When Should You Use Bear Spray?

Black bear in the woods. When should you use bear spray?

The only time you should ever use bear spray is in the event of a bear attack. It is not a deterrent. Its only function is to repel an attacking bear.

In all cases, you should first try to avoid contact with a bear. If you see a bear, stop, keep calm and quietly move away. If the bear comes towards you, shout and make lots of noise. Only if nothing else works should you use bear spray.

Bear spray is a potent, pepper based irritant.  While it is formulated not to harm bears, it is highly distressing for them and should only be used as a last resort.

Considering that an encounter with a bear happens in the woods where bears live, it would be unfair (not to mention unwise) to seek to hurt every every bear that you meet. Using a bear spray instead causes irritation to the bear for a short while, thus making it an effective method of stopping a bear attack.

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Should I Arm Myself to Defend against Bears

While bear numbers are increasing, it is still comparatively rare for campers to encounter bears at all.  If you do see a bear you should keep away if possible.  If you get close before seeing the bear the best advice is to slowly back away.

Despite the low incidence of contact with bears there are many people who want to know how do you protect yourself in case a bear attacks you? Is it advisable to carry a weapon?

According to the U.S fish and wildlife report, hikers and researchers who use weapons to defend themselves from bear attacks are more likely to sustain injuries from the animals. Those who do not use weapons have a higher probability of walking away unharmed or with minor injuries.

What are the Contents of Bear Spray?

The most effective bear sprays contain three main elements: pepper, a carrier, and a propellant agent.


The pepper is made from capsicum oil, and is sticky in nature. Capsicum is highly potent, which means that it irritates the body surface on which it lands. Due to its high potency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has restricted the amount of capsicum that can be included in bear spray to a maximum of 2%.

Carrier agent

The carrier agent’s role is to retain the thick and viscous capsicum extract in liquid form.  Bear spray needs to be instantly available to use.  Having to “shake well before use” is not going to work if you are being charged by a bear.  The carrier keeps the capsicum extract ready for use at all times.

The amount of carrier agent in a can of bear spray stands at about 8% of the contents.


The propellant is a highly pressurized chemical that mixes with the carrier agent and capsicum oil contents. When leaving the exit nozzle of the bear spray, the propellant boils into an effervescence due to the pressure difference and causes the atomization of the particles. As a result, the bear spray forms  a large cloud and travels quickly, thus covering a long distance.

Bear sprays have a long shelf life that can even extend to a number of years.

How Does Bear Spray Work?

A bear spray can has a trigger at the top that you can operate by simply pressing it. The contents that are in the highly pressurized interior of the can leave in the form of a cloud. When confronting a bear, you should aim for the face to get maximum effect.

When the bear spray lands on the eyes or nose of a bear, it causes irritation and the body of the bear reacts by producing tears and lots of mucus. The high pressure and propellant enables you to keep a safe distance of about 30 feet, which should be enough to avoid contact with the bear. Contact with the bear, if any, should be minimal and brief since the highly potent capsicum starts causing irritation immediately. With such irritation, it is hard for the bear to remain aggressive. In fact, one of the researchers working at The Outside Online  says that, “when bear spray comes into contact with the face of a bear, it causes it to turn from fight directly to flight. Some bears even run into trees when scampering to safety”

How to effectively use bear spray

Bears are known to be generally peaceful and rarely start attacking. Due to this, the first act of defense when you are in their habitat is to prevent a possible bear attack.

Avoid surprising the bear and causing it to react aggressively by doing simple things like clapping your hands or whistling when walking through thick bushes. The bear will most likely walk away from you. Should you run into a bear that is aggressive, however, the following tips can help you fight it off.

Place the bear spray in an easily accessible place

It is always good to have the can of bear spray in an easily accessible place, such as on your waist. To do this, consider buying a belt holster that holds a bear spray can in place. Using a holster ensures that you are always able to shoot out a cloud of bear spray instantly at charging bears.

Watch this video for a first hand account of meeting a bear. One of the key findings is to have your bear spray ready to hand.

Aim for the face

When spraying a bear with bear spray, always aim for the face. The best way to improve your aim is frequent practice in an open area. This will help you know how far the spray travels, thus enabling you to estimate the distance at which pressing the trigger, will spray bear spray on the bear. Remember that the bear spray is only good when you are able to use it to stop a bear from attacking.

Be composed

Getting a good spray on the bears face requires your confidence. Do not start running away or trembling. This will only make you lose your aim and miss the bear’s face.

Leave some for later

Only use the bear spray until the bear is irritated and starts running away. Remember you might need the bear spray again if you run into another bear.

Avoid another bear attack

When you are successful in fighting off the bear, move away from that area immediately. Move with haste but avoid running. It is advisable to go into a secure area such as a shelter or in a car. Don’t forget to lock yourself in.

Test the bear spray can before an outdoor trip

Before any trip to the woods, remember to check the bear spray and do a test spray. An empty bear spray can or one that has inadequate amount of propellant is of no use in a bear attack.

Precautions you should observe when using bear spray

A can of bear spray is necessary to have if you love spending time in the woods. Its use being only for protective purposes means that you only require using it once in a while when you need to deter a bear or for testing purposes. Below are some precautions that you should observe with the use of bear spray.

Avoid flames and hot temperature

The highly compressed aerosol propellant is highly flammable, which means that it could cause the can to explode when exposed to a flame or high temperature. You, therefore, should store the bear spray can in a cooler if possible and avoid placing it on the dashboard of your car where direct sunlight gets to it.

Keep out of reach of children

The materials used to make bear spray can cause serious health related issues when ingested. As such, always store the can in a place that children cannot get access to. When you are outdoors, ensure that children do not touch the bear spray can.

Avoid using bear spray as a deterrent

Bear spray has no deterrent effect and requires to be sprayed on the body or the face of the bear for effect. In fact, the bear smart website reveals that spraying some brands of bear spray on tents and camping equipment has the opposite effect you want when you use bear spray. It could actually attract bears!

Any spray that spills or that you spray to test if the can of bear spray you have carried with you actually works should be cleaned immediately. Use vinegar to wipe off the spray and avoid water since it only spreads the oil around.

Observe wind direction

The misty cloud that comes from spraying the bear spray is light and can easily be carried by wind. When using a bear spray can, ensure you observe the wind direction and avoid spraying it directly against the wind. This could result in the spray being carried to your face instead of going in the bear’s direction.

Replace expired bear spray cans

Every bear spray can has a printed expiry date that marks when it stops being effective. Ensure that you observe the expiry date on your bear spray can and replace it with a new can when it expires. Expired cans are not effective because the aerosol propellant could have leaked.

Conclusion: Bear spray helps to fight off bears

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Bears and other animals found in the woods should not prohibit you from taking a trip outdoors with your family. When you observe necessary precautions and learn how to use a bear spray can properly, you can protect yourself and your loved ones in case of a bear attack. The good thing with a bear spray is that it not only works for bears but also helps deter attacks from other animals that call the woods home.

Last update on 2024-05-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API


Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.

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