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I used to think that a high caliber hunting rifle is all the safety one needs in the wild, but after watching The Revenant’s depiction of a bear attack in which Leo Dicaprio, portraying a skilled hunter, gets viciously mauled without even having a chance of shooting his rifle, I decided to do some research - and sure enough, I discovered bear spray.
Top Bear Spray Comparisons
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This is a product that uses the same ingredients and principle as pepper spray to repel/deter bears – whether they’re grizzlies, black bears or some other kind - from attacking you in the wild. Its main purpose is to force the animal to retreat, rather than kill it, giving the would-be victim enough time to escape and make it to safety.
Realizing that there may be many amateur adventurers like myself who haven’t come across this product before, I’ve created this guide to help you in choosing the best bear spray and also how to properly use it, so you can be as safe as possible in the Great Outdoors.
How Does Bear Spray Work?
Bear repellent works by shooting bursts of atomized capsaicin (a derivative of cayenne pepper) through an aerosol can, as far as eight meters (though its effectiveness decreases with distance). It results in swelling of the beast’s eye, nose and lung membranes which causes it to experience total blindness (temporarily), as well as considerable breathing difficulty. Mostly, this forces the omnivore to blunder out of your vicinity, so you’ve got an opportunity to retreat.
Why Bear Spray?
- Guns don’t work well against bears: In order to be a skilled hunter, you need a steady hand, coupled with nerves of steel and lightning fast reflexes – and if reports from the US Wildlife Department are anything to go by, even all this is not a guarantee to save you from a bear attack - in fact, guns are effective only about half the time! The problem with these animal is that they are incredibly tough – one shot to the head from a hunting rifle could stop a bear, but getting that shot right when it is charging at you head on is nothing short of miraculous. On the other hand, bear spray targets the beast’s visibility and breathing, which instinctively cause it to stop in its tracks and retreat, giving you an ample window of escape.
- Guns kill, bear spray doesn’t: When you’re mortally threatened by a wild beast in the woods, it’s hard to empathize with an environmentalist’s pleas of preserving wildlife, but since it’s already been demonstrated scientifically that bear spray is far more effective at stopping bear attacks compared to a firearm, it won’t do any harm to consider the fact that by using bear deterrent, you’ll be ensuring your safety without killing the beast. Furthermore, if you’re not alone when you encounter it, you could accidentally hurt (or even kill) one of your party members if your gun’s aim gets off in close quarters. The spray is non-fatal, so even if you get some on a party member by mistake, you can guide them to safety quite easily.
What Is In Bear Spray?
Remember that bear sprays and regular pepper sprays are not the same – even though both are derived from oleoresin capsicum. The reason for this is that bear deterrent uses capsaicin and related capsaicinoids as the key ingredient. If you see a large can touting an oleoresin capsicum composition of 10, 20 or 30 percent, it is not bear spray – its regular pepper spray that will be useless against a bear.
Choosing The Right Bear Spray
You should keep the following factors in mind when looking for a top rated bear spray product:
- Strength: In the US, the EPA requires a concentration of capsaicin and related capsaicinoids ranging from 1 to 2 percent – the effectiveness of the spray in this range is almost uniform and will have nearly identical effect on the bear. In Canada however, there is no mandatory certification for these products, so you should always get one from a reputed company, such as those I’ve mentioned in the reviews. In general, a minimum of .857% capsaicin is necessary for the spray to be effective.
- Minimum range: 5 meters (roughly 16 feet), is the minimum spray delivery range you should look out for.
- Spray duration: The time for which you can continuously spray the bear deterrent determines the longevity of its protective barrier, and also whether it can be used on multiple occasions.
- Sprayer type: A fiberglass sprayer that sprays in a cone/cloud pattern is preferred.
- Container size: The size of the container must be 225 grams / 7.9 ounces net, minimally.
- Number: If you intend to go hiking in the woods as a party, it smart to have a minimum of two canisters for your group.
- Reviews: This is one of those products where going through all reviews won’t help you out – obviously, you can call a product the best bear repellent based on what someone who has never had to use it says. You should look out for reviews from people who have actually used it, or those that describe a particular problem e.g. leaks.
How To Use Bear Spray Properly?
After interviewing several professional wildlife and bear encounter specialists, the Center for Wildlife Information gave the following recommendations regarding the use of bear deterrent:
- A minimum recommended spraying distance of 25 feet i.e. you should start spraying when the bear is 25 feet or closer. In fact, the specialists wanted this distance to be even farther. The reasoning behind this is to create as wide a clearing between you and the attacking animal as possible, and also to give the spray as much time as possible to affect the eyes, nose, throat and lungs of the bear.
- A minimum recommended spray duration of 6 seconds. In this case, too, the experts wanted a greater spraying duration, but settled on 6 seconds as the minimum time to create a satisfactorily safe spray cloud. This duration was recommended based on the following bear attack/charge scenarios:
- Multiple bears attacking from various directions e.g. a mother grizzly with large cubs, siblings or mating pairs.
- Defending a party member from a grizzly that you’ve deflected from yourself using bear spray.
- Repeated attacks or charges (bears can follow a charge, retreat and charge again pattern, or circle around before charging).
- Environmental conditions like cold, rain and wind could affect the spray.
- Some spray must be reserved for backup after you’ve escaped the bear.
- Fear may cause you to spray erratically e.g. too soon, excessively or off target.
Other recommendations (not from the Center for Wildlife Information) include compensating for wind speed and direction, aiming slightly above the bear’s head when it is away to compensate for gravity, and aiming directly at the face when / if it rushes close. Once the bear has been deterred, exit the area as quickly as you can, but avoid running, since you could trip due to carelessness or anxiety and hurt yourself.
Also, bear in mind (no pun intended) that pepper spray should be considered a last line of defense. When backpacking in the wilds, you must use common sense and precautions to avoid getting into confrontations with wild animals.
When To Replace Your Bear Spray Product?
There can be nothing more dangerous than carrying around a compromised bear spray product in the wild, unknowingly. This is the equivalent of trying to defend yourself against a wild beast using a gun… that has blanks loaded in it instead of live rounds! Needless to say, the results can be disastrous. Here’s when you should replace your bear deterrent:
- When it gets discharged for some reason.
- When you’ve left it in temperature extremes i.e. below freezing point and above 50 degrees Centigrade.
- If it is past its expiry date, which is typically 4 years.
Top 5 Bear Spray Reviews
Guard Alaska® Combo Pack! - Bear Defense Pepper Spray Repellant w/ Free Belt Loop Ballistic Holster
- Strength: 1.34%
- Range: 15-20 ft
- Amount: 9 oz.
- Duration: 9 sec
- Shelf life: 4 year
Claiming to be the sole EPA approved bear repellent for all species of bears, the Guard Alaska Bear Spray has been rigidly tested in the Alaskan wilds to ensure its effectiveness. Its fogger delivery system covers the bear’s face in 9 ounces of 1.34% total capsaicinoid formula in 9 seconds, while this may not be the strongest bear repellent, it definitely exceeds the 1% minimum stipulation by the EPA.
The 15-20 feet delivery range is above the recommended minimum, but it isn’t as much as some other competitors. The manufacturer, Personal Safety Corporation, guarantee a 4 year shelf life, however, some users have had problems with discharges and leaks – something that is a serious drawback for a product that you’re supposed to count on in the wild.
Furthermore, the manufacturer offers a 30 day money back guarantee, which is impressive but a bit ironic given how for anyone who found the product defective against a bear, getting a refund would be the least of their concerns! Still, it is reassuring to see that the manufacturer has trust in the performance of their product.
- Rigidly tested in the wilds
- Comes with 30 day money back guarantee
- Praiseworthy customer service
- Comes with free holster
- Capsaicinoid strength and firing range is a bit lower than some competitors
- Complaints of leaks from some users
Sabre Frontiersman Bear Spray with Hip Holster - Maximum Strength & Maximum Range - 35 Feet (9.2 oz)
- Strength: 2.0%
- Range: 35ft
- Amount: 9.2 oz.
- Duration: 5 sec
- Shelf Life: 3 year
Strictly adhering to the requirements set out by the EPA, the Frontiersman Bear Spray matches the upper limit of major capsaicinoid strength (2.0%), making it one of the most effective bear sprays out there. It is also the only 9.2 ounce canister capable of achieving a 35 feet firing range, something that provides a greater window of reaction against a charging bear capable of covering 30+ feet/sec. The free holster that comes with it enables the user to fluidly fire the spray from the hip for dealing with sudden attacks in the woods.
What I really like about this product is that it has been tested for its bear deterring capability at both Brown Bear Resources in Missoula, Montana, and at Elmendorf AFB in Elmendorf, Alaska, with consistently positive results. The manufacturer also offers an exclusive HLPC guarantee of quality which means that you don’t have to worry about the spray failing in the heat of things because it came from a weak batch – a problem faced by many other products in the market.
However, a notable drawback is that it delivers 1.84 oz. per second, which means it empties in 5 seconds, which is less than the minimum recommendation of 6 seconds by the experts.
On the consumer satisfaction end of things, the majority of users were full of praise about its effectiveness – with some pretty unique stories about how it saved their lives / prevented serious injury. There were a couple of complaints about its build quality, but not significant enough to imply a serious design flaw. This one is definitely a strong candidate for the best bear spray on the market.
- Maximum recommended capsaicinoid strength – 2.0%
- Maximum range among the competition – 35 ft
- Tested by external organizations, and in-house HLPC lab
- A couple of complaints about flimsy materials
- No manufacturer warranty
UDAP 18HP Super Magnum Bear Spray 13.4 Ounces
- Strength: 2.0%
- Range: 35ft
- Amount: 13.4 oz.
- Duration: 7 sec
The Super Magnum Bear Spray, with its 13.4 ounce quantity, is the largest EPA registered bear deterrent spray available in the market right now. Its 2.0% major capsaicinoid concentration enables it to join the ranks of other strongest bear sprays, and it has been engineered to deliver a dense fiery fog to shield you from a bear attack from as far as 35 feet. However, this is also means that it is more expensive and it runs out in 7 seconds, which is a bit low compared to the competition.
While the product has received praise from users for its effectiveness in actual encounters against bears and other wild animals, a serious issue with its design was also raised by one – the trigger is made in a way that prevents firing in bursts easily – once you press the trigger down, it must be depressed manually to cut off the spray, something which is difficult in an actual encounter.
As such, this repellent spray appears to be designed as a one-in-the-chamber deal. This is a real turn-off considering its large size which would have made it an ideal weapon for sustained defense against wild animal attacks.
- Maximum EPA stipulated CRC of 2.0%
- Maximum 35 feet range
- Large canister delivers a much denser fog cloud compared to competition
- Includes a bonus 32 page booklet on bear safety
- Somewhat short spray duration
- Trigger doesn’t allow for easy burst firing
- Relatively pricey
All EPA approved bear deterrent products offer a satisfactory degree of protection against bear attacks and are similarly priced, as you will have observed in the product reviews above. What sets a product apart from the others is the duration and range for which it provides this protection, and how reliably it manages to do so.
With that in mind, the 10.2 oz. Counter Assault Bear Deterrent is the best bear spray in the market right now, with its 2.0% CRC strength (the maximum stipulated by EPA) packing a major punch, its 32 ft. range enabling the operator to stop a charging bear at a safe distance, and its commendably long 9.2 second spraying duration allowing for defense in multiple encounters.