Safety while hiking or camping in bear country is a big deal. Bear spray is one of the best tools for keeping overly curious or aggressive bears at bay. Similar to pepper spray, but much stronger and more potent, bear spray isn’t anything you should be using off-hand on other people, but how much damage can it actually do to a person?
This brings up a question that comes up surprisingly often: can bear spray actually kill a human? After all, it’s strong enough to deter a charging grizzly bear.
In normal situations bear spray will not kill a human, although it will be incredibly uncomfortable or even painful and can do severe damage. However, for people with asthma, compromised lungs, or breathing problems, a high dosage could cause a fatal reaction. For healthy individuals, this is extremely unlikely.
How can this be possible? If a bear spray can stop a giant bear, how can it be relatively weak harmless to healthy people?
Understanding How Bear Spray Works
Many people are surprised to learn that bear spray is actually often less concentrated than pepper spray. The reasons for this are fairly simple and start with intent.
Bears have a very sensitive sense of smell. According to this government study, bears not only have one of the best senses of smell in the world but it’s an INCREDIBLE 2,100 times more potent than a human’s sense of smell. Or 210,000% if you prefer that math.
That means an effective bear spray doesn’t need to be super concentrated. This is why the proper way to use a bear spray is to create a wide cone of the spray. With a bear’s sense of smell, running into that cone is a sudden sharp surprise and an instant sense of pain and discomfort.
In college we referred to those as the moments where you re-think your life choices.
This video is short, has some great safety tips for moving in bear country, and explains the proper way to use bear spray.
So why would this not overwhelm humans? The key is that sense of smell. Don’t get me wrong – you get hit with bear spray and to say it hurts is an understatement. It’s going to be incredibly painful. It’s going to be a bad time.
Technically, pepper spray is actually more heavily concentrated. That’s because pepper spray is meant to be used as non-lethal self-defense on people. So it’s designed to be highly concentrated and deter individuals.
From a practical standpoint this doesn’t matter much because the sheer amount of bear spray will overwhelm a person’s senses.
But barring an extreme freak accident or something like scarred lungs, asthma, etc, a can of bear spray to the face won’t kill a human. But it will drive off the overwhelming majority of overly curious and aggressive bears and it will likely put a person to the ground.
What you will experience from bear spray (also confirmed by a friend with first hand experience who worked theft prevention in an outdoor store – and had a VERY bad day once):
- Extreme irritation to eyes
- Temporary blindness
- Extreme burning and pain in the eyes, nose, and mouth
- Burning sensation
- Difficulty breathing/painful breathing
- Inflammation from extended pain
If you want more information on actually surviving a bear attack, then click on that link for more on how bear spray actually works on black bears and grizzly bears.
Speaking of Freak Accidents
While you aren’t likely to die from hitting a giant whiff of bear spray, much like an overly curious bear, you aren’t going to be happy. A friend of mine was once carrying a can of bear spray while working on a geological camp in Alaska.
I don’t remember whether they were setting up for finding oil or gold, but it was one of those forward camps to scout out and set up a base camp for future use and development.
One thing my friend noted was that the can of bear spray he was issued was expired and appeared to have a small dent. “In retrospect that was one of many, many red flags I shouldn’t have ignored,” he would later tell me.
Fast forward to about half way through an 8 week camp deployment and a bear that possibly had never run into people before was too curious and refused to be scared off. My friend used the bear spray, which immediately exploded in his hand, enveloping everything within 20 or 30 feet in bear pepper spray.
The descriptions of incredible pain, burning lungs, and blindness because of pain/pepper/tears that lasted over half an hour. Fortunately, the bear must have been equally unhappy because it was long gone by the time he recovered enough to begin to make his way back to base camp.
So even catastrophic failure of bear spray + bear didn’t result in death (fortunately) in that case.
So make sure to watch that expiration date.
Legal Issues with Bear Spray for Self Defense
Aside from the fact that bear spray isn’t designed to be as effective against people as conventional pepper spray, there are some potential legal issues if you use bear spray for self defense.
Now the important caveats: we’re not lawyers, this isn’t legal advice, and we’re not pretending to be legal experts in any way, shape, or form. This is just something where there’s enough *potential* information out there we need to touch on it.
Pepper spray is designated for self-defense against other people. Bear spray is not. Technically considered a “pesticide,” there’s a legal warning on the can about using it for other reasons beyond those listed.
So is it illegal to use this on a person? Technically yes. If you have a maniac running at you with a machete…you’re probably better off using it and dealing with the consequences.
Just be aware that this is a potential legal issue, although in a few hours of research I couldn’t find a specific situation where this did come up where the person arrested wasn’t already guilty of straight up assault.
EPA Approved Bear Spray Brands
We won’t spend too much time on the topic since we covered it extensively in our article of the EPA-Approved Bear Spray as well as individual reviews of each brand of approved bear spray.
Right now there are four brands of bear spray that are confirmed as EPA-approved. Each of these have been tested in the field and meet all the requirements to be used as bear spray. The link to each goes to the specific review we’ve done of each one based on our experience.
You can also see a more general overview with our review of best bear sprays, which is linked to above (the EPA-approved bear spray link). We’ve covered this topic extensively and it’s one that I’m passionate about because of my years living in Alaska.
As a note I will try to keep this list updated, but it’s possible you may hit this article when there’s another one to hit the market and before I update it. This is relatively rare but it does pop up every so often.
You should carry bear spray when hiking in bear country. This has been shown in multiple studies to be more effective than guns for the average hiker.
The story of my friend should also tell you why you need to make sure to keep an eye on that expiration date. If in doubt, spend the extra $30 to get a new can!