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What’s the difference between bear spray and pepper spray?

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Bear spray is a great invention. Designed to deter a bear attack by using painful chemicals to sting a bear’s nose and eyes and affect its breathing, bear spray is 92 percent effective in halting an attack. That’s a lot more effective than using a firearm, which, according to a 2008 US study, only allowed people to escape injury in 50 percent of attacks.

The whole topic is a little confusing, though—mostly because non-lethal bear spray, sometimes called bear mace or bear pepper spray, gets confused with personal protection pepper spray. Bear spray is, in fact, a spray made from capsaicin, the spicy chemical in hot peppers. It’s technically a pepper spray—but with some very important differences.

Bear spray is legal. Pepper spray isn’t.

In Canada, pepper spray—carried for the intention of personal protection—is considered a prohibited weapon by the Criminal Code, so it’s illegal. Bear spray, carried for the intention of protecting yourself against a bear attack, is legal—although if you use it on a person, you can be charged with using a weapon. Get it? If you’re going camping or hiking in an area with bears, carry bear spray. If you’ve got a canister of bear spray left over and you want to carry it around for protection in the city, bad idea. And if you’ve got pepper spray? Get rid of it. Not only is it illegal, but it isn’t effective against bears.

Bear spray is more humane than pepper spray

Both bear spray and pepper spray are made of oleoresin capsicum (OC), an oily substance made from cayenne peppers. In bear spray, the concentrations of “capsaicin and related capsaicinoids” (CRC) or “major capsaicinoids” (MC)—the parts of the oleoresin capsicum that actually cause pain—tend to be lower than in (illegal-in-Canada) personal pepper spray, which can range between 1% and 3%. Bear sprays in the US are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and are required to have a CRC concentration between 1% and 2% CRC, while most bear sprays available in Canada have a 1% concentration.

Bear spray canisters spray differently than pepper spray

Ideally, bear spray will put a large cloud of eye- and nose-burning chemicals between you and a charging bear—meaning that it has to have a wide, cone-shaped spray angle, needs to spray for at least six seconds, and needs to have a spray distance of at least 25 feet (7.6 metres). Spraying the bear spray towards the ground creates a column of spray that a bear will have to pass through to get to you. In an ideal scenario, you’ll use your bear spray when the bear is still between 25-30 feet away, and have time to spray it for six seconds. Pepper spray canisters have a much shorter spray distance and duration—meaning the bear would have to be almost on top of you before you could spray it. Not an ideal situation.

Of course, bear spray doesn’t work unless you use it. If you get charged by a mama grizzly, you aren’t going to have time to fumble in your backpack to pull out your canister of bear spray, which is why most bear sprays come with waist or shoulder holsters. If you’re in an area with bears—especially if it’s the time of year when they have young cubs—always have your bear spray at the ready.

Have you had ever had to use bear spray?

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