Early into my ultimate Interstate road trip, and long before I’d given any thought to bear spray, somebody convinced me I ought to pack a can of Mace, just in case of . . . you know.
So I dutifully added a chapstick-size canister of Mace Brand Pepper Spray to my trip supplies, tucking it away in the spare tire well, where it would do me good only if a potential attacker agreed to pause while I dug it out.
I almost forgot I had the stuff until the holiday weekend I veered off Interstate 90 near Livingston, Montana, in order to spend some time in Yellowstone National Park. After I paid my entrance fee, a ranger at the park’s north entrance handed me an official flyer whose headline read, “Yellowstone is a Dangerous Place.” A few days previously, a ten-year-old boy hiking with his family in the park had been attacked and injured by a bear, the ranger said, and the park service wanted to remind visitors that it was necessary to be prepared for wildlife encounters.
What’s Yellowstone without bear spray?
Among the brochure’s list of safety tips, the one that most gave me pause was, “Carry bear spray and know how to use it,” which is why I spent my first half hour in the park digging through the back of my SUV to get to the spare tire well.
Bison, bears, and elk have injured and killed people, the brochure said, so visitors shouldn’t approach or feed an animal. And as for bears in particular, in addition to the advice about bear spray, it cautioned:
- Hike in groups of three or more people.
- Make noise to avoid surprise encounters.
- Never run from a bear. They have an instinct to chase.
- Keep food and trash in bear-proof storage.
The Mace canister in my pocket, I felt secure enough exploring the park that day, especially since my only close encounter with an animal came when a bison ambling past where I sat in my parked car briefly turned his head and gave me a look that, I swear, could only have meant “Whassup?”
Ask about bears before paying for your tent site
But then the evening came, and I was checking into one of the two KOA campgrounds near the park’s west entrance. I’d just paid for a tent site for the night, having been mildly surprised that one was available on such short notice on a holiday weekend, when I overheard the guy behind the counter in the camp store talking to some other customers about a rumored bear sighting that had resulted in some tent campers spending the night in the lobby of the Super 8 Motel next door.
It was a story I wished I’d heard before I paid for the tent site, especially since when I produced my can of Mace to get an opinion on its effectiveness, the guy behind the counter told me I had the wrong thing.
“What you want is bear spray,” he said, pointing to a shelf full of canisters about five times the size of mine. “Counter Assault Bear Deterrent,” the canisters were labeled. Above them, displayed prominently, was a sign that read “No refunds.”
Mace the brand name, it turns out, is not necessarily the same thing as Mace the chemical deterrent. Originally, Mace was an aerosol formulation containing phenacyl chloride, or CN, also the original ingredient in tear gas. While CN is still around, its toxicity can make it a risk to the user as well as the target. So it has largely been replaced by a formula whose irritant is oleoresin capsicum, or OC, a natural ingredient derived from the same type of hot peppers used in spicy foods. And while a connection with five-alarm chili might cast doubt on the deterrent power of pepper spray, OC is in some ways faster acting and more effective than CN.
Which would all be confusing enough, except that, in addition, the pepper spray used as a deterrent against humans, whether it is the Mace brand or another, is almost, but not quite, the same as the pepper spray used as a bear deterrent.
Chemically, the difference is that the human deterrent is more powerful, containing 10 % OC (any more would be unacceptably toxic), while bear spray contain only a 2 %, which tests, conducted, one hopes, under controlled conditions, have proven is enough to deter a bear but not enough to do it any lasting damage.
Physically, the smaller canister the irritant intended for humans comes in is designed to produce, in a quick burst, a narrower, more concentrated aerosol stream that can be aimed into an assailant’s eyes at close range. The larger canister of the bear deterrent, on the other hand, is designed to create a more diffuse, longer spraying, cloud-like barrier that will turn the bear away.
Bear spray versus firearms
How effective is bear spray? According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a study has shown that 50% of people who attempted to protect themselves from a grizzly bear attack with a firearm were injured, while those who used bear spray “escaped injury most of the time.”
“You sell a lot of this?” I asked the guy behind the counter, my instinct for survival somewhat dampened by the bear spray’s $38.00 price tag.
“Tons,” he said. “But like I tell everyone, the most important thing is to read the instructions ahead of time.”
So I bought a canister, pitched my tent, which under the circumstances was closer to the campground’s trash bins than I would have preferred, read the instructions so many times that I had to replace my lantern batteries, and then spent the rest of the night coming very close on several occasions to firing the bear spray at what turned out to be ground squirrels.
In the morning, feeling sheepish about what now seemed an excess of caution, I walked over to the camp store, where the guy behind the counter greeted me with, “No refunds on bear spray.”