Do You Need Bear Spray In The BWCA?
My wife was asking me if I being bear spray on camping and hiking trips. I have a solo trip planned where I will be heading into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area this coming spring, and she was wondering what I do about bears.
First and foremost my advice to people when in bear territory is this; respect the bear, but you don’t need to fear the bear.
My cabin in Northwest Wisconsin is located in a region of the State with one of the higher black bear populations. I see bears once in while there. Over the years I have successfully hunted black bear as well. I’m aware they are likely around when I am in the north woods, but I don’t fear them.
Do You Need Bear Spray In The BWCA?
Most people who are experienced campers and canoe trippers know how to handle black bears that show up around their camp. If you see a one or hear one lurking around, it’s after your food, not you. Keeping a clean campsite area is your first defense against bears.
But is it suggested to bring bear spray along with you into the BWCA? It depends mostly on you. It’s largely going to be a personal choice.
Most campers with experience in black bear territory, such as the Boundary Waters and other canoe tripping areas like the Quetico and Algonquin, don’t bring bear spray with them on their outings. They know how to handle bears that show up, and they have learned not to fear them and how to deal with them.
Experienced campers will tell new campers that they likely will not need bear spray in black bear country, but if they are more comfortable having it with them, to go ahead and bring it along. And that’s what I tell people as well. Bring if you think you need it and make you feel safer.
Now, I’m talking about black bear country here… not brown bear and grizzly country (brown and grizzly bears are the same species of bear, but grizzly is considered a sub-species). In territory where there are brown bears and the like, I carry bear spray (this one, in particular).
Dealing with Black Bears While Camping
If bears are going to make an appearance in your camp it’s because they want your food, not you. The best way to deal with bears before needing to worry about bear spray is to keep bears from wanting to enter your camp to begin with.
Like I said before, keep your campsite clean. That means you don’t want to leave food laying around. Small critters (mice, squirrels, chipmunks) are more than likely going to be more annoying than black bears if you keep a messy campsite. But all the same, keeping your camp clean is very important.
Here are some tips for avoiding having a black bear in camp:
- Don’t leave any food laying around that is not eaten.
- If catching fish to eat, clean them away from your camp. At least 100 yards away is suggested.
- Hang all food in waterproof packs or containers, or hide in bear cans, or use an an Ursack.
- Clean your cooking dishes and utensils right away after using them. Best to do this away from your camp.
- Check a campsite for signs of black bear before setting up camp. If you see lots of tracks and fecal droppings, find a new campsite elsewhere.
- Keep food out of your tent and from around your tent.
- Seal your trash in airtight bags if possible. Some things can be burned in the campfire, some has to be hauled out. Leave no trace!
Hanging Your Food
For decades people have been hanging their food packs in trees to keep black bears from getting it. This is still the recommended method suggested by the U.S. Forest Service for people in the BWCA.
It is suggested that you hang your food away from the location of your tent. Your food should be 12 feet off the ground, and 10 feet away from the trunk of the tree or other trees. Never tie off your hanging rope to the same tree that the food is hanging from.
Campers have been coming to the BWCA for decades, and bears have learned to look for hanging food. Some people tie their cooking pans to their hanging food bags. If they hear those pans rattling around late at night, good chance a bear has found where the food bag is being hung and are trying to get it. The pans serve as an ‘alarm’ to let you know you need to scare a bear away before they get your food and ruin your trip.
I put my food inside a 20 liter water proof bag that is also lined with an airtight bag. If carrying in freeze-dried food I don’t worry to much about food smells coming from by bag. If carrying in some fresh food, I double line everything inside zip-lock freezer bags to conceal odors.
You can check out the bag I use to carry and and hang my food here.
Using A Bear Can To Hide Food
The bear proof food canister.
Some people are turning to bear cans to put their food in. Then they hide the can somewhere in the woods around their campsite. Bear cans are made to be impossible for bears to get the food sealed inside. The cans are round and smooth and hard for a bear, and a human, to get a gold hold of it.
Some campers have seen bears find their bear cans, and not even try to get at the food inside, because they have encountered the cans before and know it’s a waste of their time. So they just leave them alone and move on.
Most campers will put highly reflective tape on the outside of their bear cans so they are easy to find in case a bear does come along and it gets moved when they try to open it.
Not familiar with bear cans, you can read more about them here.
Using An Ursack To Store Your Food
The Ursack is made of bullet proof fabric and is designed to keep bears from getting your food. Unlike bear cans that you hide in the woods, or food packs that you hang from a tree, the Ursack is meant to be left at your camp tied to the trunk of a tree.
The Ursack – Bears can’t chew through this 2,500 lbs strength material!
Yep, you just put your food inside the Ursack and tie it to a tree close by at about chest level. And done!
The Ursack is made of 2,500 lbs stencil cordage. Bears can’t claw into it, or bite through it. Now, they can crush any food inside the Ursack, but they are not going to get it.
Ursack recommends buying a air tight sealable bag they sell that goes inside the Ursack. The air tight bag keeps food odors to a minimum when inside, and the Ursack protects your food from being hauled away by a bear.
This sounds pretty easy to use, don’t ya think. You can read more about the Ursack here.
When Bears Enter Your Campsite
When a black bear enters your campsite it is looking for easy food. When that happens it is usually because one of two different things has occurred.
- It has very likely smelled food you have been cooking.
- The bear has been to the camp once before and been successful at finding food – so it has come back looking for more.
You have heard the old saying, “bears are more afraid of you than you are of them”? That is true when talking about black bears. Brown bears require a lot more caution.
Keep your campsite clean, and bears will likely not be a concern.
So what do you do when a black bear shows up? Well, they should always be respected. But you don’t want to necessarily retreat when you see one in your camp. If you leave your camp the bear wins, it scared you off. It deserves whatever food it can get it’s paws on.
What you really want to do is stand your ground to black bears in your camp. Make yourself appear bigger by standing tall and spreading your arms. Shout at the bear. Yell at him to “go away bear”! Some campers will bang pots and pans and take a few steps closer to the bear. Some will blow a whistle.
Basically you are letting the bear know you see them and that they are not wanted in your camp. They’ll usually run away. And when they do take a few more steps after them and keep making noise. Keep it up a few moments longer and walk around your camp making noise and yelling at them to go away.
Not All Bears Scare Off Easily
Scaring a bear off as mentioned above works 99% of the time. Sometimes, on rare occasions, a black bear will try and scare you away by doing what is called a ‘bluff charge’. Mamma bears with cubs tend to do this more than solo bears. A bluff charge is when the bear will run at you.
Bear experts will tell you to stand your ground in these instances, that the bear is bluffing. Running away may cause the bear to give chase. Usually they turn away and run off or will stop in their tracks before reaching you and then turn and run away. What they are hoping to accomplish it to scare you off.
More resilient bears may take longer to scare off, just be persistent. If you are not alone make sure the other members of your camp are close by and making noise like you are.
When a bear stands up on their hind legs, it is not an act of aggression – they do that to get a better look and smell of things around them – including you.
When Bears Keep Showing Up At Your Camp
If this happens it is usually the same bear or the same couple of bears. More than likely whomever was using your campsite before you did not keep it clean and bears managed to get a free meal and are back looking for more. They are likely to keep trying to get your food. These are called nuisance bears by the U.S. Forest Service.
If you keep having the same bear problems it might be easier to pack up and leave your camp and find a new spot. It’s also a good idea to report a nuisance bear to other campers you see, the U.S. Forest Service, and the outfitter you used for your BWCA trip, if you used one.
Most experienced campers say to pack up and move on. But there are some that will use bear spray on such bears and try to break their bad habit. Bears don’t like pain, just like any other animal or person. The hope when people use bear spray in such instances is that the bear will go away and stay away.
But just because you spray a nuisance bear with bear repellent doesn’t mean it will never come back. It very well could, and your problem is still a major problem; you have nuisance bear looking for food. So like other experienced campers, I suggest you just pack up and find a new campsite.
If You Have Bear Spray When Should You Use It?
Click on this picture to buy.
Bear spray canisters work under internal pressure and have a limited range. It can vary slightly among the manufactures, but most are effective out to 30 feet.
I’ve had black bear closer to me than 30 feet and scared them off as I described above. Over the years I’ve never had one bluff charge. I suppose if that happened it would be a real test of wills to see if I would stand firm or try to dodge behind the nearest tree.
If you feel you need to carry bear spray in the BWCA, then you should certainly play out certain scenarios in your head before your trip on when you would use it. It’s doesn’t pay to even try and use it if the bear is beyond thirty feet. So be sure you know the range of your spray, and can determine when a bear is within range before using it.
If you have a nuisance bear and don’t want to give up your campsite you may want to use bear spray as a deterrent. For me, personally, I would probably only consider using it, if I had it along, on a black bear that charges at me. Otherwise I’ve never had an issue scaring off a bear by shouting at them.
If you want to carry it that is your choice, and if you want to use it that is also your choice.
How Is Bear Spray Effective Against Bears?
The active ingredient in bear spray is ‘capsaicin’. Capsaicin creates the ‘hot’ in hot poppers. When bear spray is used it produces a nasty burning sensation that is highly annoying and frightening to bears. Depending on the dose a bear is hit with, the affects of the spray can last several minutes to an hour.
Bear researchers in Ely, Minnesota, at the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, have never heard or seen bear spray cause an anger responses in bears. All bears sprayed have quickly retreated.
Additionally, previously sprayed bears seem to remember the hand motion that precedes spraying. They typically will retreat when a person lifts and extends an empty hand like he or she is going to spray. Especially if the person makes a loud “sshhhhh” sound like bear spray canisters make when used.
Things To Consider When Camping In Bear Territory
Be sure to keep a clean camp like mentioned above. If in brown bear territory be sure to carry bear spray. In black bear territory most campers and hikers will tell you that you don’t really need it.
Not all black bears are black. Most are, but there are some that are brown in color. Such black bears are called ‘cinnamon’ bears for their brown colored fur.
Always remember to respect bears. They can be a amazing to see in the wild, and will always give you something to remember after the trip has ended.
Since 1900 there have been 61 people killed by bears (all bear types, mostly brown, grizzly, and polar bears). You have a better chance of being struck and killed by lighting 45 times than being killed by a bear.
Be sure to check local regulations on bear spray. Not all brands of bear spray are approved in all States and Canada. If you feel more comfortable carrying it in the BWCA and other Wilderness Canoe parks, then do so.
You can buy an EPA and Health Canada approved bear spray, click here.
If you have had black bear encounters, especially in the BWCA, I would love to hear about them.
All You Need To Know
As A Hiker
Bear spray: when to use it, and how to use it, are two things every backpacker in brown (grizzly) bear country needs to know.
I have no photos of brown bears to share with you on this page.
That is a very, very good thing.
It means that I’ve succeeded in keeping a clean backcountry camp, reducing food and garbage odors by using appropriate bear canisters, and thus I’ve never had a close call with Ursus horribilus/arctos.
Or I’m very lucky.
Either way, Amen!
However, I have plenty of photos of grizzly habitat, because I spend a lot of time there.
So I’ve taken it as a solemn duty to learn all that I can about brown bears, and to know how to keep myself as safe as possible on backcountry trips using bear deterrent strategies.
Let me share a few tips on how to do that, including the use of a pepper spray specially formulated to deter brown bears in a bad mood.
When to carry bear spray
If you know you’re in brown bear country, you should be carrying bear spray as a bear deterrent.
Defensive spraying has been shown to be very effective at turning away a charging bear.
How do you know you’re in grizzly terrain?
- Read the information compiled by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (no joke).
- Parks Canada will let you know where their bears are.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has plenty to say about grizzly bears, too.
If you’re planning to hike and backpack in these areas, you need bear deterrents which are non-toxic and most likely to work.
That’s bear spray as personal defense, for most of us.
Each hiker in your group should have her own canister of spray like this one, and be knowledgeable about its use.
- Buy bear spray which contains 1.3-2% capsaicin and related capsaicinoids
- Watch the expiration date, and switch it out when it passes.
When to use bear spray
Your goal in carrying this little canister of unpleasantness is to never have to use it!
However, carrying bear spray may lead to overconfidence and complacency in the backcountry .
Vigilance is required.
Be very careful not to put yourself into a situation where the bear cannot see or hear you.
Examples of behavior to avoid in bear country
- Napping under a tree along rushing surface water
- Hiking silently through dense brush or near noisy water features
- Coming around blind corners on the trail without making noise
- Going off by yourself without telling your trail buddies what you’re up to
- Making a trip into the bushes to do your business without scouting the area first
- Hiking in early morning or late evening when the bear is most likely to be going about its business: eating (although they tend to wander and graze at all times of the day)
Watch for bear signs
It’s your job to remain “bear aware” at all times.
Keep your eyes peeled for bear scat, which are big lumps of you-know-what filled with berries, grass, hair and other signs that the bear is feeding in your area.
Also watch for bear tracks in the mud around streams and springs.
Watch for bear activity between surface water sources
Long vertical scratches on trees and/or freshly stripped bark with weeping sap mean a large predator with sharp nails or claws is in the area.
A bear used sharp claws recently on this tree
More good ways to be bear aware
- Spot their “beds”, areas of flattened vegetation where they rest and sleep.
- Watch for their food caches: large humps of dirt covered carcasses. Don’t linger there.
- Take note of dug up patches of stream banks, ant hills, and other areas where they can find insects, roots and other food.
- Really big rocks that are flipped over are a good bear sign, and a lesson in the power of a bear’s claws.
Why would a human hiker waste time and energy doing that? Bears do!
And it goes without saying, don’t go anywhere without your bear spray.
It won’t do you any good if it’s buried in your backpack, left in your tent while you take a bath in the river, or forgotten in your jacket thrown over a bush while you’re napping in the sunshine.
The spray goes wherever you are: into the tent at night, especially.
Every hiker in a group needs to carry a can of bear spray 24/7.
- Don’t depend on someone else being there when you spot a bear.
Don’t spray right away
When you spot a grizzly, you should be prepared to use the spray.
It should be on the outside of your backpack, within easy reach, or on your belt.
But don’t prepare to use it immediately, unless the bear charges you.
- This can happen when mama bear realizes you are too close to her cubs.
- It may also happen when you startle a bear near running water or around a blind curve in the trail.
A bear charge can happen lightning fast, and you might not have time to react with your bear spray.
- Instead, protect your head and neck with your hands, and roll into a ball to protect your vital organs. Lie motionless.
Body language is your clue
about when – or if – to spray
Bears use body language just like people do.
If the bear is still sizing you up (take that literally), you might have some leeway to “read” its intent.
- Bears communicate their intent to threaten and intimidate you by making weird noises with their jaws and throat (like snorting and clacking teeth together).
- They may growl and slap the ground with their paws.
- They also may salivate, which will highlight their teeth and accentuate their role as a predator.
- Along the same lines, they position their bodies side ways to appear as large and threatening to you as possible. (This works remarkably well.)
As they are doing this, get your bear spray out of its holster or chest harness, and have it positioned in your hand so you can deploy it without having to look at it.
- You should have practiced this maneuver at home several times, to get the feel for it without looking.
Your instinct as a small soft creature is to run, or at least get away from that posturing bear.
But in your own best interest it’s important to look big and threatening, and definitely not like prey.
Use your own body language
to send a message
You want the bear to know that you are not edible and certainly not weak or intimidated (fake it til you make it time).
Use your own body language to send a message which is the opposite of prey behavior:
- Sing loudly and off key.
- Wave your arms.
- Do. Not. Run. Bad things happen to humans who run from large mammals (cougars included)
You are signaling to this bear that you are a human, and therefore not on the menu.
If the bear comes in for a closer look,
what can you do?
If the bear approaches you once it spots you, it means one of two things, either curiosity or animosity toward you.
Curiosity can be handled by waiting things out, backing away slowly while talking to the bear, and remaining calm. Once the bear gets a good whiff of “essence of hiker”, it may move away.
Animosity is nerve wracking, because you can never be sure what the bear intends to do. You’ve created an upset in its routine, and it’s not happy about you being there.
- Give this magnificent creature with the big teeth and claws plenty of space and room to beat a hasty exit.
- Don’t make sudden moves that could provoke a reaction, but get your hands on your bear spray.
- Stay on high alert for the next signal from the bear.
Maybe the message is just to intimidate you
There is a possibility of bluff charging, when the bear runs at you full speed but diverts at the last possible moment.
You won’t know if it’s a bluff or for real, so once the bear is within 20 feet (6 m), it’s time to introduce it to your friend, Bear Spray.
Spray being the operative word.
Even when your hands are shaking.
How to use bear spray
The first thing to remember is that there’s a safety clip or cap, usually light colored plastic that may glow in the dark, on the top of the can.
It’s sometimes called a safety wedge.
See it surrounding the black trigger on this Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray?
This plastic safety mechanism has to be released with a quick flick of your thumb in order for the spray to come out.
You might want to practice doing that a few times, before you need to do it.
Let’s back up even further, to when you purchased the bear spray.
The spray can was sold with a zip tie or some other way to lock the safety clip.
- Be sure that extra step of protection is long gone before you are in a situation where you need to use the spray.
Build muscle memory with practice
This probably sounds silly as you’re sitting in comfort reading this, but you should practice the sequence described below until you can use it without looking at it.
- Build a kinesthetic sense of how your hand feels holding it, the weight and dimensions of the canister, and where the release for the safety clip is located.
You can’t even believe how scared you’ll be when you see a brown bear coming your way, so train your muscles to react even when your mind is screeching pitiful little sentences about running away.
Here’s how to deploy the spray
The spray is only effective if it contacts the mucous membranes of your ursine friend.
So let’s make sure that it does.
Imagine that the bear is close to you, and facing toward you.
- Use both hands to release a 3 – 6 second burst of spray.
- Then release another one.
You want to create a mist that will rise up and get the bear’s attention as it comes even closer.
It would be great if you were upwind of the noxious spray, but you won’t have time to make that particular calculation unless you already did while sizing up the bear’s behavior (see tip below).
Don’t drop the can and run. This will be incredibly hard to achieve, but do not run.
You are hoping for a total yet temporary loss of the bear’s ability to continue its attack.
Don’t turn your back on the bear, because you need to see how it reacts.
It should move away from you, reacting to the painful sensation of pepper spray in its face.
As the bear begins to leave the area, walk backwards slowly and monitor its actions.
You don’t want a repeat attack or counter assault to catch you off guard.
Watch this video for a good demonstration of how to use bear spray.
If you have the presence of mind when you meet a bear on a windy day, you can do a test blast (1 second or less) of your canister just to get a sense of where the spray will be carried.
You want it to hit the bear’s face (downwind), not yours (upwind).
- Do this before the bear comes into range.
Report the encounter
It’s up to you whether or not to tell the local authorities about your run in with a bear.
Filing a report becomes important when the bear’s behavior is aggressive and you want to warn other hikers and campers.
It also helps law enforcement and emergency responders put together a pattern in order to locate a rogue bear.
- Sometimes trails have to be closed when bear activity is extreme, as happens each summer in Yellowstone National Park.
This protects bears, and people.
Side effects of using bear spray
What’s bad for the bear’s mucous membranes is also horrible for yours.
If a breeze brings some of the irritating vapors into your face, your eyes and nose will run and sting like crazy.
You might have temporary restriction of breathing, temporary restriction of sight, and you will be a lot of discomfort, some might call it pain.
Your only consolation: If it reached the bear’s face, that’s what’s happening in Bear-ville, too.
Storing your bear spray
To maximize its effectiveness, there are a few things you should do with the spray canister:
Store it in reasonable temperatures to extend shelf life
- Don’t store the canister near heat sources at home, such as a shelf next to the furnace or a large south facing picture window.
Never bring the spray into the passenger compartment of the car without a heavy storage container.
The expiration date is firm, and generous at around 4 years. Once the date has passed, get a new bear spray.
- You don’t want to rely upon the false hope of bear spray that has lost its effectiveness, do you?
Traveling with bear spray
It would be a very bad thing if a can of bear spray exploded inside an airplane or other enclosed space, right?
For this reason, you must check the regulations when you fly to a hiking destination.
Bush pilots will duct tape the bear spray to the outside struts (be sure to take it off at your destination, or risk watching your bear deterrent taxi away and go bye-bye).
Helicopter pilots will store the bear spray in the aft cargo compartment, where it has reduced chance of contacting your mucus membranes if it explodes.
If you’re traveling via train or bus, be sure you understand how to segregate and protect your bear spray.
What experts say about
efficacy of bear spray
I’m not a bear expert, so all I can do is rely upon the expertise and wisdom of those who are looking at data or working in bear country for long periods of time.
Like me, you can learn from the results of a study which looked at a sample of bear spray incidents in Alaska over the years 1985 to 2006.
Update: The study’s pdf has been removed from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website so I can no longer provide the link to it, but I was lucky enough to read it before it disappeared.
- Bear spray makes sense as a personal bear deterrent, and can be used as an alternative to lethal force (carrying a gun).
Summing it up:
be smart and prepared
Isn’t it nice to know that the chances of a bear encounter go way, way down if you know how to handle brown bear territory?
First line of defense against a bear attack:
- Know when you’re in bear territory.
- Avoid confrontation by understanding bear body language.
- Read a few books.
- Buy bear spray and use it correctly as your final line of bear safety.
Thrilling, or chilling?
To be honest, the thrill of seeing these huge creatures is one that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
- I had the privilege of seeing one on the shore of the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
- And lots more, on a trip down the Alsek River (Yukon to Alaska, largest concentration of brown bears anywhere)
Sounds like a thrill you’d rather skip?
Here’s the hard truth:
Sometimes you have no choice. Bears may live where you want to hike.
Just handle the encounter in the best way possible, which you now know how to do.
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Does Bear spray work on Black Bear?
For those who don’t know what bear spray is or what it is capable of. Let’s get started with it first. It is a self-defense product, less potent than a pepper spray, but more effective as a bear deterrent. Good part of using bear sprays over guns is that not only it encourages human safety but it also helps in bear conservation.
What Research Says?
According to 2008 study by Herrero, bear spray was proven to be effective in stopping bear’s undesirable behavior and incidents occurred in Alaska. While it showed 100% effectiveness on polar bears, in case of black bears, it showed 90% efficacy.
Of all persons who were carrying the sprays, 98% were uninjured and safe after experiencing a close encounter. Most of the research also showed that spraying reduces the likelihood of such encounters with black bears. Though, there are other few instances where users also report the failure of bear sprays. The reason behind such cases was clearly the impotence of using sprays.
There is another study that took place on free-range black bears. A research was conducted to test the effectiveness of bear spray on black bears. When 5 black bears (4 males and 1 female) were sprayed at a distance of 1.5 to 3m, all of them immediately whirled away except for one male weighing 200-225 Kg who returned after first attempt.
He somehow escaped from second and third spray attempts too. Finally, a fourth spray attempt successfully hit the eyes and he escaped from the spot.
When it comes to black bears, they result in minor injuries and tend to be deadly. Black bear also accounts for 14 percent of encounters, compared to just 2% by polar bears.
How Can You Avoid Human-Black Bear Conflict?
Bears are not to blame each time. Humans should take responsibility as well and try to focus on bear’s behavior. Try to recognize their species whether it’s a grizzly bear or black bear.
If you stick together, chances are you will appear larger and intimidating. Make sure you interpret bear’s postures and vocalizations correctly. This way you will know what the bear fears. Black bears are good climbers, and when threatened, they either move away or climb up a tree.
- If you get a face-to-face with black bear, stop working and pay attention to the bear. Slowly move away. Don’t run and keep observing the bear.
- Make sure you stand tall. First yell at the bear to get out of your way. But if it doesn’t go away, then keep your bear spray ready to take an action if bear approaches too close.
- Use the spray when bear is at least 20-30 feet away. Make sure you point it out at the bear and not yourself. Spray couple of times in zig zag way.
Which brand to choose as your line of defense?
Sabre is among the top-notch manufacturers of bear spray. Their lines of products are effective, approved and field tested. Whether you go into the woods on daytime or night, Sabre Frontiersman bear spray works well by glowing in dark. It’s lighter in weight as well which makes hiking or running easier.
It is an option for your safety
Bear spray works well as an effective alternative to bullets on black bear. As a recreationist, you should consider it as an option for your safety every time you go for recreating in a bear country.