The other day I was out in the woods. I ran into a guy that was packing a handgun and a shot gun. He informed me that there was a grizzly bear sighting in the area. When I showed him my bear spray, he wanted to know how effective it is. Let’s put opinions aside and take a look at the facts.

How Effective Is Bear Spray?

A study conducted by Smith et al. (2008) investigated the efficacy of bear spray. The authors analyzed a total of 83 incidents involving brown bears (61 cases), black bears (20 cases), and polar bears (2 cases). Bear spray was deployed to deter aggressive bear behavior in 72 of these incidents, including 50 brown bears, 20 black bears, and 2 polar bears. Bear spray stopped undesirable behavior 92% of the time when used against brown bears, 90% of the time when used against black bears, and 100% of the time when used against polar bears. Of all the people carrying bear spray, 98% were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters. Injuries were inflicted upon people in three cases, none of which required hospitalization.

In a second study Smith et al. (2012) investigated the efficacy of firearms. The authors analyzed a total of 269 incidents involving brown bears (218 cases), black bears (30 cases), polar bears (6 cases), and 15 cases where the species went unidentified. Long guns deterred aggressive bear behavior 76% of the time. In comparison, hand guns stopped aggressive behavior 84% of the time. However, these differences were statistically insignificant (P=0.2862). Injuries were inflicted upon humans in 151 (56%) of these incidents, and 172 bears were killed (61%).

While the decision about which deterrent to use is a personal one, Smith el at. (2012) suggest that firearms are not a clear choice. They concluded that bear spray is more effective at deterring undesirable bear behavior than firearms in a variety of situations.

Know How to Use It

Bear spray and pepper spray are not the same. Bear spray is more concentrated, it comes in larger volumes, and bear spray has a longer range.

No one should travel in bear country without a deterrent. Learn how to use your bear spray. If you are going to travel with a firearm, then consider traveling with bear spray, too.

Some wildlife managers offer courses about traveling, recreating, hunting and working in bear country. These courses may include training in the use of bear spray.

While I would always recommend professional training, there are numerous instructional videos about the use of bear spray on the internet. You can order inert canisters and practice deploying them on your own if professional instruction is unavailable.

It is also important to make sure that your deterrent is easily accessible when you are in bear country. If your bear spray is in your backpack when a bear charges you, then you will not have enough time to unpack and deploy it before the bear reaches you. Instead, consider keeping it in a holster at your hip or across your chest.

Finally, please be aware that bear sprays have an expiration date. Do not travel in bear country with an expired canister.


Smith, T.S., S. Herrero, T.D. Debruyn, and J.M. Wilder. 2008. Efficacy of bear deterrent spray in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management. 72(2):640-645.

Smith, T.S., S. Herrero, C.S. Layton, R.T. Larsen, and K.R. Johnson. 2012. Efficacy of firearms for bear deterrence in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management. 76(5):1021-1027.