Though I’ve been fortunate enough never to have used bear spray, I’ve extensively educated myself on its proper use. Embarking on outdoor adventures offers the chance for up-close experiences with a vast array of wildlife—but some encounters, particularly those with bears, can become perilously close, underscoring the critical importance of both possessing and understanding the effective use of bear spray. This guide is designed to arm outdoorsmen and -women with the essential skills and knowledge needed to know how to use bear spray.

In this how-to video, a ranger from Banff National Park demonstrates how to use bear spray.

Table of Contents

  • How to Use Bear Spray
  • Bear Spray vs. Firearm
  • How to Carry Bear Spray
  • How to Store Bear Spray
  • FAQs
  • Final Thoughts
A hunter heads into grizz country armed with bear spray. Adobe Photostock/melissadoar

How to Use Bear Spray: A Step-by-Step Guide

Seeing a charging grizzly bear can induce panic—even among the most seasoned adventurers. However, knowing how to use bear spray effectively can de-escalate the situation—and save your life. Here’s a detailed guideline on how to use it:

1) Identify the Threat

Recognize the signs of an aggressive bear. Recognizing the signs of an aggressive bear in the wilderness is crucial for your safety. One clear indicator is if the bear is charging or stalking you, possibly exhibiting a bluff charge to test your reaction. Sometimes, a bear standing on its hind legs can signal aggressiveness, especially if combined with other alarming signs. You might also observe a bear stomping its feet as a demonstration of agitation and huffing, puffing, or clicking sounds as a warning. Swatting or biting at the ground or air and snapping or pop-jawing are additional signs of aggression.

Keep an eye on the bear’s ears; if pinned back, it signifies a defensive and threatened posture. A bear with focused attention, marked by pricked forward ears and a stiff-legged gait, could be gearing up for a charge. Making direct eye contact can sometimes be seen as a threat or challenge by the bear.

Lastly, a sudden stillness from the bear, coupled with a focused gaze on you, may indicate it’s assessing you as a threat or preparing to defend itself. In any bear encounter, quickly identifying these signs can help you respond appropriately to prevent escalating the situation.

2) Prepare the Canister of Bear Spray

Quickly grab the canister, remove the safety clip, and have a firm grip with both hands ready to aim and spray. Next, assess the wind direction. Before spraying, quickly assess the wind direction to avoid the spray blowing back at you.

3) Aim and Spray

Direct the spray slightly downwards, creating a deterrent wall between you and the bear. As the bear approaches, keep spraying to create a dense cloud that would deter the bear from progressing.

4) Safely Retreat

Once the bear is deterred, calmly retreat to a safe distance without turning your back on the bear. During this process, maintaining composure is critical. Practicing beforehand can help you stay calm and respond effectively in an actual situation.

Choose your weapon. Craig Caudill

Bear Spray vs. Firearm: What is the More Effective Deterrent?

Choosing between bear spray and firearms as a deterrent is crucial when it comes to bear encounters. Studies have shown that bear spray, being a non-lethal deterrent, has various advantages over firearms for the following reasons:

  • High Success Rate: Research has documented that bear spray has a higher success rate in warding off aggressive bears than firearms.
  • Safety and Legality: Bear spray minimizes the risk of a fatal accident and legal ramifications that might follow a firearm discharge.
  • Ease of Deployment: Bear spray requires less precision than a firearm, offering ease of use, especially in panic-stricken situations. Under extreme duress, we lose nearly all fine-motor skills—and more fine-motor skills are needed to accurately utilize a firearm than bear spray when and where the shot is needed.

How to Carry Bear Spray

How you carry a bear spray can significantly affect your reaction time during an emergency. Here are some tips:

  • Make Sure It’s Accessible: Ensure the bear spray is stored in an accessible location, such as a side pocket or a holster attached to your belt or backpack strap. 
  • Quick Retrieval: Avoid storing the bear spray in places where it would be hard to retrieve quickly, like deep inside your backpack. When it bears country, I prefer to carry it on a pack shoulder strap that makes it easily accessible, utilizing either hand to retrieve it. 
  • Familiarity with the Mechanism: Being familiar with the mechanism of the bear spray can help you use it swiftly when needed. Buy multiple canisters of bear spray you can find, and deploy one or two in practice before you need it. It is always best to practice and train in any physical skill that will be called upon under stress. (You can read our reviews of the best bear sprays here.)
  • Regulatory Adherence: Follow the regulations governing the transportation and usage of bear spray in various regions. This includes flight plan luggage and how long the spray will be left in a vehicle. 

How to Store Bear Spray

Storing bear spray properly is vital in preserving its effectiveness. Here are some pointers:

  • Cool, Dry Place: Store in a dry location, shielded from direct sunlight and heat sources to prevent deterioration.
  • Safe Yet Accessible: Ensure it’s accessible to users but inaccessible to children.
  • Regular Check: Conduct regular inspections for any damages or leaks and take note of the expiration date to replace it when necessary.


At what point should you use bear spray?

Utilize bear spray when a bear demonstrates aggressive behavior, or charges toward you, and other non-confrontational strategies have failed. Use it as a protective measure to prevent potential harm.

How long should you spray bear spray?

A continuous 2- to 3-second spray is recommended to create a dense barrier between you and the approaching bear. Be prepared to administer a more extended spray if the bear persists.

Do you run after spraying bear spray?

Bears have a predatory response to specific behaviors that they see. Avoid running or turning your back post-spraying, as it might trigger that response from the bear. Instead, back away slowly, maintaining eye contact, and proceed to a safer location.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, bear spray is essential for ensuring safety during outdoor adventures. Knowledge and preparation can turn a potentially dangerous encounter into a controlled and safe situation. Remember, the ultimate goal is to enjoy nature responsibly. Stay safe, and enjoy your adventures responsibly.