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Bear Spray Country

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By Cy Whitling EBS CONTRIBUTOR

ILLUSTRATION BY CY WHITLING

Those of us that live and recreate at the nebulous intersection of bear country and bear spray country need to reexamine our relationship with this ubiquitous weapon.

It’s an important distinction. Bear country is obvious enough: It’s any place you should worry about getting messed up by a bear (usually a grizzly.) On the other hand, bear spray country is anywhere you could be the accidental victim of bear spray, regardless of the presence or absence of a bear. Any area can become bear spray country, thanks to folks who treat bear spray like an accessory, not the dangerous weapon it is. 

Too often, places like supermarkets, chairlifts and bike parks are invaded by bear spray users who just don’t think about what’s in that can.

Bear spray is dangerous. That’s the entire point. It’s made to stop a 500-pound animal going 30 mph with mutilation on its mind. You don’t affect that with a nice, friendly, gluten-free, non-GMO product. Scientists concocted a formula that has been proven to have more stopping power than any handgun that’s practical to carry. This stuff is mean. It’s approximately three times as aggressive as traditional mace that we’d use on humans. 

That’s why Alaska’s government website’s second rule for bear spray is: “Treat bear spray like a firearm.” In case you haven’t gone through a hunter’s education course, that roughly translates to, “Always treat it like it’s loaded and the safety is off, and never, ever point it at something you don’t want to shoot.”

Anecdotally, almost no one treats bear spray with that level of respect. Instead people let it dangle precariously from backpack straps inches from their face, throw it haphazardly into hot cars and generally treat it like a bottle of sunscreen, not a firearm equivalent. 

Of course, that care is always in tension with another rule of using bear spray: Always keep it easily accessible and on your person. Bear spray buried deep in your pack does no one any good in a chance encounter with a bear. Bear spray strapped to your bike is useless when you wander away from it to get a photo for Instagram. Bear spray that’s easily accessible on your waist belt isn’t worth much if you’ve never practiced taking the safety off, aiming it the correct direction and deploying it. Any situation where you actually need to use bear spray is by definition a high-adrenaline moment. Are you actually confident that you could draw and deploy your bear spray if your life depended on it?

An accidental bear spray deployment will really mess up your day, but it’s also hard to carry in an accessible manner. Many long-time mountain residents focus on that last part and rig up “clever” carrying solutions that they then treat like a safety blanket, never heading out without it, regardless of the sport. 

That’s especially dangerous while mountain biking. Bear spray in a water bottle pouch hanging off your bars is a popular solution. It’s also a great way to get maced when the spray bounces out, or you go over the bars and accidentally deploy it.

Spray on a hip belt is also a liability. How many bike crashes involve abrasion to the hips and thighs? Those same crashes would be a lot worse if you punctured a high-pressure can of mace as you went down.

Finally, any sort of bear spray carriage system while riding lifts at a bike park borders on madness. You’re here to crank out gravity laps and push yourself while sharing a chairlift or gondola with other folks. Do you really want this day-ruining can clanking around as you do that? I live in constant fear of riding through a cloud of bear spray at a bike park because some thoughtless person slid out in a berm and blew up their can.

Sure, an accidental bear spray deployment isn’t going to kill anyone. But it will ruin your week. And, if you leave that dangerous little security blanket in your hot car, it can blow up and total your vehicle. So it’s important to weigh the risks and probabilities in both directions. How likely is a bear encounter that requires you to use bear spray? How hard will it be to carry said spray responsibly? How much do you want to risk macing yourself or a friend? This isn’t a call to leave your bear spray at home. But if we all treated bear spray like a firearm, if we all practiced carrying and deploying it responsibly, the mountains we love would be just a little bit safer. 

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