Everything you need to know about bear spray

two hikers walking on a trail, one with bear spray in a holster Photo by Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

Invented in the 1980s, bear spray has been used for decades to protect humans from fatal bear attacks. While rare, attacks do happen, and one of the best ways to keep yourself and others safe around aggressive bears is to carry bear spray—and know how to use it. Remember: bear spray is legal in Canada, but only if it’s clearly marked that it’s intended for use on animals. 

So, what’s the proper way to use bear spray? And how exactly does it work to deter bears? Plus, what happens if you accidentally spray yourself or a pet while trying to defend yourself? We spoke with Lisa Lopez, program manager at WildSafeBC (formerly Bear Aware), a wildlife safety program run through the B.C. Conservation Foundation, about the best bear spray tips and tricks.

What, exactly, is bear spray?

It’s a pressurized substance stored in a canister that gets released through a spray. Bear spray creates an effective barrier between ourselves and an aggressive bear, allowing ourselves time to escape danger and get to safety.

How does it work?

Bear spray has a chemical ingredient called capsaicin, which is found in chilli peppers. It’s an irritant, essentially. Think about when you’re cutting a hot pepper and you accidentally touch your eye or lip: your eyes start watering and your lips start burning. Bears feel the same thing when they’re sprayed, but to a greater extent because of the amount of capsaicin in bear spray. It’s quite potent.

When and how should I use bear spray?

Ideally the bear should be within 10 metres, and you want to build a wall of the spray. Hold the canister at arms length, several metres away from your body, and make sure the nozzle is facing the bear. Spray from the ground up until you can see a visible wall between you and the bear, and then back away carefully. 

How do I know if I’ve sprayed enough?

Bear spray looks like a white-ish fog when it’s sprayed, so you’ll know once you’ve built an effective wall because you can see it. Think of what a fire extinguisher looks like when it’s sprayed. Bear spray has the same visual effect.

Lessons from a bear attack

Once I deploy bear spray, how much time do I have to get to safety?

Bears will recover within a few minutes, so it’s important to remove yourself from the area fairly quickly, and carefully. But don’t run! That will only encourage the bear to chase you. 

What if I didn’t get to safety in time and the bear is still near me after the first spray?

You’ll have to spray a second time. Most manufacturers say you can get two good uses out of one canister. 

Does bear spray expire?

Yes. Some brands last for about five years, but every manufacturer is different. Check the canister for an expiry date. It won’t exactly go bad, but it will become less potent once it’s met its expiry date, so it’s best to ensure you always have a fresh can for optimal effectiveness.

What if I accidentally spray myself or a pet?

It happens, but that’s why it’s important to move away from the area after you’ve sprayed it, especially if it’s windy. You or your pet might feel a burning sensation, watery eyes, runny nose, that type of thing. Symptoms will usually subside after a few minutes, but flushing the affected area with water will provide relief. 

Does bear spray work on other animals?

Yes, it can be used on any aggressive animal approaching, such as moose, coyotes, and cougars. Just like with bears, you want the spray to hit the animal’s mucous membranes.

What’s the best way to store bear spray?

When you’re out in nature and are likely to encounter wildlife, it’s best for the spray to be on your person so you can access it easily. This means either in a holster on your hip or chest, or even in a fanny pack that you can quickly unzip. Carrying the spray in a backpack or attached to your bike isn’t advised because there’s a chance you could become separated from your pack or bike during an attack. 

Otherwise, remember that bear spray is a pressurized can, so don’t keep it in a hot car or anything like that. You can choose to keep your bear spray in a carrying tote, which is essentially a plastic canister with foam inside that would absorb the can’s contents if it did happen to explode.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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