Beyond bear spray
When writing with broad strokes, problematic human-bear encounters can be divided into three types. Daylight visual encounters, where human and bear see each other before impact. Daylight surprise encounters, which lack more than instantaneous forewarning; and night encounters which for these purposes will mean a bear swatting at or invading a tent with either curious or predatory intent. The rare night hiking encounters would fall into category two. Presuming one wants some form of weaponized deterrent, each of these three scenarios must be taken into account.
There will be endless debate about firearms as bear defense, but discussions of caliber and suitability aside there is a finality to this solution which must be comforting. In scenario one the choice to place deterrent shots with a potentially lethal option held in reserve has many advantages, but any firearm comes up shorter for option two and especially three. Obviously a highly trained operator is essential.
Bear spray is the most popular option, and is tailored for situations two and three. In my mind this is a big advantage. Additionally, spray is cheap and requires little training. There is good cause for the US Forest and Park Services to push bear spray as aggressively as they do.
There is no major third option. Bear bangers are popular in Canada, and seem like a decent option for scenario one but quite useless otherwise. There have been discussions of flare guns as bear deterrents, which would seem to have few if any advantages over bear bangers with the disadvantage of creating a serious fire hazard.
In my mind, pepper spray is the way to go here. My problem is that the more I learn about spray, the less confident I become. The design of current canisters is cheap so it will end up in the hands of tourists, but this also means it can break or malfunction with relative ease. Which it does, with unpleasant results to whichever human happens to be carrying it. The safety is not safe enough, and easily ripped off by brush. The design itself it not an easy one to carry in a protected yet ready position. Bear spray is powered by aerosol, which has a shelf life and doesn’t work in the cold. It is sensitive to wind, and the canister is not reloadable.
In short, time is long past for a pro-model bear spray. I want something part way between the current iteration and a pistol, with a blast of capsicum powered by a modest gunpowder charge, and the ability to fire multiple shots without reloading. I want to be able to carry as much or as little “ammo” as I want for a given trip. This does not currently exist. The Mace Pepper Gun is close, but meant for humans and with a too narrow spray (which might be user mod-able). The Bond Cowboy Defender is small and lightish, and can fire .410 shotgun shells loaded with pepper charges, but I’ve yet to find any good information about range or dispersion.
I’ve heard too many stories of spray safeties pulled off in the brush, cans punctured against rocks, or malfunctions for no particular reason. I was loading up my pack to float Kishenehn Creek this summer and the head fell off the spray when I picked it up. Fortunately it did not go off, though I’m still not entirely sure why. Buildings in Glacier are evacuated multiple times every summer because people assume that something as cheap as bear spray must be a toy and not a weapon. While there may be a place for spray, to serve the casual visitor, it is time to give it the respect it deserves and produce it as a series tool.