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Bear Spray Basics: What to know before hitting the trails this summer

"We want to keep bears wild and in wild places, and we want people to be safe. And bear spray is one way to get there."
BEAR SPRAY
Posted at 8:59 AM, Jun 10, 2024

BOZEMAN — If you live in Montana, that means you live in bear country. And as hiking season ramps up, you're going to want to know the basics of bear spray.

“What bear spray is, it's a concentrated capsaicin oil, or hot chili pepper oil, that is specifically used on bears and wildlife,” says Morgan Jacobsen, information and education officer for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), Region 3.

Unlike pepper spray, bear spray is a safety mechanism used to deter bears and other wildlife in emergency situations. Bear attacks are fairly rare in Montana, averaging about 1 per year according to FWP. But bears are still wild animals and can be unpredictable, which is why we carry bear spray.

“What it does is it inhibits a bear’s ability to see, breathe, and smell. And in 90-plus percent of the time, when it's used properly, has changed the bear's behavior,” says Morgan.

Montana has the highest grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states. FWP estimates there are thousands of grizzlies in Montana alone.

So I asked Morgan, “What type of trails do you think people should be carrying bear spray on?” and he replied, “Anywhere in Montana. Especially west of Billings."

I was curious if local hikers were following this advice, so I hit the Sypes Canyon and Drinking Horse trailheads.

I asked six hikers if they were carrying bear spray with them on their hike. To my surprise, everyone I asked said they were not carrying bear spray. Mostly because they thought the trails they were hiking were too populated for bears.

But according to Morgan, “The location is less important than actually just carrying it."

Morgan tells me most bear attacks where a person is injured are unexpected and occur in two or three seconds, so having bear spray readily accessible is vital.

“Most people will carry it on their hip, or a chest holster, or a side pocket,” says Morgan.

Hikers should also be sure they know how to use bear spray before hitting the trails. So Morgan showed me the basics.

Remove the safety tab, and when the animal is about 60 feet away deploy two-to-three second blasts, aiming low to create a ground cloud for the bear to run into.

“If you’re close enough to a bear to deploy bear spray we encourage people to do that. Regardless of the bear's behavior or species. We want to reinforce that behavior. We want to keep bears wild and in wild places, and we want people to be safe. And bear spray is one way to get there,” says Morgan.

Also be sure to check your bear spray’s expiration date. Morgan tells me an expired can likely won’t work, as the gasket on the bottles will wear out over time.