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.

9 responses to “Beyond bear spray”

  1. I completely agree that a high quality and reliable capsaicin delivery system is needed on the market. I would like something with durable construction and a potent propellant. You could just carry a pepper ball gun. All my bear encounters have been of the type I and II varieties and although some of them have been at very close range, none of them of required anything more than respect and patience. In a high wind situation even the best spray could end up useless.

  2. A friend left a can of bear mace in the car during a summertime Moab trip. We left the car parked in the sun for the day, the car got hot, and the mace exploded.

    Came back to the car and had a horrible, burning mess all over. <—understatement

  3. I wonder if there would be any application for those Co2 Cartridges used in BB guns as a propellant that could be kept “fresh”. So basically, puncturing the cartridge would “load” the weapon and then a non pressurized container containing the spray could be tapped for delivery to said critter’s eyes or face. One could potentially replace the spent or aging cartridges as needed. Being oil based, I’m sure the capsaicin has a practically indefinite shelf life.

  4. I sprayed a black bear once at fairly close range, and it seemed fairly unimpressed. Perhaps I just sucked at it, but I think bear spray just adds more peace of mind than anything else.

  5. Something like the Mace Gun or the Pepperblaster. I’d like it to have some kind of charge that is not affected by temperature and can blast out fast enough that wind doesn’t affect it (or at least not as much). I’d also like it they designed it differently. I don’t like how I have to hold it by on finger through that little hole. I’d rather have something you grab with your fist, point and squeeze. This would put the focus on gross motor skills rather then fine motor skills which fly out the window in stressful situations.

  6. Disagree. There’s no product out there that is 100% effective in preventing a bear attack, but pepper spray has been proven to reduce:

    * the incidence of attacks
    * the severity of injuries for attacks that were not deterred
    * incidence of death

    Various references out there to back this up with data, as I am sure you are aware.. e.g. google Stephen Hererro. If you’re going to go the extra step of carrying a handgun to feel safe, well that is the biggest panacea of them all. Even a high powered rifle is not going to keep you safe. You choose to do solo trips in the back country; therefore you are choosing a certain level of risk. That’s the bottom line.

    Pepper spray can have the odd mishap but treat it with the respect it deserves. Would you leave a gun lying around in your car? No, you’d hide it in a case. Pepper spray should be kept in a cooler on a hot day. Would you climb with a handgun strapped to your waist, scraping against rocks while climbing? I hope not.

    I carry bear bangers from time to time. They are useful for the scenario of being stalked by a bear which won’t be deterred by shouting; they are one step better than the alternative of throwing rocks at a stalking bear or waiting for it to come into range to nuke it with you pepper spray. Bear bangers, from the anecdotal evidence i’ve read are only somewhat effective as occasionally bears return after being spooked. So best to have multiple bangers and bear spray and abandon your campsite if there is a marauding bear. Bangers are actually fairly dangerous. A young man in Alberta was killed by a friend who shot a banger at him at close range a couple of years ago in the town of Rocky Mountain House; it lodged in his body and he died.

  7. yah I misinterpreted your post, I saw the link to the cowboy defender and somehow thought you were advocating them as a deterrent, which you clearly are not. Feel free to delete my reply, it is not adding anything to this discussion. Never heard of shotgun shells loaded with pepper charges. Sounds terrible for the receiving end, that’s for sure. At least oil based spray washes off w/time

    1. You make good point so I’ll keep it. Above all more folks need to think more about this matter.

  8. Great post Dave.

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