Big Sky welcomes bear spray rental service
Big Sky’s Hey Bear forms partnership with Yellowstone Park-based Bear Aware
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
This summer, Big Sky visitors will be able to rent—and learn proper use of—bear spray, which helps promote coexistence and safety of humans and bears.
The service comes as part of a new partnership between Hey Bear, a social impact brand located in Big Sky that raises awareness around bear education, and Bear Aware, which sought to add Big Sky to its network of rental locations around greater Yellowstone. Bear spray rentals will reduce the cost barrier for visitors, and waste generated by single-use purchases. Rentals launch May 15.
Bear Aware was founded at Yellowstone National Park in 2011, to educate hikers about bear safety and advocate for the use of bear spray. In 2021, Bear Aware was acquired by Jackson Hole-based Teton Backcountry Rentals, which had nine years of experience renting bear spray under the same core principles of reducing cost and waste, and one overarching goal: Give people fewer reasons to “risk it” by entering bear country without vital safety gear.
Teton Backcountry Rentals and Bear Aware President Patrick Collins said unfortunately, some visitors do decide to take the risk of encountering bears—some travelers even look for reasons not to bring bear spray. But by providing affordable rentals and a network of locations to pick up and drop off cans, “more and more people are aware now that they should be carrying spray,” Collins said.
Teton Backcountry Rentals has looked to expand its network of locations where outdoorspeople can pick up or drop off bear spray rentals.
MAP: Locations for bear spray pickup and drop off through Bear Aware, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and now, Big Sky.
Looking to implement their rental service in Big Sky, Bear Aware consulted with the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce in 2022. Chamber CEO Brad Niva told EBS that last summer, Bear Aware didn’t seem like a good fit.
But recently, one Big Sky business was doing market research—Hey Bear Brand Manager Conner Clemens noticed that Big Sky didn’t offer bear spray rentals. In a meeting with Big Sky’s Visitor Center—operated by the Chamber of Commerce—she learned about Bear Aware’s effort to add Big Sky to its network, and Niva made the connection.
“[This year], with Hey Bear on board, it seemed like a better time to roll this out,” Niva told EBS. Hey Bear provided a key advantage: making sure there’s education tied to the rental, Niva said. That condition enabled Hey Bear to manage bear spray rentals.
Hey Bear is a Big Sky-based apparel and accessories brand which advocates for safe human and bear coexistence, and consumer education. Hey Bear gives back a percentage of total sales to wildlife organizations such as Vital Ground, a nonprofit organization and land trust focused on purchasing private land and converting it to public land and bear habitat, from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem into Canada.
“There’s no ‘humans versus bears,’ we’re all together in this,” Clemens said.
Hey Bear is also owned by Outlaw Partners, which publishes Explore Big Sky.
“We’re all about bear safety, but mostly education,” Clemens said. “Since Big Sky is a popular tourist area, in the summer especially, we always hear, ‘I didn’t know there were bears here,’ or ‘what do I do if I run into a bear.’”
All those are normal questions that Hey Bear wants to answer quickly, Clemens said. Their website includes resources and news. Clemens hopes that as Hey Bear grows, the percent donated and the variety of organizations that benefit will also grow.
Bear Aware has similar advocacy goals, Collins explained.
“When we got linked up with Hey Bear, it seemed like an appropriate partnership because our values and goals aligned,” he said. “We’re really passionate about the ecosystem down here, and all over Yellowstone. A big part of that is grizzly bears. The more we can reduce conflict between humans and bears, the more people will advocate for grizzly bears to stick around.”
He pointed out that with every negative interaction between bears and humans, grizzly bears get a worse reputation. Bear spray is designed to protect humans but also limits harmful conflict, thus protecting grizzlies.
Collins said user adoption depends on a robust regional network. Many visitors travel one-way through Yellowstone National Park, he said, so it’s important to have various locations where visitors can drop off their rental.
“[It] gives them one less reason to risk it. Big Sky has always felt like a logical geographic expansion point. A lot of people on their trip are flying out of Bozeman,” Collins said, adding that Big Sky also has grizzly bears and trailheads. He said for a small company like Teton Backcountry Rentals, it’s often more viable to partner with an existing company like Hey Bear.
“We’re super excited for this summer to get it started,” Clemens said, on the partnership. “I think it will be a great combination of in-person [rentals] and the vending machine.”
Hey Bear will distribute rentals in-person at its Big Sky store, and also through a vending-machine-like locker in the atrium of the Visitor Center, which is open 24/7.
Clemens explained that first-time holders of bear spray might not know how to deploy it properly—starting low and raising in a ‘Z’ formation. So, when renters come to the Hey Bear store, Clemens and her team will teach proper use. For those who rent from the automatic locker, they will need to watch an informational video before the locker dispenses each can of spray.
“I just want people to feel comfortable and safe, and know that it’s really fun to get out there, and you don’t have to be scared,” she said.
Hey Bear is also sharing information with property management groups in Big Sky, with hopes that they include rental information in welcome packets for short-term rentals.
“We’ll be promoting it through the Visitor Center,” Niva said. “We answer a lot of questions about bears.”
Throughout the summer, Niva said it’s common to see bear spray cans sitting at the front door of the Visitor Center—a visitor’s last resort from throwing an unused can in the garbage.
With rentals and 24/7 drop-off, stray cans should become a rare sight in Big Sky.