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Does Bear Spray Work?

Contributing Editor, Dr. Jordan Schaul, a member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group and an ex-officio council member of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, briefly discusses his experience with bear spray.

In the wake of a fatal grizzly bear encounter near Yellowstone National Park, officials have issued a couple of reminders to recreational campers. One suggestion–carry bear spray. And remember to carry it in a holster!

These commercially available lacrymatory agents are derived from chili peppers. The active ingredient–oleoresin capiscum is used as both a defense spray and as a topical pain reliever.  The EPA registered bear deterrents are nothing more than pepper spray, but try telling that to the bear or me for that matter.

Lachrymators stimulate corneal nerves which induce tearing and even temporary blindness.  And they are quite suitable irritants of any tissues lined with mucus membranes.

At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, we carry Counter Assault— CA-18H-Bear Deterrent (10.2 oz with Belt Holster) when we enter enclosures with bears or work with them through protected contact. At nearly $60 a cannister it is expensive stuff, but with a range of 25 feet, the manufacturers suggest it is effective for “sudden close encounter defensive charges (from 15-25 feet),  full defensive charges (from more than 50 feet away), and gradual continuous approaches.”

I find that few people that purchase bear spray have much insight into distinguishing among types of aggressive behaviors in bears. What’s important is that they selected a non-lethal deterent.  Whether it is a provoked charge or an attack with predatory intent, the bear spray will likely ward off a bear.

Make sure you purchase a cannister with a holster. I have been sprayed, albeit accidentally, twice in my career because I was not carrying the spray can in the holster.  

A young bear I was training, inadvertently punctured a cannister and it discharged.  The grizzly headed straight to his pool and I went to clean off. The noxious irritant works. If nothing else it surprises both intended and unintended targets.


  1. Dexter
    January 19, 2016, 5:09 am

    Bear sprays work if you know how to use it. Timing is crucial and I always believe that luck has to be on your side. Also, make sure to place it somewhere you can easily grab it – it will be pointless to bring a bear spray and leave it packed inside your camping bag!

  2. Dave
    Ontario Ny
    August 5, 2015, 3:27 pm

    I’ve had several experiences with black bears, close up. All I had to do is become ferocious and make lots of noise, they bailed out of the confrontation. I did test one of the top bear sprays from Cabelas. I had the wind at my back but forgot that my body created a vacuum in the wind. The spray came back on me. Military vets: remember the gas chamber in basic training? This stuff was 100 times worse. I gaged and coughed, I could not see because of burning eyes. I can only imagine what this stuff would do to a creature that has a nose 1000 times better than ours! If you hit them in the face.
    My opinion, bear spray first, while drawing your .44 or .500 , if the spray doesn’t work, shoot like your life depends on it, because it does!

  3. Cindy
    Self Defense Products Florida
    July 13, 2011, 7:58 am

    Bear Pepper Spray has been proven to be more effective in warding off a bear than a bullet – plus, you won’t kill the bear!

  4. Dave Smith
    Way out west
    July 12, 2011, 3:54 pm

    Wind and cold weather can have adverse affects on bear spray performance, but are a non-issue with firearms. It’s a good idea to practice removing bear spray from its holster a few times, but it doesn’t take any real skill or training to use bear spray effectively. To stop a charging bear with a firearm, you’ll need lots of training, lots of luck, or both. There have been two peer reviewed studies on bear spray published in scientific journals. There’s never been a peer reviewed study on firearms published in a scientific journal. Don’t believe bear spray advocates who claim research proves bear spray is more effective than a firearm.