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  • Trevor Perkes

How Do I Properly Care for My Bear Spray?

Anything that is used in the event of an emergency, such as first aid kits, personal defense items, phones to call 911, aspirin in the event of a heart attack, or bear spray, should be properly cared for to ensure that when needed, it is ready and functioning properly.

In general, bear spray canisters should be stored in a cool place, but not below freezing, away from sharp objects that could puncture the canister, away from open flames that could overheat the contents and lead to an flammable explosion, away from sticky substances that could adversely affect the nozzle opening or release of the safety trigger, and out of reach from children.

The following guidelines provide specifics for properly caring for your bear spray canister.

1- Your bear spray canister should be stored in a cool dry place, but not below 32° Temperatures exceeding 120° Fahrenheit can adversely affect the product including the potential of the canister to crack or explode if the temperature exceeds 120° Fahrenheit. For these reasons, you should never leave your spray in a hot vehicle or any setting where there is direct sunlight and the temperatures could be magnified.

2- Because the bear spray contents are under pressure, avoid puncturing the canister purposely or accidentally from contact with sharp objects.

3- There have been occasions where something sticky or abrasive comes in contact with the trigger mechanism of the canister. This has the potential to hinder the smooth removal of the trigger guard for quick discharge. If you observe this condition, take the time to safely remove the trigger guard and carefully clean both the guard and trigger, being careful not to accidentally discharge the spray.

4- If you have test-fired your canister of bear spray, something that many experts recommend, be sure to clean the spray nozzle with soap and water to remove residue that could build up and hinder the spray effectiveness when later used.

5- Each canister of bear spray comes with an expiration date stamped on the canister. If that date has arrived or has long since gone, you should discard the canister according to disposal guidelines listed on the canister. Bear spray canister expiration dates should be reviewed before your specific season of outdoor adventuring each year, or if unsure of the expiration date of a canister it should be reviewed whenever you head outdoors into bear country.

What to do if you accidentally get sprayed with bear spray?

If you accidentally get sprayed with bear spray, you are not alone. I have listened to national park rangers share stories, some personal, of individuals accidentally spraying themselves or someone nearby with bear spray. One of the more common reported mechanisms of accidental self-spray is holding the canister with only one hand when pressing down on the trigger to discharge the spray. This can cause the top part of the canister to rear backward toward the person’s head and result in the spray cloud hitting face or body.

The spray can temporarily inhibit breathing, cause temporarily blindness and nausea, produce pain and a burning sensation, and other unpleasant symptoms due to inflammation of mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs, and the stimulation of sensory nerve endings.

So, if you accidentally get sprayed by bear spray/mace do the following:

1- If the bear spray has gotten into your eyes you need to flush them with water or cold whole milk initially and as soon as possible, as at least the water may be readily available. However, because the active ingredient in bear spray is the oleoresin capsicum, an oil, water will not be as effective in driving it from your tissues. Therefore, you should follow up by irrigating with a mild cleaning solution such as a “no tears” shampoo. The soap will help dissolve the oil and diminish its intensity as an irritant. To flush or irrigate the eyes you can use a spray bottle or even a syringe, being careful to not apply too much pressure when expelling the liquid by pushing on the syringe plunger. Also, keep in mind that the mechanical action of the water/milk or shampoo hitting the tissue also helps drive the spray oil from the tissue. The mechanical action of blinking repeatedly during the process of decontamination will help drive the spray from the eyes and will also generate tears that also help in the process.

It should be noted that while getting bear spray in the eyes will produce pain and inflammation, it will not cause permanent damage to eye tissue or any other body tissue.

2- If the bear spray has come in contact with skin, it too needs to be flushed with water or milk or a non-oil detergent like Dawn dish soap, allowing the liquid to remain in contact with the skin for repeated applications to prepare the oil to be easily wiped off the skin with a towel after a period of several minutes.

3- If the spray has permeated your clothes they need to be submerged and soaked in a solution consisting of cold water and a non-oil laundry soap for up to 30 minutes, and then washed separately as any clothing would be washed. Some recommendations suggest that the clothing should also be rubbed with cold cream and then after having it sit for 15-20 minutes, spray the clothing to remove the cream and with it the pepper oil. The article of clothing would then also be washed as indicated above.

Special considerations, warnings or recommendations when applying first aid to bear spray victims or in preparation for such include:

1- If your skin or clothes are sprayed, then they are contaminated and if you or your clothes touch other parts of your body or clothing the bear spray oil can be transferred and thus contaminate them. As such, be careful not to rub your eyes with contaminated hands or clothing as the oil in bear spray can be easily transferred from touching. 2- If the bear spray gets into your eyes and you are wearing contacts, they must be removed and discarded immediately. The contact can trap the spray oil under the contacts and against the eyeball. 3- While using cold cream to help dissolve bear spray oil from clothing is recommended, it should not be used to remove oil from skin as it can trap the oil against your skin. 4- While the immediate and severe pain and inflammation, coughing, choking and tearing up caused by bear spray can be reduced with proper application of the above interventions within 20 to 30 minutes of treatment, lingering effects such as eye redness and irritation and tear formation, throat pain and skin burning can last nearly a full day or longer. 5- When carrying bear spray it may be wise to also carry medicated wipes to help remove the bear spray from skin. This product can often be purchased at the same location as the bear spray specifically for removing bear spray from skin. 6- Benadryl has proven to help reduce the intensity of the negative effects of bear spray contamination. And, Benadryl should be a part of any first aid kit, and certainly an essential item of an outdoor first aid kit.

Can I use personal defense, law enforcement, or military defense sprays for bear spray?

It is against the law to use any personal, law enforcement or military defense pepper spray on bears. All these defense sprays are stronger than bear spray. They all contain higher concentrations of the active ingredient oleoresin capsicum than does bear spray. In addition, they expel their pepper spray in more of a stream so that you can target an assailant’s face and eyes at close range rendering them incapacitated. You do not want that discharge characteristic when spraying a charging bear. Rather, bear spray produces an expanding cloud that a charging bear runs through breathing it into their lungs and covering their eyes. The goal is not to incapacitate the bear, but to deter it from continuing its attack.

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