Travelling in bear country can be scary. When everyone is feeding you different do’s and don’ts of exploring in the wild, it can be daunting. But this beginners’ guide to bear spray and bear safety will give you bite size chunks of information that are easy to follow.
Let me start by saying, I am not a bear behaviour specialist or an expert in the bear spray field. But I do work in a shop that sells and rents bear spray. We give informative briefings on how to use the canister and I went on a bear safety hike that gave us everything we needed to know when walking in bear country.
Disclaimer: These bear photos are not mine. I have got them off Unsplash. I have seen a black and grizzly bear in Yellowstone but my phone from back then just shows a blurry dot.
How to know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly bear
While this may seem obvious, a bear at a fair distance away is hard to differentiate.
FUN FACT: The British Colombia bears are bigger than the Alberta bears. This is because BC bears have access to salmon, while the Alberta ones are mostly vegetarians (aside from the odd ground squirrel).
The grizzly bear has a profound shoulder hump whereas the black bear does not.
Grizzlies have a dish shaped face, smaller ears but larger claws than the black bear. A black bear has a flatter nose and straighter profile, bigger ears and smaller claws to climb more easily.
Do not rely on the colour of their coats to tell the difference, as some black bears aren’t always black. Black bears sometimes have cinnamon coats, patchy coats, brown coats with a patch on their chest.
If you are interested in learning more about the differences, check out Get Bear Smart website where the photo below is from.
What is bear spray?
Bear spray is an aerosol specifically designed for bears but can be used on angry elk too!
Bear spray is 8x stronger than pepper spray and comes in a pressurized canister.
It is a non-lethal bear deterrent made from chili oil. However, it does cause the bear irritation and inflammation in the mouth, nose, eyes and throat. This makes it hard for the bear to take deep breaths which it needs to support its charge.
If you do use your bear spray, please let Parks Canada know, as they need to assess the bear and make sure no damage has been caused to it.
Purchasing/Renting Bear Spray
Bear spray is classed as a weapon in Canada as it is 8x stronger than pepper spray. This means you have to sign a waiver to purchase it. The price is around $55. The waiver will have a little blurb outlining what you are signing for and will ask for your name, address and signature.
The waiver form will then be connected to the serial number on the bottom of the spray and will be your responsibility. If this bear spray is used with malicious intent on humans, you will be prosecuted as they will be able to trace the serial number back to you.
That is why it is so important, if you are leaving, to give your bear spray to the hotel, Parks Canada, or a visitor centre.
These establishments will wipe your name from the system and take on the responsibility. If you choose to give it to someone else, make sure they are trustworthy.
Most National Park towns will rent bear spray to you for around $10. This is a great idea if you are only planning to do one or two hikes. You will still need to sign to say you understand how to use it and that it is classed as a weapon.
Shops will usually give you a brief demonstration and give you some bear safety tips. If they do not offer, ask to hold and try the empty bear spray canister to familiarise yourself with how to deploy it.
How to avoid a negative encounter with a bear
The majority of bear encounters are positive ones. But it is best to stay alert and follow bear safety tips to avoid a negative encounter.
Here are some simple tips to keep you bear aware:
Being in nature is normally beautiful and tranquil, but in bear country, you do not want to be quiet. Make sure on your hikes you are chatting to people and making yourself known to what is around the corner. I suggest having music on, but be respectful of other hikers and turn the volume down when people are coming your way.
Sing bear related songs, which may seem a little “out there”, but you do not want to surprise a bear and cause a negative encounter. I always say “only care bears, no scare bears” when I am feeling very aware of the quietness.
If you are a solo hiker like me, make sure you have a podcast or music.
I always clap every 5 or so minutes, especially when I am going around a corner to alert nature that I am present.
Some people choose to wear bear bells. I personally do not advise, especially in cub season. We joke and call it the dinner bell. This is because the cubs get curious about the noise and go to investigate.
Then mumma bear will come up the rear and be very protective of her babies if she sees you as a potential threat.
Look behind you
Every 5 or so minutes, look behind you to check if nothing is coming up the rear. Like humans, bears sometimes want to take the easy route and may use the path to walk on. If you see a bear behind you and it is safe to do so, move off the path and let them pass.
Travel in groups of 4 or more
Parks Canada advises that you walk in groups of 4 or more. These numbers usually prevent serious bear encounters.
If you hike solo, make sure you are sticking to touristy hikes, you always carry bear spray, you make noise and you let someone know where you are going.
Stay on the trails
Do not wander off the marked path. These trails are put in place not only to avoid destroying plants and vegetation but for the safety of hikers. Shortcutting can lead to erosion and serious damage to the natural habitat.
Have bear spray accessible
If you are walking in bear country, no matter how touristy the trail is, always have your bear spray accessible. If your backpack has a water bottle holder, keep the spray in there. You can also get a holster that attaches to your belt. A small front bag or, if you feel more comfortable, hold it.
I use a mixture of tucking it into my leggings for easy access when a trail seems a little too quiet or in a front bag that’s open and only has bear spray in.
Make sure the bear spray is in date and not expired as it might not be as powerful.
Unfortunately, the bear will not wait for you to get the spray out of your backpack!
Follow the trail information
If a trail is closed due to bear activity, pick a different hike. There is a reason the National Parks close trails and it is to keep us safe.
Avoid dead animals
If you see a carcass on your hike, get as far away from it as possible! Even though bears are mostly vegetarians, they will take full advantage of a dead animal.
Look out for signs of bears in the area
Watch out for paw prints, fresh droppings and bear holes.
What to do when you come face to face with a bear
Bear spray is a last resort tool and shouldn’t be used willy nilly.
- Do not run, the bear will see this as a prey movement and will chase you. Unless you are Usain Bolt, I wouldn’t like your chances. Just continue walking back slowly.
- If the bear is following you, it might be because the path is easier than the dense woodland. If it is safe to do so, get off the path as far as you can go and let the bear walk past you. Do not turn your back on the bear.
- Also do not walk towards the bear.
- Do not look the bear directly in the eye as this is a threatening move and the bear might mistake this for a challenge.
- If the bear is on its hind legs, do not be scared. This is a movement of curiosity. The bear wants to know what is going on. When a bear shows you its tummy, it gives you direct access to its internal organs, and if you had a gun you could kill it. Therefore, it is not a threatening move. Although terrifying to see the sheer size of it.
- Let other hikers know you have seen a bear in the area and call the National Park to shut down the trail. If you are in the Alberta area, call Parks Canada. Banff dispatch number is 403.762.1470.
- If the bear is unaware of your presence, then do not attract attention to yourself. Back away quietly and try not to get its attention.
- If the bear knows you are there and is aware, then remain calm. Make yourself big and talk to the bear calmly but with a firm tone. This will let the bear know that you are a human and not a piece of prey. If you have children with you, pick them up.
- Do not drop your backpack as it can be a vital part of your protection.
- Try not to appear threatening. Keep talking to the bear and if it approaches, you stand your ground as scary as that is. Have your bear spray ready.
Assess the bears behavior
If the bear is starting to approach you, try and gauge why it is making this move.
If the bear is on all fours and is pawing at the ground, growling and ready to charge. It is time for bear spray.
Parks Canada gives this advice:
If the bear is being defensive, because it is startled, protecting its young or eating, then:
- Try to be non-threatening.
- Talk in a calm voice, a reassuring voice.
- When the bear stops moving towards you, start moving away slowly.
- If it keeps moving towards you and is getting too close, stand your ground, keep talking and let the bear know you mean no harm and use your bear spray.
Most bear encounters end in non injury or contact as you will have deployed the bear spray. This is why we create articles like these to make you aware and conscious of your decisions. We want to avoid these bear encounters.
As I will discuss in the next section, there are 8 seconds in a can, so use it in 2 second increments to give you the best chance of getting away unscathed.
If the bear is non defensive and has noticed you, then:
- Talk in a firm voice and let the bear know you are human.
- Move out of the bear’s path, if it is safe to do so. Make sure there is a lot of space between you and the bear.
- If it follows you (you should still be facing the bear), stop and stand your ground.
- Shout and act aggressively, make yourself big and that you aren’t scared.
- Try to intimidate the bear.
- If it approaches closely, use your bear spray.
How to tell a bluff charge
A bluff charge is made when a bear wants to scare/intimidate you. The bear will have its head and ears up and will bound up to you in big leaps, then stop suddenly veering off to the side.
Bluff charges are common. Do not run, just remain calm and let the bear know you are not a threat.
While it is hard to tell the difference, you should be able to gauge its mood by the position it is in.
How to use bear spray
Firstly, I need to state the obvious, because it is not obvious to everyone. BEAR SPRAY IS NOT LIKE MOSQUITO SPRAY!!! Please do not spray it on yourself or anyone as it is 8x stronger than pepper spray and can cause serious injury.
When using it, try and be aware of wind direction as you may get some come back at you.
There are around 8 seconds in a can. I highly recommend you use the spray in 2 second increments. Assess the bear’s reaction before spraying another 2 seconds.
You want to aim for the bear’s mouth and nose as this will have the most impact.
The bear spray will emit an orange cloud of chili oil that has a range of 20 to 30 feet.
Make sure your finger is through the hole and your other hand is holding the bear spray ready to aim.
With your thumb, take the safety off and click the button that will deploy the pressured gas.
Make sure if you spray a bear you let Parks Canada or the National Park you are in know. This will allow rangers to go and assess the bear and shut down the trail to other hikers.
Storing Bear Spray
Be aware of weather conditions. Do not leave your bear spray in a hot or cold car.
If the canister is left in extreme heat it can explode. And if you leave it in extreme cold, the pressure of the contents in the can could decrease, causing it to not spray properly.
Camping in Bear Country
If you are staying in a campsite that has facilities like bear lockers, make sure you use them to store your food.
If lockers are not provided, then store food in the car in sealed containers to stop the smell of food.
Do not cook directly next to your tent and try and eat pre-packaged/dried meals to avoid tasty smells.
Get rid of your garbage in one of the bear proof dumpsters.
Fact checks and resources
In summary, exploring bear country shouldn’t be scary, it should be enjoyable. And with this beginners’ guide to bear spray and bear safety, you now have the tools to go exploring whilst being vigilant and respecting your surroundings.
As always, Happy Exploring!