Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray
Travis Smola

Bear Spray Expert Breaks Down What Makes It So Effective


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As more people start wandering into bear country, human and bruin encounters are on the rise, which isn't good for humans nor animals. There has also been a rise in the purchase and use of commercial pepper sprays formulated specifically for bear deterrent. It's a big industry, one that has rapidly become a huge focus point for companies that previously catered self-defense pepper sprays only to customers seeking to deter two-legged threats. Now their main customers are often hikers, campers, hunters, and fishermen who want defense against a bear attack that doesn't involve a bullet ending the animal's life permanently. The sprays have become so popular, many national parks in places like Yellowstone now offer rentals for a little extra peace of mind from visiting tourists.

The use of these sprays is only one small portion of the greater bear safety discussion. Still, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the effectiveness of these products when one of these wild animals is charging at you. So, we decided to get the straight facts on bear spray directly from an inside source. We talked to David Nance, who's the CEO of Security Equipment Corporation, also known as SABRE. They are the top manufacturer of personal protection sprays to be used on both humans and bears. We got answers to some of the most burning questions (pun intended) that the public often has about these products. It turns out the science of bear defense and what goes into these sprays is some fascinating stuff.

The Origins of Bear Spray

Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray

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SABRE was originally founded in 1975, and the company was built on small canisters of consumer-grade self-defense pepper sprays intended for humans. Nance is part of the second generation of this family business. The company is now also a leading provider of non-lethal solutions for law enforcement.

The idea of using these sprays to deter undesirable behavior in bears didn't originate until the 1980s when the first capsaicin bear sprays were developed at the University of Montana. Nance notes that the idea really took off in the mid-1990s as more people started participating in outdoor recreation. It was good timing, because the surge of interest in America's wild places coincided with bear numbers starting to rebound under new conservation practices. Also gone were the days of tourists trying to feed Yellowstone bears by hand, or open garbage pits in national parks where the animals freely scavenged on the leftovers of visitors. In a way, it's surprising the use of bear spray wasn't developed sooner, because it is such a simple concept.

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"The reality of the situation is that the animals have eyes, and they breathe oxygen just like we do," Nance said. "If you slam those eyes shut, cause upper respiratory distress and irritation, they don't like that. They panic, they don't know what it is, and they leave."

SABRE's early bear sprays were tested in Alaska, which helped their product receive official registration with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a requirement for today's modern bear defense sprays. After laboratory testing proved these cans could be effective during an aggressive bear encounter in the backcountry, a new industry was born, one that only seems to be growing with each year as more people seek to embrace their outdoor roots.

The Difference Between Bear and Pepper Spray

Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray

Travis Smola

One common misconception is that bear spray works the same as a standard can of pepper spray intended for use on humans. However, Nance cautions this could be a big mistake, because the two products are made for vastly different purposes, and those smaller canisters are simply not up for the task of stopping a charging bear.

"You're not going to stop a bear with a keychain pepper spray that only sprays ten feet," Nance said. "You want something that is labeled Bear Attack Deterrent. You also want something with an EPA registration number to show that it's actually been approved by the EPA and is safe to use."

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Because a bear can cover up to 50 feet per second, that means a bruin could be on top of you before you have a chance to spray the bear's face. SABRE's can of bear spray has a maximum range of 35 feet to keep more distance between you and the animal. However, it's not just range, it's also the active ingredients that are much stronger in bear sprays than pepper spray. SABRE uses the maximum strength allowed by the EPA.

"It's the major capsaicinoids that heat-bearing, pain-producing components which are 50 percent stronger in bear spray than they are in consumer sprays," Nance said. "To give you an idea, Tabasco sauce, for example, measures about 0.02 major capsaicinoids. A lot of people are very familiar with that. It might cause a little sting to your tongue or what not. Bear spray has 2.0 major capsaicinoids, a hundred times stronger than Tabasco."

The other big difference is the size and shape of the spray cloud itself. Modern bear sprays are designed to produce much larger clouds so there's a better chance of getting in the bear's eyes, nostrils, and throat. SABRE's products put out almost two ounces per second and cover a wide area. Because the cloud is so large, Nance said a person doesn't necessarily need to be super accurate with it. He cited a recent black bear encounter that was caught on video where a hiker successfully deterred a curious bruin using the spray.

"The gentlemen did a nice job, he was very calm, he said 'Hey, bear,'" Nance said. "The bear was being playful at first and it got a little too close, [so] he gave it a little burst. The bear hit the cloud and turned around and ran the opposite way."

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Despite popular jokes about grizzly bear droppings having "bear bells and smelling of pepper," Nance notes the effectiveness of bear spray is very well documented. And while officials say no method is one hundred percent effective, bear spray has proven to be more effective than firearms in most scenarios.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that bear spray is effective 92 percent of the time," Nance said. "I don't know of those eight percent, but I've never heard of anyone not using our product effectively or successfully."

How to Use Bear Spray

Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray

Travis Smola

Nance notes that about the only time a bear spray canister is ineffective is when it's in a pack or in some other unreachable place. That's why he's a huge advocate of always carrying it in a holster. SABRE sells a hip holster and an adapter for a chest holster. Either way, a can of bear repellent does the user no good if they cannot reach it in a hurry, especially if the bear encounter happens at close range.

"I'm a big advocate of getting prepared in advance and getting the muscle memory," Nance said.

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That means practicing withdrawing the bear spray canister from the holster and snapping off the safety clip. SABRE started making this component glow in the dark so a user can locate it after nightfall if a bear raids a camp.

"When you're in that scenario, as I talked about, that can be quite intimidating. And in an intense experience, fine motor skills are sometimes jeopardized a little bit in high stress scenarios," Nance said. "But if you have that muscle memory, it makes it much easier to do well under stress."

Once you have the canister out, there is some technique to making sure you get the spray to hit in the right location.

"A lot of people think you spray it perpendicularly at a 90-degree angle when you're standing straight up. The problem with that is if you're pretty tall, you might go right over the bear's head with it," Nance said. "So, you really want to go more at what I'd say is a 30- to 45-degree angle. Our recommendation is a two-second burst. Let the bear hit that cloud, and then after that if it keeps coming, then you use your one-second burst and at that 45-degree angle you should be able to go at their face and be in pretty good shape and give yourself an opportunity to escape."

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Nance said a standard 9.2-ounce bear spray container is good for about five full one-second bursts. The company also started producing an inert training canister so people can feel the power and see the cloud firsthand before ever carrying it afield. While you should also be conscious of the wind before deploying bear spray, in an emergency with a bruin charging, it's not likely to be something most people think about. If the bear is right on top of you, getting your own face sprayed with pepper is still better than a huge paw to the face.

"If you're downwind and you get a little bit on you, the best thing you can do is clear your eyes, remain calm, and slow [your] breathing. If you see it coming at you, close your eyes so you don't get any in your eyes," Nance said. "Be conscious of your wind, but if you've got a bear charging at you, you're going to want to spray that thing no matter what."

Why Bear Spray Expires

Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray

Travis Smola

It's important to monitor the expiration date on your can of bear spray. Otherwise, you could be met with a disappointing surprise when the spray fails to deploy. Bear spray expires after about three years due to a natural loss of propellent over time. The effectiveness of the spray can also be lessened if the can gets banged around a lot or if it is exposed to extreme high and low temperatures. Nance said the spray itself doesn't lose potency, it's the propellent inside the canister that eventually breaks down and causes the contents to lose range.

"Any sort of pressurized container, due to atmospheric pressure, wear and tear, cold and warm weather, things of that nature, getting knocked around by who knows what when you're in the outdoors a lot, can lose pressure," Nance said.

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He suggested always keeping bear spray stored at room temperature. Cold temperatures below 32 degrees will cause the can to lose pressure. On the other end of the spectrum, high temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit could cause a can to blow up, which is why one should never store a can inside a vehicle druing the summer months.

"It's advisable not to leave it in a car because you know the greenhouse effect gets really, hot inside a car. All the windows are closed, it may only be 80 degrees outside, but it might be 120 degrees inside the car," Nance said. "You can't expose this to temperatures exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit."

He also notes that if you are planning to fly to bear country, you will need to buy your bear spray on location or have it shipped there. Bear spray is not allowed on airplanes, in neither carry on nor checked luggage. If you are driving to where you'll be hiking or exploring, he recommends leaving the spray in the package until you reach your destination and then removing the clearly marked safety tag. You won't be able to remove the safety tab unless you cut that off.

The Reasons Bears Attack, and Avoiding Them

Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray

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Nance said there's only a few reasons why bears will attack humans. The most common encounter is one where a human surprises a bear that doesn't hear the person coming. Then the bruin lashes out in self-defense. The second is a sow that is protecting her cubs, a contributing factor in many fatal grizzly bear attacks.

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"If you get close to a bear's cub, that's really bad," Nance said. "that's probably when they're the most violent."

Sometimes bears will also attack if a human approaches too close to their food and thinks the person is going to steal it. Of course, the final reason for a bear attack is simply because the animal is hungry and decides the human is prey, which is one of the less common reasons for an attack. Nance believes many encounters involve food, which is why campers would be wise to invest in scent-proof food containers that can be hung at least 100 yards downwind of a campsite.

"That keeps the scent of that food inside the container, and it's bear proof as well," Nance said. "The bear can't open it, and it prevents the bear from coming into your camp."

Another good idea is to always enter bear country in groups. There is safety in numbers and a bear is more likely to hear your conversations and leave the area without you even knowing they are there. While bear bells also work well, SABRE has also developed a loud bear horn that serves the same purpose. He recommends giving the horn a blast every seven to ten minutes. The purpose of the horn is not to deter an attack, but to simply let bears know you are in the area.

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"This bear horn is not going to deter an attacking bear, it's designed to prevent startling a bear when they're right up on you," he said. "If they hear this sound when you're further away and they don't see you, they go opposite the sound. But if it's coming at you and it's determined, you need to have bear spray."

Making one's presence known in nature is probably the best defense against unwanted bear encounters. Otherwise, bear spray is the best non-lethal solution to ensuring both human and animal walk away from an encounter unscathed.

"At the end of the day, unless you're hunting black bear, chances are you're in bear country not intending to kill the bear. If you use bear spray, the bear's going to be all right," Nance said.

SABRE's popular Frontiersman are available from major U.S. retailers like Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's, Dunham's Walmart, and Amazon. Their Canadian bear spray is available at retailers like Mountain Equipment Co-Op, Canadian Tire, and more. Visit the Sabre website for more information on their personal protection products.

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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Instagram For original videos, check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels

READ MORE: WHAT TO DO IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BLACK BEAR IN THE WILD

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