Bear Spray Effectiveness – how effective is bear spray?

March 27th, 2008 by Carl D

Grizzly bear cub photo, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

A lot of people ask about bears and bear spray and guns and what we do for safety. We don’t carry guns on our trips, and nor would I be comfortable with someone on the trip carrying a firearms, unless there were some very extenuating circumstances. I do carry bear spray, and we usually take 2 or 3 cans per trip, depending on the size of the group.

A recent Canadian study showed bear spray to be quite a bit more effective than firearms might be. The study looked at data from the last 20 years, and concluded bear spray is generally a safer option than firearms. “Despite persistent doubts among hikers and campers venturing into bear country, you’re better off with an eight-ounce can of bear spray than a gun, according to an analysis of 20 years of data.

Canadian and U.S. researchers announced Wednesday that they found the spray stopped aggressive bear behaviour in 92 per cent of the cases, whether that behaviour was an attack or merely rummaging for food. Guns were effective about 67 per cent of the time.”

The news report in the Canadian Paper is here. From the actual report itself, ” Of all persons carrying sprays, 98% were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters. “ The study looked at incidents involving brown or grizzly bears, black bears and even 2 polar bear incidents. What’s also important is that in each incident where the person/s using bear spray suffered some injury, those injuries were relatively minor (i.e., no hospitalization).

Here’s an abstract from the actual report:

“We present a comprehensive look at a sample of bear spray incidents that occurred in Alaska, USA, from 1985 to 2006. We analyzed 83 bear spray incidents involving brown bears (Ursus arctos; 61 cases, 74%), black bears (Ursus americanus; 20 cases, 24%), and polar bears (Ursus maritimus; 2 cases, 2%). Of the 72 cases where persons sprayed bears to defend themselves, 50 (69%) involved brown bears, 20 (28%) black bears, and 2 (3%) polar bears. Red pepper spray stopped bears’ undesirable behavior 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. All bear-inflicted injuries (n = 3) associated with defensive spraying involved brown bears and were relatively minor (i.e., no hospitalization required). In 7% (5 of 71) of bear spray incidents, wind was reported to have interfered with spray accuracy, although it reached the bear in all cases. In 14% (10 of 71) of bear spray incidents, users reported the spray having had negative side effects upon themselves, ranging from minor irritation (11%, 8 of 71) to near incapacitation (3%, 2 of 71). 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.”

Theย report can be purchased if you subscribe to the Journal of Wildlife Management, published by the Wildlife Society.

It’s illegal to fly in the US, in most places, with bear spray, so if you are coming to Alaska, realize you won’t be allowed to bring bear spray with you, nor will you be allowed to return to the Lower 48 with it after your stay here. That’s the primary reason why we provide the spray for each trip. If you intend to do some other hikes after or before your trip with us, I definitely recommend you grab a can of bear spray in Anchorage, from either AMH or REI. Some flights in Alaska the airline will let you transport bear spray, as long as you hand it over at the counter at checkin . They seal it in a Ziplock bag, and stow it safely in the rear of the plane – You’ll be responsible for getting it back at the end of your flight though, so don’t forget about it and wander off to get your luggage – usually you pick it up as you get off the plane. Smaller planes, like bush planes and float planes, tend to either duct tape it onto the wing or stow it in the floats of the plane – the danger, of course, being if the can of bear spray does explode whilst you’re flying, you don’t want that stuff going all through the plane, particularly the cockpit. ๐Ÿ™‚ Nor will your pilot. So make sure you remember before getting on or off a bush plane to hand over your bear spray, and let the pilot put it outside the plane.

Bear spray is extremely powerful stuff, so treat it with caution. Make sure you understand how it works, how the can works, and follow basic safety procedures that you might for any dangerous weapon. Read the label warnings and directions before you venture out hiking, and then keep your bear spray handy, but safe, whilst you’re hiking. Leaving the can in the bottom of your backpack is NOT going to be of much use to you if a bear pops out of the woods and gets a little feisty. I carry mine in my pants pocket, or in a water bottle pocket on the outside of my backpack, where I’ll usually tie it on, so I don’t lose it if (when) it falls out).

Thanks folks – if you have any questions, shoot me an email or leave a comment here.

Travel safely.




7 Responses to “Bear Spray Effectiveness – how effective is bear spray?”

  1. Hey Steve,

    Thanks man, I appreciate that – bears are awesome to se and photograph, for sure.

    Great to hear from you. I hope all’s well.

    Hey SL,

    Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and took the time to comment. Thanks.



  2. Hey Carl,

    That’s a really cute pic of the bear :)…almost looks like s/he is waving at you and saying “Thanks for getting my pic!”….Looks like you’ve been doing some traveling and photographing even in that brrrrrrr…cold. I have to agree that your post was quite informative about the bear spray. The last time I was in AK, I was silly enough to walk around without any kind of bear spray on some of the trails. Next time around I’ll remember your post. Those cute things don’t deserve to be harmed with a gun or any other weapon. Mother Nature at its best and that’s how it should be…as they rightly say, its Bear Country out there first and foremost ๐Ÿ™‚

    Happy shooting and I’ll be more regular in visiting your site for updates ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Hey Sai

    Thanks for the note, I do appreciate it. I’m glad you found the post helpful.

    Yeah, definitely be careful going out hiking when there’s bears around. Even not far from town, it’s a good idea to bring some spray with you.



  4. Bear safety spray

    Your have given some great information on bearspray when traveling to Alaska many people don’t know about. Bear spray is a legel product to carry in the state of NY so many would not be thinking when the take a trip to Alaska. I love the information about the zip lock many will find helpful when entering your beautiful state. Thanks Donna

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