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*NOTE: We’ve re-visited and updated this list of sprays for 2020. All of them are still on our “top sprays radar” but we decided on another winner instead. Read on to find out more!
In this article, we aim to provide a thorough, no-nonsense guide containing everything you need to know about bear deterrent sprays. We’ll start off with a review of the best products on the market for 2020 and then move onto a handful of facts, figures, and a look at the workings of bear spray to help you choose the best product for your backcountry adventures.
Table of Contents
Review of the Best Bear Sprays for 2020
|UDAP 18HP Super Magnum Bear Spray||35 feet, broad delivery, 7 second spray time||13.4 oz||Very Good: Maximum strength CRC (2%)||Bulky canister but quick delivery and excellent spray range|
|Guard Alaska Bear Spray||15-20 feet in practice; 9 second spray time||9 oz||Middling: 1.34% total capsaicinoid formula||4-year shelf-life; short spray range, not as potent as competitors.|
|Counter Assault Bear Deterrent||20 feet: 9.2-second delivery time||10.2 oz||Very Good: Maximum strength CRC (2%)||Glow-in-the-dark safety tie prevents loss of safety mechanism; best shelf life in our review.|
|UDAP Pepper Power Fogger||30 feet, broad delivery; 7 second spray time||7.9 oz||Very Good: Maximum strength CRC (2%)||Best holster in our review.|
|Frontiersman Bear Spray Max Strength||35 feet, broad delivery; 9 second spray time||9.2 oz||Very Good: Maximum strength CRC (2%)||Powerful and long delivery. Holster not included.|
|Sabre Frontiersman 7.9 oz Bear Spray||30 feet, broad delivery; 5 second full discharge time||7.9 oz||Very Good: Maximum strength CRC (2%)||Light; glow in the dark safety attachment; very short delivery time.|
- Size: 5 / 5 (13.4oz)
- Range: 4.9 / 5 (35ft)
- Extras: 4.8 / 5 (Comes with holster and bear encounter guide)
- Value for Money: 4.9 / 5
- Effectiveness: 4.8 / 5
If you love a great story behind the invention of a product, you’ll appreciate knowing that the UDAP 18HP Super Magnum Bear Spray was developed by a guy who survived a near-fatal bear attack and not only lived to tell the tale but then dedicated his life to creating a product that ensures the same fate didn’t befall his fellow outdoorsmen and women.
The price tag on this spray may prove to be a dealbreaker for a few would-be buyers, but in return for your outlay you get a whole lot of product. At 13.4 oz, this is the largest spray on our list and it also packs the legal max 2% CRC content and a very fear-quelling 35-foot spray range.
The drawbacks to the Super Magnum are minimal. While the safety clip may be a little bit fiddly and the pack size a little bigger than the other items on our list, these are more than made up for by the Super Magnum’s reliability, quick delivery, huge volume, and high potency.
- 35-foot spray range
- Dense and fast delivery meets or exceeds competitor brands
- High capacity (13.4 oz)
- Contains the highest amount of CRC permitted by the EPA (2%)
- Holster included
- Emergency removal of the safety clip tricky without practice
- Can be hard to get the can in and out of the tight holster
- Heavier and bulkier than most competitors
- Size: 4.5 / 5 (9oz)
- Range: 3.5 / 5 (15 – 20ft)
- Extras: 4.0 / 5 (Nylon holster with Velcro closure and belt loop)
- Value for Money: 4.5 / 5
- Effectiveness: 4.4 / 5
Despite being less potent than almost all of its competitors, the Guard Alaska Bear Spray boasts the backing of a 6-year testing phase in Alaska and popularity with countless outdoors-goers not only up on “The Last Frontier”, but also across Canada and in the lower 48.
This high-volume bear spray comes in two packages: one for the product; the other for the holster, which features a nylon sleeve with Velcro closure and belt hook. What we like most about the Guard Alaska Pepper Spray, however, is that it represents a happy medium between the beastly Super Magnum (above) and the lower-content sprays further down our list. With 9 oz of product and a full discharge time of 9 seconds, moreover, this one ticks two of the biggest boxes that need ticking more than adequately.
One slight cause for concern we have with this one is that lower potency compared to its competitors and its short spray range — at 1.34% total CRC and 15-20 feet respectively, some buyers may wish to plump for a product that packs more of a punch.
- Easy to use
- 9 seconds delivery time
- Effective on all bear species — not only those found in Alaska!
- Endorsed by the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation
- Less potent formula than competitors
- Relatively short spray range
- We think that the holster is not of high quality
- Pricey: poor cost-to-content ratio
Boasting the max legal potency of 2% capsaicin, a proprietary safety cap designed to prevent accidental discharge, a far superior shelf-life to most of its competitors, a spray time of 9.2 seconds, and reported to have a 90% success rate, the 10.2 oz Counter Assault Bear Deterrent is a box-ticker across the board.
And there’s more…
As of the first quarter of 2019, the Counter Assault’s previous limitation of a shortish spray range will no longer be a concern. Early in the new year, the manufacturers will release onto the market two new products with respective spray ranges of 32 (8.1 oz) and 40 (10.2 oz) feet…nice!
Given the above, when buying this product be sure to check which “vintage” you’re getting as the differences in performance between the old and new varieties are significant, to say the least…
- Size: 4.8 / 5 (10.2oz)
- Range: 3.5 / 5 (12 – 32ft)
- Extras: 4 / 5 (Holster)
- Value for Money: 4.5 / 5
- Effectiveness: 4.8 / 5
- Size: 4.8 / 5 (10.2oz)
- Range: 5 / 5 (40 feet)
- Extras: 4 / 5 (Holster)
- Value for Money: 4.9 / 5
- Effectiveness: 4.8 / 5
- Longstanding backpacker’s and camper’s favorite
- 9.2 second spray time
- Maximum CRC of 2%
- 90 % effective
- No shelf-life: ideal for infrequent visitors to bear country
- In our opinion, the holster is not terribly well made
- Short spray range* (20-25 feet)
- Size: 3.9 / 5 (7.9oz)
- Range: 4.5 / 5 (30ft)
- Extras: 4.9 / 5 (Chest/belt holder)
- Value for Money: 4.3 / 5
- Effectiveness: 4.7 / 5
The litter brother of the beast that is the UDAP 18HP Super Magnum Spray (above), the Power Fogger offers essentially everything its older sibling does but in miniature. With only 7.9 oz of formula, the drop in capacity is sizeable and the spray time (7.5 seconds) reduced commensurately, but this spray still packs a very respectable 30-foot spray range, 2% capsaicin content, a dense and broad delivery, and is a far lighter carry. As such, this one is potentially a good choice for those who like to move fast and light, i.e. ski mountaineers or trail runners.
What we like in particular about the Power Fogger is the holster, which is much better made than many of the flimsy can-carriers offered by competitor brands and lets you access the spray without any time-wasting fiddling with unnecessary flaps or buttons.
For a few first-person accounts of how this product performs out in the field, take peek a few of these testimonials from UDAP users.
- Light and portable canister
- Sturdy holster
- 30-foot spray range
- Dense delivery
- Relatively short spray time
- Low capacity (7.9 0z)
- Size: 4.6 / 5 (9.2oz)
- Range: 4.6 / 5 (35ft)
- Extras: 4 / 5 (Belt/chest holster)
- Value for Money: 4.6 / 5
- Effectiveness: 4.5 / 5
When a product has the seal of approval of the Environmental Protection Agency, Health Canada, Sabre’s own in-house lab tests, and a study at the University of Utah, you know you’re onto a bit of a winner. The Frontiersman has all of the above, and also working in its favor are its 35-foot spray range, dense and broad deliver, max potency, a long expiration date (4 years), and a glow-in-the-dark package that make it easy to locate at night.
(If all this doesn’t have you sold already, the company slogan might just win it your vote: “Making Grown Men Cry Since 1975.” (Or not…!))
What is most endearing about this spray are the findings of the aforementioned study at the University of Utah, which claim that the Frontiersman eliminates 30% of the failures experienced by users of other brands. While this may just be a ruse of the brand’s marketing people, there are plenty of happy customers out there who are willing to testify to the Frontiersman’s reliability.
With regard to potential purchase-poopers, this spray is pleasingly lacking barring the somewhat bulky dimensions of the canister — though light, this one just seems to take up a little more room on our hip than other 9.2 oz products.
- Excellent spray range (35 feet)
- Package glows in the dark for quick retrieval at night
- Dense and uniform delivery
- EPA and Health Canada-approved and tested
- Reflective packaging makes it easy to find at night
- Sprays at a rate of 52 g/sec
- Bulky container
- Size: 3.9 / 5 (7.9oz)
- Range: 4.5 / 5 (30ft)
- Extras: 3.5 / 5 (Chest/belt holder – not included)
- Value for Money: 4.2 / 5
- Effectiveness: 4.5 / 5
Like its larger sibling — the Frontiersman Bear Spray Max Strength 9.2 oz (above) — the Frontiersman 7.9 oz comes with the approval of both the Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada and that confidence-inspiring endorsement from the aforementioned University of Utah study that not only verified the product’s strength and efficacy, but also demonstrated Saber’s bear-stopper to result in 30 % fewer failures when it came to turning real-life teddies around in their tracks.
Although the capacity or content volume of this one might be a little on the low side for those of a more nervous disposition, it will most likely appeal to those — trail runners, thru-hikers, and ski mountaineers, for example — who prefer to travel as light as possible. Other winning features to this spray are the thick, broad dispersal of the formula, a very respectable 30-foot spray range, and a glow-in-the-dark-package that makes for easy location at night.
On the downside, this product’s short spray time means you’ll really have to be accurate with your aim — not ideal if you’re prone to bouts of the jitters when under pressure.
- 30-foot spray range
- Reasonably priced
- EPA- and Health Canada-approved and tested
- Sabre’s in-house lab follows exacting quality control measures
- Reflective packaging is a bonus at night
- Safe and effective when used according to instructions
- Holster not included
- Very short spray time (5 seconds)
- Shelf life (3 years)
- Dispenser handle a touch flimsy and relatively easy to break
Bear Deterrent Sprays: All You Need to Know
More than almost any other source of danger we might come across in the great outdoors, bears are a proposition not to be messed with. While the producers at Disney and the Discovery Channel and many ill-advised, nonchalant rants by online bloggers may lead us to believe that the Ursidae family are, at heart, a good-natured bunch with no ill-intentions as regards us humans, the fact remains that these are one of the planet’s largest carnivores and harbor the same predatory and defensive instincts as any wild animal.
In short, while they might not all be the sort of belligerent, blood-thirsty beast who set upon Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant or sitting sharpening their teeth in preparation for a pound or two of homo sapiens for supper, the presence of bears in our national parks and wild spaces requires that we take the necessary precautions to ensure we walk out of those parks in one piece.
But what are these precautions? And how are we to go about getting our fill or nature time with any peace of mind when the spot in which we plan to do our walking is the very same as that which a relatively large number of very large critters call “home”?
Well, a number of measures complete what might be deemed a thorough list of must do’s when we’re out in bear country, but one of the simplest and most effective of these is carrying a relatively small, light little canister that, when push comes to shove, just might be the savior of your skin (and, gladly, a few other parts of you too): bear spray.
What to do if you meet a bear
- Group together with your hiking partners so as to appear larger, and thus more daunting, to the bear
- Make noise: as with the above tip, this tells the bear you’re also a force to be reckoned with
- Remove your bear spray from its holster asap and be prepared to discharge the contents
- If it’s a black bear, defend yourself if attacked
- If it’s a Grizzly, play dead: while this may seem like suicide, it shows the bear that you are not a threat. In any combat between human and Grizzly, there’s only going to be one winner…(and it’s not the human)
- Back away slowly if the bear fails to charge
- Make plenty of noise as you make your way through forested areas so bears are alerted to your presence and have time to move on before you reach them. (We recommend wearing a bear bell to give your vocal cords a rest!)
- Run: This is no time to get your Usain Bolt on and go sprinting for safety. As we’ve all heard, bears are no slouches and can run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, so even if you do happen to have the athletic prowess of Mr. Bolt it’s likely you’ll be doing the 50-yard dash with an unhappy ending rather than any long-distance lope to freedom and safety
- Climb a tree: bears are the Alex Honnold’s of the world of large mammals
- Discharge your bear spray too early: know the shooting range of your spray and wait until the bear is close enough that the fog of formula will not have dispersed before the bear reaches it
- Keep your bear spray where you can’t access it quickly
- Approach a bear cub: this is the proverbial red rag to a bull, with Momma Bear forming the latter and you the former
Bear sprays: The Lowdown
Bear deterrent sprays (to give them their full name) are made with capsaicin-based agents similar to those used in the pepper sprays used to ward off human aggressors. The difference, as you might have guessed, lies in their potency.
While standard self-defense sprays sold over the counter in most urban locations use fairly low concentrations of capsaicin agents, bear deterrent formulas have a capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC) content of 1-2%. The maximum bear spray strength allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency is 2% and, generally speaking, a minimum of 0.85% CRC content is required for the spray to be effective. As you’d imagine, the higher the CRC content, the stronger and more potent the spray.
For the blessing of bear sprays we collectively owe thanks to a fellow by the name of Mark Metheny, who invented the first bear spray after surviving a close encounter with a particularly large specimen near Yellowstone National Park in 1992, when he used a standard, over-the-counter pepper spray to successfully defend himself from a mother Grizzly protecting her cubs. After that attack, Metheny embarked on a one-man mission that resulted in the creation of the bear sprays we know (and carry) today. In his own words:
And then some…
Since that time, all kinds of formulations based on Metheny’s prototypes have flooded the market. Most of these follow the same protocols established shortly after the introduction of Metheny’s forerunner, using a concentrated formula of very hot, caustic, ground-up peppers in a pressurized container that works by burning the eyes, nose and mouth of the bear, thus leaving it temporarily incapacitated and giving the sprayer time to escape from the sprayed.
This helpful National Park Services bear spray video offers a good introduction to its usage:
Why You Should Consider Carrying Bear Spray
Bear attacks in North America are relatively infrequent. According to Vox, from 1900 till 2016, the number of recorded deaths was 71 in the US. 2 deaths were recorded in 2017. And in 2018, there have been no recorded fatalities as of yet (November). Compare this to fatal traffic accidents, diseases, or gun deaths, and you’ll have a little bit of very comforting perspective.
That said, the reasons to carry a bear spray in bear country far outweigh those not to. Just in case you need persuading, below we’ve included a list of the main reasons in favor of carrying a can when out in teddy territory.
Since its introduction to the market in 1992, bear spray has substantially reduced the number of incidents of injury and death resulting from bear encounters, with some sources (Alaska’s U.S. Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team) claiming bar sprays to be 92% effective against brown bears and 90% effective against black bears. Another study of bear encounters in Alaska revealed that 98% of bear spray users involved in incidents with bears escaped unharmed, and that those who were harmed, moreover, suffered only minor injuries.
If used correctly and according to the label, the risk of doing harm to yourself with your bear spray is also very low. The same study found that only 11% of users reported suffering minor irritation after using their spray and only 3% required medical treatment.
So, what’s the bottom line?
While bear spray isn’t a fail-safe guarantee of escaping a bear encounter unscathed, it is still the most effective and reliable deterrent out there. Until someone invents a set of wings that will spirit us away when we come face-to-face with an ursine attacker (!), then this our best shot at survival.
In the video below, you can see for yourself just how effective bear deterrent sprays can be in the event of an attack. Warning: if you’re not comfortable watching animals being harmed, you may want to skip this video.
All of the above-mentioned factors pertaining to a spray’s effectiveness can, of course, translate directly into…
Peace of Mind
Hiking or camping in bear country can seriously detract from our enjoyment of our trip, especially if we happen to be of a nervous disposition or, like many inexperienced outdoorspeople, vastly overestimate our chances of actually coming across a bear in the wild.
Even if we never get the chance to use it, carrying a can of bear spray can quell our fears and allow us to rest slightly easier knowing that we’ve taken the best precaution and means of surviving an attack there is. While bear deterrent sprays are not a guarantee of returning home minus the claw and teeth marks, carrying a can greatly boost our chances of coming out of any encounter unscathed and is, of course, far more advisable than not carrying one at all.
An Ethical Deterrent
For many backcountry-goers, the issue of self-defense against bear attacks poses a choice between the lesser of two evils: guns or sprays. Intuitively, the former of the two options seems like the winner as regards ensuring our survival, but, as mentioned above, this isn’t necessarily the case.
A study at the Tom Smith of Brigham Young University reports: “Smith found that bear spray effectively halted aggressive bear encounters in 92 percent of the cases.” He also mentioned that bear sprays are non-lethal, easier to deploy, and have higher sucesss rate compared to guns. As such, those concerned about harming a bear while trying to prevent an attack can put their minds at ease.
Bear Spray Vs. Bullets: A Few Points to Consider
- Taking out any target with a firearm requires skill, practice, and experience; taking out a 500-pound, moving bear requires all of the above plus nerves of steel
- According to National Geographic, firearms successfully deter bears only about 50% of the time.
Because bear sprays discharge with a broad and dense delivery, it’s much easier to hit your target than with a bullet
- As we’ve seen repeatedly over the years, irresponsible gun users pose a far greater threat to our safety than any member of the animal kingdom
- As reported in a study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, “firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used their firearms or not” in bear encounters in Alaska
National Park Regulations
When headed into bear country, be sure to check on the legal status of bear deterrent sprays in the area in which you plan to do your camping or hiking. There is no nationwide rule on bear-spray usage (nor, indeed, any state-wide rule) and, just to confuse matters, regulations can vary from park to park.
In some instances (Yosemite National Park, for example) carrying bear spray is prohibited. In this case, we imagine that the concentration of bears in certain heavily trafficked areas and those bears’ familiarity with the presence of humans has resulted in authorities deeming the risk of catching other hikers in the crossfire too high and the risk posed by the park’s bears too low to warrant the use of bear spray. In other cases, carrying a bear spray is obligatory, as on the Lake Minnewanka Trail in Banff Canada.
The bottom line? Do your research before you set off to make sure you’ll be in compliance with park regulations by either carrying or nor carrying your spray.
The Danger of DIY
When dealing with any product intended to repel something as large as a bear, erring on the side of caution is wise. Very wise. These days, however, the do-it-yourself trend has managed to spread its wings and impact upon the production of bear repellent sprays — a development which, to our minds, is up there with the practice of experimental bomb-making and cage-free shark diving on the list of all-time bad ideas.
While it may be fun to pretend you’re a wild-country version of Breaking Bad’s Walter White for a while, the chances are the only “high” you’ll get from your home-made product is when some lapse in concentration or other whoopsie with your cook’s caustic ingredients lands you prematurely in heaven (or. Maybe, from the morphine they’ll be giving you in hospital to quell the pain).
…manufactured sprays are unequivocally the way to go: these products are made within regulated and controlled laboratory environments that use very detailed “cookbooks” and by real-life Walter Whites with lab coats, PhDs, and years of experience behind them. For your average human in their garden shed with a few tubs of cayenne pepper flakes, black table pepper, rubbing alcohol, olive oil, and some notes from Youtube on how to pressure a projectile canister, the only recipe you’re likely to be following, in reality, is one for disaster.
Our advice? Leave it to the pros, bite the bullet, and buy the real deal — it might not save you the $ you were hoping, but in all likelihood, it will save you a trip to the hospital.
Do bear deterrent spray expire and what happens if they do?
Like any perishable product on the market, bear sprays have a shelf life. Typically, this ranges from two to four years. Towards the end and after this date, your spray will lose potency or will not discharge as effectively. If you, like the author of this text, prefer to have gear that works when you need it to — and particularly when that gear item is your sole safeguard against giant mammals, keep a close eye on the expiry date and renew your spray in plenty of time.
The effectiveness of your spray can also deteriorate if it is exposed to certain conditions, most notably extreme temperatures (both high and low). To make sure your spray is “good to go” when need be, be sure to store it at room temperature in a safe spot — a garage or cupboard out of reach of the kids is a good option.
On a personal note, I like to keep risks to a minimum wherever possible. I take care of my gear and replace what needs replacing in a timely fashion. While replacing the front points on my crampons or the lotions in my first aid kit might not have such grave consequences should I happen to be a little lax, I’m aware that if my bear spray happens to misfire or lose potency because of some mistake on my part, I’d be kicking myself in those last moments before my aggressor struck if I didn’t already know he/she was about to do a better job of it him/herself.
All this being so, I’m extra-cautious with this particular part of my backcountry kit and replace my spray regularly at 30-month intervals (the shelf-life is 36 months) and as soon as I return from a trip stash it away in a cool cupboard, far from flammables and nosey nephews.
Okay, I’m convinced! But how do I use a bear spray?
As is the case with any outdoor gear item, a certain amount of homework must be done and knowledge acquired prior to putting your bear spray to the test out in the field (i.e. on a bear!) While failing to learn how to put up your tent might result in a bit of a soggy or cool night, confronting a bear with a misfiring can or copping 9.2 oz load of capsaicin formula in the chops after a little bit of pre-discharge mishandling promises worse consequences by far.
Before we get down to the details of how and when to discharge your spray, let’s first take a quick peek at a few more general tips to ensure you are in good stead when/if you ever get to that point:
- Keep your spray where it can be easily and quickly accessed — i.e. on your belt or across your chest and not in your backpack or fixed to the back of your pack. In the case of an encounter with a bear, every second counts.
- When not using the spray, make sure the safety clip is in place.
- At night, take your spray into your tent with you and store it in a safe but easily accessible place away from kids.
- Don’t be tempted to use your spray on tents or around your campsite (i.e “latent spray”) as a deterrent (believe it or not, it has been done!) as doing so will actually attract bears because of the scent in the formula’s pepper content.
- Don’t leave your spray in your car — cans can explode in high temperatures.
- Be sure to renew you spray before the expiry date.
And if you come across a bear:
- Remove the canister from the holster before removing the safety clip to avoid accidental discharge
- Try to move so you (and your group) are upwind — this will reduce the risk of being hit inadvertently by the spray when you discharge the canister’s contents.
- Hold the spray with two hands to steady your aim and improve accuracy.
- As scary as it may sound, wait until the bear is close (the appropriate range is usually given on label) before discharging the spray. In many cases, bears will “fake” a charge to size you up. If this happens, stay calm, don’t run, and keep your can aimed at the bear, ready to fire if the charge continues.
- If the bear is charging, discharge the spray when the bear is 20-50 feet away (the exact distance will be advised on your can’t label).
- During discharge, attempt to put up a cloud of spray between yourself and the charging bear. Some authorities recommend shooting in a zigzag pattern, but the most important thing is to ensure the line of travel the bear is taking is obstructed by as much spray as possible.
- If the bear is not deterred by the cloud of formula, aim the spray into the bear’s face.
The following videos offer a useful summary of the points listed above and a demonstration from Craig Boddington:
What to Look for When Buying a Bear Spray
The number of bear sprays on the market is relatively slight compared to other outdoor gear items. Nevertheless, having a short tick-list of desirable and must-have features or characteristics to hand when doing your bear-spray shopping will help you get your hands on the best product for your needs. Below, we’ve identified the most important factors to take into consideration and included a word or two to help you chose between different varieties of spray.
As mentioned above, bear spray formulas use capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC) to cause a burning sensation in the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin that temporarily incapacitate and halt would-be aggressors.The Environmental Protection Agency has set 2% capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC) as the max potency allowed in any over-the-shelf spray and most products fall into the 1-2% CRC content range.
In short, the higher the CRC content, the more potent and effective the spray, with 0.85% CRC content viewed as the bare minimum required for any spray to deter ursine aggressors. To offer some grounds for comparison, regular pepper sprays intended for self-defense against human aggressors usually have a CRC content in the region of 0.2%.
First up, we highly recommend plumping for a spray that delivers its contents in a cloud or cone pattern, thereby giving you a little bit of leeway in terms of aim — something that might come in very handy given that you’ll be facing down a giant, 500-pound foe baring (excuse the pun) down on you in a hurry and your trigger hand might not be as steady as you’d like!
Secondly, the minimum shooting range length-wise should be a bare minimum of 20 feet (roughly 6 meters) and ideally between 30 and 40 feet (9-12 meters). This range will ensure that you can let the bear come close enough for you to take accurate aim but not so close that you don’t have time to discharge the canister’s full load.
Trust us, this one’s a big deal. Any canister’s spray duration is determined by two things: its output rate and its capacity. Generally speaking, most products on the market will discharge the entire load in 5-12 seconds, and there are pros and cons to choosing a spray duration at either end of the scale.
- Shorter spray duration (5-8 seconds): the can’s contents are delivered and a protective barrier put up quicker, but you have less time to take or readjust your aim if the bear changes course, halts its charge, or you’re off target when you start shooting.
- Longer spray duration (8-12 seconds): gives you more time to take or readjust aim and might leave some contents in the can if the bear backs off and then attacks again, but also takes more time to put up a protective could, meaning you have to be “on your toes” and start shooting sooner.
So, which is best? We’d recommend opting for a happy medium, i.e. a spray with enough content to allow you around an eight or nine-second spray time, thereby giving you a second or two buffer in which to readjust aim and get that fog of formula out quick enough to deter an attack. This will also leave plenty of “juice” left in the can should the bear halt a charge and you need to take a second “shot”.
Portability and Size
With most backcountry gear items the size and weight of the product will largely determine how willing you are to take it along with you on your adventures. For thru-trekkers, mountain runners or gram-counters, for example, carrying a bulky, 12oz can is probably not going to fill you with enthusiasm and may even result in you opting to leave it at home on those days when you’re on the fringes of bear territory or simply trying to move as fast and light as possible.
For those of us who don’t have ice running through our veins, however, this strategy is unthinkable and even carrying a spray at the miniature end of the scale is unlikely to fill us with confidence or let us sleep too soundly at night if our travels take us anywhere near bear country.
So, what’s the solution?
To take a no-nonsense, no-beating-around-the-bush line on this one, we’d suggest that bear spray is one pack item with which we must always make an exception to the rule when in bear country. Unlike other gear items, this is one you really don’t want to take the half-assed approach with simply because the consequences of doing so are far more serious than, for example, failing to bring along a suitably large can of camping gas or scrimping on the size of your half-time sandwiches!
The bottom line, then, is that the lighter and smaller you go the less protection you’re likely to have. As such, in order to ensure your well-being and peace of mind, choosing a weightier option with a higher capacity should not be deemed a necessary evil, so to speak, just plain necessary and non-negotiable.
Given the above, we recommend opting for a spray with a bare minimum of 7.9 ounces of formula and a spray time of 7 seconds — any less and you risk selling yourself short. Personally, I won’t take to bear country with any less than 9 oz of “juice” in a can with a spray time of 9 seconds.
Finally, another characteristic related to portability is how easy your spray is to remove, unlock, and discharge when need be. Given that bears can run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, having a spray that ticks the above box is not just convenient but of the essence. To get an idea of how any spray performs in this regard, check out our review below or, if buying a spray not listed, check user reviews prior to buying.
Bear sprays are legal in every US state and in Canada, but anyone intent on buying their spray online before transporting it to their hiking destination should take note that carrying the can on your person is illegal in many cities, on planes (in the cabin, not the hold) and also, surprisingly, in a number of hiking destinations.
Reaching a consensus on the best bear deterrent spray out there is no easy task. Owing to the parameters set by the Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, there’s often very little to choose between one spray and another.
Although we may be talking fine margins, however, those margins are enough to make a big difference and are amplified by the nature of the purpose to which we’ll be putting the product: i.e. saving our skins. Delivery times, volume, ease of use, spray range, and a few tweaks here and there such as glow-in-the-dark tags or safety tie attachments — all enhance a spray’s effectiveness, practicality, and overall desirability.
After careful consideration of all the factors involved and cross-checking the spray’s list of attributes with our own analysis of must-have and desirable features, our review has resulted in a dead-heat tie between two awesome products.
The first of these is the Counter Assault Bear Deterrent, which was just a little short on range but did everything else we need a bear spray to do remarkably well — dense delivery, adequate spray time, max CRC content, glow-in-the-dark safety ties, and just a little — but very greatly appreciated — more content than the majority of its competitors.
The second spray to win our vote is the absolutely no-nonsense, no-holds-barred UDAP 18HP Super Magnum Bear Spray. Of all the sprays out there, this is one that really doesn’t mess around when it comes to ensuring your protection, boasting 2% capsaicin in a 13.4oz canister that allows you to put up the largest protective barrier of formula of any of the sprays on our list. Not only does this spray deliver a comparable load to the smaller items in our list in a similar time frame but its high volume leaves you with almost the same amount of content again should you need to reload or readjust your aim. If protection takes priority over weight and bulk, then this one’s as good as they get.
A Few Words From a Man in the Know (Q & A with Corey Melker — US Forest Service wildland Firefighter, Long-Term Thru-Hiker)
Because we here at Take Outdoors wish to avoid seeming like some trumped-up pusher for products on Amazon or REI or Backcountry.com, we want to make sure we’re giving you the whole picture. To that end, we tracked down someone who spends an awful lot more time in bear country than most of us and asked his opinion, which just might contain a few surprises.
Corey Melker is a hardened hiker who’s put in some serious mileage on the trails, much of it in parts of the US where the big black, brown, and Grizzly fellas call “home”. He lives to tell the tale and to give TakeOutdoors his take on the question of carrying bear spray.
Over the years that I ran the group, as a wildland firefighter, and on the trails, it is safe to say that I have seen and/or experienced a thing or two in the backcountry…including being struck by the same bolt of lightning that killed a friend of mine back in 2015 while 9 of us were out backpacking in Arizona.
But I digress – today I am trying to talk about bears and bear spray. That’s what my buddy Kieran (Take Outdoors editor Kieran Cunningham) wants me to talk about so I’ll try and stick to the script.
In my time on the trails and in the wilds, I have seen a total of 10 bears — 9 of which were black bears and 1 a Grizzly. In all of that time I can honestly say that I have never, ever, felt the need for bear spray.
The thing about black bears is that they really want nothing to do with you or any of us…at all. In the majority of all the black bear encounters I’ve had, as soon as my presence was discovered, the bear took off, tearing through the woods away from me and towards the safety of obscurity found within the forest.
The other times I saw a black bear, my presence was not detected and the animals did not react. I never felt threatened as I watched the animals, even knowing that they could easily maul me if they so desired. For that reason, I never felt the need to make my presence known.
All of the above said, there is a lot of fear out there…especially among city-folk that do not go venturing out into the wild too often. Oftentimes in my group, I would find people new to backpacking that insisted on carrying a firearm with them for animal attacks. This is, quite frankly, dumb. If you are that scared of an attack, stay home. We don’t need a bunch of yahoos out in the wild shooting at everything that moves, even though it may seem we tend to breed that culture over on this side of the pond.
I will say this once. A wild animal, such as a bear (especially a black bear), wants absolutely nothing to do with you. All of the instances I have read about where a black bear has actually attacked someone stems from the bear itself being sick with rabies.
Keep in mind that the above statement is not always true. Often, a bear can become attracted to a specific area due to human-provided food sources. This most commonly happens along well-traveled and camped areas such as national parks. The bears in these areas will not necessarily be bothered by the presence of a human, so the chance of an encounter may rise.
Still, no defense is needed. If a black bear does not run away from you at first sight, avoid eye contact, make noise, wave your arms, yell and scream. The bear will run away. The bear should run away.
Now there is a chance, a small chance, that the bear will become aggressive towards you and begin to charge. In my experience, even this is usually a bluff as they will stop last second. With the charge they are sizing you up. The worse thing you could do would be turning and running. If you run, the bear will run after you and, frankly, you aren’t as fast or as strong as a bear.
For black bears, bear spray is not needed — no weapon is needed. If you want to go walking through black bear country with bear spray, go ahead as it is a personal choice…but it isn’t needed.
Grizzly country is a bit of a different story. Here I believe it is better to err on the side of caution and definitely have the bear spray, as it really is the only thing that will stop a Grizzly and force him to retreat. In some areas it is actually mandatory to carry bear spray into the backcountry.
Some will ask “but can’t you just use a gun?” Well, in theory you can. But unless you already have it in your hand, you aren’t going to be able to draw on a charging Grizzly. You can’t get the shot. And the stats are out there – there are far more bear encounter injuries occurring as a result of using firearms than there are as a result of using bear spray. What usually happens is that people will actually end up shooting themselves as they are trying to get the shot off.
The best thing you can do in Grizzly country is to simply be alert. Often you will see a Grizzly on a distant ridge line, or on the other side of a vast, expansive meadow. Here you don’t have to do anything. You watch and stay aware. If a bear is an area you want to go in (if your trail goes through the meadow where the bear is, for example), just wait it out. The bear will likely move on before too long. I would still have my bear spray in this case, but it would be hanging from my chest strap where I could easily access it if I needed to.
One of the dumbest things someone can do is to bring bear spray and have it packed in their backpack. It is completely useless there.
Now if you are hiking through Grizzly territory in an area that is more closed in than the above scenario (such as walking amongst trees, or along a watercourse that is dense with willow and other vegetation), I would go ahead and have that bear spray in my hand and ready to go. Why the difference? Easy. If I encounter a bear in these types of settings, it will be more likely that the startled bear goes straight into an aggressive mode. I will need to be able to spray the bear before an attack happens, and Grizzlies are fast.
If I have to unclip it from a strap, I likely will not be able to get it out in time to actually spray the advancing bear. If I have my spray packed in my backpack at this point, well, it can’t help me and I am screwed. If I chose not to bring bear spray into Grizzly country, well, hopefully someone brought a gun and can shoot the bear while it is attacking me.
As far as what types of bear sprays to use, there aren’t really that many manufacturers of it out there. They all appear to be similar products which have enough of capsaicin concentration to stop a bear, but there is some variance in terms of range. The one thing that you absolutely do want to look for and make sure that any spray you purchase has, is a 30ft range (or greater). Also remember that this stuff is no joke. If you spray someone with this, it is a felony. Bear spray is like pepper spray on meth and steroids.
So yeah, it isn’t so cut and dry. But my take on it is that I have spray in Grizzly territory, but not in black bear areas. That is based on all of my miles, my specific encounters, and all of the experience I have gathered just from doing my thing. Remember that nothing is completely safe. If you want safe, stay on the couch.Corey Melker
Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, camper, and all-round lover of all things wild and wonderful. He’s climbed a handful of 6,000-meter peaks in the Himalaya, 4,000ers in the Alps, and 14,000-footers in the Rockies and currently lives in the Italian Alps.