Some Basic Facts to Know Note: Bear pepper spray is no substitute for appropriate conduct in bear country. It should only be relied on as a last resort and if you are typical of the vast majority of outdoor enthusiasts, you will never need to rely on it to resolve a bear-human encounter. What is in a typical canister of pepper spray? A: All bear pepper sprays have in common the following 3 components: 1) oleoresin capsicum (OC for short; the oily residue extracted from hot red peppers that naturally contains the active ingredient - capsaicin - that elicits an intense burning sensation), 2) a carrier, or base, fluid into which the oleoresin capsicum is mixed to thin and dilute it, and 3) a propellant that supplies the energy to expel the carrier and active ingredients from the can. What exactly is the ?oleoresin capsicum? we see listed on the cans of pepper spray? A: Before proceeding, a short vocabulary lesson is in order. Capsicum is the Latin word for pepper and is the genus-level designation for all peppers used in seasonings for hotness. Hence, oleoresin (oleo = oil and resin= extract obtained from a plant) capsicum (pepper) means quite literally "pepper extract in oil". When jalapenos (moderately hot), habaneros (fiery hot), or even bell peppers (no hotness at all) are finely ground, this pepper slurry mixed in vegetable oil literally becomes 'oleoresin capsicum'. Oleoresin capsicum (abbreviated O.C.) is the oily mixture produced when the burning compounds, which naturally occur in hot red peppers, are extracted. O.C. is comprised primarily of a) carotenoids: the red pigments found in many vegetables, b) vegetable oils and, c) capsaicinoids, the compounds responsible for pungency. There are over 25 capsaicinoid compounds found in O.C., but only 3 are considered ?active ingredients? and are responsible for the "heat" or pungency of the solution: capsaicin, nordihydrocapsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin. The other capsaicinoids, while comprising a larger percentage of the O.C., are relatively inert with respect to their ability to elicit the burn response. Above it was stated that OC is the oily mixture extracted from red peppers. But red peppers aren?t naturally oily. The oil in OC results from the process used to extract the active ingredient from ground peppers. Since capsaicinoids are highly soluble in oil, the slurry of freshly ground red peppers is saturated with vegetable oil then strained through fine sieves, leaving behind much of the plant cell wall matter. Some manufacturers use volatile solvents in combination with vegetable oil during the extraction process to reduce viscosity. This shortens the filtering time. Afterwards the volatile solvents are removed. This capsaicinoid-rich oil is a deep red hue, however, because carotenoids in the peppers are too fine for the sieves to remove. Most oleoresin capsicum originates from red pepper growers in India and Africa. Further extraction and separation of capsaicin from the oil is expensive and since the target industry for most of this product is the commercial food business, vegetable oil is a choice medium for export and sale. Commercial food companies use OC to add hotness to everything from chili to salsa. The pepper spray manufacturing sector purchases this ?food grade OC? in its thick, red state and combines it with a carrier chemical which dilutes and thins it out. Then, by adding a propellant to the canisters containing this mixture the contents can be expelled as ?bear spray?. How do you choose which bear pepper spray to purchase? A: Of the 6 bear pepper sprays currently registered with the EPA for sale in the US you will find variation in spray duration (4-9 seconds), reach (18-40 feet), weight and cost. And if you browse the web pages each has (see list at end of article) you?ll quickly realize that each considers their product the best on the market. There is nothing wrong with ?product pride? but personally I feel that you won?t go wrong with any of the currently registered products as the EPA has specified minimum standards in spray hotness, volume, spray pattern and capsaicin source (must be from red peppers, not man-made). The only qualities of spray not regulated by the EPA are how far the spray carries and for how long the spray will issue from the can. You may think you?d want a can that sprays the farthest and longest but there are obvious trade-offs here. In a recent Back Packer Magazine article on bear pepper sprays (September 2000, www.backpacker.com) you?ll see that the spray that shot the farthest (>40 feet) also lasted the shortest amount of time (4 seconds). So what?s a hiker to do? You might consider the following guidance provided by bear safety experts that comprise the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC). This group comprised of State and Federal biologists released recommendations for bear pepper spray on August 12, 1999. Their ?Pepper Spray Position Paper? lists the following criteria: Item IGBC Recommendations Spray Concentration 1% to 2% Capsaicin and Related Capsaicinoids Spray Distance 25 feet or more Spray Duration (minimum) 6 seconds Size (minimum) 7.9 ounces of net weight or 225 grams of spray Spray Pattern Cloud Pattern Spray Raw Material Derivative of Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) EPA Registered Yes To read more that these experts had to say you can go to the following address on the web: http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/wildlife/igbc/Spray.htm With regard to these recommendations, only 3 sprays go the the minimum distance (25 feet), and 3 the minimum recommended duration(6 seconds). However, since the EPA doesn?t regulate those 2 qualities, it is up to you to decide what works best for you. I personally would feel secure with any of them. But I know of experienced outdoorsmen who insist on using only the first and oldest brand (Counter Assault); others who think that you?re best using an Alaskan spray when in Alaska (Guard Alaska); or one manufactured by someone who has actually been attacked by a bear (UDAP Pepper Power); and so it goes. I can authoritatively state, however, that field results alone are too few and too confounded to base a sound decision on. Not only do we lack sufficient incidents for each brand but also have had contradictory results. For example, a USGS employee in Alaska surprised a bear a number of years ago and the brand of bear pepper spray she dispensed into the bear?s face apparently ?failed? to halt the attack. She received injuries after the bear charged through the spray cloud and assaulted her. However, this same brand ?successfully? thwarted an attack just recently here and has been very successful in other situations. In the case of the former attack, perhaps the bear would have injured the USGS field biologist even worse had she not sprayed it at all. Who knows, yet I?d be reluctant to write the brand off as ineffective. How does pepper spray work to deter bears? A: Capsaicin elicits an intense burning sensation when it comes in contact with skin, causing pain receptors to send the same impulses as those generated by burning heat. However, the thing that really makes bear pepper spray an effective defense weapon is the way it effects the mucous membranes, primarily those of the eyes, nose and lungs. Capsaicin immediately causes these tissues to swell and the result is a nearly total, yet temporary, loss of sight and severe restriction of breathing. To be optimally effective, bear pepper spray has to hit the eyes and nose of the aggressive bear. Therefore, the way pepper spray is designed to work makes it imperative that it be highly aerosolized as if it is not it will not be properly inhaled into the lungs. I have heard that bear spray actually attracts bears? Who would want to use something that does that? A: I published a paper in 1998 in the Wildlife Society Bulletin (Vol. 26: 92-94) demonstrating that some Alaskan brown bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) were attracted to bear pepper spray residues. I decided to conduct this work after I?d observed a bear vigorously rolling in pepper spray residues put down by a person who had hoped that the spray would repel bears from his floatplane tied to the beach. It hadn?t worked and his neoprene float covers were damaged. Now here I was watching a bear vigorously scent rub in the orangish stain on the beach. ?What if this stuff actually attracted bears?? I began to worry, but not whether or not the spray worked as a bear deterrent but rather regarding their interest in residues on objects regardless of how they got there. I reflected on the fact that only days before I had shown a new field assistant how to use pepper spray... by discharging it just outside my field camp perimeter. It never occurred to me that the residue might prove troublesome. What if this residue actually attracted bears? Considering this further, I knew of people who had applied pepper spray to objects in the hopes of repelling bears from them. I even knew of a PhD bear research scientist who lectured on bear safety and had suggested that spray could be used in this manner to protect items that couldn?t be otherwise protected from curious bears. I felt I needed to further investigate because property and people could possibly be injured by this misuse of the product. For this research I sprayed red pepper spray directly onto the ground then sat back and observed bears' reactions to it. Many bears were clearly attracted to spray residues, some vigorously head rubbing, back rolling, pawing and eating the soils tainted with spray. I also observed some bears responding to these sites for up to a 5 days after spray application. So not only were they attracted to it but for some time after it had been dispensed. So I published a short note hoping to warn others of the potential dangers associated with misuse of the product. Some persons have concluded that because pepper spray was shown to elicit and hold a bear?s interest is ought not be used as a deterrent. Does this make any sense? Of course not. All it means is that these sprays should only be used as intended by their manufacturers: directly into the face of an aggressive bear. Other uses, such as applying it to objects in the hopes that the spray might have some sort of repellent effect would be an outright waste of the product, and given my findings, potentially dangerous. Even after noting that some red pepper spray deterrents have this attractive quality about them, I never questioned their use or effectiveness. I carry theses products in bear country, my field assistants carry them and they are effective. Are there any other side-effects or negatives regarding bear pepper sprays that I should be aware of? There is a downside to every bear deterrent I know of and bear pepper sprays have them too. While keeping in mind that bear pepper sprays are highly effective, let?s take a look at a few problems you will want to avoid. 1. Wind speed and direction can affect the efficacy of bear pepper sprays. This works both ways, of course. If you have a strong wind to your back you have a much greater reach and may be able to send out a short burst of noxious spray to a bear much farther from you than the stated reach of the product. That?s a good thing. However, if the same stiff wind is blowing perpendicular to you and the bear you can expect to have a much shorter distance to work with. In a number of bear-human encounters (on the low side of things admittedly) people have used bear pepper sprays to deter menacingly curious bears. In such instances it seems entirely possible to maneuver about until you have the wind in your favor. Keep that in mind. The largest category of bear-human encounters involve surprising a bear and you can?t do much about the wind in those cases. However, the pressure in cans of bear pepper spray is sufficient to propel the contents a short distance even with a stiff breeze so don?t discount this deterrent option because of the possibility of adverse wind conditions. 2. These sprays are very powerful and pose a potential risk for persons with respiratory ailments should they accidently inhale them. If you are known for anaphylactic reactions to a variety of foreign substances (such as bear pepper spray), I would make sure I had my Epi-pen, or other anti-inflammatory, on hand in case spray was accidentally inhaled. All persons should realize that these sprays are not to be taken lightly. ?Test spraying? the product has burned more than a few persons who released the spray then allowed it to waft back over themselves. Be careful with it and as I?ve mentioned previously, I wouldn?t test spray the stuff to begin with. 3. Bear pepper spray residues are very irritating. You should never have to worry about getting residue on you UNLESS you fire the product. Once you release bear pepper spray you?ll see that some amount of residue will remain in the nozzle. You really should get that out of there (use a cotton swab or piece of tissue or rinse with warm water and soap) because eventually something will get it on it and then you will get it on you. There are a lot of stories ?out there? of people who got pepper spray residues on them and wished they had not. Which brings up another point: I carry a small amount of baby shampoo, the ?no tears? type, with me in the field because you can wash your face and not worry about burning your eyes with this kind of soap, should you need to get bear pepper spray residues off your face. In summary - no product is perfect and bear pepper sprays have their problems. However, so do firearms, flares, bells and fog horns. It is telling that many bear experts choose to carry bear pepper spray over firearms. I?d think on that awhile before I dismissed bear pepper sprays as a viable bear deterrent. How do you know that these sprays are effective? A: Dr. Stephen Herrero and Andrew Higgins of the University of Calgary, Alberta initiated an effort in 1993 to gather information regarding the use of bear pepper spray in parks, refuges and other areas where these sprays have been carried for a number of years. From this work they produced a paper titled "Field use of capsicum spray as a bear deterrent" which was presented at the 10th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, Fairbanks, Alaska. They summarized their findings as follows: "We analyzed 66 cases of field use of capsicum sprays between 1984 and 1994. Regarding aggressive brown/grizzly bear incidents associated primarily with close range encounters, in 94% of the cases, the spray had the effect of stopping the behavior that the bear was displaying immediately prior to being sprayed. In six cases, the bear continued to act aggressively; in three of these cases the bear attacked the person spraying. In one of these 3 cases, further spraying caused the bear to stop and leave. Of the three encounters that resulted in injury to the sprayer, two involved a mother with cub(s) and the other involved a single bear. In all three injurious encounters, the bear received a substantial dose of spray to the face. While it can't be known for certain how these encounters would have ended out in the absence of spray, the use of spray appears to have prevented injury in most of this type of encounter. Regarding brown/grizzly bear incidents associated with curiosity of searching for human foods and garbage, in 100% (20/20) of the cases the spray had the effect of stopping the behavior that the bear was displaying immediately prior to being sprayed. The bear left the area in 90% of the cases." Although not under tightly controlled conditions nor observed by scientists, these results strongly suggest that red pepper spray deterrents work well. It would have been interesting to see if any difference existed between the various brands of spray but the data set is far too small. What has been the Alaskan experience with bear pepper spray? A: For the past several years I have been constructing a database of bear-human conflicts that have occurred in Alaska. To date the database contains nearly 500 incidents that span a century. Among these there have been only 15 that involved persons spraying bears with bear pepper spray. Of these 15 incidents where person(s) chose to use bear pepper spray to defend themselves, 13 were decided successes (87% success rate), and 2 were judged ?failures?. In the one failure the bear charged through the spray cloud, swatted a woman to the ground, bit her in the face and left. In the other failure the bear did not leave the immediate vicinity of the hiker (it was only 15 feet away) when sprayed directly into its face. Consequently this well-armed hiker fired a bullet over the bear?s head, apparently providing enough reasons then for the bear to turn and leave. The majority of Alaskan cases involved grizzly/brown bears (12 of 15) and one bear pepper spray failure was attributed to each species. In short, bear pepper spray is a proven bear deterrent in Alaska.
Why is bear pepper spray so effective in deterring aggressive bears? A: I personally believe that these bear deterrent sprays confer three important advantages to the user: 1) Bear pepper spray gives people a reason not to run. Its often said that running from a bear may elicit a chase and attack. Is this true or are people just assuming that bears are little more than ?big dogs with little tails? (to quote famous phylogeneticist George Gaylord Simpson) and hence, like dogs, chase things that run from them? I analyzed thousands of stimulus-response type data associated with bear attacks. The idea was to see what the historical record could teach us, quantitatively, about how bears responded to people?s responses to them. In this instance I had 42 times in my database when people confronted with an aggressive bear chose as their response to run. It seems fairly safe to assume that the desire of the person running was to put distance between themself and the bear and end the confrontation. How often did the desired result occur? About 5% of the time! In only 2 of these 42 instances did the bear leave without further interaction. Importantly, however, in 83% of these instances (35) desired results were not obtained.... bears chased after the fleeing persons, and in some cases, attacked and mauled them. So, running from an aggressive bear should not be high on your list of options for dealing with them in a close encounter. Yet when confronting a bear, particularly one-on-one, with no deterrent options available, people panic and run regardless of what they?ve been told. We can do much better than that. Carry bear pepper spray and don?t run but stand your ground. Not running and holding your ground conveys a message that bears recognize, that of a co-dominant unwilling to yield. That gives them pause and buys you time. If you have bear pepper spray with you, have it handy, have it out and pointed in the bear?s direction, you will find that you have a reason to not run and this says to the bear ?I am not subordinate nor am I going to be an easy target.? Without a deterrent you will have a very hard time keeping your legs from taking off regardless of what your head says otherwise. 2) The sudden, loud hissing of the spray and billowing cloud startles bears. This effect I have observed several times in person and on video-tape. You could be spraying sugar water for all it matters initially because this sound and sight is surprising. As a result, approaching bears are surprised, they halt, and very often run away before the spray even reaches them. Again, this startle effect has been shown time and again to give bears a reason to go somewhere else and, as our records show, they most often do. 3) The active ingredient in bear pepper spray is a strong irritant, as observed with penned and wild bears that have been sprayed. Steve Herrero, Chuck Jonkel, myself, and many others have seen bears sprayed directly with this and many cough, wheeze, and wildly paw at their eyes and nose. Pepper spray obviously turns the tables...the aggressor becomes the victim. Sure, there have been a few failures of sprays to deter aggressive bears but there have been far greater successes, something that you should keep in mind next time you contemplate hiking in bear country. What additional advice do you suggest regarding bear pepper spray? A: I generally recommend the following to people: 1. Always carry at least 2 deterrents at all times in bear country, one being pepper spray. Bear spray has such a well-proven track record that you would be remiss in not carrying it. The other deterrent might be a flare pistol, signal flares, an airhorn or a firearm. Also, depending on the number of people in the party and length of trip, each person should carry their own can of spray. If you are going to be out for several days you should consider carrying 2 cans of spray because several persons who were confronted by an aggressive bear and sprayed it later said that they wished they would have had a second can for the rest of their journey. 2. I do not recommend that you ?test-fire? cans of bear pepper spray. I may be sticking my neck out but if you only have 6 bullets in a revolver, what happens each time you ?test fire? it? You have one less bullet. The same is true for cans of bear spray. Each time you test fire the can you have that much less content for the time when you might really need it. If you test fire the can each time you go for a hike, it won?t be long until you have an insufficient amount to deter a bear. As pointed out by Steve Herrero and Andrew Higgins in their paper cited above, some bears had to be sprayed 2, 3 and even 4 times before they finally left the hiker alone. So I would very jealously guard the contents of that can. But what if the can has no pressure? When is the last time you pushed down on a new aerosol can of some product and nothing came out? I don?t think that has ever happened to me in my entire life. The chances of a new can of bear pepper spray full of contents (obvious by the heft of the can) not having any pressure is next to impossible. What if the seals failed and the pressure is gone, leaving the contents behind? Believe me, this is one product that will let you know if a leak develops! Incredibly tiny amounts of spray that you get on your finger will burn such that you will know if a leak has occurred. In short - the chances of a no pressure being in a new, full can are about zero, if not zero. Test firing wastes contents AND puts attractive residues on the ground. I would not do it. But what if I want to see what it feels like to spray a can? Several manufacturers sell cans of inert spray (i.e., there is no active ingredient in the can) for that very purpose. Check the web sites I?ve listed and see which do. I would highly recommend you order a can or two and practice until you feel comfortable with the operation and spray pattern. Save your precious bear pepper spray for when it is needed...don?t waste it! 3. If you do discharge spray from a canister, I would suggest that you lightly rinse the actuator (nozzle) with soap and water. Time and again I have been out in the field working, bear pepper spray by my side and suddenly noticed that my cheek was on fire. Upon closer inspection I?d note a tiny bit of residue of spray from the nozzle had gotten on my polypropylene glove, or hand, and I?d inadvertently wiped my cheek. It is very annoying to get bear pepper spray residues on ANYTHING so I would gently rinse it off after each use. 4. Do not use cans of bear pepper spray which have less than 2/3 of their contents left. The contents of bear pepper sprays currently on the market range from 225 grams to 260 grams. Counter Assault?, for example, sells a 230 gram cannister...that?s 230 grams of contents, not the cannister?s overall weight. An off-the-shelf can of Counter Assault? weighs 323 grams (11.4 ounces), or 93 grams of its weight is due to the can and actuator, not contents. Therefore, when a can of Counter Assault? is 2/3 full, it will weigh 245 grams. In an agency setting, such as the National Park Service, where cans of bear pepper spray are passed from year to year, I would recommend that a single can be emptied to the 245 gram weight. Float this can in a container of water and mark on the can right where the 2/3 full can floats. Now this cannister can be used to compare all others against by floating each and seeing if they float above the line (<2/3 full) or below the line (>2/3 full). I would recommend that those cans with less than 2/3 of their content be discarded or used for spray practice at a safe location. 5. Know how old your can of bear pepper spray is and discard it when the manufacturer?s published shelf life expires. Safety in bear country is serious business so why trust your well-being to an old, out-dated can of bear spray? As I understand it, the chemicals used in bear pepper spray are stable over time (i.e., contents are good for quite a few years), but that the seals holding the pressurized contents in the can age and will eventually fail, resulting in leaks. So what is the shelf life? I recently browsed a number of bear pepper spray web sites (June 2003) and found that most did not post their product?s shelf life, although a couple did ( e.g., Frontiersman and Counter Assault have shelf lives of 4 years). If the date of manufacture is labeled on the can you are in good shape, but if not, you might do well to write the date on the bottom of the can for future reference. Occasionally I see some very old, nearly empty cans of bear pepper spray out on the trails in Alaska. My peace of mind and personal safety are worth more than that. 6. To be useful, pepper spray must be conveniently carried on your person. The best placements are either in the special belt holster available for most brands OR by hanging that holster on one of the straps of your pack. Either way, it does little good to have your can of pepper spray buried deep within your pack. Surprise encounters are just that, a surprise, and there are instances of people who have had pepper spray on them but because it was in an inconvenient location they were unable to use it. Once I was personally confronted by a very angry bear only to realize that my can of pepper spray was buried deep in my pack! Not much good there. Fortunately by simply standing my ground and talking to the bear (as I frantically tore through my pack) I was able to get out of that unnecessary situation. Now - older and wiser - I carry my bear spray on my pack strap, always available. When I approach an area I cannot see into very well, the spray comes off my strap and is into my hand. I also have the safety wedge out so that I can release spray in an instant should it be needed. I am ready these day. How about you? 7. Consider securing the safety lock when transporting your spray. You can easily secure the safety lock on the top of the spray canister by using a ?zip strip? available at hardware or retail department stores to insure that the spray will not accidentally be fired. At least one company sells there product with a zip strip already in place. When you are getting ready to hike in bear country, don?t cut the zip strip off but gently work it off the top of the can and save it for when you will be transporting the can. Stuffed in a backpack, jostling around in the trunk of your car, or where-ever, the safety clip can be knocked off and the spray fired unintentionally. It also insures that people who are looking your product over, say at your home, work or a classroom, have no opportunity to test-fire it. Believe me ? this has happened and is awfully embarrassing when you have to empty out an entire building because of a slip of the thumb Where can I get additional information regarding pepper spray products? A: World Wide Web Pepper Spray Information Links: The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee?s bear pepper spray resources page, including a link to their position paper on pepper spray use in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/wildlife/igbc/ A list of bear deterrents properly registered with the EPA can be found: http://www.epa.gov/Region8/toxics_pesticides/pests/beardeter.html My news release with photos and video footage regarding the attractiveness of bear spray to Alaskan brown bears: http://www.absc.usgs.gov/research/brownbears/pepperspray/news.htm The following links are for informational purposes only and are not endorsements of the companies or products by the USGS or any state or governmental agency: Counter Assault Bear Spray?: http://www.counterassault.com/ Guard Alaska Bear Spray? http://www.guardalaska.com/ BearGuard? - http://www.guardianproducts.com UDAP Pepper Power - http://www.udap.com/ Bear Peppermace - http://www.mace.com/ Frontiersman Bear Attack Deterrent - http://www.macecanada.com/unitedstates/animalrep.htm Black Max Bear Repellent: http://www.pepperspray.ca”