This article first appeared in the Sept-Oct 2016 issue of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle Magazine, and it was quoted in Steven Rinella’s recent Instagram post on bear spray.
The best available science on the effectiveness of bear spray has one conclusion: bear spray crushes bullets. In the April 2008 edition of the Journal of Wildlife Management, Brigham Young University associate professor Tom Smith and colleagues found that in 72 cases where people used bear spray to defend themselves from brown, black and polar bears, the spray stopped bears more than 90 percent of the time, and 98 percent of the people involved were uninjured.
Still want to bring a gun to the fight? Consider this.
In a 2011 study published in the same journal by Smith et al, they found that discharging a firearm typically stopped encounters (84 percent for handguns, 76 for long guns).
But, and here’s the rub: for those incidents involving firearms, one in four led to human injury or death—not to mention all the bears killed and wounded.
That’s the science. And then there is the real-world scenario of trying to hit a target the size of a tennis ball moving at 40 mph with a half-inch bullet. “You have to make a spine or brain shot to stop that bear,” says George Hyde, general manager at Counter Assault Bear Spray, which has been around for 30 years. “Your odds are a whole lot better with a cloud of spray and its 10-foot diameter barrier.”
Granted, he is in the bear spray business, but then again, is he wrong?
As hunters, we do everything we’re not supposed to do in bear country. We’re quiet. We walk into the wind. We use calls, scents and generally try to be an elk. All this begs for an encounter. That’s why you should always carry your spray on your hip or your chest—not in your pack or in a pocket.
If you bump into a bear, try to remain as calm as you can and slowly walk backward. Do not make eye contact. Speak in a calm voice. If this fails and the bear comes at you, your spray should already be in your hand. Many times bears will bluff charge, but once they are within 30 feet of you, they are within range of the spray.
Bear spray is made of the hottest parts of the hottest peppers India grows, capsaicin. It’s peppers and propellant under pressure. The contents won’t freeze, but cold temps will affect pressure, and it won’t spray as far. If you’re out in below-freezing temps, wear it in a chest holster underneath your outer layer. Your body will keep it warm.
With an eight-ounce can of Counter Assault spray, you have about seven seconds worth of capsaicin to unleash. It’s best to shoot in 1-2 second initial bursts, directing the spray toward the ground in front of the bear so it rises to meet the bear’s nostrils and eyes as it approaches. This will allow you to assess the situation and the wind, and be aware of the wind direction. If there’s a breeze blowing back in your face, you’ll be the one writhing on the ground—less than ideal, especially if the bear was only bluff-charging.
Remember that bear spray is a deterrent and not a repellent. Don’t spray it on your tent or clothes thinking bears naturally avoid peppers. That can actually backfire and serve as an attractant.
If you do get it in your eyes or on your skin, wash with cold water, Johnson’s baby shampoo, Dawn dish soap or any non-oil based soap. The water will soothe while the soap will remove the oil. You
can rub Johnson’s Baby Wash or Shampoo right in your eyes, Hyde says. But gravity applies to bathing, so don’t wash the peppers from one orifice down to another.
Hyde does hear hunters say bear spray is too expensive, but at the cost of a box of shells and a shelf life of four years, it’s a sound investment. Should you need to use it, your return is priceless and so is the story you get to share for the rest of your life.
To read Steven Rinella’s thoughts on bear deterrents, go here: http://bit.ly/2dLsWcd
To read a wildlife biologist’s take on the research behind bear deterrents, go here: http://bit.ly/2egWTnZ