When you are Wilderness Backpacking in Bear country what do you carry for self-defense? Bear spray or a firearm. I have been asked this question and my answer was always a firearm.
I have backpacked solo in many remote and rugged Wilderness areas in North America. I have always felt safe carrying just my firearm. Lately I have been researching bear attacks in Wilderness areas and I found that statistically bear spray is more effective in deterring bears than a firearm. I thought that this would be good article to write discussing my thoughts and presenting the pros and cons for each.
During the last few years there has been an increase in bear attacks on humans. Some of the attacks have been in residential areas where civilization is encroaching into bear habitats, while many others have been in Wilderness areas. Staying alert and understanding clues you come across in Bear country, such as Bear scat, tracks, and claw marks on trees is essential.
To understand these encounters lets talk about the types of bears species that you may encounter in North America. There are a total of (8) Bear species in the world. In North America the (2) species that you may encounter in a Wilderness area are the Black Bear and Brown Bear. The Brown Bear is commonly referred to as a Grizzly Bear. Most Bears will avoid you and for the most part you may never see one on any of your adventures.
Black Bears are omnivorous and they mostly eat plants and some animals. The name Black Bear indicates its species and not necessarily its color. You may see a Black Bear that is Brown and on rare occasions white. They can weigh up to 600 pounds, and they are located across North America with the larger species found in the Northern areas. Black Bears will usually avoid humans especially if you are travelling in large groups and making noise.
Brown (Grizzly) Bears:
Brown Bears are found in the Northwest, (Wyoming, Montana, Canada, and Alaska). They are also referred to as Grizzly Bears and that name was given to them during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They can weigh up to 800 pounds and there have been Grizzlies weighing in at 1,500 pounds. Grizzlies can be brown or black in color. They are distinguished from the Black Bear by a pronounced hump on their shoulders and their large size. The Polar Bear is a sister species of the Brown Bear and live in the Arctic Circle (North Pole).
Comparison Pros and Cons (Bear Spray vs. Firearm)
The Advantages of using bear spray:
- Easy to deploy. Point and spray.
- Legal in the United States.
- The spray covers a large area.
- Bear spray affects multiple organs (i.e. eyes, lungs, skin).
- Bear spray needs less maintenance than a firearm.
- Bear Spray is less lethal than a firearm.
The Disadvantages of using bear spray:
- At close range bear spray may be ineffective
- Bear spray may affect you during strong winds after it is deployed.
- There may be a delay in its effects on a bear after improper deployment. (spraying it when the bear is too far out or spraying it when the bear is too close)
The Advantages of using a firearm:
- The noise of a firearm after discharging it may scare a bear off.
- Range is not necessarily a factor if you can fire a well-placed shot that will incapacitate or kill a Bear.
- In a close quarters attack a firearm may result in a better chance of survival.
The Disadvantages of using a firearm:
- Not being accurate. (Shot placement)
- Not practicing and being proficient with the firearm you are using can cause a delay in firing your weapon or you may have a malfunction or a mechanical problem.
- Having an inadequate caliber firearm may not stop a charging bear and piss him off even more.
- A firearm can malfunction if it is improperly maintained due to environmental conditions such as dirt or rain.
- A firearm may be illegal in the area you plan on exploring.
- A firearm is lethal.
I have always thought that having a firearm in a Wilderness area offers a better protection than bear spray. After researching the facts on Bear encounters with humans, I have concluded that using bear spray is a better deterrent than using a firearm. Statistics in these encounters have determined that your survival rate is better when using bear spray than using a firearm. Facts from these encounters indicate that those using a firearm were injured more than those deploying bear spray. Having a firearm is only one aspect when it comes to protection. The other aspect is knowing how to use it and maintaining a firearm when using it in the Wilderness.
Many individuals get a false sense of security when carrying a firearm due to a lack of proficiency. Even those individuals who train with the firearms will find it difficult to shoot a bear charging at you with speeds of up to 35 mph. How many times have you been to the range and fired at quick-moving targets coming at you. Shooting at a fixed target silhouette is not difficult, but shooting at a moving target is entirely different.
Bear spray covers a large area and it affects multiple organs of a Bear. Bear spray also needs little to no maintenance when you are in the field. I have and will always continue to carry a firearm when I go Wilderness Backpacking. I now carry bear spray as well. I believe that there may be a time when a firearm may be better during a bear encounter in some rare instances. I believe that all who venture into Bear country should carry bear spray and consider deploying it first.
Tips for being safe in Bear Country
- Research the area you are planning to visit.
- Be aware of your environment by periodically scanning your surroundings.
- Look for signs of Bears (i.e. Tracks, Bear scat, or claw marks on trees). Reroute your direction of travel when you encounter a Bear.
- If possible travel in groups.
- Make noise while you are travelling through Bear country, (Talking loud, wearing bear bells, having a whistle, etc.)
- Have the necessary protection, (Carry bear spray).
- Hang or properly store your foods when you are at your basecamp.
- If you Backpack by yourself have a GPS satellite communicator with you in case of an emergency.