Bear spray or guns for protection?

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Personal protection against bears – guns or bear spray?

By Carley Fairbrother

I spent seven years as a backcountry ranger in northern British Columbia, and one of the questions I got asked the most was, “do you carry a gun out there?” They seemed genuinely concerned when I told them that I usually just carried bear spray.

To many folks in the north, and I’m sure wherever gun culture is prevalent, bear spray is seen as something a gimmick. I can understand that. I have been approached by an angry grizzly, and let me tell you, that can of bear spray made me feel a little like I’d shown up to a formal ball in my Pjs.

Yet here I am, years later still traipsing around bear country without a gun. Here’s why.

bear spray 2Effectiveness of bear spray

This may be counterintuitive, but bear spray does work better at deterring bears than firearms. It’s nasty stuff, and when an animal with the sense of smell 100 times more powerful than a human’s gets a face-full of it, it’ll usually stop its charge immediately. Bears, particularly grizzlies, often continue their attack, even after a fatal shot. It’s not surprising then that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports that around 50% of people using firearms in a grizzly encounter still suffered injuries. Those using bear spray suffered from much fewer and less severe injuries.

A 2008 study by biologist Tom Smith looked at 600 bear encounters in Alaska. Bear spray proved 92% effective in the 72 cases that it was used. Four years later, Smith did another study in 2012 looking at bear encounters involving firearms. Depending on how you interpret the study, firearms were somewhere between 58% and 76% effective.

Speed and Ease of Use

bear spray 3Even a good marksman or markswoman will take at least a few seconds to unsling a gun, chamber a round, aim, and fire. Even if you are in ready position with your gun, simply aiming is going to take longer than unholstering a can of bear spray. To make matters worse, a bad shot may just make a bear angrier. Add to that the panic that comes with being face-to-face with and angry apex predator, and I’d say your chances are a lot better with bear spray.

Weight

Carrying too much weight isn’t just unpleasant, it can be dangerous. If you are fatigued, you are going to be less aware of your surrounding, less likely to make noise, and slower to react in the event of a bear encounter.

A 12-gauge shotgun is going to weigh 6 or 7 lbs. Compare that to 8-11oz for a canister of bear and there is no contest. While a lighter gun may stand up against a black bear, a grizzly needs some serious power to bring it down.

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Unnecessary Killing

Just because a bear is angry at you doesn’t make it an evil creature that needs to die. Remember, you are in its home, and it’s usually just defending itself. Sometimes it’s only approaching out of curiosity, and spraying it will simply teach it that humans are best avoided.

That being said a predatory, habituated, or unusually aggressive bears should be reported to the appropriate authorities so they can take action if necessary.

Human Safety

No matter how safe you are with your firearm, it’s hard to predict what kind of bad decisions you’ll make if you are panicked. There are plenty of stories of people inadvertently shooting themselves or their partners while hurrying to get a shot at the bear.

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What about Wind and the Short Range?

In good conditions, bear spray should shoot at least 16 feet, but some brands will shoot further. This may seem uncomfortably close, but a bear further away will likely decide you aren’t worth the trouble before it actually attacks. You can also spray a bit earlier to make a cloud for the bear to run through.

In the Smith study, only five of the bear spray cases were affected by wind, and the spray still hit their target. You may get sprayed a little yourself, but it’s a small price to pay.

The Law

It’s now legal in many U.S. national parks to carry firearms, but the ruling is still subject to state laws. Here in Canada, it is illegal to carry firearms (with some exceptions for polar bears) in national parks. Oddly, it is also illegal to carry bear spray in Yosemite, so if you plan on hiking there, bring your bear sense.

Things to Note

Now I want to make a few points clear. Carrying any form of bear defence does not replace the need to use your bear sense. Always make noise while hiking, stay aware of your surroundings, avoid hiking alone, keep you camp free of food smell, and know what to do in a bear encounter to avoid an attack.

Also, no matter what you choose to carry, know how to use it. If you choose bear spray, practice unholstering your bear spray and removing the safety, and ALWAYS keep it somewhere where you can grab it. Should you have an expired canister, practice discharging it. If you choose a gun, make sure it’s going to be powerful enough and practice getting it ready and taking aim in a variety of situations.

Sources

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Bear Spray vs. Bullets: Which offers better protection? Living with Grizzlies http://www.bearsmart.com/docs/BearSprayVsBullets.pdf

Tom Smith et al. Efficacy of firearms for bear deterrence in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management. 76(5):1021-1102J. July 2012. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/326124/efficacy-of-firearms-for-bear-deterrence-in-alaska.pdf

Tom Smith, et al. Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management 72(3):640 – 645 · December 2008. http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/bear_cougar/bear/files/JWM_BearSprayAlaska.pdf

Video

Also, check out this video put together by Carley Fairbrother, together with a giveaway she is running this month:

 

 

Carley Fairbrother is the creator and host of the YouTube channel, The Last Grownup in the Woods, geared at getting adults outside and connecting with nature.

After a seven year career as a backcountry park ranger, she returned to school to get her Bachelor of Education and dedicate her life to helping kids get outside.

She loves to travel, but is most at home in the forests and mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

She enjoys hiking, climbing, canoeing, building forts, and eating bugs.

40 thoughts on “Bear spray or guns for protection?

  • March 22, 2019 at 11:01 am
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    I decided to go on a family vacation to friends in the city of Sheridan, Wyoming, and, on the advice of my friends, I wanted to see all the sights of the state. Just in case, before the trip, I ordered a spray and bells from bears.
    The day after arrival we started the tour. visited the canyon, hot springs of the Yellowstone volcano and much more. But we could not even imagine that Yellowstone Park could be a dangerous place for outdoor recreation. We stopped in the park to spend the night, tents, marshmallows on the fire. The next morning I woke up someone’s roar, coming out of the tent, I saw a huge bear scouring for food, I did not hesitate, climbed into the tent and took the spray from the bears, I was lucky, I managed to scare him away. Upon arrival home, I told my friends about this story to friends, half of them criticized me and said that “you better take a gun with you”.
    I do not know how they are, but I was pleased with my choice.
    What do you think? Better weapons or sprays against bears?

    Reply
  • May 24, 2017 at 10:46 am
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    I had to read this post after seeing the title – no killer bears down here in Australia, so the thought of carrying a gun on a hike is a bit alien to me! But we DO have 9 out of 10 of the world’s deadliest snakes and a number of other nasties. Now … I wonder would that bear spray work on crocodiles?!?!

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  • May 12, 2017 at 7:34 pm
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    I didn’t know that bears are so harmful! I’ve only seen them in a zoo and thought that they are nice creatures! Thanks for sharing the great insights through this post!

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    • May 13, 2017 at 5:16 am
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      They usually just run away from people, but they can attack if they are surprised or if they are defending cubs. Black bears have been known (on very rare occasions) to try to hunt people and grizzlies can get very defensive of their cubs or food cache.

      Reply
  • May 12, 2017 at 2:10 pm
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    Well I’ve never been a big fan of guns, so bear spray sounds like the perfect option for me! Good to know it’s out there.

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  • May 11, 2017 at 7:37 am
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    This is all very helpful info! I don’t know the next time I’ll be in a situation where I’ll need to worry about bears, but when I do, I’ll refer to this post! Thanks for sharing!

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  • May 11, 2017 at 2:22 am
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    Wow! To be honest, I’ve never thought about it. And now that I do, I couldn’t shoot at anyone, specially an innocent animal! Hopefully I’ll never have the need 🙂

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    • May 11, 2017 at 3:23 am
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      Exactly. If you only had a gun and facing and angry bear, you just might have to shoot it. Bear spray is painful, but won’t cause any long term damage. Happy camping 🙂

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  • May 11, 2017 at 12:42 am
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    I didn’t know it was illegal to carry bear spray in Yosemite National Park. It’s good to know that the bear spray is more effective for an animal with a more heightened sense of smell than ours. I’ve never carried a gun so if I encounter a grizzly I would prefer the spray.

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    • May 11, 2017 at 3:35 am
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      I only found out that fact about Yosemite when researching for this article. I almost always carry bear spray when I’m hiking, so it was pretty surprising to me. Bear spray is definitely the way to go if you aren’t used to carrying a gun.

      Reply
  • May 11, 2017 at 12:23 am
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    This is interesting. I have not experienced camping with a potential of a bear encounter. However, I like that you provided a thorough explanation about the advantages of using a bear spray rather than a gun. I’d feel more safe if someone is carrying a bear spray rather than a gun.

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  • May 10, 2017 at 6:16 pm
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    I think the most important part is knowing what you’re doing whether you’re using a gun or bear spray. Last thing you need is an accident and a bear attack.

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  • May 10, 2017 at 5:34 pm
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    We like to go camping and be outdoors with our friends. This is really good information about bears. Our group does carry guns, however I am going to suggest to them this bear spray. I never knew there was bear spray so this was informative for me.

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    • May 11, 2017 at 3:11 am
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      Definitely pick up a canister. Hopefully you’ll never have to use gun or spray, but if you do, you’ll be happy you had the extra protection. Happy camping!

      Reply
  • May 10, 2017 at 1:24 pm
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    I really feel you with the bear spray. Your narration clarified a lot of reasons why the bear spray is so much better in handling and more effective than the gun. A truly better solution!

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  • May 10, 2017 at 12:31 pm
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    Wow you go girl – great action pics! I’m a little bit of a naieve Aussie and never knew there was such a thing as bear spray! This is a great alternative to guns I say and the stats seem to back that up. Great post.
    Kristie – you.theworld.wandering

    Reply
  • May 10, 2017 at 10:38 am
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    This was a really interesting read. I’m an Australian and I lived in Banff for a year and I was terrified of encountering a bear on a hike. People say Australia is scary for the animals there but I think Bears, Wolves etc are way scarier haha.

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    • May 11, 2017 at 2:53 pm
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      I’ve done a bit of hiking in Australia, and I found myself more relieved that I didn’t have to hang my food in a tree than I was worried about snakes and spiders. Swimming did freak me out a little, though.

      Reply
  • May 10, 2017 at 5:19 am
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    This is an interesting article. I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as bear spray on the market. I agree with you in this. Far better that you stink because you get some blowback from the spray than to be mauled by a bear. I am curious as to the study you cite with the statistics though. I would want to know how it was done and how those numbers were determined.

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  • May 10, 2017 at 4:06 am
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    We have never been in such a situation and would never want to be in such a situation! The idea of hitting a bear with a gun makes me sad as the bear is only in his home.

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  • May 10, 2017 at 2:52 am
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    Goodness me. I hope i never have to use any of this advice; probably helps I’m not one for wondering around near any bears. Spray seems like an overall better idea. Hopefully these tips can help someone when it matters the most!

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    • May 11, 2017 at 5:03 am
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      Staying out of bear country is definitely the most effective way to avoid an attack 🙂 Happy Camping!

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  • May 9, 2017 at 8:05 pm
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    It is the first time I am hearing about bear spray and they do sound much better than a firearm. I usually don’t go hiking alone and here in India, it is less likely to see a bear. So I had never thought of it till now. I did hike a bit in Yosemite but I wasn’t alone and never thought of carrying the bear spray. I am not comfortable with firearms and this does seem so much better.

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    • May 11, 2017 at 4:44 am
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      I did some trekking in Nepal a few years ago and my husband and I are hopefully headed to Ladakh this summer. Bear spray there hasn’t even crossed my mind, which is odd since we always hike with it here. I wonder if it’s easy to get there, or if it’s legal.

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  • May 9, 2017 at 6:58 pm
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    I don’t agree with the killing of bears regardless of whether they attack or not. At least with sprays it deters them from attacking which can only be a positive x

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  • May 9, 2017 at 3:05 pm
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    We carry bear spray, but are usually not in back country areas to need it. We do need to understand that the humans are in the bears home. They aren’t mean, they are doing what is natural for them. I don’t want to hurt them, I just don’t want them to hurt me either. Thank you for the information so people unfamiliar can make educated decisions to not only keep themselves safe, but the wildlife as well. Safe & Happy Travels – Cheryl

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    • May 11, 2017 at 4:27 am
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      Thanks! Bear spray is such a great alternative. There are plenty of human and bear lives that have been saved thanks to bear spray. Happy camping!

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  • May 9, 2017 at 12:47 pm
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    Have never faced situations like these:). I learned few things about similar Laws in different part of the world. But here where I live it’s not at all allowed to carry either of these items…

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  • May 9, 2017 at 10:25 am
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    It does sound like spray is the better option. Good point that bears may not necessarily be aggressing, but simply protecting their homeland. We don’t have bears where I’m from, but if I were in the rural US I think I’d consider the spray.

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  • May 9, 2017 at 9:24 am
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    Crikey being from Ireland I’m not used to dealing with Bear attacks but of course its a fact of life in your part of the world. I think the idea of the Bear Spray is an ingenius one and I agree a lot faster to react with it then it would take to prepare a gun and fire.

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    • May 11, 2017 at 4:00 am
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      Agreed. It would take an extremely skilled (and calm) shooter to be able to get an accurate shot at a charging bear. Happy Camping!

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  • May 9, 2017 at 6:30 am
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    That’s quite scary having to face a powerful Grizzly bear! I’ve never knew there was a spray to counter a bear, which I think is much better than a gun.

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  • May 9, 2017 at 2:57 am
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    As an anti-gun person, I’m happy to read this. It’s not the bears’ fault that we’re invading their territory. That being said, it must have been terrifying to come face to face with an angry grizzly!

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    • May 11, 2017 at 3:51 am
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      It sure was, but I don’t think it really wanted a fight. It just wanted to say, “move along, humans, I don’t want you around.” In hindsight, I’m definitely happy I had spray and not a gun.

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  • May 9, 2017 at 2:05 am
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    Great tips! I like the spray idea so much more than the gun. More humane too! We don’t have bears where I live now (SoCal) but had a ton of them back in NJ where I’m from!

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    • May 11, 2017 at 3:55 am
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      Thanks! It’s nice not to have to worry about bears. Make sure you pick up a canister if you are headed into bear country. Happy camping!

      Reply

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