Staying Safe in Bear Country: Bear Spray & Firearms

A family of 4 stand at a booth with a sign that reads "Bear Spray Rentals"

NPS Photo / Jim Peaco

Bear spray and firearms are the last tools in your toolbox. They should not provide a false sense of security.

It is recommended that you carry bear spray when hiking in bear country. However, some parks do not allow the possession or use of bear spray. Check park regulations before your trip.

Have your bear spray ready. Keep your bear spray on a belt holster or on a chest holster at all times. Never keep it in your backpack while hiking—you won’t be able to reach it in time if a bear charges or attacks you.

Know when to spray it. Only use your bear spray when the bear is charging or attacking you. When an aggressive charging bear is within 60 feet of you, this is the time to use it!

Know how to use your bear spray. Practice using bear spray before you go hiking, so you know what to do when the time comes. Practice pulling the canister out of its holster and removing the safety on the trigger, but be careful to not discharge it. Inert (non-active) cans are available for training purposes.

When a bear attacks or charges you, spray a cloud between you and the bear, and be ready to spray multiple times or empty the can.

  • Point the canister at a slight downward angle and fire toward the bear.
  • Strong winds will affect spray distance and direction. Snow, rain, and cold weather will decrease spray distance. Always be upwind if possible.

Bear spray is not meant to be worn; it’s an irritant. Never spray on skin, clothing, camping gear, or other personal items. Always keep bear spray secure, and never leave it in your enclosed, hot vehicle when it’s not being carried.

Have the right bear spray. Be sure to buy EPA-approved bear spray. It’s the only kind that’s effective enough to ward off or stop an aggressive bear. Personal protection or law enforcement sprays aren’t strong enough to affect the bear’s senses. Many law enforcement or personal protection sprays shoot out in a narrow stream instead of a dispersed cloud, which makes it harder to hit a charging bear.

Be sure to check if your brand of bear spray is allowed in certain parks, or allowed outside of the United States if you’re travelling in a park that shares an international border. Always check park regulations before bringing or purchasing bear spray.

Firearms

Firearms are not recommended for stopping an attack. Using a firearm during a bear attack may only worsen the attack. An injured bear will be more aggressive, especially during a fight. It’s also harder to hit a charging bear with a firearm rather than bear spray, and a firearm can be dangerous to any hiking partners. While firearms have been effective at stopping an attack, they aren’t recommended.

Wounded bears can be even more dangerous. If a bear is wounded with a firearm, it can potentially be defensive or aggressive. This can put park rangers and other park visitors at risk if a wounded bear must be tracked down.

Firearms are not a substitute for proper bear avoidance practices and knowing how to properly handle a bear encounter.

Bear spray is the recommended tool for self defense against a bear. Bear spray is easy to use without much experience, and it’s a highly effective tool for stopping or deterring attacks.

The NPS strives to protect wildlife populations. If a firearm is effectively used during an encounter, it can be lethal for the bear, while bear spray allows the bear to likely remain in the population.

If a firearm is used in self-defense against a bear, contact park authorities immediately. Federal regulations prohibit the use or discharge of any weapon within a park area. The applicability of a state statute pertaining to self-defense in a wildlife encounter may vary state to state and by park area and will generally take into account any provoking or negligent actions by the person.

Last updated: June 29, 2018