How To Use Bear Spray Properly to Survive a Bear Attack

practicing using bear spray

Whether you love to hike or can’t wait for hunting season, to enjoy the outdoors safely, you need to come prepared. In bear country, that means knowing how to use bear spray correctly.

A bear deterrent is one of the essential tools for protecting yourself against an attack. Learning what to do and what to avoid can save your life.

How Do You Use Bear Spray?

Treat a can of bear deterrent like a weapon to be used in self-defense.

First off, always keep your bear spray ready to go in a belt or chest holder in the woods. Don’t carry it in your pack. It would take too long to get it out in an emergency.

Bear deterrent can in a holster on man's hip
Bear spray in your pack won’t help. Wear it on your waist or chest.

If you must use it, follow these bear spray instructions:

1. Slip the canister out of your holster.

Man removing can of bear spray from belt holster2. Remove the safety clip.

Every can of bear deterrent has a safety clip covering the nozzle. Use your thumb to pull it up and away.

Removing safety clip from can of bear deterrent3. Spray from a distance.

Brown bears run at 35 mph (the same as horses), so you want to shoot from a distance to have time to react.

Man spraying bear spray from a distance
Most bear spray is rated for around 30 feet.

4. Aim slightly downward.

Spraying at a slight down angle helps keep the mist close to the ground. The wind will cause it to billow up in the bear’s path.

Spraying deterrent at a downward angle
Spray deterrent at a slight downward angle.

5. Don’t overthink it.

Bear spray is very forgiving. As long as you’re aiming in the general direction of the bear, there’s a good chance you’ll hit it even in high winds. Though if possible, try not to spray upwind. You might become the subject of the irritant more than the bear.

Man raising hand and yelling while spraying bear deterrent
Don’t forget to keep yelling and making yourself appear big while spraying!

6. Spray in short bursts at first.

You have about six seconds of continuous spray, but you don’t need to use it all at once. Try a short burst first to see where the cloud goes, adjust to the bear’s movements, and spray again.

Animation of man spraying bear deterrent
Spray in short bursts to maintain control and make it last as long as possible.

Recommended: Best Bear Sprays To Save Your Life (Reviewed & Tested)

How Close Do You Have To Be To Use Bear Spray?

Graphic showing 30 feet of distance between man and bear
Standard bear deterrent has a range of about 30 feet.

Brands of bear spray have different distance ratings. All bear deterrents should have a minimum effective range of 25 feet.

Many outdoor organizations recommend spraying anywhere from 30 feet to 60 feet away. The idea is to put the cloud in front of the bear while it’s still out of attack range.

What if you accidentally stumble upon a bear up close? If it becomes aggressive, don’t hesitate. Whip out your spray and aim at the bear’s face/frontal area.

Standing your ground and using a bear deterrent is always better than running.

How Do You Aim Bear Spray Correctly?

Looking over man's shoulder aiming bear spray
Thankfully, aiming does not have to be precise since it creates a cloud.

You want to make a large shield of irritating mist that bears would have to cross to reach you. While a bear is still approximately 50–60 feet away, spray a blast of the product in the bear’s direction.

If the bear keeps approaching, spray a longer burst, moving the nozzle slightly from side to side. This creates a wider cloud.

Do you prefer to learn by seeing? This bear mace video from Yellowstone National Park shows how to use bear spray and what the cloud should look like if you’re doing things right.

Practice Using Bear Deterrent Ahead of Time

Buy a few cans of inert bear spray made for practicing and go somewhere outdoors. You need to experience how wind direction affects the spray pattern.

  • Stand about 30 feet away from a fence post or rock and use it as a target.
  • Try to consistently get a cloud of spray to cover it.
  • Practice spraying with the wind, against the wind, and with a crosswind.
New can of inert training bear spray
I picked up this canister of inert training bear spray at Sportsman’s Warehouse for $15.

Part of practicing how to use bear spray is lifting the safety clip. Taking the canister out of its holster and getting it ready should feel natural in your hand. You want to have the muscle memory to whip it out in seconds in an emergency.

What Does Bear Spray Do?

The main ingredient of bear spray is oleoresin capsicum (OC), the same spicy oil used in pepper spray.

OC comes from cayenne peppers, and it produces an intense burning feeling when it gets into the eyes, nose, and respiratory system of bears. An aerosol propellent shoots the contents of the can a large distance.

When appropriately used, bear spray is effective approximately 90% of the time. In one study mentioned by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, out of 175 people that used bear spray, only 3 were injured, and none of them seriously.

Reaching for a can is a better idea than using a rifle (only effective about 65% of the time) against a charging bear!

How Does Bear Spray Work?

Big male brown bear forest in the background

Related: Largest Bear Ever and 8 Biggest Bear Species In the World

Bear spray can stop a bear in its tracks. The effect is similar to when riot police deploy tear gas to break up rioters. When bears come across the irritating mist, they feel burning pain.

Bear spray affects the animal’s ability to breathe and causes problems with its sense of smell. Often, it also blinds the bear for quite a while.

This causes a distraction and acts as a strong deterrent to an attack. Sometimes, the animal gives up pursuit immediately. Other times, it has trouble locating you. In either case, you can take advantage of the opportunity to put distance between yourself and the bear.

How Long Is Bear Mace Good For?

Bear deterrent label on canister showing expiration date
The expiration date can be found on the canister’s label.

Bear spray usually lasts around three or four years, but you’ll want to check the expiration date on your canister to be sure.

Never head into the wilderness with an expired can.

Do you really need to replace the old bear mace that hasn’t been used at all? Yes.

The aerosol propellant in the can stop working eventually. An expired can won’t provide the range you need, and it may not spray out at all.

Do’s and Don’ts

A can of inert bear spray laying next to a can of actual bear deterrent
Get an inert practice can along with your bear deterrent.

How do you use bear spray when you’re in a life-or-death situation?

Follow these tips to stay safe while you’re out hunting, hiking, exercising, or exploring in bear country:

Do handle bear deterrent carefully: The capsaicin in this spray is very strong, and it can affect humans just as much as bears. Getting it in your eyes can force your eyelids to shut reflexively, leaving you unable to see for up to 45 minutes.

Do keep bear spray close by: If you’re camping in the woods, your bear spray needs to be at arm’s length at all times. When you sleep, keep it in your tent. When you eat breakfast, have it close to the table.

Don’t apply it to your clothing: Bear mace doesn’t work like mosquito repellent. The smell won’t keep wild animals away from you or your camp. It’s only effective as a defensive measure when you’re under threat of attack.

Don’t use all of your spray at once: Use short bursts so you still have something saved in case a bear is getting in your face or more than one bear appears.

Don’t run away after using it: Put distance between yourself and the bear you sprayed, but never run. Walk away calmly, keeping your eyes on the bear and your surroundings. Running from bears can trigger their attack instinct. You’re also more likely to fall and hurt yourself because of the adrenaline rush.

Don’t leave canisters in a hot vehicle: Bear spray can explode if it hits 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A glove compartment on a hot day can easily reach that temperature. Keep cans away from campfires as well.

Don’t aim bear deterrent at people: The pressurized jet from the can travels at approximately 70 mph, enough to cause permanent eye damage if you’re close to someone.


Frontiersman bear spray

1. How Long Do the Effects of Bear Spray Last?

It takes an hour or two for the effects of bear mace to wear off for bears. You should leave the area right away, but there’s no need for you to run.

2. Can You Use Pepper Spray Instead of Bear Spray?

Never replace bear mace with pepper spray. Bear deterrent has a longer range and duration. It can contain almost double the amount of capsaicin as pepper spray, so it’s much stronger.

3. Does Bear Spray Attract Bears?

When you follow bear spray instructions, there’s no risk of attracting bears with deterrent sprays. If you spray the product on your clothing or around your campsite, though, bears may come to investigate. Many wild animals are naturally curious about strong odors.

4. Where Can You Buy Bear Deterrent?

On vacation, you can find high-quality bear spray at national park visitor centers and many local shops. You can also buy it at stores that focus on hunting and outdoor recreation. Superstores may carry it in the hunting section.

What about online? Only buy it from companies you trust.

Outdoor retailers like Sportsman’s Warehouse, Sportsman’s Guide, Cabela’s, or Bass Pro Shops are reliable options.

However, buying it from sellers on Amazon isn’t usually the best idea. You can’t see the expiration date on the cans and you don’t always have confidence in various sellers.

5. How Can You Pick the Right Type?

Look for an EPA-approved product that specifically says “bear spray” or “bear deterrent” on the label. At a minimum, it should have the following:

  • Net weight of 225 grams or 7.9 ounces
  • Range of 25 feet
  • Duration of six seconds
  • Ingredients containing oleoresin of capsicum
  • Capsaicin concentration of 1.4–1.8%

If you can afford a bear deterrent with more capsaicin, a longer range, and a longer duration, that’s even better. Some last nine seconds and travel 35–40 feet. Those extra three seconds could save your life.

Original photos by Harper Fly

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