Staying Safe In The Wild: Bear Spray vs. Pepper Spray

There has long been a debate between pepper spray and bear spray and which type to use in different attack situations.  Bear spray has proven effective countless of times in the wild, and many would-be victims of bears and other wildlife attacks owe their lives to the bear spray formula and dispersion device.

Pepper spray is also an effective weapon against would-be attacks. It has been used successfully in many human on human encounters, deterring muggers and attackers and making them think twice about who to attack.

But can bear spray be just as or more effective against potential human attackers? And could pepper spray actually turn away a bear, wildcat or canine-like predator? These are the types of questions we will explore in this article as we compare the formula, usage and efficacy of both bear spray and pepper spray as attack deterrents.

About Pepper Spray

Pepper spray has been used for decades as a deterrent, one that is used primarily on violent, attacking humans to subdue them.  Pepper spray is a chemical, non-lethal, self-defense weapon that is available for civilian use. In some places people must have a permit to own and use pepper spray, while in other places it can be bought over the counter and used by anyone.

The active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum — the same chemical in chili peppers that gives them their burning, stinging and irritating effects. When pepper spray is sprayed on the eyes and the face it causes a number of very unpleasant symptoms.  Among these are:

  • An intense burning pain.  The pain from having pepper spray in your eyes or on your skin will actually increase in intensity before it subsides.
  • Tearing.  Tearing of the eyes when sprayed by pepper spray can be very excessive.
  • Swelling.  The swelling from the effects of pepper spray is seen mostly on the eyelids.
  • Temporary blindness.  One of the reasons that pepper spray is such an effective weapon against attacks is that it causes temporary blindness, giving the victim time to run away and escape the situation.
  • Breathing difficulties.  Although most pepper spray victims claim they “cannot breathe,” after being sprayed, the formula merely causes breathing ‘difficulty.’

Another thing that makes pepper spray such an effective weapon is the duration of the effects.  These effects—explained above—can often last longer than 20 minutes or more. Pepper spray is so effective, in fact, that it is used by almost all police and some military units to subdue and incapacitate threats, both out in the field and in institutions like prisons and jails.

About Bear Spray

While bear spray is similar to pepper spray in the manner in which it works it is NOT the same thing.  Although both pepper spray and bear spray contain the same active ingredient — oleoresin capsicum—bear spray actually contains a much lower concentration of the formula.

A typical can of pepper spray, which is used for self defense and as a deterrent/weapon against attackers, will have an oleoresin capsicum (OC) concentration of about 10% or higher. A typical can of bear spray, on the other hand, has an oleoresin concentration of just 1 – 2 %, which is a substantial drop.

So why does pepper spray have a higher OC concentration than bear spray?  Given the size and potential threat of your typical bear, shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Logic may suggest this, but you have to remember that the goal of using bear spray is to scare off an attacking bear, and not to cause it to become incapacitated and incur serious pain. That’s why bear spray only requires a small amount of the active chemical — just enough to irritate the bear and cause it to back off.

An attacker bent on hurting someone or evading the police may not get the message when the OC concentration is only 1-2 percent, but a bear does, at least enough to scare it away in most cases.  In fact, according to many studies, “bear spray is a very effective weapon for reducing the number of bear attacks in national parks.”

Using Bear Spray in the Wild

If you ever find yourself in a position where you need to use bear spray, you better know HOW to use it, as this can save your life.  The first thing to keep in mind is that bear spray is only designed to be utilized when you encounter an aggressive bear that is charging towards you.  It is not designed to be sprayed on camping gear or clothes. In fact, the scent from the bear spray may actually attract a bear to your location, which can cause a lot of problems to say the least.

If you need to use bear spray against an angry, aggressive, charging bear, the following tips will be very helpful to keep in mind:

  • Keep your distance.  You should always try to keep as much distance between you and the bear as possible when using your spray.  If the bear continues toward you, continue spraying as you slowly back away.
  • Never turn your back.  You should keep your eyes on the bear the entire time and never turn your back.
  • Act quickly.  As soon as the bear comes within range of your bear spray—usually about 20 feet—act quickly and begin spraying.  Allowing the bear to get too close is never a good idea—for obvious reasons.
  • Aim carefully.  When aiming your bear spray, always shoot for the eyes and the nose of the creature, where it will irritate it the most.
  • Continue spraying until the bear turns.  It may take up to 6 or 7 seconds for the bear spray to begin affecting the bear.  This can seem like an eternity, but it’s crucial that you keep spraying.

One of the reasons bear spray has such a low concentration of OC is that it should only be used as a last resort.  If you choose to camp, hike, etc in the wilderness (AKA bear country), it is imperative that you remain vigilant of your surroundings.  While walking along trails, try to make as much noise as possible, such as shouting or singing. This will lower the chance that you will surprise a bear and thus reduce the risk of an attack.

Never go into bear country without your bear spray—it can potentially save your life.  Make certain that your bear spray is easily accessible (you can purchase a holster in which you carry your bear spray by your side).  Finally, take some time practicing with your bear spray in order to get accustomed to using it—although never practice by spraying on other people.  When you encounter a charging and aggressive bear, you will not have much time to fumble around, as bears are extremely fast. Always be ready for the worst and take steps to make sure you are prepared.

Should You Use Bear Spray for Self-Defense?

We have already spoken about why pepper spray should not be used on bears—because the higher concentration of pepper spray could injure the animal and/or cause it unnecessary pain and suffering.  But can you do the reverse? Can you use bear spray, which has a lower OC concentration, on other humans for self-defense?

Well, technically yes, but it is not something we would recommend—and for good reason.

Of course, using the less potent bear spray on a human during some type of attack will certainly cause some irritating effects like burning and stinging, but it simply does not “pack the same punch” as proper pepper spray that is specially designed for self defense.  While there have been some isolated stories in which a would-be thief was deterred through the use of bear spray, in most cases that was probably due to the surprise of the bear spray and not necessarily its usefulness in incapacitating the thief. A more determined or aggressive threat would almost certainly be able to fight through the bear spray effects and continue the threat—and would-be victims simply cannot take that chance.

Oddly, despite its lower OC concentration, bear spray tends to be more expensive than pepper spray.  It is also harder to carry with you at all times because of its size. Pepper spray is small, compact and easy to use, and much stronger, while also being easier to conceal.

Those serious about self defense should always choose standard pepper spray over bear spray.  However, before you decide to buy and use this self defense formula it is vital that you check the laws and regulations in your particular state and municipality when it comes to the legality of owning and using it.

Last Word

Both bear spray and pepper spray are very effective weapons against attacks, the former referring to bear attacks and the latter referring to self defense situations.  However, they are not the same thing. Using pepper spray against a bear may cause the animal undue pain and suffering without adding any more security. On the flip side, using bear spray against someone hell-bent on hurting you may not cause the incapacitation you need to successfully flee the situation or defend yourself.

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