The truth about bear spray — it’s not just for bears
Knowing how to use it and other FAQs answered
Did you know that bear spray works as a deterrent for a lot of species, not just bears? Bear spray is a highly effective tool against all mammals and may be useful should you find yourself in a rare, but possible, unsafe wildlife encounter. We sometimes wish it was called “Wildlife Spray” because it is not just for bears. Carrying bear spray can also help provide peace-of-mind for those who may be less comfortable venturing into nature — or even for those that live in areas where these animals may pass through.
See our FAQs below to learn more about why we encourage people to keep bear spray accessible when living in rural areas or recreating outdoors.
What is bear spray?
While some people refer to this as pepper spray, there is an important difference between bear spray and pepper spray. If you’re recreating in the outdoors, make sure the spray you are buying specifically says “bear spray” (it must contain oleoresin capsaicin content to be labeled bear spray).
Buy products that are clearly labeled for deterring attacks by bears. If in doubt, ask a salesperson specifically for bear spray.
Only buy bear spray that is registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA registration number is displayed on the front label of bear spray canisters.
When you use bear spray on wildlife, it will cause immediate inflammatory and irritating effects to the mouth, throat, nose, lungs, eyes, and ears of the animal that will cause it to retreat. The animal will recover in a couple hours.
How should I carry bear spray?
Where you carry your bear spray is crucial and companies sell numerous styles of holsters that allow you to quickly access your can. You should wear it in a place that is readily accessible and comfortable for you: on your hip, in a chest or waistband holster, or an outer winter coat pocket. Never place bear spray inside your backpack or a place that will take time to get to it. Its also not good practice to clip it to your backpack because you may take the pack off and put it down. If you are in a group, each person should have their own personal can, that way everyone is prepared.
How do I use bear spray?
It is important that you practice using bear spray so that you are comfortable using the spray, know the range of the spray, and how know to avoid spraying yourself. Manufacturers of bear spray sell pressurized inert cans that are great to practice with. Be sure to realize how bear spray is affected by the wind. Do not use your actual bear spray to practice, it reduces the effectiveness of the spray.
There are two sizes of bear spray typically available: an 8 and 10-ounce canister. A 10-ounce canister is typically enough to deter any large animal. We recommend buying the larger on because this canister will administer approximately 8–10 seconds of spray.
When removing the safety clip, be sure to place your thumb in front of the curled lip and then pull back. Hold the canister firmly when you deploy the spray.
Remember, you do not have to be completely precise when aiming your bear spray, just direct it slightly downward of the face the approaching animal. For most mammals that would be below your waist, but for a moose and elk it’s above your chest. You should give a short 3–4 second burst of spray when an animal is within 20–30 feet of you, so that the cloud of spray stops them before they reach you. Don’t worry, the bear spray will not permanently harm the animal, but it will allow you enough time to leave the area.
Once you discharge your bear spray back away from the area. Don’t run but be sure to leave the area to get away from the spray and animal. If the animal continues to come toward you, continue yelling at the animal, and if it continues then discharge the spray again; 3–4 second burst.
Watch this short bear spray demonstration from our partners at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee:
What should I NOT do with bear spray?
Remember your first line of protection is to make noise while recreating outdoors. When you encounter a large animal make sure it knows you are there. Make noise, stand tall, and yell out to the animal. Just following these tips can help minimize the risk that you’ll need bear spray at all. Without running, start to back away slowly and move away from the area — bear spray is a last resort.
Never intentionally approach wildlife or allow it to approach you because you think your bear spray will keep you safe. Avoid spraying a passive animal to try to get it to leave the area — you may cause it to charge. And, spraying a animal simply going about its business is not only unnecessary, but could be considered illegal wildlife harassment. Bear spray is only meant to be used on charging or attacking animals.
Do not use the bear spray around your campsite to deter animals — bear spray needs to be airborne to be effective. The canister has a propellent that allows it to discharge away from you.
Who can carry bear spray?
Unlike firearms, anyone can purchase and carry bear spray. The investment is usually $35 to $50. And, safety classes and permits are not required. Also, unlike firearms which need to be accurately fired, bear spray does not need to be accurate as the animal simply needs to pass through the cloud of spray.
What animals will bear spray work against?
Bear spray will work against almost all mammals including bear, cougar, bobcat, coyote, wolf, moose, elk, goat, sheep, and deer. And yet, the most likely scenario for needing bear spray is in the event you encounter an aggressive domestic dog.
Where do I store my bear spray when not using it or when in my vehicle?
When not in use, store bear spray with your hiking gear, like in a garage, or any other cool, dark place. Avoid leaving your bear spray in a vehicle, especially during the summer. The heat in the vehicle can cause the bear spray canister to explode.
Where can I get bear spray?
Most outdoor retailers sell bear spray or it can be ordered (but not returned) online. Make sure it says “bear spray” (with capsaicin content) and not pepper spray.
Can I fly with bear spray?
Bear spray is not allowed on-board planes, whether in carry-on or checked luggage, so plan to buy it at your destination if your trip involves outdoor activities and adventures.
Spokane International Airport provides bear spray taken from travelers to WDFW. Those canisters are given to members of the public who attend WDFW-hosted “Bear Aware” seminars or other education opportunities.
Where can I get more information about what to do if I encounter wildlife?
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a series of Living with Wildlife pages. You can also call a biologist in your region to understand more about coexisting with wildlife.