Carrying bear spray into the mountains or backcountry is a common practice for safety-minded hikers, backpackers, and hunters. That said, most of us have never had a chance to use it, which leads lots of people to wonder whether or not they can use bear spray on a human being. I’ve been wondering that myself, which is exactly why I’m writing today.
Update August 13, 2023: This article was updated to include more detailed info about lawsuits involving the use of bear spray.
Quick Answer: Using Bear Repellent Spray on People
- Using bear spray on humans may not be explicitly barred by law, but you can still be arrested or sued if not acting in self defense (pranks, random TikTok trends, etc).
- It’s highly unsafe to use bear spray on another person, because bear sprays are very high-volume compared to normal pepper spray, meaning they pack a far more powerful.
- In general, unless you are in immediate, life-threatening danger and the bear spray is your best chance of surviving, you should never use bear spray on anything other than wild animals.
Is Bear Spray Safe for Humans?
This is the first and most important question to ask is whether or not it’s safe to use bear spray on a human. The last thing anybody wants is to catch a murder/manslaughter/other charges because they sprayed somebody with a product that is extremely dangerous to their health. So, is bear spray dangerous for humans, or not?
The answer to this question comes down to three things:
- The Potency of the spray
- The Volume of the spray
- The Delivery of the spray
Let’s break those down a little more.
Bear Spray Is Technically More Potent than Pepper Spray/Mace
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the concentration of capsaicin (the same active ingredient used in both bear spray and pepper spray) in pressurized sprays. Technically, it’s oleoresin capsicum, which is a type of capsaicin, but since I’m not a scientist, I’ll leave the deeper explanations on that one to the experts at Sabre.
For pepper sprays and mace, the legal limit is 1.33% capsaicin.
If you’re looking to buy bear spray, the strongest you can get is 2% capsaicin – that’s about 50% stronger than human pepper spray.
That means that bear spray is far more able to harm humans, attacking bears, and other animals than your average pepper spray. While they both use the same ingredient, they are far from the same product.
The Issue: Volume in Bear Spray and Pepper Spray
Making things even more complicated is the amount of spray in bear sprays vs normal pepper sprays.
The average size of human pepper spray? Less than an ounce, if we’re talking the self-defense kind that people take jogging or out at night. Tactical pepper sprays can be bigger, up to about 2 ounces. And police/military-grade pepper sprays can be pretty big – like this 13-ounce spray that seems to be favored in law enforcement circles.
Bear spray, on the other hand, is always big. Usually, I see bear sprays listed anywhere between 7 and 11 ounces. In fact, bear spray is almost never packaged in a can smaller than 7 ounces.
Why does that matter? Well, for one, when you use the spray against an attacking bear (or a person), you’re going to be putting out a lot more spray than you would with normal, consumer-level pepper spray.
There is a very big difference between being hit with a tenth of an ounce of pepper spray and 2 entire ounces of bear deterrent, which leads us to the final piece of the puzzle: delivery method.
Delivery of Bear Spray and Pepper Spray/Mace
There is also a difference in the way that pepper and bear spray work. The delivery method might have more to do with the safety of bear spray for humans than anything else.
Let’s break it down:
Pepper Spray: Short Bursts
Pepper Spray is usually delivered in bursts designed to deliver an appropriate amount of spray to a human attacker. Short bursts of pepper spray also help to conserve your “ammo” in case you need to deal out another dose of Scoville heat units.
Bear Spray: Continuous Stream
Contrast the short burst delivery of most pepper sprays with the “8-second continuous stream” advertised by Counter Assault, makers of the leading bear spray. That’s more than 1 ounce of bear spray per second. Compare that to the 0.1 or 0.2 ounces per second that common pepper spray delivers, and you begin to see just how big the difference between the two really is.
This is because you need a lot of volume and a continuous stream to use bear spray effectively and get some spray right in the bear’s eyes and nose. A bear attack is a high-risk, fast-paced event, and even the best shooter in your troop might need a couple of seconds before they can use the bear spray effectively enough to end bear attacks before they turn deadly.
Putting it Together: Bear Spray is NOT Safe for Humans
So, not only are you going to be using a higher concentration of capsaicin, you are also going to be using a lot more of it, in a much more intense delivery method. All of that combined means that bear spray is only for bear attacks, not for use on people.
What Happens if You Get Sprayed With Bear Spray?
Does bear spray work on humans? Absolutely. If you get hit with a dose of bear spray, you’re in for it. Instead of mild burning in your eyes, nose, and throat, you will probably feel like you’re about to die. I’ve never been sprayed, and I never plan to be, but I imagine the key to making it through in okay condition is to concentrate on deep breathing and to call 911.
The burning sensation, temporary blindness, shallow breathing, and chest pain are all going to mean that you need immediate medical attention. Just look at the way similar sprays, sometimes called “counterprotester sprays” are used on people in high-intensity protests, riots, and, erm, semi-coups.
The way that bear spray affects humans is far more intense than the way pepper spray does, especially at close range. It’s unknown whether or not bear spray has caused any human deaths, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I woke up to that headline one day, followed by a warning statement from the ATF and National Park Service.
The question here isn’t whether or not bear spray works on humans, it’s whether or not it works too well. Only in the rarest of circumstances would bear spray be necessary compared to pepper spray. Think, like, being attacked by multiple people at the same time, each of whom have weapons. Almost nobody on earth today will ever have that experience – and even then, you’ve got to ask yourself why something like that is happening. Nope, for most people, pepper spray is perfect – and you can get more hardcore pepper sprays that have more volume but are still made for humans. There’s really no reason to use bear spray.
Is it Legal to Use Bear Spray on Humans?
Next, the legal question: if you use bear spray on another person (attacker, intruder, your college buddy, etc), are you committing a crime?
We mentioned earlier that the Environmental Protection Agency allows different levels of capsaicin for bear spray and pepper spray, and that bear sprays are 50% more potent. So, right off the bat, you’re more or less breaking rules by using bear spray on a person.
But, are there any laws on the books that put you in legal hot water if you use a bear spray for self-defense against a human being? I couldn’t find any nationwide laws that explicitly state that you can’t use bear spray, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get in trouble. There are laws in some places about unlawful use of mace, which would likely include bear repellant spray. For example, in Oregon, you can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
Generally, the same rules that discern between self defense and assault are going to apply to instances where someone uses bear spray on someone else. If you can prove it was self-defense, you will likely be fine; if you can’t, you may find yourself in hot water.
People have been arrested, charged, and tried for using bear spray on others
The legality of using pepper spray and bear spray is dependent on the situation. In an interview with NY1, St Johns law professor Elaine Chu said that when you use these sprays, “the circumstances of your use will then decide that line between lawfulness and unlawfulness, and you could be in trouble with criminal laws as well as civil laws”. Let’s take a look at a few real-life examples of people being arrested after using bear spray on other people.
A jury found a man not guilty for using bear spray on another person during a tussle in Montana in 2016, with all but one juror believing that the spray was not used as a weapon. If the jury had determined the man had used bear spray as a weapon, it would have earned the man a prison sentence.
It wasn’t for self-defense, but two men were arrested and charged by the FBI for using bear spray on an officer on an infamous January day in 2021. Sure, that was assault against a law enforcement officer, which carries a whole set of charges by itself. For reasons you probably understand, we’re not going to dive into that day here, but the point remains: if you use bear spray on a human, you can be arrested.
In May 2023, a man was arrested after using bear spray on four people in a car without warning. Even more recently, a man was arrested for using bear spray on someone at a public pool in Provo, Utah. Both of these arrests were attacks, not self-defense; if they had been self-defense, it wouldn’t have been such a clear-cut decision to arrest and charge these men.
As a final note, the EPA classifies bear spray as a pesticide, something it does not do for pepper spray. This fact means you are opening yourself up to legal troubles by spraying a powerful pesticide into someone’s face, which brings us to our next legal question: lawsuits.
Can I Be Sued For Using Bear Spray on Another Person?
In America, you can be sued for just about anything, especially if the person filing the lawsuit has enough money to throw around. So, let’s say you used bear mace on someone in an argument, as self-defense, or in an ill-advised attempt at TikTok fame. Are you now ruining your life by way of a lucrative lawsuit?
The short answer: yes. Using bear spray on a human being makes you liable for all sorts of damages, from hospital bills to loss of employment/income for the person, to emotional and mental damage.
It’s the same reason you want to avoid a fistfight: even if you aren’t technically committing a crime, the other person can still come after you. One woman sued a man who used bear spray on her in 2021. While I don’t know the outcome of that lawsuit, it is proof of one thing: lawsuits against people who use bear spray on humans are a thing.
On the other hand, though, if somebody uses bear spray on you – for instance, if you were the drunk idiot trying to fight or the victim of the TikTok video – you absolutely can sue.
Should I Spray My Friend With Bear Spray for Fun?
That’s gonna be a no. Spraying your friends with pepper spray when you are bored, drinking, or both is kind of a fun idea. It’s painful as hell for the recipient, but they recover after no more than an hour in most cases. That, and it makes for a pretty good Instagram story.
Bear spray, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. As discussed above, even a one-second burst of bear spray can unleash more concentrated capsaicin than an entire canister of everyday pepper spray. If you point a can of bear deterrent spray at a friend, you’d better be sure of two things:
- You’re okay losing that friend forever, because they probably won’t be coming to your Super Bowl party next year,
- And you got them to sign a liability waiver in front of witnesses.
Even if you’re sure of those two things, it’s still a bad idea to use bear spray on anything other than a large, wild animal that poses an immediate and severe threat.
What does the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee have to say about it? Simply this: you should consider bear spray in your hand to be the exact same as a gun. Treat it that way and you’ll avoid a mess!
The Final Verdict
Pepper spray doesn’t work on bears. Bear spray is unsafe and potentially dangerous for humans. If you want to avoid the litany of headaches that comes with using the wrong spray, it’s best to use only bear sprays on bears and only carry bear spray in bear country. It’s got no business being carried or used for self-defense against a human attacker.
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- Pat Reavy, KSL.com Posted – June 1. “Provo Rec Center Evacuated after Man Used Bear Spray on Swimmer, Police Say.” KSL.Com, 1 June 2023, www.ksl.com/article/50657698/provo-rec-center-evacuated-after-man-used-bear-spray-on-swimmer-police-say.
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