I’m afraid of bears. There are a lot of people who would thoroughly enjoy a far-off bear encounter, but I’m not one of those people. When I’m backpacking, I carry bear spray, because I am 0% interested in making either friends or enemies from that portion of the animal kingdom. Bear encounters are becoming more common, and they can be deadly – just a few weeks ago, a woman died near Yellowstone after a bear encounter.
If you’re going backpacking, hunting, or thru-hiking in bear country, you’d have be a bit foolish not to have bear spray on your side. That’s why I put together this guide to the best bear sprays – so that you’re able to find a bear spray that fits your needs, your budget, and your trip.
Let’s get started!
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What Makes a Bear Spray Great? 4 Things to Look For
How much should you spend on bear spray? And, how much does bear spray cost, anyway?
The average price you’ll pay for a can of bear spray at an outdoors store is about $40. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but you can expect to spend between $35 and $50 on bear spray at a sporting goods store or online . That’s what I’ve always had to pay in the past. Why talk about price? Well, because you might never use your bear spray. Ever.
I’ve carried bear spray with me several times and never even come close to using it. Granted, I don’t go quite as deep into the backcountry as some of you do (bad knees will keep you on established trails), but my point remains: bear spray is a tool you need to buy even if it’ll never be used.
You need to have bear spray, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend a ton of money on it. Because you may never use your bear spray for defense against bears or other animals, you don’t want to drop too much money! It’s an expensive piece of equipment you’ll only need in an emergency, so you should try to only spend what you have to on bear spray.
Going all-out on a bear spray purchase will usually leave you feeling like you wasted your money.
Bear spray comes in the form of a pressurized can, usually containing between 6 and 16 ounces of spray.
The larger the size, the longer you’ll be able to discharge the bear spray in case you actually do wind up face to face with a bear who wants to let you know what’s up. On the other hand, a larger bear spray size also means that you’re spending more money and adding more volume and weight to your pack.
My advice? If you:
- Know that you’ll be deep in bear country, away from the more tourist-friendly places where bear encounters are more likely, get a larger can of bear spray.
- Know that you’ll be at established campgrounds or on heavily-trafficked backpacking trails, get a small can of bear spray.
- Know that you won’t be on the trail for more than a half day or are staying close-ish civilization, you probably don’t need bear spray at all.
3. Spraying Time
Most bear sprays can discharge a stream of highly concentrated pepper for 5 seconds or more. 5-10 seconds is, in most scenarios, more than enough to deter a bear and get to a safer spot
Large cans of bear spray, such as the 10..2-ounce version of Counter Assault Bear Spray, can discharge for up to 7 seconds. That means you can give a brown or grizzly bear a full dose of bear spray 3 full times before you’re out of luck.
Another benefit of longer spraying time? You don’t have to be very accurate – you can just spray and pray, literally, and eventually get the bear in the face. That’s probably the biggest reason why I will always choose bear spray over a firearm (legal restrictions aside) – I’m not relying on myself to stay cool under pressure and make an accurate shot.
You don’t have to be a sharpshooter to survive a bear encounter if you’ve bear spray – you can literally be the worst shot in the world and still make it out okay.
4. Spraying Distance
Another important factor in your bear spray purchase? Spraying distance. This one is obvious: you don’t want to be spraying a bear from 5 feet away when you could be 40 feet away. For me, this is probably the most important aspect of a bear spray:
How far away can I be from the bear and still defend myself?
The farther away you can be, the better you are able to stay safe, the better the bear spray.
While all bear sprays will work from at least 15 feet away (I’ve never come across one that doesn’t, not even close), it’s best to aim for a spraying range of 30 feet or more.
Does Bear Spray expire? Shelf life, explained
Most products, if you let them sit for long enough, won’t work as well as they might have (if they work at all). The same is true for bear spray; it has a shelf life of about 4 years, after which the propellent may not work, drastically reducing spray distance. The potency of bear spray – how well the capsaicin in the spray does its job – never changes.
1. Our Favorite Bear Spray: Counter Assault Bear Spray (8.1 Ounce) With Holster
Buy it on REI.com (holster sold separately)
- Sprays effectively from up to 32 feet away
- 7 seconds of spray time
- Proven effective in 98% of bear encounters according to the manufacturer
- The top-selling maker of bear spray in North America
Why it’s our #1 Bear Spray:
Counter Assault is, for my money, the best bear spray around. It’s simple, consistent, and proven effective. Sure, most bear sprays are going to have roughly the same level of effectiveness. But, when you’re going deep into bear country, would you feel better with the spray that is field-proven, or the one that should work, but you don’t actually know?
I’ve never had to use bear spray personally, but there are tons of videos out there – both of people sharing their story of using Counter Assault and actually using it on camera. It’s a great product that, while it may not be as groundbreaking as the iPhone or power steering, has still saved a fair number of lives.
But, at the end of the day, 99.8% of bear spray cans will never be used. Because dangerous bear encounters are so rare, even among hardcore campers and backpackers, carrying bear spray is mostly about feeling safe. It can feel like a safety blanket – it helps you feel secure, even though it isn’t doing anything (until you need it, that is).
Personal take: Counter Assault is my top choice for bear spray, because I can trust it. Every time I head into the backcountry, I’m carrying Counter Assault – whether I buy it or rent it, it’s the brand I trust. On a recent backpacking trip to Grand Teton National Park, there was a bear in my campsite, and you better believe my hands were on my can of Counter Assault the entire time!
Pros and Cons
- Long spraying distance
- Most popular bear spray brand
- Comes with a holster for easy access
- Easy to “arm” and “disarm”
- Firmly on the expensive side (bear spray + holster retails for $50-$60)
- Hard to return because you have to destroy the packaging to open it
- 8.1-ounce size isn’t quite enough to help some people feel safe
2. Counter Assault, 10.2 Ounce
What Makes it Stand Out:
It’s Counter Assault Bear Spray, but bigger. You get a longer spray time and 8 feet more range – 8 seconds and 40 feet, respectively. Sure, you have to pay more money, but that’s just unit prices; you have to do the same for 10.2 ounces of carrots vs 8.1 as well.
That’s about it! I chose to include it on the list separately because it’s bigger and more expensive than the standard 8.1 ounce size. If you’re a more serious hunter, backpacker, or you live in an area where bear encounters are more common, you might be interested in another 2.1 ounces of bear safety.
Pros and Cons:
- Just a bigger version of the #1 bear spray around
- Longer spray time, about 8 full seconds
- 40 foot range, best in the market
- More expensive
- Overkill for people who just want to feel safe, knowing they’ll likely never use it
3. Udap Bear Spray, 7.9 Ounce
What Makes it Stand Out:
It’s peace of mind in a can. This is the smallest bear spray on my list, in terms of volume, spray time, and range. It’s not a closed fist like Counter Assault, more like heavy slap. It’s a bit more restrained, but it’s still powerful enough to send any bear a painfully clear message.
Who is this bear spray for? Anyone, really. If you’re hiking, camping, or hunting and want a little bit of reassurance, Udap’s 7.9 ounce bear spray is an affordable and effective choice. I’m sticking with Counter Assault because I’m too afraid of bears to switch brands, but if you’re less of a worry-wart than me, Udap is perfect for you!
Pros and Cons:
- Affordable and effective
- Several holster color options available
- Created by someone who survived a bear attack
- Shorter range than Counter Assault, only sprays around 30 feet
- Less “proven” than other bear spray brands
4. Sabre Frontiersman Bear Spray with Holster, 9.2 Ounce
What Makes it Stand Out:
Sabre Frontiersman is a name I first recognized from their Bear Bells and Bear Horns, but this bear spray has a lot to like. First of all, the price – it’s about 20% cheaper than Counter Assault, and it’s pretty much the same product, just 1.1 ounces larger.
You’ll get about 35 feet of range and a 5-second spraying time. That’s right – even though it’s a larger size, you get less spraying time than you do with Counter Assault. Before you go thinking that’s a bad thing, though, you should know the best thing about this bear spray: it unleashes a lot more spray per second than other bear sprays, including Counter Assault. While you might lose 2-3 seconds of spray time, you are packing a much more powerful punch.
Pros and Cons:
- Packs more spray into a one-second burst than other brands
- Cheaper than Counter Assault
- Comes with a holster that attaches to your belt or to an included chest strap
- Only five seconds of spray time
- Shelf life ranges from 2-4 years after date of purchase
5. Mace Brand Guard Alaska Bear Spray
What Makes it Stand Out:
Guard Alaska bear spray, like Counter Assault, is certified by the EPA to be both effective against all bears, and safe for the environment. I’m putting it last on my list because, while it has a good reputation, it’s got the lowest range (15-20 feet) and capsaicin levels of any bear spray I looked at.
Every other bear spray on the list has a 2% concentration of capsaicin, the highest level the law allows – Guard Alaska has a 1.34% concentration. Will that matter in a real life situation? Probably not, but if you can get a 2% concentration for the same price with another brand, why not just go for the heavy firepower?
One thing that Guard Alaska does have going for it? Spray time – you get a full 9 seconds of spray from one 9-ounce can, more than any of the “standard” sized bear sprays on my list. That alone makes it worthy of inclusion. It’s perfect for the poor shot!
Pros and Cons:
- 9 Seconds of spray time
- EPA certified
- From the trusted Mace brand
- Short spraying distance, only 20 feet
- Lower capsaicin levels than other bear sprays
Runner Up: Counter Assault Bear Spray with Inert Training Spray
Buy it from Sportsman’s Warehouse
What makes it stand out:
The actual bear spray you get with this one is the exact same as our #1 bear spray – it just comes with something else: an inert training canister that you can use to practice. While this is a more expensive option, it’s certainly worth it for people who want to be double damn sure that they know how to use their bear spray to get out of a tricky situation.
The inert training training spray is the exact same on the outside – an 8.1 ounce canister with the same trigger and safety mechanisms. However, instead of being filled with bear spray, the inert canister does not have the active ingredient in bear spray (capsaicin). That means you can use it to practice without any worries of getting it on yourself or anybody else. Heck, you can even spray your friends with it as practice, and they’ll be just fine – but I’d get their permission first.
Pros and Cons:
- 8.1 ounce can of the best bear spray on the market, with a holster.
- Inert training can lets you practice using bear spray with no harmful effects
- Great for first-time purchasers or those who want to be extra sure
- Most expensive item on our list
- Bear spray is relatively fool-proof, you may not need to train
Backpacking stories: How a close encounter helped me get over my fear of bears
Yep! If it’ll stop a bear, it’ll stop a mountain lion. That said, mountain lions are a lot smaller, quicker, and harder to hit than bears. They’re also stealthier, so you might want to bring a bell or another deterrent to encourage mountain lions to stay away rather than rely solely on sprays.
Not really. It’s a definite “no” when packed a carry-on, and while you might be able to get it through in a checked bag because it isn’t technically illegal, you are at the mercy of both TSA agents and customs and you may find your bear spray missing when you pick up your suitcase. Personally, I prefer to just buy the bear spray when I arrive at my destination.
It’s super safe, for these reasons:
One, it doesn’t rely on user accuracy or aim – instead, you just point and spray.
Two, bears hate the stuff – even the angriest or most threatened bear has no interest in berathing in concentrated pepper.
Three, it’s easy to use – all you need to do is arm It and press a button.
If you’re finding bear spray at retail less than $25, I’d be a bit skeptical. I’ve bought it cheap, but only because of sales and discounts. Most bear sprays cost $40-$50, depending on size. It’s an expensive but necessary part of your backpacking equipment loadout. If you do buy a cheap bear spray, make sure it has the following:
1. Spray time of at least 5 seconds
2. Range of at least 20 feet, preferably 30+
3. Capsaicin levels of at least 1.3%, preferably 2%
A study conducted by the Journal of Wildlife Management found that bear spray was effective at repelling 92% of bears. That’s some serious assurance – more than guns, which rely entirely on the user’s aim. On top of that, guns are prohibited in many areas where you may run into a bear; bear spray is pretty much always your best choice, unless you happen to be a crack shot. I’m not, so Counter Assault it is!
Better not. Bear spray is dangerous for humans, and you can be arrested or sued if you use it on someone other than a bear! Sure, if you need to bear spray someone to save a life – either your own or someone else’s – go a head. I’m just saying it’s a really bad idea in almost any other circumstance.
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Every piece of gear we test is evaluated to determine how much it can add to or reduce the quality of a backpacking, camping, or hiking trip. We test products by using them in the intended manner, and rate on different factors depending on the type of product. We only review products that we actually own or have expertise using, and we create a separate rating system for each type of product to ensure that our reviews are consistent and fair. Learn about how we test.
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