear down, bear spray is more likely — owing to its wide and dense delivery — to both hit the target and stop it in its tracks
- An inexperienced or irresponsible gun user (as history has told us) poses more of a threat to our safety than any bear
- Bear spray is not lethal: a grand total of zero bears have died as a result of having bear spray used to deter them and, just as importantly, the exact same number of humans (nil) have died as a result of accidental bear spray discharge or wayward shots fired by other bear spray users
What to Look for When Buying a Bear Spray
Although buying a bear spray may seem a fairly simple task, having a short tick-list with you while weighing up the options will help you decide on the best product for your needs.
The maximum bear spray strength allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency is 2% capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC), and most bear spray brands have CRC content in the 1-2% bracket. As you’d imagine, the higher the CRC content, the stronger the spray. Generally speaking, a minimum of 0.85% CRC content is required for the spray to be effective.
(To offer some context, and to deter any corner-cutters from considering using one as a bear-spray substitute, regular pepper sprays intended for use on human aggressors can have a CRC content of as low as 0.18%.)
The ideal spraying distance or delivery range should take into account both length and breadth. The minimum delivery distance should be no less than sixteen feet (roughly five meters). This allows the bear to get close enough that you can be more accurate with the delivery of your can’s contents but not so close that you a) s**t yourself and miss your target, b) have a huge mass of hungry and/or angry omnivorous beast in your face before convincing him/her to back off.
Choosing a spray that delivers in a cloud or cone pattern should ensure that the output is not too narrow and requires less of a steady hand (something many of us may fail to achieve when faced with a giant furry foe within that 5-meter shooting range!) when taking aim.
The canister’s output rate and capacity will determine the duration of time for which it can be sprayed. Most products deliver the canister’s full contents in 6 to 12 seconds. Shorter spray times mean the full content is delivered and forms a protective cloud of formula between you and the bear quicker, but also means you have less time to readjust your aim if it’s a little off target when first pulling the trigger.
Plumping for a happy medium spray duration — around nine seconds — results in a win-win scenario, giving you enough time to direct the spray where you need it and delivering the canister’s contents promptly enough to halt an advancing bear.
Portability and Size
If you happen to be a mountain runner or prefer to do your hiking at speed, then carrying a bulky, heavy canister on your hip may be far from ideal. Likewise, if you are already carrying a heavy backpacking load, the prospect of adding a further 12 oz (times two or three depending on the duration of your hike) is unlikely to fill your heart with joy.
So, what to do?
With any item of outdoor gear, there is usually a trade-off between weight and pack size and what the product gives you in return.
The difference when it comes to choosing which bear spray to take along with you on a hike, however, is potentially far more consequential than with other gear choices. Opting for a smaller canister may make life more comfortable while on the move, but when stopped in your tracks by a bear you’re likely to wish you’d plumped for the priciest, most potent, and punch-packing spray you could have laid your hands on.
In short, weight and size concerns must be balanced out against ensuring you have adequate protection and, generally speaking, the lower and lighter you go, the less protection you will have. Whatever your preferences weight and size-wise, we would recommend carrying a spray with a minimum 7.9 ounces net weight and seven-second discharge time.
While bear sprays are legal across the US, buyers should be aware that carrying your can is illegal in many metropolitan areas and has recently been banned in a handful of popular hiking destinations, most notably Yosemite National Park.
Also, if you plan on heading abroad, be sure to check on bear spray’s legality in your destination before packing it for the trip.
Best Bear Sprays for 2018
While not the cheapest item on our list, at 13.4 oz this beast of a canister nevertheless offers great value for money. It packs a very potent, max-strength (2% capsaicin) formula, provides dense and speedy delivery, and also boasts a very comforting 35-foot spray range.
The Super Magnum’s downsides are very forgivable. The safety clip takes a little getting used to and the holster isn’t the most user-friendly or well-made we’ve ever laid our hands on, but neither of these failings is serious enough to be a deal-breaker. Otherwise, this is a reliable, high-capacity, high-potency product that is ideal for those more concerned with playing things safe than they are about traveling light and fast.
- 35-foot range
- Dense and fast delivery
- High capacity (13.4 oz)
- Contains the highest amount of CRC permitted by the EPA
- Holster included
- Safety clip tricky to remove
- Holster a little on the small/tight side
- Heavier and bulkier than competitors
Put through a 6-year testing phase out in the wilds of Alaska, the Guard Alaska Bear Spray has earned its stripes fending off North America’s most feared predator — the grizzly. For those in grizzly-free areas, however, it works just as well in deterring the black and brown varieties!
This spray has a lower potency than all of the other items in our review, but the manufacturers claim that all products boasting a concentration of capsaicin and related capsaicinoids in the 1-2% range have an equal effect upon aggressors.
At 9 ounces, the Guard Alaska represents a compromise between the heavier, high-capacity canisters in our review and the lightweight, low-capacity models like the UDAP Pepper Power Fogger (below).
- Very easy to use
- Full load delivery in just 9 seconds
- EPA-approved product
- Endorsed by the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation
- Formula not as potent as others in our review
- Short spray range
- Holster poorly made
- Pricey for its size
Counter Assault has a longstanding reputation as one of the most reliable and effective bear deterrents out there. With a spray time of 9.2 seconds and range of roughly 20 feet, this spray packs a lot of power into a very portable canister. It’s also reported to have a 90% success rate, carries the max legal potency of 2% capsaicin, and boasts a far superior shelf-life to most of its competitors.
On the downside, this spray is fairly expensive and that 20-foot range might prove to be a little too close for comfort for some prospective users.
- A tried-and-tested brand
- Dispenses full contents in just 9.2 seconds
- Maximum legal potency (2% capsaicin)
- 90 % effective upon release of contents
- Excellent shelf-life
- Relatively short range
When the Environmental Protection Agency, Health Canada, Sabre’s own in-house lab tests, and a study at the University of Utah all vouch for a product’s efficacy and safety, you know you’re getting your hands on a trustworthy product. The Frontiersman has also earned the approval of its countless users over the years on account of its very impressive 35-foot spray range, broad and dense delivery, and maximum potency. As an added bonus, the glow-in-the-dark package means it’s easy to locate in the dark.
The only drawbacks to the Frontiersman are its relatively bulky canister, the lack of a holster, and a limited shelf lie (which, though we wouldn’t want to tempt fate, might not be an issue for regular hikers in bear country!).
In short, a good option for those who want maximum reliability in a lightweight — if slightly bulky — package.
- 35-foot spray range
- Broad and dense delivery
- EPA and Health Canada approved and tested
- Reflective packaging makes it easy to find at night
- 3-year shelf-life
- Bulky container
The smaller version of the ADAP 18CP Super Magnum Spray featured above, the standard UDAP Pepper Power Fogger spray offers all of the benefits of its oversized sibling but in a more portable package and at a lighter weight.
At 7.9 oz, UDAP Jr. offers a lot less in the way of capacity compared to the Super Magnum but retains a similar spray time of around seven seconds. It also boasts a very similar spray range (30 feet compared to 35 feet) and the same dense delivery. Using the same formula of 2% capsaicin, this spray is an effective and hard-hitting product that’s better suited to the fast and light backcountry hiker or camper than its big brother.
- Light and portable canister
- Sturdy holster
- 30-foot spray range
- Dense delivery
- Relatively short spray time
- Lowest capacity canister in our review (7.9 0z)
The following chart provides a quick overview of each of the above spray’s stats and specs.
|UDAP 18CP Super Magnum Bear Spray |
|35 feet, broad delivery, 7 second spray time||13.4 oz||Very Good: 2%||Bulky canister but quick delivery and good range|
|Guard Alaska Bear Spray |
|Advertised as 30 feet, more like 15-20 feet in practice; 9 second spray time||9 oz||Decent: 1.34% total capsaicinoid formula||4-year shelf-life; short spray range.|
|Counter Assault Bear Deterrent|
|Roughly 20 feet and empties in approximately 9.2 seconds||10.2 oz||Very Good: Maximum strength (2.0% major capsaicinoids) allowed by EPA and Health Canada||Excellent shelf-life; glow-in-the-dark safety tie to prevent loss of safety mechanism.|
|Frontiersman Bear Spray Max Strength|
|35 feet, broad delivery; 9 second spray time||9.2 oz||Very Good: Maximum strength (2.0% major capsaicinoids) allowed by EPA and Health Canada||Relatively short (3-year) shelf-life, but offers quick and powerful delivery, excellent value for money. Holster not included.|
|UDAP Bear Spray||30 feet, broad delivery; 7 second spray time||7.9 oz||Very good: easy to use and the most potent spray permitted by law||Sturdy, reliable holster. Good value for money.|
Staying safe in bear country requires a great deal of vigilance and far more safety measures than merely carrying a can of bear spray. That said, should we happen to find ourselves face to face with a bear out in the wild, then that little canister on our hip becomes our last line of defence and the most effective means of ensuring we walk away from the incident unscathed.
While all of the sprays reviewed above offer a solid, reliable deterrent, we’re of that old-school inclination that believes if something’s worth doing at all, then it’s worth doing it well — never more so than when it comes to those things that concern our safety and well-being. This being so, our review has found the no-corners-cut, zero-compromise UDAP 18CP Super Magnum Bear Spray to be the best bear spray out there in 2018.
This spray is the quintessential no-nonsense, does-what-you-need-it-to-do kinda deterrent, packing the max legal concentration of 2% capsaicin in a high-capacity canister that is designed to deliver when need be. While other brands talk of putting up a “barrier” of formula between yourself and the incoming aggressor, the Super Magnum’s high capacity and dense delivery are such that it puts up a wall — one of the kind that would impress the folks of the Ming Dynasty in 14th-Century China. When faced with a 500-pound potential assailant “bearing” down on you, would you really want anything less?
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.