Bear spray (mace) – Do you really know how to use it?

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If you’re adventuring outdoors in bear country it is best practice to carry a can of bear spray with you.  But, if the need arose, would you actually know how to use your bear spray?

Believe me, if you find yourself face to face with a mamma bear, you won’t have time to read the label!

Below you’ll find the best advice I could gather up from reputable bear safety sources.

cans of bear spray, large text overlay reads do you really know how to use bear spray?

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What is bear spray or bear mace?

Before we begin, let’s quickly chat about the term bear mace.  Are bear mace and bear spray the same thing?  From my googling research it seems like the terms can be used interchangeably and might be used differently depending on location.  However, there is a difference between the mace or pepper spray some will keep in their purse or pocket for unsafe city streets… read on…

Bear spray is a pressurized propellant used to irritate a bear’s eyes and respiratory system.  If used properly, the bear will have to pass through this column of irritating chemicals and will stop the charge or be bothered enough to leave the scene.

Bear spray contains capsaicin, a chemical found in chili peppers.  Hence, the alternative name of ‘pepper spray’.  Although, this can get a little confusing here because pepper spray is also the name  used for the stronger self-defense spray often carried in shoulder bags.

Pepper spray is not appropriate defense against bears.

Bear spray (bear mace) comes in a large canister about the size of a slim water bottle.  Its spray creates a cone-shaped cloud of irritating mist.  A can of bear spray should last for about 7 seconds of spraying and can reach a distance of 6-8 meters (20-25 feet).

Bear spray is not a repellent.  Do not spray it onto your tent or gear thinking it will keep the bears away.

Since bear spray is considered a dangerous good it cannot be carried on an airplane.  So, if you’re flying, you can’t bring it along.

When do you need bear spray?

When hiking, biking, and camping in bear country it is often recommended that you carry bear spray in case of a dangerous bear encounter.  Bear spray is a last resort.  If you are being bear aware and following bear safety tips, you’ll probably never ever need to use this last resort tool.

Make sure to read this post all about staying safe in bear country with tips specific to family adventures.

Literature from Parks Canada and the National Park Service recommend carrying bear spray when adventuring in the back country or bear territory.

Also, it is important to understand local regulations regarding bear spray use.  For example, the National Park Service writes this:

It is recommended that you carry bear spray when hiking in bear country. However, some parks do not allow the possession or use of bear spray. Check park regulations before your trip.

How to choose a bear spray?

You’ll want to make sure your bear spray states that it is meant for the deterrent of bears.  Do not use pepper spray for personal defense against a bear.  This is a stronger chemical and it doesn’t spray as far.  Read a little more on the difference between pepper spray and bear spray in this article.

close up image of the label on a can of bear spray
Notice that ours are labeled as bear attack deterrent, not bear spray.

Also, pepper spray is illegal in Canada, while carrying bear spray in the back country of Canada is not illegal.  Make an effort to know the local regulations if using bear spray.

Bear spray does have an expiration date.  Take a look at this date before making a purchase. And, make sure to check this date yearly.

In Canada, bear spray can only be purchased from approved vendors who will keep a record of the purchase.

A mother grizzly on the side of the road
A mama grizzly eyeing us up in our car…

How to carry bear spray?

Bear spray is very ineffective if it is tucked in the bottom of your backpack.

You should ensure your bear spray is easily accessible and that the plastic wrapping (if present) has been removed.  Also, cut any safety ties which might be holding the safety clip in place.  But, do not remove the trigger safety.

Some hikers will carry bear spray in a holster around their waist or on a shoulder strap.  Bikers might keep a bear spray canister in the water bottle holder on their bike.

Most often we tend to keep our bear spray in the side water bottle pocket of our backpacks… which isn’t optimal, but this is currently most convenient for us.  If I’m walking around camp without a pack, I just tuck it into my back pocket.

a shoulder bag with a take them outside pin and bear spray in the pocket
My should bag – notice the bear spray in the pocket?

How to use bear spray?

Remember that the intention of bear spray is to deter an attack.  The spray is designed to fan out when sprayed to create a barrier that the charging bear would need to pass through.  In order for this to work properly you need to aim the spray towards the ground in front of the bear, not in the air above the bear.

This video is a good visual tutorial worth watching:

If you’ve followed the above advice, your bear spray is easily accessible and ready to go.  So, if you encounter a bear that does not run away, but charges or attacks, this is what you need to do:

The step by step on how to use bear spray safely:

  1. Pull your bear spray out
  2. Facing the spray away from you and your hiking companions, remove the safety tab on the trigger
  3. Hold the spray in front with the nozzle facing outwards
  4. If the bear charges, press the trigger down when the bear is about 30 meters (60 feet) away or if the bear is already closer and comes towards you, use the spray
  5. Aim slightly down or towards the bear’s face
  6. Use short 2-3 second bursts of spray (you’ll only have about 7-8 seconds worth in total)

Be aware of the wind direction.  I realize that in all this scary excitement it might be hard to think of the wind direction.  However, if the wind is blowing strongly, the mist will be carried that way… towards the bear, away from the bear, or back at you!

Some people will even give their bear spay a small test spray just to make sure it works and so they can experience how it will sound, feel, and spray.

After using your bear spray

Hopefully you don’t ever get into the situation of using your spray, but if you do, I also hope the bear decided to leave the scene.  After using bear spray you’ll also want to leave the area so you are not affected by the spray.

This stuff is potent!

Many national parks ask that you report bear encounters to park staff and if you do use bear spray on a bear they will likely want to know when and where this happened.

Lastly, you will need to purchase a new can of bear spray since yours has been depleted now.

infographic on how to use bear spray or bear mace

So, will you actually be able to use the bear spray?

Well, I can’t really answer that for you.  Every situation is different.

I know of one runner who first encountered an angry mama elk on the trail, in trying to flee from mama, she met a mama bear who also started getting aggressive.  The runner had the spray in a chest strap but in all her efforts to get away and navigate the trees, roots and trail in escaping the scene, she couldn’t actually get herself into a situation where she felt she could access the spray and use it.  In the end, she did safely escape the bear, and didn’t use the spray.

I also know of a biker who was carrying his bear spray inside his pack.  He came suddenly upon a bear who swiped at him and punctured the bear spray canister.  This, thankfully, caused the bear to leave, but it also caused a lot of pain and temporary loss of vision to the biker.  This biker would never have been able to access the spray in his pack in time, but had it not been there the situation may have ended much worse than it did.

Would I be able to get it in time?  Would you?  We don’t know.  We can’t control how the situation will play out.  But what we can control is actually having the bear spray, being able to access it, and knowing how to use it properly.

What should you do now?  

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