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Does Pepper Spray Work On Bears?

Heading out into the wilderness is exciting, inspiring, and sometimes terrifying. While seeing a bear from a distance is a magical part of any hike, having one charge you is anything but. If you ever find yourself in this situation, you want to be prepared. The desire to be ready for a dangerous bear encounter, coupled with the fact that many people already own pepper spray for self-defense, has many people asking: does pepper spray work on bears?

Normal Pepper Spray: Does it Work on Bears?

Normal pepper spray for self-defense, though it is almost identical mixture-wise, is not a suitable bear deterrent. The types of pepper spray that people typically keep on a keychain or in a handbag cannot spray with the required volume or distance to effectively deter a charging bear. If you want to stay safe while backpacking, you should get a true bear spray.

does pepper spray work on bears

Is Bear Spray More Effective Than Normal Pepper Spray?

Bear spray and pepper spray have a lot in common. Both use capsaicin, an oil extracted from cayenne peppers, as their main ingredient. They’re both discharged in roughly the same way, and the effects of each spray last for the same amount of time- about 30 minutes.

The similarities, strong though they are, do not make bear spray and common pepper spray identical. Bear spray is sold in cans that have much higher volumes, spray with much more intensity, and have a longer range. You can spray a charging bear from up to 30 feet away. Normal pepper spray, on the other hand, is only effective at 10 feet or less- not enough space to safely deter a bear.

Black bear in a forest

Bear spray is much more effective than regular pepper spray- it’s been rated as 98% effective against charging bears. It discharges a large amount of spray, quickly, and doesn’t require you to have perfect aim- all things that you can’t say about pepper spray!

Why Do Bears Charge Humans?

Bears will only charge if they feel threatened or (much less likely) challenged. If a bear is startled by your presence, or you have inadvertently given off a menacing vibe, you may trigger an aggressive response. Outside of that, bears usually want nothing to do with you and would rather just go about their day.

Some bears can be curious, genuinely interested in who you are without any suspicion. If that’s the case, you don’t need to worry about them charging. Simply remain calm, try not to startle it, and back away slowly. Most bear encounters are completely neutral and safe- very few become dangerous.

How to Tell if a Bear is Curious or Dangerous

What’s the difference between a curious bear and an aggressive one? Body language and sounds. A bear that is about to charge may stamp its feet and yawn- these are warning signs to pay attention to. If the bear charges you, use your bear spray as fast as you can. It’s more effective than any other method of deterring the bear and has saved many lives.

You may also encounter a bear who engages in what’s called a “bluff charge”. If this happens, you’re not in grave danger, and you may not want to use bear spray. The bear is asserting itself and telling you to back off; it’s wise to respect it and listen. The signs of a bluff charge are: the bear will have its head up and ears forward, and try to make itself look big. It’s all about intimidation, not attack.

Better than learning how to interpret a bear’s mood is to never get close enough to a bear that it matters. If you talk, sing, or otherwise make noise, you can alert a bear to your presence while you’re still a long ways off- and they’ll usually keep their distance. When this happens, spotting a bear is a great photo opportunity and a cool memory- not a trail tragedy!

Backpackers walking through bear country


Pepper spray and bear spray are not the same. If you want to safely escape a dangerous bear encounter, you need to have bear spray at the ready. Have you ever had a bear encounter? Have any tips for other readers? Let us hear in the comments section below!

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