Most Common Bear Spray Mistakes

You’ve armed yourself with a canister of bear spray.  You’ll be safe if you have an encounter with a bear, right? A lot of people – including experienced hikers and campers – make these common mistakes with bear spray.


1. Not Practicing with the Bear Spray

Practice canister of bear spray

This is by far the biggest mistake people make with bear spray.  Bear attacks can happen without much warning.  You MUST be able to get your bear spray and deploy it within a second’s notice, all while your adrenaline is pumping.  That simply isn’t possible without practice.

If you’ve ever had to deploy bear spray, you’ll also know that it is surprisingly forceful it is. The recoil can cause you to aim too high, thus missing the bear.

Various brands sell tester canisters of bear spray for practicing with.  These canisters are identical to bear spray just without the capsicum.  It is well worth the cost of the tester can.


  • Getting the bear spray out of the holster
  • Removing the safety in the dark or without looking
  • Aiming the canister
  • Firing the bear spray while still looking at your target
  • Shooting the spray in various types and directions of wind


2. Test Firing the Bear Spray

While it is smart to practice with bear spray, you never want to fire a test shot from the bear spray you’ll be taking with you in bear country.  Most bear spray canisters only have about 7 seconds worth of spray in them.  The first second of spray is most powerful.  After that, the force dwindles down significantly.

If you’ve test fired a canister of bear spray, chances are you won’t have enough bear spray to repel the attack.  The spray might not reach far enough to hit the bear either.

Now that this bear canister has been sprayed, it will be a lot less effective against a bear attack.


3. Not Keeping the Bear Spray Somewhere Accessible

Bear spray is going to be completely useless if you’ve got it stored in your backpack. It must be kept somewhere accessible.

The best way to wear bear spray is in a belt holster or a chest holster. This ensures the bear spray is on you at all times and always within reach.

What about backpack hip belt holsters or should strap holsters?

Some people attach the bear spray to their backpack hip belt or shoulder strap.  These places do keep the bear spray accessible while hiking.  But what if you take your backpack off? I definitely don’t wear my pack while going to the bathroom!  And I don’t trust myself to remember to carry the spray with me every time I take the pack off, such as when setting up camp or filtering water.

For these reasons, a holster which isn’t attached to your pack is the best way to go.

The same applies to bikers. There are holsters designed for carrying bear spray in your water bottle holder, but this only keeps the bear spray accessible when you are on your bike.  Better to have it on your person at all times instead.

counter assault bear spray holster

The brand Counter Assault makes three types of bear spray holsters. UDAP and Frontiersman also have good options. Check them out here on REI or here on Amazon.


4. Losing the Spray

Colin Dowler started his hike with bear sprayYour pants pocket keep bear spray accessible, but it doesn’t prevent you from losing the bear spray.

This is what happened to Colin Dowler. He started his hike with bear spray in his pocket but lost it somewhere on the trail.  The mistake was almost deadly. As he headed home, he encountered a brown bear who started attacking him.  He tried to follow the advice to play dead but the animal was chopming on  his leg.  As he said, “I can’t play dead while I’m screaming.”

Dowler managed to survive because he stabbed the bear with a pocket knife – but required more than 200 staples to treat his 50+ gashes.

The moral? Don’t lose your bear spray.


5. Forgetting to Take Off the Ties

When you buy bear spray, there will be plastic zip ties holding the safety on.  You MUST remove the ties before you hit the trail! Otherwise you won’t be able to deploy the spray if you need it.

Bear spray with safety ties still on

Bear spray with safety ties still on


6. Using Bear Spray Like Insect Repellent

Even though bear spray is called “repellent”, it is not to be used like insect repellent.  It’s more like a self-defense item than a repellent.

Apparently there are a lot of people who don’t realize this and spray it all over their tent, backpacks, clothes, etc.   In fact, this could even attract bears because they might come to check out the scent.


7. Not Having One Canister Per Person

I know bear spray can be expensive at about $50 per canister.  But don’t try to save money by sharing one can amongst your group of hikers.  Each person needs their own canister of bear spray.

Foremost, you probably aren’t going to be together every second of your outdoors trip (I don’t take company with me on bathroom trips!).  It sometimes takes more than one canister of bear spray to stop an attack – especially if the first canister was fired too early or too high.   The more people with bear spray, the safer you will be.

UDAP is one of the most popular and affordable brands of bear spray. It’s cheaper when you buy it as a two pack.
This set includes two canisters and two holsters.


8. Spraying Too Soon

Bear spray is meant to be a last resort.  Yes, if you see a bear, get the bear spray out and remove the safety — but don’t fire the spray right away.  Most times, simply announcing your presence by talking and slowly waving your arms overhead while you back away is enough to keep the bear away.

If the bear approaches within 30 feet, spray a 1/2 to 1-second warning shot. If the bear charges and gets within 20 to 30 feet, then start firing the spray in 1-second blasts in a zigzag pattern, aiming slightly downwards.

A full canister of bear spray can shoot at least 25 feet.


9. Using Expired Bear Spray

The capsicum in bear spray can weaken over time, thus making it less effective as it ages. You will need to replace the bear spray when it expires.  Even better, before it expires.  After all, do you really want to trust an expired product with your safety?

What should you do with expired bear spray? Use it as a tester spray.  You are practicing, right?


10. Keeping Bear Spray in Your Car

You know those warnings that bear spray can explode if left somewhere hot, like the inside of your car?  Yes – that actually can happen.  Like this case of exploding bear spray which shredding the holster.  Or this case where someone left bear spray in the car and “the hot sun turned it into a spice missile that shattered the windshield and coated the inside in no-no foam.”

There’s also this story of a canister of bear car that got left in the car after a camping trip. The canister ended up under the passenger seat. The passenger tried to move the seat back and punctured the can. While driving.  It’s a miracle that an accident didn’t occur.

The moral? Take those warnings seriously.  Don’t leave bear spray in the heat and put it away immediately after your trip.


11. Thinking You Don’t Need Bear Spray

Just because the risk of getting attacked by a bear is incredibly low, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring bear spray.   With few exceptions when it’s okay to use bear spray alternatives, it is downright irresponsible not to take bear spray with you in bear territory.

It’s better to have bear spray and not need it than need it and not have it.  So be a responsible outdoorsperson: get bear spray, get a good carrying holster, and practice using it.

Image credits:
“Bear spray” (CC BY 2.0) by jkbrooks85
“dh 46” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by vikapproved
“Bear Spray” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Flying Puffin

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button