5 Best Bear Sprays for 2021 (And How to Use Them)

A guide to backpacking with bear spray repellents (mace), how to use, and best models.

by Kelly Hodgkins
July 05, 2018

At a Glance:

‣ Bear spray is an effective deterrent against a bear attacking you.

‣ In bear territory, always have bear spray within reach, not buried inside your pack.

‣ If a bear is charging at you or getting too close (30-60 feet away), spray downward in the path of the bear in 1-2 second bursts.

‣ When choosing bear spray, consider duration (4 seconds or more), reach (at least 25 feet), weight (at least 8 oz), and CRC level (close to 2%).

There are few things more rewarding than spotting a bear in the wild, as long as it's from afar. Although technically not aggressive animals, bears tend to be unpredictable when they feel threatened. That's why you don't want to find yourself too close to one, especially if the bear has cubs or is foraging for food. But if you do and the bear decides to attack, bear spray (aka bear mace) will act as an effective deterrent to protect yourself and your belongings.

In this guide, we will show you how to use bear spray effectively, step by step. We'll also explain how bear spray works, answer some common questions and review some of the best bear deterrents on the market, and share some tips to minimize your chances of encountering a bear while backpacking.

how to use bear spray effectively

How to Use Bear Spray?

STEP 1: Pullout canister and remove safety clip

You need to remove the canister from your holster, place your fingers in the loop and your thumb on the top-mounted trigger. Most bear spray cans include a safety tab, so you don't accidentally discharge the spray while hiking. Remove the safety clip. 

STEP 2: Aim slightly downward between you and the path of the bear

Hold spray canister firmly with both hands and aim directly between you and the potential path of the oncoming bear. Aim the slightly downward at about a 30 degree angle. You want to ensure the bear would have to go through the mist to reach you. Adjust your aim to account for any wind.

STEP 3: Spray in spurts of 1 to 2 seconds

Pull the trigger in 1 to 2 second bursts to discharge a cloud of pepper spray in the path of the bear. Walk backward slowly while continuing to spray until the bear changes direction. The sound of the spray and the fog of red pepper should deter the bear. However, if the bear continues to charge through the cloud of spray, then aim directly at the bear's face and spray a full blast until the bear ceases to attack.

*NOTE: You might only have 8 seconds of spray duration in your canister. Therefore, conserve your spray until absolutely necessary. 

how to use bear spray illustration

When to Use Bear Spray?

Scenario A: Bear is Near (30 - 60 feet)

Bear spray is not meant to scare away a bear in the distance. It is a last resort option when a bear is charging towards, or is very close to you. You should begin to spray a bear when it is approximately 30-60 feet (10-20 yards) away. This deters the bear before it can injure you and gives you the chance to spray again if the bear comes dangerously close.

Scenario B: Bear is Charging (within 20 feet) 

You should spray downward and ahead of the bear, so it has to run through the cloud of pepper spray. At closer ranges (under 20 feet), you should aim directly at the face and eyes. 

Scenario C: Bear is Attacking (on top of you)

When a bear is close enough to knock you down, continue to spray as much as you can until you have to curl up to protect yourself during an attack. Research has shown that spraying close-up will reduce the severity of an attack.

how to use counter assault bear spray© Connor Crosier

Safety Tips

On Using Bear Spray:

  • If you encounter a bear, stay calm. Do not run.

  • Ensure your nothing (straps, etc) is obstructing the "draw path" between your hand and canister. Keep it extremely handy and easily accessible while on trail.

  • You might get some of the spray on you, especially if there is a breeze. Again, stay calm and know that it is only temporary.

  • When using bear spray, be careful not to spray it immediately downwind, or you will find yourself surrounded by the irritating pepper cloud.

  • Secure the spray canister when you are not using it to prevent an accidental discharge. Do not leave it in a hot vehicle as it could explode.

  • Check the expiration date before leaving on a trip.

  • Do not test spray a canister near your camp. Rather than repel, the strong smell actually can attract a curious bear for up to 24 hours.

On Avoiding a Bear Attack:

  • Never get in between a momma bear and its cub. When in doubt, keep your distance and don't get too curious ;)

  • Hike in small groups and let bears know you are coming by singing or talking.

  • Cook and store food a minimum of 100 yards from where you sleep.

  • Never store food in or near your tent.

  • Be sure to bear bag or bear canister all food and scented items.

bear map population distribution usa

Top Canister Considerations

Spray Duration: 4 Seconds or More

This is the amount of time which you can continuously spray a blast. It determines how much deterrent you can spray at one time. Look for sprays that last at least 4 seconds or more. The longer spray duration will give you more room for error and could potentially save your life.

Spray Distance: 25 feet and up

Bear spray should spray in a cloud/cone pattern and have an absolute minimum range of 16 feet, 25 feet is preferred. The longer, the better. Some products can spray up to 35-feet giving you an additional distance to deter a bear.

Weight: At Least 7.9 ounces

This is one of the rare times we don't like to be stingy with ounces. We consider how much your canister weighs in relation to quantity of spray provided though. You'll need at least 7.9 ounces of spray to cover the amount and the distance you need.

Formula: A Up to 2% CRC concentration

The maximum bear spray strength allowed by the EPA is 2% capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC). The higher the CRC percentage, the stronger the spray.

Fast-to-Unlock and Shoot: Belt clips or chest holsters for quick access

Bears can run run up to 28 miles an hour. That's why bear spray has to be easily accessible  - it won't help you during an encounter if the canister is buried deep inside your backpack. Look for sprays that come with a fast-drawing belt clip or chest holster in case a bears pops up when you least expect it. If you aren't carrying trekking poles, you also could hold it in your hand.

Best Bear Spray for Hiking for 2021

Most of the pepper spray models share the same design with a forefinger loop and thumb operated trigger. Some have glow in the dark components to make them easy to find in dim light. What makes each brand different is the rate of spray, the time to empty a canister and the range over which the spray is effective.

Volume Duration Concentration Distance Holster Price
Frontiersman 7.9 oz. 5 sec. 2% 30 ft. Y $31
Guard Alaska 9 oz. 9 sec. 1.34% 20 ft. Y $34
Ruger 9 oz. 9 sec 1.34% 20 ft. N $32
Counter Assault 10 oz. 9.2 sec 2% 30 ft. Y $42
UDAP 7.9 oz. 4 sec. 2% 30 ft. Y $39

best bear spray frontiersman


Weight: 7.9 oz.

Spray Duration: 5 seconds

CPC Concentration: 2%

Range: 30 feet

Price: $33

Frontiersman is known for delivering a wicked blast of 2% pepper spray right
when you need it. The 7.9-ounce canister shoots up to 30 feet and empties its entire canister of spray in a quick 5 seconds. It has a glow in the dark trigger for nighttime use. It is made by Sabre, one of the top self-defense pepper spray brands. Can be purchased with belt or chest holster and a practice spray.

See on Walmart
best bear spray guard alaska


Weight: 9 oz.

Spray Duration: 9 seconds

CPC Concentration: 1.34%

Range: 20 feet

Price: $34

Guard Alaska is the only EPA-approved bear spray effective against all bear species. The 1.34% total capsaicinoid formula reaches up to 20-feet and can be fired in one big blast or nine short one-second bursts. It empties its 9 ounces in a steady cloud that lasts 9 seconds. It includes a holster.

See on Amazon
best bear spray tornado


Weight: 9 oz.

Spray Duration: 9 seconds

CPC Concentration: 1.34%

Range: 20 feet

Price: $32

Ruger (now Tornado) may not have the name recognition of the other big pepper spray manufacturers, but that doesn't mean it should be overlooked. The 1.34% formula sprays up to 20-feet and takes 9 seconds to empty the entire 9 ounces in the can. It does not include a holster.

See on Amazon
best bear spray counter assault


Weight: 10 oz.

Spray Duration: 9.2 seconds

CPC Concentration: 2%

Range: 30 feet

Price: $45

Counter Assault was the first bear spray to receive EPA-approval, and its experience in the industry shows. It has a range of up to 30-feet and sprays slower than the competitors, delivering a widely dispersed cloud of 2% spray. The 10-ounce canister lasts 9.2 seconds before emptying. The bear deterrent has a bright red can and glow-in-the-dark safety tie that makes it easy to find in all conditions.  It ships with a nylon holster with a belt loop.

See on REI
best bear spray udap


Weight: 7.9 oz.

Spray Duration: 4 seconds

CPC Concentration: 2%

Range: 30 feet

Price: $58

Similar to Frontiersman, the UDAP bear spray delivers a short, but powerful burst of 2% pepper spray when you fire. The 7.9 ounce can empties in 4 seconds so you can hit the bear hard once or twice before you run out. The UDAP ships with a camo hip holster.

See on Amazon

What Is Bear Spray? (FAQ)

Bear Mace vs Pepper Spray: What's the Difference?

Bear spray was developed in the early 1980s in response to a growing number of fatal encounters between people and bears.  A team of researchers from the University of Montana tested a variety of chemical, audible and physical deterrents on captive grizzlies. The team discovered that pepper spray for dogs was able to send a bear running away into the corner. This discovery led to the development of a pepper spray formulated explicitly for bears.

Because bear spray was adapted from pepper spray, they share the same active ingredients - Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) and Capsaicinoids (CRC), but at different concentrations. Bear spray contains 1 to 2% CRC, while pepper spray maxes out at only 1.33% CRC. In short, bear spray is roughly twice as strong as regular pepper spray, if not more.

Another significant difference between bear and self-defense spray is spray distance and spread. Bear spray shoots up to 35 feet, producing a giant cloud of pepper that the bear must run through during an attack. Self-defense pepper spray shoots a narrow 10 to 20 foot stream that is used in close quarters to target an attacker's face.

Does Bear Spray Work?

Bear spray is exceptionally effective against bears, even more so than firearms. A study in 2008 found that bear spray was 90 percent effective in deterring a black bear attack and 92 percent effective against a brown bear. When people used bear spray in an aggressive encounter, only 2 percent were injured, and their injuries were minor. Also, very effective at deterring other wild animals (mountain lions, for example). 

Potency and Active Ingredients

Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) is a naturally occurring oily extract from plants in the genus Capsicum which include the cayenne pepper. OC is potent stuff with a Scoville rating of 15-16 million in its undiluted form; a habanero pepper has a rating of 100-350K in comparison.

Oleoresin capsicum can be broken down into a variety of different capsaicinoids including capsaicin which is the most potent. The capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC) are essential when comparing the strength of a spray. Don't be confused by the OC concentration of a spray though; this value only measures the amount of raw pepper added to the spray liquid and not necessarily its potency. The strength of a spray is determined by the capsaicinoids (CRC) percentage which, as mentioned, is generally 0.18 to 1.33% for pepper spray and 1 to 2% for bear spray.

Is Bear Spray Required?

Bear spray is recommended in areas where bears are present, but unlike bear canisters, it is not required. Bear spray is strongly recommended in remote areas like Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. These parks often sell bear spray on the premises and even provide training classes. Not all parks allow bear spray. Yosemite National in California park bans bear spray because it is classified as a weapon. Check with each park before you head out as the rules and regulations can change each year.

Is Bear Spray Legal?

Bear spray is legal across the United States, even in states like New York and Massachusetts where self-defense pepper spray is restricted. Though legal, there may be some shipping restrictions when buying online. There is one significant prohibition with bear spray - it is not allowed on a plane. Not in your check bag, not in your carry-on luggage, not at all. If you are flying to your destination, plan on purchasing your spray when you arrive and shipping it back home. If you are traveling to a popular location, you also may be able to rent bear spray for the duration of your trip.

Bear Bells and Horns

Yell, talk loudly. Bear bells and horns are used to announce your presence and may scare away a lingering bear, but they won't help you during an attack. Some experts also believe a jingling bell may even attract a curious bear. Say whaaat?

Related: See Best Bear Canisters and Bear Scat Identification Guide.

Kelly Hodgkins photo

About Kelly Hodgkins

By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.

About Greenbelly

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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