True North Blog

Bear Spray

One piece of gear that I believe that you should get in the habit of carrying with you during your outdoor adventures in any remote or reasonably remote location, especially where you’re out alone, is Bear Spray.  It’s one of those pieces of gear that you’ll likely never need to use, but should the occasion arise, you’ll be extremely relieved that you had it.

So, I’d like to explain to you what it is; show you how to use it; and share with you some tips and issues to consider.

What is Bear Spray?

Bear Spray is an aerosol made from the oil of hot peppers – the same ones that many of you eat in spicy foods – only far more concentrated. It’s effectively the same “pepper spray” or “OC spray” that police officers use in the front-county.  The main difference, though, is that Bear Spray generates a larger, more robust cloud of spray.  Either way, when that spray contacts the face, it quickly burns the eyes, making it extremely difficult to keep them open, and, when inhaled, makes it initially very difficult to breath.  Both responses are non-lethal and temporary, but I can assure you that, having been pepper sprayed myself as part of my training in law enforcement, it is very effective so has several benefits.

The primary one is that (not surprisingly) it stops aggressive behavior in bears.  It does this, not just by temporarily impairing it as I just explained, but by greatly distracting it so that you have enough time to quickly leave the area.   Another important benefit is that Bear Spray is very simple to use, which is paramount because you won’t have much time to react when you do need it.  Keep in mind that a bear can run 15 yards in just 1 second … which I can also assure you, having been, myself, charged by a bear, is very fast indeed.

How to Use It

So, here are the main steps to using it:

  • Carry it somewhere you can grab it quickly … Like not inside your backpack.  Trust me, a charging bear is not going to wait patiently for you to take off your pack, then allow you to rummage amongst your gear and supplies until you find the canister under your stove.
  • When you see the bear approaching, take the canister out of its holster.
  • Hold the canister firmly with one hand, and with the other, slid a finger into the handle and remove the safety clip to expose the “trigger.”
  • Point the canister downward in the direction of the animal and adjust for wind.
  • When the charging animal is within about 10 yards, begin spraying.
  • This will create a cloud of spray through which the bear must pass to get to you.
  • Then leave the area with haste but without running.

Pro Tips

Let me also share with you some pro tips to consider that you won’t find in the standard product instructions or in most other resources.

  • Periodically practice taking the canister out of the holster and removing the safety clip before you actually need it … This probably sounds silly, I get it since this process is soooo simple, but trust me, under stress even the simplest of tasks become exceedingly difficult.
  • Be aware that you’ll only have about 7 seconds of spray time so be careful not to waste it.
  • Be aware that the effects are not instantaneous. It can take 1-3 seconds, maybe a little longer, for the spray to take effect … Which, I know, can feel like an eternity when you’re alone and under attack.
  • Be aware that, depending on the wind and other variables, the likelihood is great that you’ll suffer some spray blowback. So you may also have some trouble keeping your eyes open and feel some initial difficulty catching your breath … both of which are very scary when you’re not expecting it.
  • Which leads me to my last tip: Above all, should you be charged by a bear, remain calm throughout … even if that means fighting through your fear. Panic is a totally natural response, but you won’t be of any use to yourself, or others in your group, if you fall apart and run.

Wrap Up

In sum, Bear Spray is a terrific self-defense option to consider on the trail.  Unlike other options, it’s easier to stay compliant with federal, state, and local laws — And you don’t need any specialized training.  It’s very affordable … Around $50 for a canister.  Better yet, Bear Spray is effective, not just on bears, but really on any large animal that you might unexpectedly encounter on the trail, like a cougar, coyote, or any other predator.

Another key benefit is that Bear Spray reduces the chance of injury, not only to yourself and others around you, but, just as importantly, to the aggressing animal as well. I believe that this is important to consider because, despite how it’s typically presented in the media, there are extremely few actual animal attacks in the wild — Most “attacks” occur simply because the human provoked the animal in the first place, or accidentally surprised it, causing it to merely respond defensively.

In the end, keep in mind that I’m not trying scare you with this gear recommendation. Like I said, deaths from wild animal attacks are exceedingly rare. The simple realty is that more people die each year in the outdoors, not from bear, cougar, or even shark attacks, but from bee stings … and selfies! I just want you to be better prepared for the unexpected and to understand your options.

So, get outside and explore with confidence.


To learn more about Bear Spray, and other wilderness topics and skills, consider subscribing to the True North video channel.

Erik Kulick leaning aginst wall with True North badge on blue shirt

About the Author

Erik is the founder of True North Wilderness Survival School. He is a police officer, EMS provider, a Wilderness EMT, and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine. He has been featured in national and international media, including CNN, the Associated Press, and Backpacker. To learn more about Erik, visit him on LinkedIn and be sure to follow him on Facebook and YouTube.

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