When you’re prepping for your next overnight or multi-day backpacking trip, one thing that should be on your mind is how to safely deal with a bear encounter. Spending time in bear country is a great way to get far away from civilization, enjoy peace and quiet, and even enjoy seeing a majestic bear from far away. But, there’s a big difference between a peaceful bear in the distance and a charging bear right in front of you!
It’s no secret that bear spray is the best way to safely escape a potentially deadly encounter with a bear. Since bear spray is expensive and many people already own pepper spray, some people wonder if they can use pepper sprays with equal effectiveness. Unfortunately, pepper spray and bear spray aren’t exactly the same thing, and you should always carry bear spray- nothing else – in bear country!
Are Bear Spray and Pepper Spray the Same?
Both pepper spray and bear spray work using the same basic method and ingredients. However, pepper spray is designed for self-defense use against humans, whereas bear sprays are designed for use against much larger, wild animals. If you had nothing else on you, pepper spray might have some sort of effect on a bear. However, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking bear spray and pepper sprays are interchangeable.
Bear spray is bigger, more powerful, and designed to let you spray from a safe distance. Pepper spray is compact, and while it still packs a punch in terms of “spiciness”, it won’t have the volume, power, or distance to effectively deter a bear. The main differences between pepper spray and bear spray are the volume of the spray and the concentration of capsaicin; while most pepper sprays contain 1-1.4% capsaicin, bear sprays contain 2%, a far greater concentration.
What is Pepper Spray?
Pepper spray is made by putting a concentrated solution of pepper and water into a small aerosol can. When used, it has a range of about 10 feet. The pepper solution will last about 45 minutes, making it nearly impossible for the person who was sprayed to do anything except grimace in pain and wash their face.
Effective though it is, pepper spray is designed not to be deadly to humans. It can cause breathing problems for people with pre-existing conditions, but is not generally harmful enough to give anyone real problems. Most consumer pepper sprays are designed to be light, discreet, and effective at a close-medium distance. That’s very helpful in situations where you might need to ward off a human threat, but not great for bears.
What Peppers are Used for Pepper Spray?
The main ingredient used to make bear spray and pepper spray is the cayenne pepper. It has a high amount of capsaicin, the chemical substance that makes spicy foods, well, spicy. Capsaicin and related capsaicinoids are what give our favorite foods their heat, and they’re what gives pepper sprays their bite.
The process of making oleoresin capsicum (the more technical name for pepper spray) involves grinding the peppers into an extremely fine powder, and then extracting the capsaicin before creating the final, pressurized solution. It can be hard to nail down the exact ingredient list, but cayenne or other peppers that are very hot and cheaply produced are always ingredient number one.
What is Bear Spray?
Bear spray uses the same ingredients in a different package. Bear sprays resemble cans of household cleaner, with a squeeze-trigger nozzle on the top. Usually, you can find bear spray in sizes between 6 and 10 ounces; this gives you 10-12 seconds of spray time. Depending on the spray you choose, it is also effective from 15-30 feet away. That’s just enough distance to give you a chance to spray and get away.
When used correctly, bear spray is 98% effective at keeping you alive in a bear encounter. That’s better than firearms, and pretty much anything else you can carry.
The Difference Between Pepper Spray and Bear Spray
While they’ve got a lot in common, bear and pepper spray aren’t exactly the same. The reason for this is, obviously, that they have a different intended use. Let’s do some light digging into the ways that bear spray differs from pepper spray:
Pepper Spray vs Bear Spray: Capsaicin Levels
While it’s hard to know the exact amount of capsaicin in a can of bear or pepper spray, it is generally true that bear spray is a lot stronger than pepper spray. After all, stopping a charging bear is a lot different than fending off a very stupid or aggressive human! Bear sprays use stronger concentrations of pepper that will be enough to distract and annoy a bear for long enough that the user can calmly retreat.
The typical pepper spray uses a concentration of capsaicin between 1% and 1.4%. Bear sprays, on the other hand, use the maximum amount permitted by law: 2%. That means bear spray packs a punch that is between 50% and 100% more powerful than regular pepper sprays.
Pepper Spray vs Bear Spray: Spraying Distance/Pressure
Pepper spray is pressurized, but not high-powered. Most pepper sprays have a volume just less than an ounce and can spray up to 10 feet effectively. Bear spray, on the other hand, has more than six times as much spray and is much more pressurized. Its effective distance is about 30 feet, sometimes more. If we were to compare it to firearms, pepper spray is an effective but small handgun; bear spray is more like a shotgun.
Pepper Spray vs Bear Spray: What is Worse?
Neither bear spray nor pepper spray are fatal. If you use bear spray on a human, it’s not going to be pretty, but in most cases they will be fine. Someone with a pre-existing condition might be heavily affected by bear spray, but it isn’t lethal by itself. Bear spray is a far worse experience overall, because of the increased volume, concentration, and pressure that comes with it. Getting hit with consumer-level pepper spray is bad, but bear spray is like getting hit with pepper spray ten times all at once.
You should never use bear spray on a human being; it’s far too intense and can even put people in the hospital. It’s best to use each type of self-defense spray in the scenarios in which they’re intended. Bear spray for bears, mountain lions, and other wild animals; pepper spray for humans.
Bear Spray vs Pepper Spray: Which Should You Bring Backpacking?
If you’re heading into bear country on your next National Park or multi-day backpacking trip, bear spray should be on your hip at all times. Pepper sprays have their place, but that place is not the backcountry.
While having bear spray on hand is always a good idea, there are actually few scenarios in which it’s necessary. Unless the bear is charging, you should not feel as though you have to spray it. Many bears are curious or nervous, and their first response isn’t always to come at you. Most people who have bear encounters while backpacking or hiking are completely safe and never need to use the spray. You should always keep bear spray on hand, though- you just don’t need to always have your finger on the trigger!
Conclusion: Pepper and Bear Sprays
While it might be tempting to bring your normal self-defense spray on the trail rather than drop $40 on a bear-specific deterrent, it won’t be nearly as effective. If you’re heading into bear country, you should be properly equipped, and on your guard- but there’s no need to be afraid! Bear encounters are usually neutral, not dangerous or hostile, so you probably won’t ever use the spray. All in all, we hope you feel more prepared for your next backpacking trip, and we’re glad you stuck around to the end of the article!