Going into bear country and looking for an alternative to bear spray? Here’s what you need to know about when it’s okay to use a bear spray alternative and what the best options are.
These are TERRIBLE Reasons Not to Bring Bear Spray
Before we get into bear spray alternatives, let’s address why you would want one an alterantive in the first place. In most cases, the “reasons” for not using bear spray are downright irresponsible.
Bear spray injures bears.
It is a myth that bear spray injures bears. While it does cause irritation to the bear’s mucus membranes, there is no lasting damage. On the flip side, bear spray is proven to deter attacks. A bear which attacks a human WILL be killed. Thus, by using bear spray, you are actually helping to keep bears safe. You also help keep other hikers safe by teaching bears to avoid encounters with humans so they don’t become habituated or problematic. (1)
Bear spray is too heavy.
You know what is heavy? Your dead or mauled body being carried out by rescue teams. Your life is not worth saving 8oz of weight from your pack.
It costs too much.
Yes, bear spray can be expensive. However, many parks let you rent canisters of bear spray for about $8 per day. And, even if you do have to buy it, I’m assuming your life is worth more than the $50 that a typical can of bear spray and holster costs.
This two-pack of bear spray from UDAP is affordable and also includes two holsters.
I’m carrying a firearm so I don’t need bear spray.
Studies have repeatedly found that bear spray is more effective than firearms at stopping bear attacks and injuries. In one study, people using firearms against bears suffered injury 50% of the time whereas those using bear spray were uninjured most of the time. Even when they were attacked, the attacks didn’t last as long and they sustained fewer injuries.
While there are certainly inconsistencies in the statistics, one thing is sure: it isn’t easy to shoot a charging bear with a firearm. Bears have a lot of muscle and fat, so a bullet isn’t guaranteed to stop them (it might just enrage them). You’ve got to aim for a tiny triangular area of its nose and eyes – a spot that even gun enthusiasts admit is hard to hit. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
Aren’t likely to see a bear.
If you follow proper bear avoidance techniques like making noise as you hike and storing food properly, it is very unlikely you will have a bear encounter. However, avoidance techniques are not a substitute for bear spray.
Think of bear spray as a self defense item. Hopefully you will never have to use it. But, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
Also remember that bear spray is effective against virtually all other mammals. I haven’t had dangerous bear encounters but I have definitely had numerous incidents with aggressive stray dogs while hiking and camping! (7)
Situations When a Bear Spray Alternatives Make Sense
Now that we’ve gone over the unacceptable reasons not to carry bear spray, here are some situations where it makes sense to use a bear spray alternative.
Bear spray is prohibited.
In some places (like Yosemite), bear spray is prohibited. Luckily, it is only prohibited in parks where there aren’t any grizzly bears and a small population of black bears. Regardless, it’s still a controversial rule because an encounter can occur even when someone is following all the bear safety protocols.
You can’t bring or buy bear spray where you are going.
You can’t bring bear spray on airplanes, even in checked luggage. Luckily, you can usually buy or rent bear spray at your destination. However, this isn’t always the case – especially abroad in less-developed countries. In Serbia, for example, there is absolutely nowhere to buy bear spray despite the fact that there are brown bears in some areas.
Best Bear Spray Alternatives
1. Pepper Spray
If you absolutely cannot get bear spray, then regular pepper spray could be used as an alternative. It’s easy to find abroad and is allowed in checked luggage.
Just don’t expect it to be as effective as bear spray.
The key difference is that bear spray emits a huge cloud of spray which is more likely to get in the animal’s face. By contrast, you’ve got to have very good aim (and control over your nerves) if you plan on hitting a charging bear with the tiny stream that comes out of human pepper spray.
Note that human pepper spray comes in various types based on spray pattern. Choose one that shoots out a fog or cone. Avoid the ones which shoot a stream or gel as these are less likely to get on the bear.
2. Wasp spray
If you absolutely can’t get bear spray, wasp spray may be a good alternative. It certainly would cause damage to the bear’s mucus membranes and thus theoretically should stop an attacking bear. The main issue is that wasp spray has a long but very narrow spray. Like with human pepper spray, it would require careful aim to get the bear in the face. There’s also basically no information about whether wasp spray is actually effective against bears.
Also bear in mind that wasp spray contains toxins. It could permanently blind a bear or destroy its nasal receptors – essentially killing the bear. One more reason to use bear spray instead of alternatives if it is available.
Electronic shock devices are sometimes used to teach habituated bears to stay away from human areas. Shock devices are also sometimes used in zoos to control bears. There is virtually no information about whether a taser would be effective against an attacking bear.
Despite this, the company that makes Taser recently designed specifically for wildlife like bears. The bear would have to be incredibly close for you to use the taser and you’d have to aim it correctly too. And, considering that the Wildlife Taser costs around $2,000, I’d rather find a way to get bear spray. (8, 9, 10, 11)
4. Homemade Bear Spray
In theory, you can make your own bear spray out of hot peppers. It’s actually pretty cheap and easy to make the liquid part of bear spray. However, the sprayer part is more problematic.
Most people who share DIY bear spray recipes recommend putting it in a water gun or a powerful squirt bottle. But these simply don’t shoot a large, powerful mist far enough to help during a bear attack.
Sure – a squirt gun can shoot far, but you’d have to aim perfectly into the bear’s eyes and nose (not easy when a bear is charging you). And the mist on squirt bottles rarely goes further than few feet in front of you. The bear would be on top of you by the time it hit the mist.
Further, as one hiker said here of homemade bear spray, “I wouldn’t want to rely on a spray bottle when it matters most. They break all the time on me at home during use in the garden and kitchen. I can only imagine how often they would break in the backcountry.”
5. Bear Repellents
Even though bear spray is often called a “bear repellent,” they are not used the same way. Bear repellents are meant to prevent a bear encounter completely (such as by ammonia or an electric fence around camp) or to scare a bear away if you do have an encounter (such as by sounding an air horn at the bear).
Bear repellents are not a substitute for bear spray. However, if you really can’t bring bear spray, then at least make sure you are using multiple repellent methods. Read this post about which bear repellents work and which don’t.
The Bottom Line?
Having a bear spray alternative is probably better than no bear spray at all. But I wouldn’t count on it when it matters most. If going to bear country, do the responsible thing: get bear spray, practice getting it quickly, and keep it somewhere accessible.