Bears and Sprays

fantasyUse a repellent, not an attractant!!

The big question, the one you don’t want to answer while face to fang with a grizzly, is: Does bear spray really work? The answer is a qualified “yes,” according to Stephen Herrero, Ph.D., author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, and professor of environmental science, University of Calgary, Alberta.

Dr. Herrero, a noted researcher of bear behavior and attacks, along with Andrew Higgins, a university colleague, examined 66 field cases in which various brands of spray were used on black and grizzly bears that displayed behavior ranging from overly curious to actively aggressive toward humans. They concluded that, “while we don’t know how these encounters would have ended in the absence of spray, the use…appears to have prevented injury in most cases,” Dr. Herrero says.

Dr. Herrero, other bear experts, and even spray manufacturers agree on one important point, however. Bear spray is a last resort after all other appropriate precautions–storing food in bearproof containers, keeping a clean camp, making lots of noise while hiking, steering clear of areas with fresh bear scat or digs–have failed and you suddenly find yourself confronted by an aggressive or persistent bruin. As Dr. Herrero says, “This stuff isn’t brains in a can.”

bear_in_trash1Key Ingredient

If you’re wondering what gives bear spray its zip and zing, think jalapenos, habaneros, cayenne-peppers, in other words. The hot varieties contain a potent chemical called capsaicin (cap-say-sin), plus related but milder compounds known as capsaicinoids. Just 1 ounce of purified capsaicin diluted in 750 gallons of water would make your tongue burn.

Capsaicin finds its way into bear spray in a form called oleoresin of capsicum (OC), which is basically dried, ground-up peppers in a vegetable oil base. The food industry uses OC to add pizzazz to everything from salsa to canned chili. Bear-spray manufacturers combine this thick OC with a liquid called a carrier so it comes out of the can in a fog-like spray. The final ingredient is the propellant.

If a typical 225-gram can (7.9 ounces) says it contains 10 percent OC, that means that 10 percent of the total weight (about 23 grams) of the canister’s contents is OC. The remaining 90 percent is carrier and propellant. It’s worth noting, though, that the percentage of OC is not necessarily an indication of how much actual capsaicin (the hottest compound) is present, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now requires bear-spray manufacturers to list the percentage of “capsaicin and related capsaicinoids” as the active ingredient instead of just the percentage of OC.

Accidental Discharge

Stay Calm, and Don’t Claw Your Eyes Out

Any substance that’ll change an 800-pound bear’s mind will sure as heck do some harm to a comparatively puny human. If you accidentally spray yourself, here’s what to do:

  • Manufacturers and chemists recommend lots of soap and water, which usually isn’t available in the backcountry. Plus we’ve found that splashing on water spreads the capsaicin and burns more skin. If you’re near a creek, submerge whatever part is affected, and try to do so for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • If it’s in your eyes, flush with lots and lots of water for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and discard contact lenses.
  • If you have vegetable or olive oil for cooking, rub some on the affected area to dissolve the capsaicin, then flush with water.
  • Don’t apply lotion or cream of any kind-even suntan lotion-to skin that’s been sprayed. You’ll only reactivate the capsaicin and intensify the burn.
  • Try to relax and wait it out. Hard to do, granted, but the burning will subside after an hour or so, and should vanish in several hours.

Expert Advice

How to Pick the Right Spray

When you walk into an outfitter shop armed with bear-spray questions, you take your chances. The guy behind the counter may truly know his stuff, or he could be the store’s wind-surfing expert. So it is best to consult some credible sources for information about choosing and using pepper spray:

  • The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: Formed in 1983 to coordinate grizzly bear recovery in the United States, it includes representation from all federal land management agencies as well as members from state agencies in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington, plus Canada.
  • Tom Smith, Ph.D.: A research wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Biological Science Center in Anchorage, Alaska, Dr. Smith has extensively tested and researched bear sprays.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA oversees the registration of all bear sprays in the United States.

Based on recommendations from these three sources, look for a bear spray that:

  • Is labeled “for deterring attacks by bears.” Avoid products labeled for use against humans because they won’t have the firepower you need.
  • Contains 1 to 2 percent capsaicin and related capsaicinoids, with a net weight of at least 225 grams or 7.9 ounces-this is considered the minimum effective size.
  • Is derived from oleoresin of capsicum (OC), the only currently EPA-approved active ingredient.
  • Is registered with the EPA to ensure compliance with standards for active ingredients and performance.
  • Delivers a shotgun-cloud pattern. Less-expensive, less-effective sprays often come out in a stream, rather than in a cloud pattern that you don’t have to aim as exactly. All EPA-registered sprays have a cloud pattern.
  • Hits the target at a minimum range of 25 feet, which is the distance at which you should fire if a bear is charging.
  • Has at least 6 seconds total spray time, as indicated on the label. This allows you multiple short bursts of spray if needed for a single persistent bear, or for multiple encounters on a long trip.
  • Is well within its expiration date. Replace unused bear spray canisters every 3 years to ensure against depressurization or degradation of contents. Use the old canister for practice sessions at home. You can also weigh the can on a postal scale when new, then at the beginning of each season. Replace the can when the weight drops below 75 percent of its original weight.

When And How To Use It


As a deterrent, on an aggressive or attacking bear. In other words, don’t spray a bear that’s just checking you out. If it’s coming at you purposefully and/or quickly, use the spray.

Do not spray it on people, tents, packs, other equipment, or the surrounding area as a repellent. Dr. Smith’s tests have shown that OC-based spray residue attracts bears “like catnip.” Likewise, don’t test-fire any spray in or near camp. We particularly like a comment we saw on one manufacturer’s Web site: “We think the people who spray their kids with this as a repellent are direct descendants of the woman who bathed her poodle, then tried to dry it in her microwave.”


Make sure it’s accessible at all times. After our field-test experiences, we recommend a hip holster over a chest model, to avoid the risk of spray blowing back in your face.

bear being sprayed

  • Remove the safety clip.
  • Aim slightly down and directly in front of the approaching bear. Try to adjust for any crosswind.
  • Spray a brief shot when the bear is about 50 feet away so it’ll walk into the spray.
  • If the bear continues to approach, spray again, this time aiming for the eyes and nose.
  • Once the animal has retreated or is busy cleaning itself, leave quickly, but don’t run.

Preventive Measures

  • Stay off trails at night, in early morning, and in evening, when bears are actively feeding.
  • Clap, sing, talk loudly, or make noise by clanging cups or pots, especially if you see fresh bear sign or are hiking on a trail with blind curves, near sound-covering streams, or in terrain where your vision is limited.
  • Stay away from, or be especially alert when near, prime bear habitat like berry patches, avalanche chutes, and streams with fish.
  • If you smell something dead or spot carrion birds like ravens and buzzards overhead, take another route. You may be about to encounter a carcass, or a bear guarding it.
  • Set up your kitchen at least 100 yards downwind of your tent.
  • Hang all food in sealed bags or use bearproof canisters.
  • Store all food at least 100 yards from your tent and kitchen. If you’re in an area of heavy bear activity, it’s a good idea to hang the clothes you cooked in, as well.BeerDrinkingBear-01

Do not sleep in the clothes you wore when cooking.

Sports Concussions

helmetThe term concussion describes an injury to the brain resulting from an impact to the head. By definition, a concussion is not a life-threatening injury, but it can cause both short-term and long-term problems. A concussion results from a closed-head type of injury and does not include injuries in which there is bleeding under the skull or into the brain. Another type of brain injury must be present if bleeding is visible on a CT scan (CAT scan) of the brain.

  • A mild concussion may involve no loss of consciousness (feeling “dazed”) or a very brief loss of consciousness (being “knocked out”).
  • A severe concussion may involve prolonged loss of consciousness with a delayed return to normal.

A concussion used to be referred to as a “ding to the head” or “having your bell rung” and wasn’t taken seriously.  Today we know that a concussion is a type of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that changes the way the brain normally works.  Even a mild bump to the head can be serious.

What Is A Concussion? 

A concussion is caused by a blow to the head or a jolt to the body such that the brain shakes within the skull.  In sports the blow can be from a fall or from an athlete colliding with another object – such as another player, a goal post, or the ground.  The impact doesn’t have to be directly to the skull; it can be to the upper body or part of the head, such as landing on one’s jaw.

What happens next is a chain of chemical changes within the brain.  These changes occur over hours and even days, which explains why often immediately after the impact the player might not seem so bad.  With any type of head injury, even mild, it’s essential that the athlete be removed from play and not returned that day.  If a player receives another hit to the head before the brain has a chance to heal, the results can be very serious – even causing death.  This is called Second Impact Syndrome. 

Signs And Symptoms

The following are signs to watch for:

Noticed by Others

  • Appears dazed or stunned
  • Is confused about assignment or position
  • Forgets an instruction
  • Is unsure of game, score, or opponent
  • Moves clumsily
  • Answers questions slowly
  • Loses consciousness (even briefly)
  • Shows mood, behaviour, or personality changes
  • Can’t recall events prior to hit or fall
  • Can’t recall events after hit or fall
Reported by Athlete

  • Headache or “pressure” in head
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance problems or dizziness
  • Double or blurry vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Feeling sluggish, hazy, foggy, or groggy
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Does not “feel right” or is “feeling down”

What to Do If an Athlete Gets a Head Injury

Remove the athlete from play!  Do not try to diagnose on the sidelines.  Inform the player’s parents/guardian and seek a medical evaluation.  The concussed player should not resume physical activity until cleared by a medical professional trained in head injury management.

 When to Seek Medical Care for Concussion

Call a doctor about any of the following situations. The doctor will recommend home care, set up an appointment to see the affected individual, or send the person to a hospital’s emergency department.

  • A person struck a hard object with the head (for example: tile floor, ice, bathtub) but did not lose consciousness
  • Mild dizziness or nausea after a head injury
  • Loss of memory of the event (amnesia) for just a few minutes
  • Mild headache with no vision disturbances

Go to an emergency department by ambulance in the following situations. For people with less severe injuries not requiring ambulance transport, a car may be taken to the hospital.

  • Severe head trauma, for example, a fall from more than the height of the person or a hard fall onto a hard surface or object with resulting bleeding or laceration.
  • Any child that loses consciousness as the result of a head injury.
  • Prolonged loss of consciousness (longer than two minutes)
  • Any delayed loss of consciousness (for example, the injured person is knocked out only momentarily, then is awake and talking, then loses consciousness again)
  • Vomiting more than once
  • Confusion that does not go away quickly
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Extreme drowsiness, weakness, or inability to walk
  • Severe headache
  • Loss of memory of the event (amnesia)
  • Perseverating (saying the same thing over and over)
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Slurred speech
  • Someone who takes warfarin (Coumadin) or platelet inhibitors like clopidogrel or aspirin for a medical problem and suffers a significant blow to the head.
  • If the person fails to regain consciousness after two minutes, however, or the injury is very severe even if two minutes have not passed, DO NOT move the person. Prevent movement of the neck, which may exacerbate spinal injuries. If the person needs to vomit, carefully roll the person onto his or her side without turning the head. Call 911 immediately for help.helmet 2

If you are unsure of the severity of the injury, take the person to the emergency department immediately.

 Field Evaluationhelmet 1

  • Perform a Scene Survey. If the casualty was wearing a helmet, inspect the helmet for indications of how the impact occurred, and if it was shattered. This will help to evaluate the external forces applied to the head.
  • Assess ABCs – Airway, Breathing, Circulation
  • Assess normal neurologic function such as reflexes and mental status. (AVPU)
  • Examine the casualty for other associated injuries, such as a neck injury or whiplash, that are common with head injury.
  • Examine pupil response…dilated or unresponsive pupils are a bad sign.
  • Check vital signs such as pulse, respirations, and blood pressure…a slow and bounding pulse, reduced respirations, and increasing blood pressure are bad signs.
  • Inspect for bleeding from the ears or nose as well as bruising around the eyes or behind the ears that is commonly seen with certain types of fractures to the base of the skull.

Many times people are concerned about a laceration on the scalp or face. These cuts may bleed and appear serious, but severe or life-threatening bleeding from such a cut is rare and would be recognized right away. The main concern will be to assess that there is not serious brain damage, or a neck or torso injury. The cut can be repaired later.

The best way to evaluate a person’s head injury is with a CT scan. This machine takes cross-sectional X-rays of the head (or other body parts), and a computer reassembles the information into images to let the doctor see details of the inside of the body. When a CT scan is used for a head injury, a doctor will look for evidence of bleeding under the skull or within the brain tissue itself.

  • With less serious head trauma, a doctor may choose not to do a CT scan. A minor concussion can safely be observed either at home or in the hospital for 24-48 hours. If no other serious signs of injury develop, the person will usually be safe.
  • Skull X-rays are no longer routinely used to evaluate a person with a concussion.
  • A concussion may be accompanied by a skull fracture. The patient may still have a skull fracture even though a doctor does not perform a CT scan or take X-rays. This is acceptable. The presence of a fracture does not, alone, increase the likelihood of an injury to the brain unless there are also other signs of head injury.
    • Skull fractures almost always heal well. Casts are not used on the head.
    • In rare cases, a leptomeningeal cyst may form. These are bulges of the bone and tissue at the site of the fracture, which develop months later. There is no way to predict their occurrence or to prevent them.
    • If the patient notices a bump forming months after a head injury, X-rays of the skull may be done at that time, and if there is a leptomeningeal cyst forming, the patient will be referred to a neurosurgeon for evaluation and treatment.

 Concussion Facts

  • Athletes who have had a concussion are at increased risk for another concussion.
  • Children and teens are more likely to get a concussion and take longer to recover than adults.

Myths vs. Reality

  • You need to be knocked out for it to be a concussion.  Most concussions do not result in a loss of consciousness, or blacking out. 
  • You cannot let a person with a concussion fall asleep.  We now know that the absolute best thing for the injured brain is rest.  Since your brain is used to process information from all your senses, “brain rest” means cutting back on every day activities such as watching TV, reading, video gaming, and using a cell phone.
  • My child needs a brain scan to diagnose a concussion.  The brain changes from a concussion cannot be picked-up by a scan.  Your doctor will determine if your child’s symptoms indicate the need for a brain scan, such as an MRI or CT, to determine the extent of the injury.   
  • An expensive helmet will prevent a concussion.  While a good quality helmet can help lessen the chances of a skull fracture, a helmet will do nothing to prevent the shaking of the brain inside the skull during a concussion.  In fact, some players feel overly confident with an expensive helmet and use the head against another player.  The head should never be used as a weapon and many sports are banning head-to-head hits.
  • If I report my concussion, I’ll never be able to play contact sports again.  It’s essential that a concussion be reported to your coach, family, and doctors.  Steps will be taken to allow your brain to heal.  Depending on the severity, most athletes recover fully from a concussion and can resume playing.