How to use bear spray

Grizzly Bear in Denali National Park. Credit: Daniel A Leifheit, NPS

Survival Skills


Knowing how to use bear spray is something every person who spends time in bear country should know; and is an often overlooked survival skill. Everyone talks about bear spray, but not many people actually know to properly use it. First off, what is bear spray? Bear spray is a non-lethal bear deterrent used to repel aggressive bears. The active ingredient is capsicum, which is an extremely strong irritant to the eyes, nose, mouth, throat and lungs of both grizzly and black bears. Note, that bear repellent capsicum is also harmful to other animals who happen to come in contact with it, including you. While no bear deterrent is 100% effective, studies show bear spray appears to be the most effective bear repellent. However, just because you have bear spray with you, that is not a license to throw common sense out the window. Remember your first line and best bear defense is avoiding them. However, if an attack is unavoidable follow these simple steps on how to use bear spray for your best chance to survive a bear attack.


Create a bear spray cloud


You don’t need to be an excellent shot. In fact, you want a cloud of bear spray between you and the charging bear. A charging bear is fear inducing, but with bear spray you don’t need to aim exactly!  

Practice using your bear deterrent


Practice! Don’t let your first time using bear spray be a life or death situation.  Practice firing INERT not LIVE bear spray in different situations. You want to have an idea of how the spray reacts to cross-winds, head winds and wind at your back.

Bear spray does not work if you can’t get to it


Keep it easily accessible! A grizzly bear can run roughly 35 miles per hour for a short distance. If your bear spray is in your pack…you might as well have left it at home.  Also, be sure to remove any safety clips before heading out into bear country.

Bears are fast! Start spraying early


Start spraying when a charging bear is roughly 30 to 60 feet away.

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Stand ground when using bear spray


When spraying the bear repellent hold the can firmly with both hands! Point the spray nozzle slightly downward and blast for a couple of seconds with a side to side motion. You want to spray slightly down so you don’t run the risk of allowing the bear to run underneath it.  The spray will bounce off the ground and still create a cloud.  Remember bear spray does not require precision, simply a cloud. If the aggressive bear continues to charge through the cloud, spray again. When spraying keep a poised stance, yell at the bear and do not take off your pack.  

Bear repellent is not permanent


Bear spray increases your chances of surviving a bear attack, remember bear spray is not permanent and it will wear off in time. After using the spray make sure to leave the area immediately.

Don’t accidentally spray yourself


If you have a strong head wind, keep in mind bear spray does the same thing to humans as it does to bears! It will incapacitate you. If you have a strong head wind it may be best to hold off on spraying and see if and when the bear actually makes contact (and try to position yourself so that the bear is downwind if you need to spray).

Accidental contamination


If you accidentally spray yourself, someone else or a pet with bear spray. It’s going to hurt! Try and stay calm. Avoid taking deep breaths!  You want to limit the amount inhaled. Wash all affected areas immediately with cool clean water! Remove any clothing with bear spray on it and seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Understand your bear spray limitations


Know the product!  Winds, rain, snow, freezing temperatures and age of the product all play a role in the effectiveness of bear spray. If it’s expired, properly dispose of it according to manufacturer's recommendations and replace. All bear spray manufacturers, such as Counter Assault, must register their product with the EPA, whose regulations state that all bear spray must have a minimum of 6 seconds of spray time and shoot a cloud at least 25 ft.