Guns, Bears, & Spray

Posted In: Alaska, Blog, Campfire Question, Camping Gear, National Parks, RV Products, Wildlife, Yellowstone

From time to time we receive questions about bears and camping. Often these questions mention firearms. For example, “What kind of gun should I carry into national parks to shoot and kill attacking bears?” For most people, we recommend carrying bear spray ( instead of guns to repel aggressive bears. In this article we’ll address why.

Let me begin by stating that this question has nothing to do with gun rights. We’re not debating the right to bear arms (or the right to bare arms, or even the right to arm bears). This question is about what tool is most appropriate for the job at hand. In this case, the job is repelling bears. You don’t need a gun to repel a bear. In fact, there is arguably a better alternative.

Bear spray repels grizzly bears. It's safer, less hassle, and arguably more effective then relying on a handgun (especially a small caliber handgun). Click the pic for more into.

Bear spray repels grizzly bears. It's safer, less hassle, and arguably more effective then relying on a handgun (especially a small caliber handgun). Click the pic for more into.


Many people have an understandable fear of bears, especially those of the grizzly variety. “Death by animal attack” is on every Top 10 Worst Ways to Die list. Indeed it would be a terrible way to go.

Bears are powerful animals equipped with knifelike claws and sharp teeth. One swat of a grizzly bear’s paw can easily kill a grown man. It’s even worse when the victim doesn’t die quickly, but rather from an extended mauling.

We’ve all heard the horror stories. It seems that once every year, some poor soul gets mauled to death by a bear. Usually the attack involves a grizzly. It sometimes happens in and around our our Western national parks, especially places like Yellowstone and Glacier.

For example, a few years ago a rogue grizzly entered a campground in Cooke City, Montana (located near Yellowstone) where many tent campers were sleeping. The grizzly attacked and killed one man who was simply sleeping inside his tent. That would be a terrifying way to die.

Then there was the time my wife and I visited Denali National Park in Alaska. “There’s never been a bear-related human fatality in the park,” the bus driver cheerfully told us. Well, the Denali bus drivers don’t say that any more. A few days after our visit, a hiker was mauled to death by a grizzly. Said hiker violated multiple rules about interacting with bears. He moved closer and closer to take photographs, eventually provoking the bear and paying for those nice photos with his life.

So if you’re intimidated by bears, that is understandable and rational. Bears are fascinating precisely because they are such awesome predators. No one, even the most die hard animal rights activist, wants to end up in the belly of a hungry grizzly.


Fear of bears is normal. With that said, consider these statistics as they relate to bear attack.

For every 1 human death by bear…

13 people are killed by snakes

17 people are killed by spiders

45 people are killed by dogs

120 people are killed by bees

150 people are killed by tornadoes

374 people are killed by lightning

60,000 people are killed by other humans

Looking at these statistics, we can draw a few conclusions. I’m going to dispense with the fluff and go straight to the heart of the matter: human beings are much more dangerous than bears – maybe 60,000 times more dangerous.

Of course, we interact with human beings much more often than we do bears. I guess if we had 314 million bears roaming the streets, we might have a few more bear attacks. But bears, as a threat to your personal safety, rank far lower on the animal list than dogs and bees and snakes, to name a few. Do you pack heat to protect yourself against bees? Probably not.

So do you need to carry a gun to protect yourself from bears? My answer is no, and that’s based on a few common sense observations.

First of all, your odds of having a “negative human/bear interaction” are incredibly slim. Quite simply, even when touring a national park, it’s highly unlikely that you will ever encounter an aggressive bear. In fact, the odds of dying in a bear attack have been pegged at 1 in 36 million.

My wife and I hike frequently. We’ve seen plenty of bears from healthy distances, We’ve even had a couple of situations in which previously unseen wild bears have emerged from nearby forested areas.

But in both instances, the interaction was not negative. The bear saw us. We saw the bear. Our adrenaline pumped. We went home with a thrilling experience. The bears went on about their business. Most bears (especially grizzly bears) don’t want anything to do with people. Bears do not hunt people.

We’ve encountered wild bears, both grizzly and black, sometimes up close. The grizzly was in Alaska, where the bear was feeding on salmon. The black was in Wyoming, where the bear was feasting on berries. In each case, the bear mostly ignored us.

Yep, this really happened. Once in Alaska, a grizzly wandered through the campsite next door - briefly stopping to taste the picnic table! She wandered on. No bear spray required. (Click the pic for bear spray.)

Yep, this really happened. Once in Alaska, a grizzly wandered through the campsite next door - briefly stopping to taste the picnic table! She wandered on. No bear spray required. (Click the pic for bear spray.)


But suppose the bear had charged? For this possibility, we carry bear spray. (We own Counter Assault brand bear spray, but there are several alternatives.)

Bear spray is a special pepper spray that is formulated to neutralize aggressive bears.

Bear spray is pretty much what you expect. You simply point the business end of the spray nozzle at a bear, pull the trigger, and the spray launches form the canister.

The good news? The spray reaches 12 to 32 feet.

The bad news? You need to be reasonably close to the bear (say, within 12 to 32 feet) for bear spray to be effective. The canister empties in approximately 9.2 sec. And you get one shot.

Yes, you get one shot. But that one shot lasts almost 10 seconds, which should be plenty of time to spray the stuff into the face of the bear – assuming said bear is within range.

In truth, it’s the “one shot” aspect of bear spray that bothers me. With this in mind, it really makes sense to carry a couple of cans of bear spray.


What about guns? Doesn’t it make sense to carry a gun instead? Let’s leave fear and emotion out of the debate, and consider the question rationally. You certainly have the right to carry a firearm and shoot an attacking bear, even in our national parks.

Would you get more shots at the bear with a gun? Not necessarily. There are a few problems with relying on a gun – especially a handgun – for bear protection.

The first problem is accuracy. Suppose you are charged by a grizzly bear. Grizzly bears are capable of sprinting at targets at a high rates of speed approaching 35 MPH. During a bear charge situation, you will probably have time for only one shot, or two at the most.

With bear spray, the “shot” is a continuous burst of repellent that can be continuously aimed at the bear over a period of ten seconds. With a gun, you are reliant on single bullets (probably only one or two), aimed once.

Will you be able to hit a charging bear’s central nervous system firing a handgun in a stressful situation? Accuracy is always an issue when firing handguns at moving targets.

Perhaps you would be more accurate shooting a large caliber rifle at the charging bear. Do you want to go hiking with a large loaded caliber rifle strapped to your back? There’s a strong possibility (for most of us, a probability) that you will miss the primary target. The result will be an agitated and angry bear.

Another problem with guns is caliber capacity. To incapacitate a bear, you will likely need a large caliber weapon. Consider that a typical .22 or .38 handgun will not deliver enough deadly force to kill a bear (unless the shot is a highly unlikely direct up-the-nose hit on the bear’s central nervous system). In fact, in most cases a .22 or .38 projectile will not even shatter a grizzly bear’s bone mass. Probably the smallest handgun you could effectively employ would be a .44, and experts will debate whether even this caliber is enough.

Bear spray is always loaded. If you are relying on a gun for bear safety, it’s of no use to you unloaded or in an inaccessible location. You don’t want to spend precious seconds fumbling to find bullets and load the weapon. You need to have the loaded gun in a handy location. Do you want to have a loaded gun at the ready at all times? Most people would prefer to keep their guns in an unloaded state.

There are other factors that lead one to favor bear spray. It’s easy to carry a can of bear spray strapped to one’s hip. Bear spray weighs very little, it’s always loaded and ready, and there’s no risk to the carrier. It’s an appropriate tool for the job.

Finally, there’s one more point to make about bear spray vis-a-vis handguns: no one ever got accidentally shot and killed by a can of pepper spray. My wife and I were camping in Yellowstone last summer when 3-year old Ella Marie Tucker shot & killed herself with her own father’s handgun. The father had left the loaded handgun (which he mistakenly believed was unloaded) in a cooler. It was found by the young child, and the tragedy unfolded. I will never forget hearing that shot ring out in the campground on a beautiful summer morning – and the frantic screams that followed. Yes, the shooting occurred a few campsites away from us. It was a sad day, and a piece of that sadness will always be with us.

In conclusion, I will reiterate that this issue has nothing to do with gun rights. It’s about choosing the correct tool for the job. If you want to carry a gun to deal with HUMAN threats to your safety, we would have a completely different conversation.

But for BEARS? Remember, despite whatever fears you may harbor, aggressive bear encounters are exceedingly rare. I know many of you will disagree with me, but I think it’s easier, safer, and just plain more effective to carry bear spray to deal with problem bears.

Where I come from, there was one respected and feared Bear. (Click the pic for Bear Bryant Spray.)

Where I come from, there was one respected and feared Bear. (Click the pic for Bear Bryant, I mean BEAR, Spray.)

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