I’ve had a canister of bear pepper spray for a long time and fortunately have never used it. Before replacing it with a new one, I decided to see what kind of spray range it retained. It functioned surprisingly well, although I did not test the efficacy of the solution. The new one came with a smaller holster which I decided to use thinking I’d save space and a little weight. The old one had a velcro cover, the new holster had a little elastic strap that stretched over the protective cap of the canister. Using the new holster was mistake number one, and there were a few to follow…
One day while camping in the Utukok Uplands of northwest Alaska, I had prepared all of my gear for the daily/evening photo trek. This consisted of loading my Kiboko camera bag with two cameras, lenses, extra clothes, water, a little food, tripod, and pepper spray, which sat accessible in the left hand exterior elastic side-pouch of the camera bag (If you have been following this blog, you have read about my reach for that canister during a grizzly bear encounter). Just before departing camp, I found the view looking through my tent doors interesting and bent down to take a photo. I unzipped the tent door and leaned in to get a better angle, and like the standard process of composing a photo, kept changing views slightly, leaning further into my tent in order to frame the view outward appropriately. That’s when I heard a hiss, which was not my thermarest decompressing. In a weird but perfectly positioned series of movements, the tent door fabric got hung up on the pepper spray safety cap, pulled it off when I leaned in, and then discharged a spray. That little spray ejected me my from the tent in a heartbeat. Half wondering what happened and half realizing what happened and wondering how bad it would be. If you have had a similar experience, you might be smiling…or not. My face was burning and my nose and nostrils were steaming.
After quickly removing my contaminated clothes, I went about cleaning the tent and my camera bag with soap and water. I was on a super-hydration plan, and the need to relieve myself was growing irresistible, and that was mistake number two, or three, or whatever. That experience provoked hands free peeing for a few days, for fear of a repeat experience. I ended up doing a quick and not completely efficient bath in a nearby tussock puddle. Cold water does not lather well with soap.
In summary, I thought I’d share a little field advice about pepper spray. First of all, DO NOT use the cheap holsters. Use the ones that have a complete velcro wrap that covers the top of the canister. See the photos below for comparison.
Second, get a canister that has a large volume of contents. Strong winds can introduce some challenges using the spray, and having a little extra won’t hurt. If the wind is blowing strongly toward you, you might weigh the odds of using the spray and try something else as a deterrent like a fog horn in a can. I have not used the spray on a bear yet, but if I do, I’ll try my best to hold off until the bear gets good and close enough for an accurate shot. One guy I spoke with last summer had an encounter with a bear in the Brooks range and was able to fend it off with spray, but only after it chewed on his leg for a bit. It took him a while to overcome the psycho issues, but is back hiking again and carries two canisters of spray on his longer trips.
Interestingly, after my own bear spray experience, I’ve talked with two other people who have been sprayed by pepper spray, and in both cases it was because of a poor cover on the canister, and accidentally triggered.