Bear spray is an important piece of wilderness equipment. I’ve carried it in black bear, grizzly bear and polar bear country and it’s always added to my peace of mind; after all, 20 years of research suggests that it’s more effective than a gun at deterring aggressive bears).
But any tool badly used can create more problems than it solves.
Here are 5 very common mistakes people make carrying bear spray…
Bear Spray Mistake 1: Lack of Accessibility
Your bear spray needs to be accessible. Preferably in a holster on your belt or on the side of your backpack, and typically on the same side as your dominant hand.
Bear spray buried in the bottom of your pack does you no good. At the bottom of your pack you’re not going to be able get it out in time, and if you’re fumbling for it the odds of an accidental discharge go through the roof.
Get an elastic fabric bear spray holster (usually $10 to $15 at any outdoor gear store). Then make sure that it’s on the same hip everytime so that you can draw it without looking.
Bear Spray Mistake 2: Spraying Yourself
Accidentally spraying yourself is big problem.
I know people who’ve accidentally dislodged the safety clip and then sprayed themselves in their tent while setting down for the night. Not only were they wheezing, coughing, and choking for quite some time but their tent and all their sleeping gear was completely unuseable. This brought a swift end to the trip.
I know people who’ve done a test discharge but didn’t realise they were firing it into a gentle breeze. The spray went out very impressively, then an orange mist slowly floated back towards them.
And I was working in the Yukon the summer that a bunch of confused French tourists thought that bear spray worked the same way as mosquito spray; they were hiking in Kluane National Park, saw a grizzly, and hosed themselves down with bear spray to ‘protect’ themselves. They were airlifted to hospital.
It can be difficult to keep track of which way the wind is blowing when you’re in a stressful situation, but you’ve got to do it.
A bear is menacing you from upwind is a very different situation from a bear menacing you from downwind…
Bear Spray Mistake 3: Ignoring Bear Safety
Bear spray has a strong track record, but it’s not perfect.
Carrying bear spray isn’t an excuse for throwing good bear safety out the window. Don’t cook in your tent, don’t wander through berry patches with your earbuds cranking music, do make make lots of noise when going through dense brush, and do keep an eye out for bear sign (prints, poop, dens, beds, and rubbing trees).
Bear spray is part of a good bear strategy but it’s not a complete bear strategy by itself!
Bear Spray Mistake 4: Expired Bear Spray
A can of bear spray will lose its effectiveness over time. Here’s why
The active ingredient in most bear sprays is a derivative of capsicum, an incredibly hot oily liquid. And that capsicum is dissolved in a small amount of a carrier liquid so that it’s ready to fire.
But 90% or more of that can is filled by a propellant called 1,1,1,2-Tetrafluoroethane. That sounds scary but it’s actually the same propellant used in asthma sprays. This propellant is a liquid when compressed, but when the lever of the bear spray is depressed it turns into a gas and comes shooting out of the can.
The trouble is that no matter how well sealed the can is the propellant slowly leaks out over time. And as the propellant disappears the volume of the spray coming out and the distance it travels gets smaller and smaller.
Most manufacturers say their spray will last for 3 to 4 years, but I wouldn’t trust that.
I’ve pushed down on the trigger of 3 year old bear spray and only had an anemic dribble come out of the nozzle and run down my hand.
That’s why I replace my own bear spray every 1 to 2 years, typically in the spring. Bear spray really isn’t that expensive, and the margin of safety that comes with knowing your bear safety device will actually work in an emergency is well worth it.
When I come home from the store with a new can I immediately use a Sharpie permanent marker or a labeller to put the date of purchase on the actual bottle. That way I don’t have to rely on my memory to figure out when a can has expired.
Another advantage of frequently rotating your bear spray is that you can then use expired cans for training (see the next point)
Bear Spray Mistake 5: Not Practising
In the martial arts learning a technique is only the first step. The vast majority of your training will actually be to make that technique be instinctive so that it’ll function under pressure.
Find a deserted place and use your old bear spray. Fire it off and see what the range of it is. Does it come out as a stream or a cloud? How many seconds of spray to do you have?
Nothing beats first hand experience. By regularly (and safely) firing off cans of bear spray you’ll develop a familiarity that’ll serve you well if you ever need to use it in a real situation to deter a snarling bear.