Gun vs pepper spray? Things to consider before heading to bear country

Theories on self-protection in bear country are easy to come by and, while I’m hesitant to say which of the methods is best, I can say conclusively which one is the worst:  Before heading into the backcountry, go to a gun shop and buy the biggest, baddest hand cannon you can lift and afford. 

Take it to the range once, set up a paper target about 20 feet away, and shoot enough holes in it to convince yourself that you’re a crack shot.  Strap that bad boy to your hip and head into bear country.  Now that you’re invincible, don’t bother to practice, don’t worry about making noise to let the bears know you’re coming, don’t bother with keeping a clean camp – all that stuff’s for wimps who don’t carry guns.

This scenario takes place more often than it should.  Way too many people see buying and carrying a firearm as the be-all and end-all of bear protection.  They’ve heard, and believed, the hero stories of guys drawing down on big, charging bears, invariably dropping the man-eating  monster at the feet of the shooter.  Do I think some of those tales are credible and factual?  Yes.  Do I believe all of them?  No, I do not.  We all have a tendency to paint ourselves in a favorable light when recounting stories, especially in an emotion-charged scenario like a bear attack.

The other side of that coin is the reluctance to recount events where we were scared or acted foolishly or perhaps even unlawfully.  You almost never hear stories that start out, “Yeah, I was mighty scared, and when that bear charged, I just froze.  Fortunately, it was a bluff charge, and the bear went her way and I went mine.”  And never, ever will you hear, “Yeah, I saw the bear at about 50 yards, and I freaked out and shot and wounded it, then ran in the opposite direction.”  Do I think that has happened time and time again?  Yes, I do.

So, what’s a responsible person’s best strategy for venturing into bear country?  (I’ll confine this article to brown/grizzly bear habitat.  Many of the same considerations work for black bear country, but to a lesser extent.)  Do you carry a gun, a can of pepper spray, or do neither and take your chances?

For starters, when you look at the numbers, your chances of being attacked and mauled or killed by a bear are astonishingly small.  During an average year in all of North America, three people are killed by bears.  Scores more are attacked, and hundreds more are bluff charged or in some way confronted by bears.  While a small threat exists, if it happens to you there’s nothing small or statistically insignificant about it.  It’s up to you to decide if that threat requires you to acquire some form of protection before your trip.

If you decide to carry something, your choices boil down to the lethal, meaning guns, or the non-lethal alternative of pepper spray.  Each method has pros and cons, as well as passionate advocates who will either completely validate your choice or tell you you’re an idiot for carrying a gun/carrying bear spray/carrying neither/even thinking of going into bear country in the first place.

The pros and cons of firearms vs. bear spray boil down to:  When deployed correctly and accurately, a gun will kill the attacking bear and prevent all future problems with that animal.   As they usually do, they can provide a sense of confidence for you and others in your party when traveling in bear country, assuming they’re comfortable with firearms.  Disadvantages include potential collateral damage to bystanders, and the possibility of making a bad situation worse by wounding a bear, requiring the shooter to track down and dispatch the animal, or leaving it to either die or attack others.

Bear spray has been shown to be very effective at deterring bears, and it carries no wounding or permanent collateral damage risk.  Disadvantages include problems in rainy and/or windy weather, and transporting the spray in airplanes and across borders can be problematic.  Finally there are the legions of folks who carry neither, and somehow manage to live to hike another day.

So, what to do?  If you’re comfortable with firearms, and decide you need to carry one into bear country, your next question is, which one?  If you’re going to be hunting large animals and already have a .338 WinMag or a .375 H&H, you’re in good shape.  These two calibers probably account for a majority of the large caliber rifles employed in big bear country.  Next, if you’ll be hunting or traveling with a smaller caliber, do you upgrade to a big magnum, or go with your old faithful albeit more sedate smaller caliber rifle of choice?  As in all things, it depends.  If you can upgrade in time to get in plenty of practice, and if you can shoot the bigger gun without developing a severe flinch, and if you’ve been looking for a good excuse to buy a new rifle, have at it.  However, shooting a .30/06 well trumps shooting a .375 poorly almost every time.  There’s no reason to feel under gunned with an ought-six, a 7 mm Mag or even a .270 if you’re using bullets of adequate weight and construction and you can shoot it well under pressure.  As in all hunting, putting the right bullet in the right place beats the hell out of missing with a much bigger gun.

If you’re not hunting, the choice comes down to long gun vs. handgun.  And if you pick long gun should you go with a rifle or a shotgun?  There’s a fair amount of personal preference and comfort involved in this selection, but some of the pros and cons include:  Long guns generally have superior power and ballistics, but the downsides include ease of carry and size/weight.  Handguns suffer in the stopping power category, but the big advantage is you’re more likely to always have the weapon on your person, even if you’re just stepping away from the campsite for a quick look around or to answer nature’s call.   Shotguns, especially the short-barreled pistol-grip models, fall somewhere in between in terms of stopping power and ease of carry.

Once you’ve decided on a gun, ammunition choice is your next hurdle.  In rifle or handgun cartridges, you want a bullet with maximum penetration characteristics.  You’re looking for something that’ll break big bones and do maximum damage quickly.  Since handguns suffer from inferior power, bullet choice is especially important.  This means no jacketed soft points for your Redhawk – you want something solid, and +P if you can find it.  The new Smith & Wesson 460 and 500 offer good choices in bullets, but be prepared for a bit of sticker shock when checking out prices.  For shotguns, the best choices are probably slugs.  A word on the shotgun choice- if you’re going to carry a short barreled 12 gauge with a pistol grip, do yourself a favor and get in some practice ahead of time.  They can be a handful in more ways than one.

Finally, carrying bear spray doesn’t mean you’re excused from practice.  Buy a sacrificial can and practice with it so you can see how the spray behaves in a variety of weather conditions, and what the cloud of spray looks and sounds like.

Whether you decide on gun, spray or none of the above, it’s your duty to behave in an ethical and responsible manner in bear country.  Know how to travel, hunt and camp in a manner that minimizes the chances of an encounter, pay close attention to your surroundings at all times, and don’t allow bearanoia to keep you out of the woods or cause you to behave foolishly.  And have fun- your chances of problems are slight and the rewards for spending time in bear country are great.  See you out there.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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