Bear spray doesn’t help much if it’s at the bottom of your pack or if you don’t know how you use it. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Don’t rely on bear spray in the back country, experts say

Not knowing how to use bear spray properly can lead to a grizzly scene

  • Thu Jul 27th, 2017 9:00am
  • Life

By Jamie-Lee McKenzie

What’s the deal with bear spray? If you have it, are you safe?

Bear spray is known to be a valuable tool in bear encounters. It contains capsaicin and it’s not lethal. The nasty symptoms experienced by the bear are said to be enough to stop an attack.

It can be a great tool to help protect you and it can actually work if you run into a bear. But bear spray alone will not necessarily save your life.

“I don’t recommend it to people and say ‘Here you go and everything will be fine,’” said Jesse Cooke, owner of the Klondike Experience in Dawson City. “I recommend they take it as long as they know how to use it and understand bear safety in general.”

The problem is that many people think that just having bear spray means they’re safe, say people with experience in the back country. People need to know how to use bear spray properly, because not understanding how it works it can be more dangerous than not having bear spray at all.

A lot of people feel very comfortable with it and it’s an extra deterrent, says Cooke. Bear spray is just one little part of the puzzle. But bear spray is not going to make your journey any safer unless you know how to use it and unless you’re able to use it, he said. It can be dangerous, you can end up hurting yourself with it and if you don’t know how to use it, it’s no good.

“Bear safety goes a lot deeper than just carrying bear spray with you,” said Cooke.

Awareness supersedes any sort of deterrent, says Mike Taras, a wildlife education and outreach specialist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Recognizing bear signs, proper behaviour and being aware that there could be more bears in an area will all help prevent bear encounters, he says.

Although Taras does recommend bear spray as a deterrent against bears, he still stresses to everyone the importance of knowing how to handle yourself in a bear encounter — and knowing how to properly use bear spray is just as important.

For many people who understand bears well enough, bear spray is often a last resort. It’s their knowledge of bear behaviour that they rely on to protect them in bear encounters., said Cooke, adding that there are many other ways to get out of a bear situation long before you’d have to use bear spray.

Alexandra Morrison was born and raised in the Yukon. Her family hiked the Chilkoot Trail often and someone always packed bear spray, but they also had a strong awareness of bears.

Morrison still spends a lot of time in the wild, mountain biking, hiking, canoeing and camping. Morrison carries bear spray with her, but she’s never had to use it in any encounters with a bear.

During a hike a couple of years ago, Morrison and her partner were on a trail southeast of Whitehorse when they noticed a “beautiful grizzly” just ahead of them. Rather than panic or pull out her bear spray, Morrison decided to quietly climb further up the mountain and let the bear pass them. When the bear eventually did catch wind of their presence, she began making loud noises and yelling until the bear finally moved on.

“Bear spray and bear awareness and safety seem to go more hand in hand,” said Morrison.

Cooke said he’s never had to use bear spray during bear encounters either. Instead he’s relied on his knowledge and used other techniques, like making a lot of noise to scare the bear away.

Bear spray can give you false confidence, and it’s no good if it’s at the bottom of your backpack, said Cooke.

What’s important is knowing how to use bear spray. Hikers need to understand how it works to use it properly. That starts with not relying only on bear spray alone when during bear encounters.

“I would hope that if you go out into the woods you are aware of the dangers and you would educate yourself on how to avoid them,” said Morrison.

Contact Jamie-Lee McKenzie at jamielee.mckenzie@yukon-news.com