The Scoop On Bear Spray: Will It Really Work?

Bear spray, also referred to as bear deterrent or repellent, is a non-fatal pepper derived self-defense product to be used against bears. Containing derivatives of oleoresin capsaicin (the stuff which makes chilli peppers hot), it serves to irritate the eyes, nose, skin, throat, and lungs of bears, which restricts the beast’s sensory, olfactory and respiratory faculties temporarily. This, theoretically, is supposed to break the charge of the aggravated animal, giving the would-be victims time to get clear of the danger zone.

Everything sounds good in theory, but does bear spray work in the field – when you’re facing off with an actual bear? I did some digging into the matter, given the survivalist-camper nerd I am, and found the results reassuring to say the least. In fact, I even discovered some interesting facts about bear deterrent’s performance against other animals!

Is Bear Spray Effective?

Experts like to refer to these sprays as ‘lachrymatory agents’. Lachrymators are substances which cause stimulation of the corneal nerves, resulting in tearing and temporary blindness, as well as inflammation of the tissues of the mucus membranes. Put simply, the spray is designed to compromise the sight, smell and breathing of a bear - doesn’t matter if it’s a black bear, grizzly bear or even a polar bear.

This has been tested in the wilds by bear scientist Dr. Stephen Herrero, according to whose research, in 94% (15 out 16) of the cases, the deterrent was successful in stopping the aggressive behavior of the bear. This is an encouraging metric no doubt, but it is worth noting that in 3 of the cases where the animal was stopped at first, it resumed its aggressive behavior and managed to injure the defender, even after receiving a substantial dose of the deterrent.

From Dr. Herrero’s research, it is evident that successful self-defense through the use of this product is dependent on a number of factors, which include:​

  • The gender of the attacking bear (females seem to be more hostile, possibly because of their cubs).
  • The distance between the person and the attacker when the product was used.
  • The number of doses sprayed.
  • The approach of spraying adopted by the defender.

Is bear spray good for self defense against bears than? Most certainly, it is an excellent last line of defense if statistics are anything to go buy, but if you’re alright with carrying a firearm with you, I would recommend it as a contingency, since it is evident that the deterrent alone doesn’t provide foolproof protection.

Does Bear Spray Work On Other Animals?

At $60 a can, purchasing bear repellent can be quite an investment, especially since you’ll normally carry at least two cans with you when going outdoors, so it is only natural to wonder whether it works with animals other than bears. Does bear spray work on mountain lions / moose / dogs / people seem to be the questions most consumers are asking – and unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as a yes or no.

Any mammal with a respiratory system and eyesight mechanism similar to bears will be vulnerable to the effect of oleoresin capsaicin and its derivatives. But there is more to it than that: you must understand that bears have an attacking pattern that makes them easy targets for deterrent spray – they charge from the front. Other animals are different.​

For instance, mountain lions / cougars will tend to stalk their prey silently before attacking. Moose charges are normally feints to scare a would-be aggressor. Wolves normally attack in packs, and while this is rare, you can only deter them with the repellent spray if you’re able to face them off properly. Even black bears have been known to stalk humans for prey!

It’s not all bad however: Coyotes are normally quite reclusive, but if they’re a nuisance in your neighborhood, you easily haze them with a pepper spray product. Similarly, there are numerous accounts of people successfully repelling aggressive pit bulls with a spray from their bear deterrent can.

For non-mammals that you might encounter in the wild e.g. alligators, snakes and scorpions, I’d recommend giving them a wide berth if they are non-hostile, and beating a hasty retreat if they are riled up. Normally, this is enough to ensure your safety against these animals – there is no scientific data on the effectiveness of bear deterrent on these creatures, and in all likelihood, it could agitate them even further.​

Does Bear Spray Work On Humans?

As far as people are concerned, it’ll work if you manage to give your attacker a good dose in the face, but other than that it would be quite difficult – since humans are smart and can dodge the cloud of OC unlike wild animals.

What Bear Spray Can’t Do

Since it’s often phrased as a ‘repellent’, you may be wondering if bear spray can be applied to your clothes, tent or skin to ward bears off proactively, à la mosquito repellent. This is not the case, in fact, what you’d achieve by doing this is to turn yourself (or your tent) into an attractive mega sized burrito!

Conclusion

Ultimately, the point I’m trying to make is that for the spray to work its magic, you’ll need to be in an ideal position to create a spray cloud between you and your attacker. It just so happens that bears make this task easy on their own, but this may not always be as simple (or even possible) if it’s a different critter you’re dealing with – and it is for this reason that I’ll advise you to carry a shotgun as a backup with you on the trail if you’re expecting wild animal trouble.

Above everything else, common sense is what most seasoned hunters, trekkers and campers will recommend as your best defense. When in the wild, you’re an outsider in a carefully balanced eco-system, which is why you should be as inconspicuous and careful as possible: remember, it is better to avoid danger altogether rather than having to face and evade it.​

If you’ve got any further questions / comments, feel free to leave them below, and I’ll try to address them as best as I can.

About the author

Gus Clark

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