Written by: Phil Monahan
This time of year, many anglers and wilderness lovers are planning trips into the backcountry, oftentimes in places where there are wild bears. In the vast majority of situations, humans and bears coexist peacefully in the wild, and tens of thousands of encounters occur without incident every year. But when bears do become aggressive, you’ve got to react quickly to protect yourself. The best way to do this is to carry a can of bear-deterrent, which sprays concentrated capsaicinoids—the stuff that makes hot peppers hot—to cause irritation in the bear’s eyes, nose, and throat.
Not sure if bear spray really works? In July 2010, famed zookeeper Jack Hanna effectively used pepper spray to drive off a young male grizzly that threatened Hanna and several others huddled on a narrow ledge in Glacier National Park. That same weekend, pepper spray was used by two other hiking parties, a Student Conservation Corps worker, and a park ranger. In all cases, which involved both grizzlies and black bears, the spray proved to be 100% effective, and no one was injured.
"I’ve always used pepper spray,” Hanna told a reporter at the time. “You don’t need it for years, but when you need it you really need it.”
Spray vs. Guns
When most people think of protection from bears, they think gun…big gun. In fact, I carried a Winchester Model 1300 throughout my career as a guide in Alaska. But relying on a gun poses several problems, not the least of which is that it is quite difficult to fire accurately at an animal that is charging you—especially if the encounter happens quickly and unexpectedly, as it usually does. Unless the user is extremely proficient with a firearm, he risks wounding the bear, which might make it more aggressive. Plus, guns are heavy and unwieldy, which makes them unsuitable for many hiking trips.
But there’s an even more compelling reason to use bear spray: it works better. According to a 2008 study co-authored by Dr. Stephen Herrero—whose Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance (1985) is the definitive book on the subject—bear spray is considerably more effective than a gun when it comes to deterring bear attacks. The researchers studied the use of bear spray in Alaska over a 20-year period and found that the spray stopped “undesirable” behavior an impressive 94% of the time with grizzlies and 100% with black bears.